Art installation at Secret Project Robot
Photo by Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images.

DIY Spaces Go Mainstream to Survive

In a post-Ghost Ship America, underground cultural spaces are trying to play by the rules—and create new ones—to survive. Can they fix their finances and legal statuses without letting The Man get them down?

Amid the unrelenting churn of the underground music and art scene in New York, the DIY eulogy has been fortified as a genre unto itself. When 285 Kent was set to close in 2014, Pitchfork waxed poetic about how cigarette smoke, incense, and cleaning chemicals combined to create the signature smell of the debaucherous venue, which hosted now-famous acts ranging from the electro-pop musician Grimes to rapper Mykki Blanco. When raucous Palisades closed following a raid by the city in 2016, the culture site Bedford+Bowery noted that the space, which had become recognizable by the “infamous support beam” that held it up in the middle, was “open to even the littlest of bands.”


Few DIY spaces, however, have had their demise chronicled as thoroughly as Silent Barn, which was struggling to evolve from a gritty, illegal, all-ages venue into an above-ground, financially-sustainable and hyper-inclusive arts community when it finally succumbed to financial pressures and closed last April. After weathering a robbery and being booted from the Queens warehouse it originally occupied in 2011 for code violations, Silent Barn relocated to a more dynamic space in Bushwick, Brooklyn. During its five years there, a sprawling, non-hierarchical crew of volunteers known as “chefs” ran the space, which housed recording and art “stewdios,” apartments for artists, countless installations, a barber shop-slash-record-store called Deep Cuts, indie video games, workshops, concerts, and a performing arts program for local youth of color. This second go around, Silent Barn attempted to run all this and more while putting in the time and money to operate legally—a move that members say was intended to protect the collective, but also contributed to the kind of administrative burden DIY spaces have traditionally sought to avoid.

“‘DIY’ venues are transient by nature…don’t get attached,” the Fader cautioned in its 2014 farewell to 10 different beloved cultural institutions that closed that year (three of which, it should be noted, were replaced by VICE’s main Brooklyn office—285 Kent, Glasslands, and Death By Audio). But five years later, the fatalist narrative around DIY spaces in a variety of cities shows signs of a shift. While the 12-year-old Silent Barn’s efforts to become both legal and solvent ultimately failed, early members (and leaseholders on its second location) Joe Ahearn and Kunal Gupta are working on tools to help others succeed where they did not. In the summer of 2017, Gupta and Ahearn launched a startup called Withfriends to help community-oriented, independent and experimental arts and culture organizations set up custom online membership programs and funding drives.


New underground spaces are still popping up all the time. But as Ahearn told VICE in an interview, “I’m less worried about how someone runs a space for one or two years in the current climate and more worried about how someone builds a decades-long, multi-generational arts community."

After the devastating fire at the Oakland art house Ghost Ship claimed 36 lives during a concert in December 2016, DIY spaces across the country were subject to heightened scrutiny, and a handful were shut down. The Ghost Ship fire bears the distinction of being "the deadliest fire in modern California history"; the building was in violation of so many city codes it was challenging for investigators to figure out what actually started it (its cause is still "undetermined"). Two years later, as the artists who ran Ghost Ship face lengthy prison sentences, the attention the tragedy directed towards the DIY scene is being channeled into a burgeoning movement to preserve independent music venues and live/work art spaces. Advocates in cities like New York, Oakland and Denver are seeking support from politicians and financial institutions that they likely wouldn’t have considered asking for just a few years ago.

Whether a DIY space is in someone’s basement or a warehouse, low overhead is kind of the point. Artists and musicians in New York and other urban areas have long been drawn to industrial spaces that are relatively inexpensive, out of the way of neighbors, and modifiable to accommodate various people creating, performing, and sometimes living in one place. Indeed, the way these spaces are used can be incongruous with local zoning and occupancy laws; those involved have historically been more interested in investing what little funds they have in the artistic pursuits they’re passionate about than bureaucratic box-checking. Per a general DIY ethos, profits are supposed to take a back seat to making these spaces accessible to struggling artists and all-ages audiences—something that makes them particularly vulnerable in cities with rising rents.

Revelers party at Death By Audio

A benefit for Pussy Riot at Death By Audio, on June 12, 2012. Photo by Rebecca Smeyne/Getty Images.

Withfriends evolved out of a platform Gupta and Ahearn started piloting at Silent Barn in 2016 that would prompt people to become members when they were buying tickets to a show. After six months, about 30 percent of concertgoers were being converted into supporters who contributed a certain amount to the space each month in exchange for free access to shows or smaller perks like mixtapes and stickers. When Silent Barn was facing closure, they set up a fundraiser on the platform that surpassed its goal of $25,000 within a week.

