Chris Cotter looks exhausted as he pulls into Chichen Itza, grazing the restaurant’s brick wall with his front bumper.
“Fuck!” he shouts from the driver’s seat before walking to the front of his vehicle. The bumper has done its job — no damage to the van or to the wall.
Cotter gives a sigh of relief. The last thing he needs right now is to put any money into fixing the damage on his van. He’s more worried about the money he needs to pay for his car insurance.
It’s been a rough week. Scratch that. It’s been a rough year and a half for Cotter since 1919 Hemphill, a music venue, DIY space and community workshop, was shut down by an alt-right campaign functioning under the title “Right Wing Safety Squad,” which its members shortened to “SS.”
Members of this 4chan group caused 1919 Hemphill’s demise by exploiting fears of safety concerns after 36 people died Dec. 2, 2016, in the Ghost Ship fire in San Francisco.
“The Oakland warehouse fire occurred in a radical leftist commune rife with HIV, drugs, and alternative lifestyle degeneracy,” one anonymous user in the /pol/ message board under the Right Wing Safety Squad’s “New Shut Down List” thread. “These communes are known as ‘D.I.Y. spaces’ to the bums, anarchists, and drug addicts who populate them.
“The purpose of this thread is to save the lives of those who populate such places,” the poster continued. “These dens of ill repute are often decrepit, hazardous, and in violation of city ordinances … we are obligated to report building code infractions and get these death traps shut down.”
Make no mistake. 1919 Hemphill’s closure was not the work of good Samaritans trying to protect the people who supported it. This was an effort to, as another member put it, “EVICT LIBERAL RADICALISM.”
It was not long after this post that the Fort Worth fire marshal received seven anonymous complaints over the course of two days. 1919 Hemphill had passed all of its fire inspections in its 14 years of existence, so the news came as quite a shock.
The complaints — like one about chains being on the front door while people were inside — increased attention and brought to light that 1919 Hemphill’s certificate of occupancy had expired.
By the end of December 2016, the community space was closed down, and its volunteers were told that they would have to make several repairs and obtain a new certificate of occupancy before they would be allowed to reopen.
For the first few months after its closure, everything seemed fine. Thousands of dollars were donated to the Indiegogo campaign, there was a benefit show at Three Links, many people volunteered to work, and friends opened up their spaces for the few shows 1919 Hemphill had booked before it was forced to shut its doors.
But the months drew on. The money dwindled. The people started dropping. All the while, the reality of the situation and all of the red tape and application fees that go along with it really sank in on the remaining volunteers. Additionally, the list of things needed to reopen grew longer and more expensive.
By March 2017, 1919 Hemphill had stopped sponsoring shows and rumors began to spread that the community space was gone for good.
In August 2017, the 1919 Collective updated their Facebook page to dispel these rumors. “1919 is not closed," the post read. "We are still working with the city to get the building within compliance to hold shows as well as negotiating a lease agreement to ensure our permanence once we reopen. If it turns out that we're not going to be able to continue using the building we are in, the money will be put towards finding a new building where we can continue to put on all ages, inclusive, D.I.Y. shows and events.”
Though the post ended with the assurance that “D.I.Y. isn't going anywhere and 1919 is here to stay, whether on Hemphill or somewhere else!” 1919 Hemphill’s volunteers have remained devoted to the idea that what had been started there needed to stay there.
Now, almost a year since that post was made, 1919 Hemphill remains closed to the public, but its volunteers remain hopeful that the space will be open for community organization and shows in the near future.
This has not just been a simple renovation. Walls needed to come down, new walls needed to go up, bathrooms had to be made handicap-accessible, the wiring had to be redone, and to top it all off, a $1,500 zoning variance needed to be paid for and granted to even get started.
That zoning variance was finally obtained March 21, with volunteer Nick Niño representing 1919 Hemphill at the Commercial Board of Adjustment meeting. This finally allowed the space to renew its certificate of occupancy and begin internal construction to meet code and reopen to the public.
For volunteers like Cotter and Niño, 1919 Hemphill is more than just a music venue. Cotter in particular believes that the DIY space has four layers.
“The first, most organic layer of impact,” he says, “is its direct impact on Hemphill Street. 1919 brings a community that normally doesn’t generally see a lot of people. When there’s money in the neighborhood, the businesses do well.”
For an area that has a little restaurant, a gas station and a quick-wash place where patrons used to take their clothes, the closure of 1919 Hemphill has led to a slump in business.
“It’s not a good neighborhood,” Cotter explains. “There’s a homeless problem, there’s a drug problem, there’s a lot of absentee landlords that don’t really take care of their properties.”
What a lot of people may not realize about 1919 Hemphill if they only knew it as a great place to see live music, is that it collected clothes for homeless people and gave them away in addition to giving the homeless a place to get out of the rain, heat or cold.
