The boxy cinderblock building at the corner of 12th and Commercial was the location of the Anacortes fire and police departments for nearly 50 years. It was built in 1952, complete with living quarters, offices, a hose tower, and a bank of drunk-tank jail cells in the basement. The FD vacated the building in 1992 and the police department left three years ago, when the city built a new state-of-the-art facility for the cops.
Eight months ago, a group of four artist/entrepreneurs freshly graduated from Trinity Western University, a conservative Christian college near Vancouver, BC, rented the space and began to build their dream destination: a hybrid youth hostel, art gallery, show space, and studio; a clubhouse where they could live, work, and indulge their fetishes for design, philosophy, and gentle capitalism (for $33, you can spend a night in the Lacan Room). After much deliberation, they named their project the Department of Safety.
Their manifesto--yes, they have a manifesto, and it's hilarious (you can read it at www.departmentofsafety.com)--elaborates the DOS context pretty succinctly: "There once was this theorist named Plato. He had definite notions of a utopian vision of the way his 'ideal state' would run. We are--by no means--attempting to create an elitist utopia. We just want to sustain ourselves while creating art in a community."
Like many a frontier-minded Platonic idealist before them, the DOS kids let a location choose them. It all started with the building. Aaron Flint Jamison, the group's most talkative member, saw it during the summer before his last year of college, and instantly became obsessed.
"At the time I had a fetish for a certain architectural style from the 1950s," Flint explains. "And I came to that intersection, and saw this rad, abandoned old fire station right in the middle of town. And there were 'For Lease' signs up. It got me really excited and I came back and told everybody about it."
The excitement was contagious, and soon, an Absurd Scheme was hatched.
"We weren't allowed to drink at school, but we did anyway," Flint confesses, downing a glass of red wine. "We'd have these little parties and talk about, 'What are you doing next year? We're gonna go live in an abandoned fire station.' It was totally a farfetched dream because we hadn't heard back from grad schools yet. There was no actual practice to any of this theory. And then we came down at the end of March 2002 to see a show where Bonnie Prince Billy played with Phil Elvrum and Karl Blau."
For people who are unfamiliar with Anacortes rock, those last two names are crucial to understanding the community, and the means by which the Department of Safety both entered and came to embody it. Elvrum and Blau are musicians who release records on Anacortes label Knw-Yr-Own, which is run by Bret Lunsford, formerly of the great Beat Happening. Like its small-town indie forebears (K Records, in particular), Knw-Yr-Own is the kind of label where everyone plays on everyone else's albums, supports one another's bands, and generally gets on board to try and sustain a cool project in an unlikely environment. But the environment is everything, because only in a small town is such a project feasible; no one makes much money, but no one needs much money either. It's Anacortes, for pity's sake. The challenge isn't paying your minuscule rent. It's making your life interesting.
Inspired by the efforts of Elvrum, Blau, and Lunsford, Flint and his cohorts, Alex, Tammy, and Melissa, became smitten with the town's sleepy natural beauty. "We had this totally romanticized notion of what Anacortes really was," Flint laughs. "We walked all over town and saw the freaky paintings of historic Anacortesians on all the walls of buildings. It was a beautiful day, and we had a pod of Orca whales eating out of the palms of our hands."
They moved to Anacortes soon after graduation, pooled their resources, and set about conceiving their un-utopia. The first hurdle would be to convince the city that it would be a good idea to rent the building to them.
"We did this series of strategic infiltration maneuvers," Flint elaborates. "We didn't tell the city what we had in mind. We had it all planned out, but it sort of came out one step at a time. If we'd moved in and said, 'We want to have a hostel, and a venue, and a gallery. And we're going to support the local art scene, and we're going to have a darkroom, and a recording studio, and we're going to hang out in the jail cells,' they would have said, 'Get the fuck out of our town.' So we moved in and said, 'We want to live upstairs, and have art studios and maybe have a little gallery.'"
Over the past eight months, the DOS has expanded into a fully functioning arts warehouse. The gallery opened last summer and is booked for many months to come. In October, the garage opened its doors for all-ages shows by local and touring bands. The former gun closet was cleared out--"I found some police-issue ammo," Flint says, "live ammo"--to make way for a darkroom. Soon bands may be making records in the jail cells. The hostel, meanwhile, does consistent business with young low-budget tourists.
Everywhere you look in the Department of Safety, you see bursts of creative energy that seem to feed off the municipal architecture, from the permanent installation of tangled vintage office phone cords to the "Ceçi n'est pas un pipe" poster hanging upstairs in the common room, above the stereo, where a vinyl copy of More Dirty Dancing adorns the turntable. Everything about the place is unlikely, which makes its continued existence not just interesting, but triumphant.
While its homemade culture is very DIY Northwest in character, the Department of Safety lines up with the tradition of small-town American collectivish enterprises like Rubber Gloves in Denton, TX, Fort Thunder in Providence, RI, and Solar Culture in Tucson, AZ. Together they form a loose network of art projects camouflaged as businesses.
"We're definitely playful to some extent," Flint explains, "but there's also a notion of sincerity, in the midst of all this playfulness, that we do honestly think that what we do is meaningful. That's something that at least I'm not willing to sacrifice."
Then, looking across the table at fellow DOS founder Alex Mahan, Flint interrupts himself.
"We should qualify this by saying that the financial setup here is brilliant," he laughs. "If I do say so myself. Because we live here, our overhead is swallowed up by rent, alone."
Flint and Alex drink and laugh.
"Deep inside," says Alex, "we're complete capitalists."