Ultimately, it wasn’t enough to save the space, which was burdened with $15,500 a month in rent and the aftermath of a costly electrical fire, in addition to its new administrative costs. But Gupta and Ahearn believe if they’d set up the platform sooner, Silent Barn would still be around. They hope that Withfriends will provide other cultural organizations with the financial cushion they need to make more thoughtful long-term plans for survival and growth.

“The thing that is necessary for creative spaces is that breathing room to think creatively and innovate and figure out what matters to this community,” said Gupta. “Before maybe 2009 or 2010, the rental landscape [in New York] was conducive to that. People could get together and form spaces and figure it out. They didn’t have to be super professional cut-throat business people.”

Gupta and Ahearn aren’t the only ones trying to improve the prospects of independent art and music spaces. As underground spaces experiment with different models for becoming totally above-board nonprofits and businesses (and even aspire to collective property ownership), the challenges and tradeoffs involved in doing so are becoming apparent. People who were once attracted to the DIY scene because it offered room to experiment without having to answer to bureaucrats or financiers are exploring whether it’s possible to evolve, to work with those entities, while still fostering the kind of artistic communities they want to be a part of.


A 'Go Big or Go Home' Moment

On the night of December 8, 2016, John Golter was waiting for someone to show up for a recording session at Glob, the warehouse space in Denver where he lived, made music and art, and booked shows, when he heard a knock on the door. He had a feeling it wasn’t the guy he was waiting for—he was never early. But Golter had no idea that answering would lead him and a dozen others who had been living in Glob and its attached sister venue Rhinoceropolis to get kicked out of their home that winter night, setting off a more than two-year-long struggle to get back in.

Glob and Rhinoceropolis, which had become centerpieces of the city’s DIY scene since they opened in the mid-aughts, were shut down by the Denver Fire Department days after the Ghost Ship blaze for fire code violations. There was wrapping paper on the walls, extension cords were being used for permanent wiring and, because the building wasn’t zoned for residential use, it lacked the smoke detectors and sprinkler system required for people to live there, the fire department said at the time.

It took until January of this year for Glob and Rhinoceropolis to get permission from the city to reopen. But advocates for DIY spaces like these still point to legislation passed in Denver as a progressive example other cities should emulate.

Following backlash from the artistic community, Denver eventually came up with the Safe Occupancy Program, which allows tenants who come forward about the fact that they are occupying unsanctioned spaces to remain in place as long as there are no life-safety hazards and they commit to a plan to come into compliance with city codes. Denver has created a $300,000 fund to support the program through January 2020 and will grant up to $50,000 per project for needed improvements, with eight grantees selected so far.


"The price tag for most of these projects to get into alignment with building codes and zoning and occupancy permits is more around $200,000 per site,” said Louise Martorano, executive director of Denver’s RedLine Contemporary Art Center, which is helping to administer the Safe Occupancy Program. “It’s a huge gap. But this is a great way to model something that is brand new and can help influence and inform better awareness for other cities to figure out how to better support their artists.”

The biggest problem with this solution is that it can involve a massive investment of time and money into property that tenants don’t own. Golter and the other members of Glob and Rhinoceropolis soon found that making the spaces fully legal would involve a lot more than tearing down some wrapping paper and installing a sprinkler system. After meeting with city officials, they concluded that they would have to change their occupancy certificates to match what the venues were being used for—a difficult process, given that there wasn’t a category that fit the live/work/performance spaces they had created.

Glob sought approval as a residential space, which would require minimal alterations, while Rhinoceropolis ultimately sought to become categorized as a place of public accommodation, which entailed more construction and meant no one would be able to live there once it reopened. After gutting the space to get rid of work that had been done without a permit, Rhinoceropolis would need new bathrooms, walls, a wheelchair ramp and other features to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and other laws. It took almost a year for construction plans to get approved and the actual work to begin.


The city paid the roughly $40,000 it cost to complete the project—a figure Golter whittled down from initial estimates of around $150,000, in part, by doing some of the work himself and getting help from friends. “I can jackhammer really well now,” he said.

Another $20,000 to help cover rent and utilities at the art spaces while they were closed came in the form of a grant from Meow Wolf, which has undergone its own emblematic transformation. What started a decade ago as an anarchic group of artists painting the walls of a communal warehouse in Santa Fe is now a multi-million-dollar company that employs hordes of artists to build out surreal, multi-sensory installations in different cities, with one coming soon to Denver. The company started a DIY Fund post-Ghost Ship that granted more than $200,000 last year to community art and music spaces. (Meow Wolf CEO Vince Kadlubek told NPR he has a simple response to people who give him flak for becoming beholden to investors, one of whom includes, of all people, Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin: “Yo, embrace capitalism, you need money.”)

