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924 Gilman Street
924 Gilman Street is one of the United States' longest running independent music venues. Originally opened in 1986, it operates on the Do It Yourself (DIY) ethic, which means that people who wish to make social change or do anything embark on it themselves without waiting for an okay from the establishment. The club is not operated for profit, but rather as a venue for artists to express themselves -- a breath of fresh air in the world of arena concerts, bouncers, and ticket stubs.
All the members of the club have the ability to make decisions and work for the improvement of the club as a whole. A member of Gilman is anyone who attends shows -- a membership card must be purchased on entry to the club. It is this idea that sets the club apart. After the closings of Burnt Ramen Studios and Mission Records, Gilman remains one of the only all ages clubs in the Bay Area that caters to the punk rock and hardcore community. Their website is www.924gilman.org
Quirky and always ready with a sarcastic joke, you might find Smitty on a typical Friday or Saturday night at Gilman, running around with a clip board signing people up to volunteer or making sure people have paid at the door. I interviewed him via email, after a Saturday show.
Disclaimer from Smitty: This is not any sort of official Gilman statement or anything. To get something like that one would have to come to a membership meeting, have the Gilman membership approve the interview, and then delegate someone, or more likely a few people, to do the interview. I am only representing myself, an individual who volunteers at Gilman on a regular basis.
Smitty: Gilman's first show was December 31st of 1986. I wasn't around back then, so I can't really tell you too much about it. I do know that the idea to have an all ages venue in Berkeley was floating around for a few years, and then finally in April of 1986 a few people found the 924 Gilman space and signed the lease. After this they put up flyers around town trying to get more people involved and held once a week meetings to hammer out what exactly they wanted in a space other than it being all ages.
They also had to do a lot of construction on the building, redo all the plumbing and make it wheelchair accessible. These were all punk kids that didn't [know] a whole lot about construction so they were learning as they went. They also had to get permits and things from the city of Berkeley, but that wasn't a huge problem. Berkeley is a liberal city, so it was fairly supportive of the club.
Finally after eight months of paying rent on a place without being able to hold shows there, on December 31st, 1986 they passed the last fire inspection, and had their first show that night. Asides from a few breaks, the club has been putting on shows ever since.
WT: Why was the club founded?
S: To have an all ages venue for kids to go to. Also to have a safe space because the punk/hardcore scene at the time was fairly violent, i.e. Nazis coming to shows and starting fights.
WT: What is the current mission of Gilman Street? What is the club trying to accomplish?
S: Honestly I don't know the mission statement of the club. I'd imagine it has to do with providing a safe all ages community space that allows independent musicians to perform. Though it is not limited to music only, there have been art shows, movie nights, plays, and other uses of the space.
WT: How does the surrounding neighborhood view Gilman? How does the club balance neighborhood relations with how events are run?
S: With certain neighbors the club has a very good relation, while others would like nothing more than to see the club go. We do our best to not cause any problems for the neighborhood. We clean up graffiti; we pay for any vandalism that takes place on the nights that we hold events. We try to keep an open dialogue with the neighbors to see if they have any complaints, and if so, we do our best to deal with them.
Because we only hold shows Friday, Saturday and sometimes Sunday nights, the shows themselves are not a problem. A lot of our neighbors do see that we try our best to accommodate them, by doing things like cleaning up local graffiti, and many are supportive of the club.
S: Gilman is technically a private club. This is for technical reasons, such as insurance and for certain legal reasons, but it is also because those involved with the club wanted the people who come to Gilman to realize that because they have this little card they are a part of the club, and the club belongs to them just as much as it does to anyone else, and that they can and should get involved with the club and help make it their own.
It's part of the whole DIY ethic. Gilman isn't just some club where you come to be a spectator. People should consider it their club, and they should feel empowered to get involved and make it into what they think it should be.
WT: How are decisions made about which bands play or other issues made? How are disputes resolved? Who "runs" Gilman?
S: The membership meetings, which are open to anyone with a membership card and are held the first and third Saturday of every month hold the ultimate power in the club. At the membership meeting anyone can bring up an issue, which is then talked about and voted on, and if a majority of people vote for the proposal, then it passes.
