During a mid-January show at 1919 Hemphill, Fort Worth’s only all-ages DIY music venue, 22-year-old Cedric Santillan found a homeless man sleeping on a battered couch.
He knew it wasn’t unusual to see homeless people in the venue’s graffiti-laden lobby; 1919 welcomes anyone who can abide by its longstanding philosophy: “No booze, no drugs, no jerks.” But in that moment, Santillan said he realized the true impact of the space he had known for so long.
“I sat there and realized for a second, like, that dude probably has nowhere else to sleep,” he said. “It provided a sanctuary for this tired, downtrodden person to get away from it all and be safe, and that’s cool. That was definitely one of those ‘holy shit’ moments for me, because I never really thought about it.”
Nestled in a low-income neighborhood about a half mile southwest of John Peter Smith Hospital, 1919 has been an enclave for musicians, activists and the occasional vagabond since it opened in 2002 — a surprising degree of longevity for a DIY venue, which often have short lifespans. The volunteers run the show at 1919, booking bands and sometimes donating their own money to building repairs.
Maybe more important, they try to make it a safe place for young teenagers.
“I don’t think the kids see danger,” says Chris Cotter, one of the most active volunteers at the venue. “I think they feel safer here than they do at school because it’s just an open environment, they don’t have to dress a certain way and they don’t have to act a certain way.”
When 1919 first opened, there were very few places nearby in Fort Worth that hosted alternative DIY shows, if any. But the two-story warehouse space has always offered more than music. Local activist groups occasionally hold meetings in the downstairs lobby. There is a work-in-progress makers space, and a modest community garden in the backyard. The first floor also has a ‘free store’ filled with secondhand clothes, as well as a mini library stocked with books that cover anything from cooking to prison abolition.
“You could see something that you’ve heard about — maybe a band or an idea — and you want to learn about it; you want to get closer with it; you want to expand your mind as a young person,” Cotter says. “Just the whole atmosphere is like that.”
Cotter has been going to shows at 1919 since his sophomore year of high school in 2011, and he has been a volunteer since 2013. He now organizes the calendar and handles most of the finances. He says 1919 is still thriving off modest donations and money earned from shows, which could have up to 150 people tightly packed around the second-floor stage. Although the space is well-known for its local punk and hardcore shows, national acts like Matt and Kim, Andrew Jackson, Jihad and Kimya Dawson have all played there.
For Cotter, Santillan and many others, 1919 was one of their first face-to-face interactions with the local DIY. scene. And it is the culture of acceptance and traditional anti-establishment philosophies that continue to attract the youth, he said.
“It sparks up this scene,” Santillan says. “More kids are coming out. The ones who are there for the right reasons stay, and the ones who aren’t stave off.”
Cotter admits the area around 1919 can get dangerous with fighting among area gangs and homeless. However, he says the worst thing that has happened involving someone from the street during his time at the venue resulted in a pair of stolen speakers. Even then, the speakers were returned a week later.
“They appreciate it in here,” Cotter says of the homeless. “Even when we have to kick [street people] out because they’re belligerent or they’re drunk or whatever, they say, ‘Thanks for letting us be here' ... They would never do anything to harm us because they know we’re a valuable resource for them.”
The volunteers have no problem kicking someone out if that rule, or any others, are broken.
Another core volunteer, Alden Aldrich, admits that there can be some tension between teens from the suburbs and eccentric homeless folks, but the people who are familiar with 1919 don’t think twice about the street presence.
“All of us volunteers are just used to it,” Aldrich says. “We know these homeless people by name. We see them all the time.”
Aldrich says the recent gentrification of areas around 1919 has pushed back some of the homeless population. But there have been some prominent fixtures in the venue’s history. He referred to the street wanderers with the only names he knew them by, as if pulling them from Greek mythology.
The man they call Pops was toothless with a thick Cajun accent. Pops didn’t care if you couldn’t understand him, Aldrich says; he would always come up and talk to you. There was also Kahlil, who would offer to take out the trash or wash volunteers’ cars for a few bucks. And there was James, who declared himself the king of Hemphill between brief spans of sobriety, Aldrich said.
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“Sometimes they act belligerent, sometimes they don’t,” he says. “Either way we have to deal with it. They’re going to be there that day, and they’re going to be there the next day.”
Cotter says James “the king” has been kicked out several times, but they always let him back in because “he doesn’t have anything else."
“That kind of ethos rubs off on the kids,” Cotter says. “They learn a sense of responsibility; they learn how to confront things in their lives. That’s what I’ve learned here.”