With final inspections now complete, Golter says Glob and Rhinoceropolis will be putting on shows again soon. But for all the work put into reopening, the venues still face an uncertain future. The once-industrial neighborhood where Glob and Rhinoceropolis set up shop more than a decade ago has now been dubbed the River North Arts District, or RiNo, and is one of the fastest-developing areas in the state. Even before the raid, the landlord who owns the entire block where the DIY spaces are located had entered into a partnership with a developer and health tech entrepreneur to build offices and coworking space for health care providers and startups on his property. Rhino and Glob were not affected by the first phase of the project, which opened in 2018, but renderings for the second phase show they may not be safe for long.


“All the issues with gentrification and everything being leveled and shiny and new in Brooklyn have definitely been revving up in Denver,” Golter said.

That’s led Golter and other members of Glob and Rhinoceropolis to start looking for property in the city they can purchase to create a permanent home.

“To keep the ball rolling in the arts, at a certain point, you have to buy,” Golter said.

Given the competitive real estate market in Denver and many other major cities, and the hurdles for artist collectives to get financing, that‘s a heavy lift. But over in Oakland, David Keenan, cofounder of the group Safer DIY Spaces, has reached the same conclusion as Golter.

“For our communities in Oakland in these live/work spaces, it’s a ‘go big or go home’ moment,” Keenan said. “A lot of people here have managed not to get displaced over the last two years, in large part because of the work we’ve done, but they could be at any time.”

Safer DIY Spaces assembled a team of architects and contractors to offer confidential architectural assessments and address urgent safety issues in Oakland DIY spaces immediately after Ghost Ship. The group has since been deploying its expertise to prevent notices of violations from leading to displacement by liaising with landlords and pushing back against city inspectors who say spaces are uninhabitable or throw up bureaucratic roadblocks to getting work done.

“[A notice of violation may] say a space has substandard everything, but it may boil down to one thing, like the staircase is really dangerous,” said Keenan. “We’re like, ‘OK, we’ll rebuild the staircase.’ Or there may be unapproved work on the building but it may not actually be dangerous. We can just cut open the drywall and look.”


While some safety hazards, like a missing exit sign, are inexpensive to take care of, retrofitting a building to meet occupancy and zoning requirements the way Rhinoceropolis did in Denver can be far more expensive.

“I recognized right away that we were not going to be able to get things like community development loans from financial institutions [to cover those costs] unless there was some ownership of the building,” Keenan said. “Otherwise, they’re just putting money into a landlord’s pocket and then the landlord can turn around and flip the building or turn it into condos.”

Shadetree, one of Oakland’s many live/work artist collectives, recently secured its future by incorporating into a nonprofit and purchasing its property from the landlord. But it wasn’t easy.

“Traditionally, the thing you do is try to raise money by going to a bank or lender and getting a loan,” said Donna Smithey, an independent consultant on affordable housing who put together the financing for the deal. “However, these properties—not just Shadetree but hundreds in Oakland—don’t fit the normal paradigm for a loan. They’re industrial, the zoning is wrong, work that’s been done is un-permitted.”

The interior of Shadetree

Image courtesy of Shadetree.

Smithey said she received dozens of rejections from potential lenders before, finally, a connection in private equity came through with a high-interest $1.25 million loan. She then created a loan pool that another 22 individuals contributed to in order to come up with the remaining $1.55 million. Now, she said, she’s working with Safer DIY Spaces to figure out how to finance other building purchases.


“I don’t know that I would recommend it for everyone, but I think it’s really important in places where it’s not economically viable to live in conventional ways,” said Kate Rannells, a sculptor and president of the board at Shadetree, who said she and other residents had to invest a huge amount of time and energy into the process of becoming a nonprofit and purchasing the building.

But becoming official has also created greater accountability in a community that developed organically over time. “Before we bought the property, the rent matrix [determining what people pay to live there] was mostly based on who was in favor or had been there the longest,” said Rannells. “Now, it’s a lot more fair.”

