There's a hole in the earth where the Funhouse used to be, and Healthy Times Fun Club is now a hair and waxing salon. Queen Anne's Easy Street Records is being replaced by a shiny new Chase Bank, and five years ago the Bellevue real estate company Murray Franklyn bulldozed a strip of iconic bars on Pine for condos and then left it as a parking lot for two years. And now, just a few blocks downhill, Bauhaus and other independent businesses are getting sold up the same river. Rent is rising, people are getting pushed out of the center of the city, and with water on either side, the development refugees can go either north or south. If Capitol Hill isn't in the picture and you're looking twice at the rest of the map, these days the University District isn't looking half bad.
After years of gathering momentum, and to the surprise of many, the renaissance of the University District has arrived. The community of musicians and organizers spidering out from Roosevelt Way was created by and for the people who couldn't find a space for themselves anywhere else. It's for the part-time day-jobbers and young urban unprofessionals who don't have $15 for a show, who never take cabs, who maybe aren't 21, or who just want to play music for each other without red tape. There are more shows than ever happening in the U-District, and they're cheap or free, all ages, and totally DIY.
One aboveground establishment that's helped foster this community is Cafe Racer, a cafe and bar on Roosevelt that works with the local record label Table & Chairs to produce the Racer Sessions, a curated, free weekly jam. Like most things in the U-District's burgeoning DIY community, Table & Chairs started with some young people seeing a need and trying to fill it themselves. "It was made by a group of people who had no previous knowledge of the music business but wanted to get together and figure out how to promote our own music and others'," said Luke Bergman, one of the founders of the Sessions and Table & Chairs, and a member of local bands Heatwarmer and Thousands. The Sessions have been happening every Sunday for three years, producing more than 150 original pieces of music and providing an open, egalitarian space for musicians to meet, play together, and form new groups. "We were really lucky being able to score a cool place like this... If it weren't for Cafe Racer, Table & Chairs would never have become what it did, because we were free to do whatever we wanted here, and they were supportive of it," said Bergman.
A few years ago, Bergman found a cheap University District house on Craigslist where he could practice, and it was only after he moved in that he realized how many friends were living nearby or on their way. Bergman doubts he'll leave the area now that his work and community have congealed around Roosevelt, asking, "Why would I move somewhere else just to come back here all the time?"
An excellent question—if you live anywhere else, and you don't find yourself trekking to the U-District at least once a week, you're missing some incredible shows. Though it looks pretty shabby from the window of a 49 bus, all those Craftsmans with peeling paint probably have either a great basement or a hardwood living room, and that's all it takes—bonus if there's a porch or more than one bathroom. Erin, who's lived in and booked at the now-defunct show houses Pet Seminary and the Funny Button, as well as the freshly leased Another Dream, said, "There are so many awesome bands that just aren't hype bands, so how are they going to get on a show unless we do it? It's very empowering to have someone call and be like, 'Can I play a show?' and to be able to say, 'Yes, we'll make it happen.'" Houses like Erin's are where new bands get established, where established bands get weird and personal, and where any band can perform spontaneous, boundary-pushing shit on their own terms.
"I don't like playing bars or places with weird sound systems. Not even venues, really, or art galleries," said Erin, whose last name we are withholding because she's associated with an underground venue. "You have to wild-child it. You have to freak out and have a space where people can play nude with their butt holes painted green, or they can be as drunk or sober as they want. Where they can use the bathroom—and even perform in the bathroom. No rules."
Another Dream, Erin's latest house, debuted with a one-night festival last January that included approximately 20 performances of mostly local bands. It was a raging success. Erin said of the night, "There were like 300 people there, but it was chill. Nothing got broken, nobody robbed us, everyone was just in it to win it."
