The Phoenix Project Rises From DIY Ethics

It was going to be great. Jessica Luther (aka JeSICKa MesSICKa) and a team of musician friends from the loose-knit DFW punk scene were a day from receiving the keys to the building at 406 S. Haskell St., between Main and Parry streets. There, they hoped to create an all-are-welcome community venue, offering meeting rooms to socially progressive organizations such as Food Not Bombs, after-school programs and even a co-op garden. Of course, no such DIY space would be complete without frequent rock shows and art exhibits—there'd be plenty of those too.

Then, last year, on a cold late-October night, a homeless man—who knows, maybe one of the very people the Dallas chapter of Food Not Bombs aims to reach—apparently broke into an adjacent building and set a fire in an attempt to stay warm, only to let the blaze rage out of control.

The building was destroyed. Luther was devastated. She considered giving up on the dream she'd seen cruelly snatched away before it became a reality. But with encouragement from her friends in area punk/metal outfits Akkolyte and Vorvadoss—and knowing that her landlord had received an insurance settlement—she decided to give it another go.

Do It Yourself, again.

In a heartwarming show of goodwill, friends offered to help out however they could—and they actually backed their words with action and dollars as the building owners, Jim and Amy Orchard, rebuilt the place with the help of volunteers.

The name the Phoenix Project, of course, refers to how the venue is literally rising from the very spot of the fire that could only temporarily destroy it, just as the mythological firebird is reborn from its own ashes. But, says Phoenix Project volunteer Kendall Counts, the name has more than one meaning.

"It's for a lot of people in the music scene who are tired of how sick the scene is, how it's not really a community and how it's dying," he says. "They thought it was sort of a metaphorical thing, because not only do we feel like the music scene in Dallas has been burnt to the ground and been destroyed, but the house itself got burnt to the ground and destroyed."

If the music scene in Dallas has been destroyed, you wouldn't have known it from Friday night's benefit show for the Phoenix Project at Reno's Chop Shop Saloon in Deep Ellum. A steady stream of punks, metalheads and bikers paid $8 or $10 apiece to watch six Dallas-area bands rock out, donating their time and door proceeds to help out the Phoenix Project. The lineup was impressively diverse, ranging from the politically charged thrash of Rocket for Ethiopia and Warcola to the co-ed screaming of Division of Power to Counts' own Sleep as the Enemy, which combines punk riffs with jazz saxophone. Between the cover donations and raffle tickets for prizes best left to the imagination (let's just call them novelty items), the event raised nearly $500 for the cause. Not a bad take at all, considering that the show was not originally planned to be a Phoenix Project benefit.

"We had a benefit show a month and a half ago with some of these bands," Luther says. "This was already booked as just a regular show, but some of the guys got together and said, 'Hey, we should make this a Phoenix Project benefit.'"

Punk rock shows aren't the only way supporters have helped. Just two days later, dozens of people paid $5 each to gather at Spiral Diner, Oak Cliff's vegan eatery, and freely swap books, music, clothing and kitchen items over potluck food and desserts. Last month, the project raised hundreds of dollars at an art silent auction at a home in Oak Cliff, with performances by psychedelic experimental weirdos The Intelligence Community and Kenny Withrow's nu-jazz force The Tidbits. And, on May 31, eight Lower Greenville- and Henderson-area bars will host a bike bar crawl to benefit the venue.

Supporters also help out with volunteer days at the site, where they can do anything from the most unskilled clean-up work to assisting with framing and roofing. All labor is pro-rated toward the lease on the building. Monetary donations, meanwhile, go toward the countless expenses entailed in getting a venue started, providing a usable meeting space and keeping city officials off their backs: kitchen furnishings, air conditioning, an alarm system, the electrical deposit, the certificate of occupancy fee and so on. Despite all these hassles, Luther says, she expects the place to be open before the end of the summer—an amazing accomplishment, considering that it burned to the ground less than a year ago.

"We're just trying to make sure we have a good head start so we're not scraping by from month to month when we open," Luther says.

The space is loosely modeled after 1919 Hemphill in Fort Worth, a nonprofit venue that is host to radical film screenings, grassroots organization meetings (including the DFW chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) and music performances. But unlike the volunteer-run 1919 Hemphill, the Phoenix Project won't rely solely on donations and volunteer work. Luther's plan is to divide the upstairs area into rehearsal spaces to rent to bands. And also differentiating the Dallas space will be its focus on resources for parents. Luther, a proud Unschool parent, wants to offer Unschool (curriculum-free education led by the child's interests) activities as well as after-school programs for children both inside and outside the public school system.

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