In an effort to make it easier for DIY spaces to become legal, Keenan and other advocates are working with Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf’s administration to update building codes and pushing new measures in the City Council. On the opposite coast, creating a path to legality for DIY spaces has also become a priority for Ariel Palitz, New York City’s first ‘night mayor,’ who told VICE she’s paying close attention to what’s happening in Oakland and Denver. Arts advocates in New York say that’s important, but also recognize the need for resources that can serve cultural spaces operating with different legal statuses, such as a “confidential cultural caseworker,” an urgent repairs fund, and an end to city raids that shut spaces down for code violations instead of helping to fix them. Seeing the need for a trusted intermediary between DIY spaces and bureaucrats in New York and other cities, Keenan says he hopes to expand his organization nationally.


Still, many in the DIY scene are skeptical that the attention these spaces are getting from politicians is ever going to benefit them in a tangible way.

Bridging the Gap

So far, many of the entities that have formed recently to address the needs of community-run creative spaces—such as Safer DIY Spaces, the advocacy group NYC Artist Coalition, and the nonprofit Creative Footprint, which is doing research on the value and needs of the nightlife scenes in cities around the world—are focused primarily on regulatory issues and public policy.

Some of their efforts are geared towards ensuring long-term affordability for creative spaces, but Ahearn of Withfriends says he still sees a gap in the work being done.

“None of this matters if people can’t make rent this month,” he pointed out.

People standing around talking at Withfriends' first anniversary party

Withfriends celebrated its first anniversary in September at Rubulad, a DIY art and performance space in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Rubulad has bounced around over the years but currently occupies the art-filled lot that Secret Project Robot left behind when it moved to open a legal bar and venue in 2017. Image by Caroline Lewis.

The more than 100 arts and culture organizations that have signed on to use Withfriends so far have converted 20 percent of their audiences into members or one-time donors, on average. Withfriends—which is essentially a Patreon for projects that take place primarily in the community, rather than the digital world—takes 5 percent of the money donated through the platform each month as well as $1 plus 2.5 percent of each ticket sold. While Withfriends’ vision is for the platform to help users operate independently of corporate money and grants from foundations, each project is using Withfriends differently, and some have had more success signing people up as members than others.


The small staff of North Brooklyn Farms, an urban farm and open-air event space on the Williamsburg waterfront, sees the platform as part of a multipronged funding strategy that will allow it to stop relying as heavily on corporate events and weddings that frequently close the space to the public. Last year, memberships and donations through Withfriends only accounted for about 3.5 percent of the group’s revenue.

“We’re always riding the line,” said Kenneth Monroe, the group’s chef and events director. “Working with Withfriends is a way we can envision projects like this developing community support into at least a sustainable cushion of revenue.”

Withfriends’ catalogue of users exhibits the wide variety of ways people can carve out space for community offline. Some fall squarely under the DIY label, like the collectively-leased shipping container in Brooklyn known only by the address 7 Belvidere, which hosts a free store, a transgender writing group’s meetings, and free performances. Others, like Flux Factory, a Queens nonprofit that provides studio space to artists-in-residence and holds public exhibitions, have grown from DIY roots. And then there are those that don’t really need to be classified, like Ambient Church, a small business that creates immersive experiences in churches by booking avant-garde musical performances and pairing them with custom visual projections.

While Withfriends wasn’t able to save Silent Barn, it has made a big difference in the long-term prospects for Educated Little Monsters, a performing arts program for Brooklyn youth of color that operated out of the Barn for more than three years before it shut down. If ELM had been able to take over the old Silent Barn space, it would have stood out in gentrifying Bushwick as a “hood-run DIY space for the community by the community,” said Yasmin “Jaz” Colon, who founded ELM on her stoop before being offered access to Silent Barn. Colon says her goal is to eventually raise enough money to purchase a similar property that has outdoor space and room for affordable artist housing, studios, and a venue.


In the meantime, the $50,000 ELM raised through the well-publicized fundraiser it held on Withfriends when Silent Barn was closing, along with the money it has brought in through memberships on the platform since then, has helped cover rent in temporary spaces, teachers’ salaries and other expenses. It has helped Colon to create a nest egg for when she’s ready to buy.

“It’s definitely a cushion,” Colon said of the revenue from Withfriends. “We would be so much worse off than we are now without it.”

Still, the more established a space, the more it can do with the platform. The fact that ELM hasn’t had a permanent space of its own has limited the types of events and workshops it can host and, by extension, the membership packages it can offer. Recently, Colon decided to partner with a Bushwick community space called Earth Arts Center, where ELM will be able to produce programming six days a week—an arrangement she hopes will last long-term. With a more stable hub, she said, she plans to create new membership packages that offer perks people of all ages can take advantage of, such as coworking and access to workshops.

Like many others who spoke to VICE about what they gained by participating in DIY venues, Colon said opting into Silent Barn helped her imagine what she wanted to create and learn the skills she needed to make it happen.

