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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.
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."
And with that attention and hype comes an entirely separate issue about Blank Space's location that troubles him more than complex building-code regulations. He says it keeps him from sleep some nights. Cherokee has become a destination, and by moving into the storefront, he's bringing outside money into a lower-income neighborhood for the sake of development — essentially, he's becoming a gentrifier.
Others may dismiss the label as a petty, oversimplified dig, but with a background in activism and community organizing, Razani made a conscious effort to address it head on. He asked himself, "Is it possible to open up a space that is directed by a) the neighborhood; and b) the folks who are coming into here? Is there a way to bridge that gap between folks that are in a way alienated from the mainstream happenings of a commercial district that is only 50 feet away from where they've lived for a generation or two?''
Blank Space is an experiment, one he's studying and receiving guidance on from mentors at the Regional Arts Commission through its graduate research fellowship, TIGER.
"I'm totally, totally aware of the fact that what we do is gentrifying," he says. "I'm sure there are hundreds of people around here that look at this space with big, glaring question marks in their eyes." Question marks that Razani aims to address soon. He says he plans to canvas the neighborhood, knocking on doors to introduce himself and Blank Space as a place to serve the community, but he is waiting until he has all the legal permissions to operate it as versatilely as he hopes. After forming as a new LLC and receiving a new Missouri sales tax number, he expects to receive his assembly occupancy permit this month.
"I can't escape the fact that I am a gentrifier," he says. "The fact that it plagues me and troubles me is what makes me feel OK about doing it, because if I didn't give a shit about it, then that's when it would be a big problem."
The icosidodecahedron lies on the bar. Its top half is broken and inverted so the innards sprawl out like two open-faced hands. In the rear of the room, a light — one of only three illuminating the space — shines on the towering bookshelves. In front of that, facing almost 30 audience members, singer Teresajenee stands alone at a microphone and warns, "There is no hiding in open mic...we have not practiced this."
Producer Michael Franco cues up a moody instrumental on his laptop and plays it over the PA. The unfamiliar pair attempt live mashup versions of Teresajenee's songs. She listens, then nervously sings, "This is an experiment. This is an experiment — let's go to the next one."
He plays another. It feels right, and TJ melts into a loose and sunny rendition of "Electric Yellow." She performs a total of four mashups and holds court with the audience about depression and bad romances between songs. The monthly show, Poetic Justice (held last Sunday of every month), features an intentionally eclectic mix of spoken word.
"It's monotony that kills," says Razani. No matter what Blank Space becomes on a given night, it's rarely built the same way as before and never stays for too long.