Volunteers would also help homeless people at the DIY space on the condition that they stayed clean — some of them were able to use the opportunity as a springboard to launch a new phase of life when volunteers helped them write a resume or find out how to get a new ID.
Business owners are interested in seeing the crowd come back to the area. One such business owner, Cotter says, has offered to pay the first month’s rent after the space reopens — an expense that Cotter has taken on in some part over the last 18 months when there's not enough money in the donation box.
With utilities included, it costs about $1,200 per month just to keep the doors open, and when 1919 was functioning as a DIY space, that’s about all they were ever looking to make. Whatever money was left over went into funding community projects, improving the space and booking touring acts.
“The second layer of impact was on the local, DFW community,” Cotter says. “It was a home for a lot of grassroots political organizations to meet up and discuss things. As long as you weren’t being hateful or violent, we weren’t going to ask any questions.”
Cotter says that even before the space made the Right Wing Safety Squad’s “Shut Down List,” there were already rumblings against them from the alt-right community. 1919 Hemphill was a place in which several women’s marches were organized in the immediate aftermath of the current president’s election.
“A lot of the support we get is from the music community,” Cotter says, “but the community we truly served was this kind of leftist, radical culture of people trying to use the space to make the community a better place ... as a vehicle for radical positive change.
“We have no sexism, no racism, no homophobia written on the wall.”
The third layer of impact, Cotter says, “is on music in general. It kind of gave a lot of bands a place to play for the first time, to learn how a show even works, to understand the inner workings of a music scene.”
As a truly all-ages venue, 1919 Hemphill gave young bands like Mean Motor Scooter the space to develop their sound.
“1919 Hemphill was one of those places where we were cutting our teeth back in 2015," Mean Motor Scooter drummer Jeffrey Chase Friedman says. "We were definitely trying to find our musical identity back then.”
“I remember seeing friends' high school bands there from ‘07 to ’09 — a lot of emo, punk, hardcore stuff," singer and guitarist Sammy Kidd adds. "It was usually pretty packed, because it was the only place kids of all ages could see a live show or play one. We always got good crowd responses and got to play with bands we wouldn't normally get to see [at clubs].”
“As long as you weren’t racist, sexist or homophobic, everyone was welcome at 1919,” Cotter explains of the space whose motto is “No Booze. No Drugs. No Jerks.” D-Beat kids met ska punk kids who met emo kids, and everyone just got along.
Cotter goes on to explain that this is part of the space’s final layer of impact — the national impact.
“It’s a real example of what a DIY space actually is,” Cotter says. “A real DIY space does not sell alcohol, always all ages, and nobody is ever turned away for lack of funds. A show should never be more than six bucks.”
Recognizing those layers of impact is what attracted volunteers like Niño to the space in the first place only five months before it was forced to close.
“I found the place physically,” Niño says. “I saw the graffiti and paint and was like, 'This place is awesome.' I literally walked up to Chris [Cotter] on a night they were open and asked to help out.”
Niño took to the role of helping the homeless with great vigor and had plans to build a library and a robotics lab. All that changed when the attention turned toward renovations.
Aside from helping 1919 Hemphill secure its new certificate of occupancy, Niño and Cotter have taken on the job of managing the construction, with other volunteers helping when they can.
“We don’t have the money to do the skilled labor,” Niño says. “Electrics, HVAC and plumbing is out of my skill set, but we only need a few thousand” to get the work done before they can pass inspection.
Off the top of his head, Cotter says that new parking lines still need to be painted, a 10-space bike rack must be installed, the water line under the parking lot needs to be fixed, a new insurance policy needs to be obtained, more electrical work must be done upstairs and down, a ton of drywall, a new exit door needs to be cut, the stairwell needs to be redone, and of course, rent and utilities still need to be paid.
“Really, we need somewhere between another three to five thousand dollars,” Cotter says, “on top of the other four thousand I’m putting in at the end of this week” from his personal account and some funds that have already been donated.
“I would be worried on any other project,” Niño says, “but 1919 just has so many people to help it.”
Niño says that it is in the city's best interests to help push toward the completion of the renovations.
“1919 helps invent new music for all to enjoy," he says. "Every kid in 1919 is one less kid out causing trouble."
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the Observer's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Dallas's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
“It’s important that kids have a safe place they can go to see live shows,” Kidd says. “Kids tend to have a lot more passion for live music than adults do and they need a place to release that pent-up energy and feel what it’s like to see something raw and real.
“Places like this are what inspire musicians to be better and put bands together,” he says. “Too see it come back would mean the world to us and everyone who has donated money to see its reopening and all the people behind making sure it gets done because they truly care about DFW’s musicians.
“For some kids it's a reason to keep going.”
1919 Hemphill is accepting donations.