By Mike Appelstein
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There's a red ball that Kaveh Razani keeps around Blank Space — actually, it's an icosidodecahedron, a near-sphere made of 30 small magnetic bars. He tosses it all around the high-ceilinged, 116-year-old building, passes it to others, and sometimes shatters it against the exposed-brick walls. It's always reassembled, but it's rarely built the same way as before, and it never stays for too long. Amazingly, he still has all the pieces.
It's harder to describe Blank Space than the icosidodecahedron. On some nights the Cherokee Street storefront is an art-gallery space; on others it's a DIY music venue, or maybe a reading room, retail space, library and who knows what else. What Razani had in mind originally — "a little teahouse gathering place for people to hang out, dialogue, conversate, politick, plan things, scheme" — soon morphed into a space meant to be, as he describes it, "available and accessible to do anything for anybody who wanted to."
If there's one thing he's learned, it's that if you aim to do everything, it can sometimes be hard to do anything at all.
2847 Cherokee St.
St. Louis, MO 63118
Category: Art Galleries
Region: St. Louis - Clayton
At 12:14 a.m. on March 20 of this year, a crowd toasted on Champagne. It was the dawn of the spring equinox and the birth of Blank Space. The early morning was a party, and the guests, almost 75 of them, were celebrating. But their host, the passionate catalyst, was quiet and reserved.
"I don't necessarily want to be in it — be it. I just want to know it happened," Razani says. In Persian culture, where you are and what you're doing when the new year begins (on the spring equinox) sets the tone for the following year. For him, it was already mission accomplished.
Five days later, the party got busted.
It was an art opening for Basil Kincade and musician Black Spade, and Razani and others were serving drinks throughout the night from behind a suggested-donations bar. An undercover liquor-control officer "donated" two or three bucks for a beer and was handed one. That was enough.
"We were operating under the assumption that, 'Hey, we're cool because we're giving it away for donations.' It doesn't fly," says Razani. "Making money off liquor through taxes and selling liquor licenses is a big income stream for the city. They don't want you making money without 'em."
Though if you're going to try, 2847 Cherokee Street probably isn't the best address to do it. The former tenant, Cranky Yellow, was a curio shop and DIY music venue with a storied demise following numerous citations and code violations. In a sense, Blank Space was born on the city's radar.
So Razani pulled down the curtains, closed the door and gathered a core group of people inside to dialogue, politick and plan for how they were going to reopen and get up to code. But doing that would require more than a liquor license.
"I came in ignorant of what was necessary to open up a space," he says. "When you see this space, you think, 'Holy shit, it's beautiful. It's perfect. There's nothing that looks like it needs doing.'" Building inspectors saw a different scene: A basement needing sprinkler lines and a door up to the main floor, a staircase to the second floor that needed to be boxed in for fire separation, and other small construction projects.
If you walked inside — even if you visited Cranky Yellow often — you may not realize Blank Space is the same building. Whereas Cranky Yellow was chock-a-block with tons of insane art projects and knickknacks (a more elegant RFT writer once called it "a living, breathing Etsy for local artisans"), Blank Space is sparse and open with a small bar, eleven-foot-tall wall of books in the back and a few racks of vinyl records sold on consignment from Apop Records. Rather than retail items, Blank Space is defined by the people who fill it and its physical blankness — its ability to form to what its patrons want and need it to be.
"We realized that if we wanted to do anything in an open-ended way we needed to be prepared for everything," Razani says.
"If you really dig into this with an unconventional space, with an unconventional idea, you'll find that there is very little precedent set for that in the legal process," he continues. "And so, what the health department might tell me might contradict what the building department might tell me, which might contradict what the electrical inspector might say. So it's a bunch of dogs chasing tails, trying to figure out the exact permutation of things that would allow this to be legal."
The growing pressure to have everything strictly up to code is an observation that Razani expects to see more of on Cherokee Street as it continues to receive more traffic and attention each year.
"It's such a harsh reality that people get too big for their shoes too quickly," he says. "And who knows if that's a possibility for Cherokee Street. All of a sudden there's all this attention — people coming, flooding in, and we don't have the capacity and infrastructure to grow with the hype."