As to things like which bands are allowed to play there, first this goes through the bookers, simply because it would be illogical to have the membership screen every band that sends in a demo. It's fairly easy to see if a band is allowed to play Gilman or if they do have lyrics that are against Gilman policy (no racism, homophobia, misogyny).
WT: How is money from the door distributed? Are there any other sources of income?
S: A fraction is subtracted to pay security, who are the only paid members of the club, and then the rest of the money is divided evenly between the house and the bands. This and the little store that sells sodas and snacks are the only sources [of income] of Gilman.
WT: I know the list of rules on bands lyrics and audience behavior has been a source of contention in a punk musical community valuing freedom of expression above all else. Can you explain what these rules are, why they were devised, and what some of the main disagreements about them have been?
S: The main rules would be no misogyny, racism, homophobia, and violence. Also no drinking or drug use in or around the club (though because Gilman is a membership only club, smoking is allowed). The reason for these rules is to provide a safe space.
I believe that things like not allowing misogyny IS providing a space for freedom of expression. If misogyny is allowed in the club then women very likely will not feel welcome in the club, let alone welcome to express their opinions. Freedom of speech is not about allowing one group of people [to] intimidate others into not speaking up. There are those within the club who do believe that these rules are too restrictive though. There are a number of people who believe that no misogyny should be changed to no sexism. They argue that sexism against men is no better than sexism against women, and that we shouldn't allow either.
There are also a very large number of patrons who would love for Gilman to allow drinking in and around the club, but if that happens, the club will end up getting shut down by the city.
WT: What other roles in the community does Gilman have besides booking and hosting shows?
S: Gilman tries to provide a community space. It allows political groups and groups like narcotics anonymous to use its space. Gilman is not limited to music, and does other events like art shows and movie nights.
WT: Does Gilman see itself as an organization that is trying to make change on a larger scale in the world? If so how?
S: I don't see Gilman itself as trying to change the world. It does provide a space for independent artists to perform, and it does help empower a lot of the youth that go there by showing them that they can get involved and help run a club. Gilman does teach people leadership skills.
On the other hand political organizations that are trying to create social change have used the space for different things, and have put on benefit shows where the money goes to certain political causes. While I don't believe Gilman itself is going to create any sort of large scale change, it does support groups that have the potential to do so.
WT: Why were security guards hired? How can Gilman, which caters to the counter cultural anti-authoritarian person, justify the use of forceful security?
S: Security guards are the only paid people [at] Gilman. This is because no one would deal with all the things that security has to deal with for free. The reason Gilman has security guards is so it does not get shut down. If there was no one to break up fights or enforce the no drinking rules, it would be very easy for the city to shut the club down. Security is made up of paid volunteers who are a part of the punk rock community, so they do care about the club and want to see it stay open. Without them the club would have been shut down a long time ago.
WT: What is the DIY ethic and how does this come into play when building a community musical space such as Gilman? How is Gilman unique from other clubs?
S: DIY ethic is about empowerment. People realizing that they can do things themselves, and don't need to have someone else do everything for them. It's about people taking power and control over their own life and not being a spectator that has everything done for them.
This the whole idea behind Gilman, a club that was built by punk kids for punk kids. It's run by punks for punks, and everyone who comes there is encouraged to get involved and help out. At other clubs you come, pay your money, watch the band and leave, and you could care less about the club. Whereas at Gilman you are asked to get involved and volunteer. People are encouraged to come to membership meetings and help decide how the club should be run. If the punks want the club to exist they have to get involved and do it themselves. If they want to change anything about the club, they can come to a membership meeting and bring it up.
WT: How can someone start a "Gilman" of their own? What advice can you give?
S: Because I wasn't there at the start of Gilman, I don't know a huge amount about it. But it takes a lot of work. The people who started it had to pay $4,000 in rent alone before they were able to put on their first show. As Gilman tries to do today, I would recommend trying to get as many people as possible involved with the project.
Max Raynard is a musician and activist. He currently attends City College of San Francisco and is a writer for Wiretap. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.