By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By RFT Music
By Christian Schaeffer
By Gabriel San Roman
Grand Ulena, St. Louis' enigmatic ambassadors of artcore, so loved the building where they practiced that they commissioned a painting of it, which adorns their debut CD, Gateway to Dignity (Family Vineyard). The beautiful turn-of-the-century brick three-story is adjacent to one of St. Louis' best live-music clubs, Off Broadway (3511 Lemp). It's also on the city's demolition list.
Two years ago, when Connie Garcia and partner Joe Telle bought Off Broadway, they also assumed ownership of the adjoining building, which was already in considerable disrepair. For the past decade-plus, scores of bands have used the property to practice, and Garcia and Telle continued the tradition, more as a public service than anything else. As any local musician can tell you, affordable practice space is hard to come by in St. Louis -- a cruel irony, given the abundance of vacant buildings. (See Jason Toon's feature "Debt Rehearsal" in our March 13, 2002, issue.) The Lemp building was perfect for this purpose: cheap, spacious and isolated enough to keep neighbors from complaining about the noise. Unfortunately, it wasn't meant to be.
On the afternoon of Friday, May 16, Grand Ulena guitarist Chris Trull got a frantic call from Garcia, who informed him that he and his bandmates (bassist Darin Gray and drummer Danny McClain) needed to move their equipment immediately. A team consisting of several police officers and city building inspectors had kicked in all the doors, ransacked the stored gear in the hopes of finding squatters (read: "eco-terrorists") and then left without securing the building. When Trull arrived to collect his stuff, he was shocked to find the practice room trashed and McClain's drum heads slashed. "I don't know why," Trull says. "The drum heads were clear, so it's not like you couldn't see into them. It was definitely done spitefully. We had a pile of T-shirts that were left nicely folded, and they were thrown all over the room -- and, mysteriously, some bottles of bleach just showed up. We were, like, 'What is this? Are they trying to plant evidence that we're making meth or something? Do they want it to look like we're cleaning needles with it, or what?'" Trull estimates that replacing the drum heads will cost about $100. "For people in our financial situation, that's a lot," he adds. But mostly he's bummed about losing Grand Ulena's beloved practice space of two years, a source of creative inspiration as well as physical shelter.
Also bummed are the members of Bibowats. According to guitarist/singer Zac Friederich, the room they rented wasn't disturbed because its door was one of the few in the building that held up to the jackbooted investigators. But Friederich and his bandmates are still outraged -- not only because they've lost their practice space but also because they feel Garcia was treated unfairly. Friederich says Garcia told him she told the team of police officers and building inspectors that she'd let them inside the building. She ran next door to get her keys, but by the time she'd returned, they'd already kicked down the front door, as well as many of the interior doors. "Something Connie told me," Friederich recalls, "is that the police were, like, 'You didn't see this.' And when she asked them how the doors got broken down, they just looked down and didn't say anything."
Garcia, who has contacted an attorney, fears retaliation from the city and does not wish to comment.
Friederich isn't sure why the raid went down the way it did. "Maybe they thought it was a crackhouse because people are always coming in and out of it," he speculates. "Or they're probably afraid of another Seattle."
It hardly seems coincidental that police and building inspectors organized similar raids on two other buildings in the neighborhood -- the Bolozone arts collective at 3309 Illinois Avenue and the Community Arts and Media Projectbuilding at 3022 Cherokee Street -- that same day. With the controversial World Agricultural Forum scheduled for that weekend, police seemed to be taking a pre-emptive strike against potential trouble, presumably in the interest of homeland security. (Radar Station certainly feels safer, knowing that Big Brother's protecting us from grad students, unlicensed bicyclists, pacifist puppeteers and punk-rockers.)
According to Police Chief Joe Mokwa, no police report was filed in the Lemp practice-space raid because no arrests were made. The investigation was, he claims, routine. "If you get information about a condemned building that people are occupying, it goes on the problem-property list," he explains. "The house was not occupied by residents, although the first floor did have some musical instruments stored there." When asked why the inspection team kicked down the doors and damaged the bands' property, he replies, "That's not what I was told, and I wasn't there."