Erin originally moved here from Olympia for a room at Healthy Times Fun Club, a Capitol Hill all-ages DIY venue that was shut down in 2011 due to a lack of required permits. DIY show houses are traditionally crucial landing pads for relocating musicians, and the U-District has an especially accessible revolving door of tenants and vacancies. Matt Fu, who lived in the iconic U-District show house the Mystery Machine (previously known as New Crompton), said that one of the things that most attracted him to the neighborhood was the "focus on injective out-of-town and touring energies." Fu said that to "stay strong and resilient in our noncorporate, underground subcultures," communities need to look outside themselves and "exchange ideas and spirits." The tenacity and expansion of the U-District's subculture owes much to a few key houses with homemade particleboard basement rooms and eagerly offered couches.
Fu runs MASA Records, self-described as "a small, sputtering, not-for-profit, DIY CD-R and cassette label"—typical, yes, but also pretty righteous. Fu's dedication to the independent-music community is paramount in his life, and it says a lot that the U-District won him over. "I always try to live near where the most all-ages shows and DIY creativity are, and when I first moved to Seattle in 2005, that seemed to be on Capitol Hill and starting to spill more into the Central District. I had not even really considered the U-District for whatever reason, but once I moved into the Mystery Machine and encountered other folks in the neighborhood who were working on the same sort of projects, I realized that the U-District had its own vibrant community."
The exciting new centerpiece of DIY in that community is a show space in the University District, the name of which is withheld to protect its anonymity. Unlike the show houses, it's a legit venue/gallery in the sense that it uses a commercial space, making it the first of its kind in recent memory for the area. It's all ages, no booze, and multipurpose, and it fills some of the hole left by Healthy Times. "Outside of Vera, what is a dry space in Seattle?" asked Kenneth, one of its two founders and operators. Kenneth used to live at the Funny Button with Erin, which was a major hub for touring and local bands in the U-District before the owners decided to tear it down for development. Kenneth remained in the neighborhood after the Funny Button closed, and when he found this building, he jumped on it. He partnered with local musician José, who wanted a space for his recording projects. The pair has been booking the venue with uncommonly enjoyable local and touring acts, and they also host craft fairs, parties, art openings, fundraisers, zine releases—whatever they think the community needs.
"There aren't many opportunities like this around town, where us poor-ass motherfuckers can just be like, 'We want to have an opening.'" When Kenneth first called the building's owners, he says his stomach was hurting for days because he was so excited. "Everybody needed it," he said of the new venue.
But like most DIY spaces, no matter how much enthusiasm there is, your constituency is still the "poor-ass motherfuckers," and there will be serious financial obstacles. For Kenneth and José, the substantial gap between what they make from donations and the monthly rent comes right out of their pockets. "Half of my income is going to this space," said Kenneth. "Actually more than half, because we're in renovation debt... But I don't know what else I would do with the money I'm losing. I guess I would save it or something." Kenneth and José both believe that money is only as important as what you can do with it, and they are sacrificing more than their time to operate this new safe, dry, independent venue.
The most tragic part of this sacrifice is that, one way or another, the invisible hand is bound to catch them. Broke artists always take the first step toward gentrification, and eventually the rent pendulum reverses and clears a path for the condo owners. And what could be no more than a potentially bleak fate becomes inevitable when you consider the northward-burrowing light rail. Strangely, everyone in the U-District seems to know this.
"The appeal is that the University District is so much cheaper than other places, but that's also too bad because that means it probably won't be cheaper much longer," said Bergman. José was even gloomier, asking, "What's next? After Capitol Hill is officially Belltown, and the CD is Capitol Hill, after whatever else happens and then collapses in on itself?"
Everyone moved north for the rent and stayed for the community. Or they moved for the community and stayed for the rent. Untangling the ouroboros-chain of demographic events is impossible, but when a place is cheap and all your friends are there, a sense of cooperative community is bound to emerge. And even if they're just building a sand castle while the tide is low, the projects of the U-District residents have a sense of heroism. When asked to describe the most important thing about DIY spaces, Matt Fu responded, "I think, at the heart of the matter—for folks like me across the country, who fight on a daily basis to make art happen in their communities and whom I consider culture warriors and culture activists—is reforging and fighting for that space that has been stripped away from our communities. Space for us to share together, love and laugh together, be human together."
This article has been updated since its original publication.