“It’s an experience no one can ever take away from us,” said Colon, who now employs some of the kids who got involved with the program when they were younger. “I can literally run a full venue by myself. What I’m going to do with that access to information is pass it on.”


But Colon has also been vocal about having mixed feelings about her time at Silent Barn, where she sometimes butted heads with other members over conversations about race and class. As a native Brooklynite, Colon says gentrification has made her feel “like a tourist” in her own neighborhood. And while DIY spaces in Brooklyn often explicitly seek to be inclusive of people of color and marginalized groups, Colon said she still sees them as part of a transplant culture that can be alienating for some.

Many artists and nightlife proprietors are now hyper-aware of the ways they can be used by developers to attract newcomers to industrial and low-income neighborhoods, thereby fueling gentrification. But they also tend to get priced out of those neighborhoods in the process. Withfriends and others figuring out how to support DIY spaces are thinking through ways to make sure diverse groups will benefit from the resources and policy changes they create. Safer DIY Spaces and other arts advocates in Oakland, for instance, are working with tenants’ rights groups to prevent low-income people from being kicked out of unsanctioned residences, regardless of whether they’re artists. And the NYC Artist Coalition is supporting legislation that would make it easier for both cultural establishments and small businesses of all kinds to extend commercial leases.

Withfriends is still in the early stages of developing its user base but is striving for inclusivity. It’s bringing in new spaces by building up a team of salespeople (they’re referred to as ‘jewelers,’ responsible for finding cultural ‘gems’) who are embedded within arts and cultural communities from the South Bronx to Mexico City. The company prompts users to identify the values their spaces promote and hopes that by tracking those values, they will be able to recognize gaps in the types of projects they’re serving.


“I think any organization that would say that it’s not a struggle [to expand to new communities] is lying,” Ahearn said, “but the important thing is we’ve identified a framework we can use to address that and be accountable to it.”

Withfriends is also intentionally steering clear of the ‘DIY’ label when describing the platform because some may associate it with a narrow cultural niche or be unfamiliar with it altogether.

"The obstacle is always, what the hell are we talking about when we say ‘DIY?’” said Ahearn. “I rely on terms like grassroots, community-run, and community-oriented. It helps to describe the lineage of these spaces as something that didn’t just pop up in 2005 in north Brooklyn.”

In New York, that lineage runs the gamut, from the abandoned buildings in the Bronx where hip hop was born, to the Harlem drag balls that gave way to voguing, to the parties in warehouses and other unofficial spaces that have helped fuel the city’s legendary, decades-long underground club culture.

A Safe Space to Rave

It was early one Sunday morning in December, and under 30-foot ceilings that disappeared into artificial fog and flashing lights, a crowd was forming around a towering metal rig holding a DJ booth. Encased in techno music in a warehouse on an industrial stretch dividing Brooklyn and Queens, there was really only one thing to do.

“It’s about being able to dance and reach some sort of physical, spiritual consensus with the people around you, even for just a few moments, which is more than enough to understand that peace and equality and harmony can exist,” said Jack (who asked to be identified by a pseudonym, given the nature of his work), explaining what he contributes to New York City, and society at large, by throwing monthly raves in “off-the-grid” spaces.


In the case of this particular party, the space didn’t have a Place of Assembly permit, required in New York for gatherings of more than 75 people, or a liquor license for the bar that was set up, among other potential violations.

Going from midnight until well past sunup and clinging to the mystique that comes with minimal online promotion, Jack’s are the kind of gatherings that might appear to thrive in the shadows. Yet, he says, his dream is for the city to provide him with a permanent, affordable space to operate as an LGBTQ community center that offers a range of programming for the queer following he’s built up, in addition to throwing dance parties.

“I don’t want to do illegal shit, honestly,” he said on a recent phone call. “It’s a lot of stress, it’s expensive, and we don’t want to endanger the lives of all of our friends coming to these parties.” Plus, with rent in even far-flung industrial spaces going up, he said he stands to lose around $20,000 all told if a single party gets shut down.

Jack recently met with City Councilman Rafael Espinal, who has emerged as a champion of nightlife and DIY culture in New York, about realizing his vision.

“I think the city should play a bigger role in identifying public space that can be leased to promoters so they can throw parties in underutilized spaces the city owns and allow for the great things that come from DIY culture to be bred in these spaces,” Espinal said in an interview.


But would club kids attracted to secret, after-hours spots really follow Jack into a city-approved community center?

He, for one, is confident they would.

Rafael Espinal at House of Yes

New York City Councilman Rafael Espinal, who has positioned himself as a champion of the DIY scene, participated in a theatrical conversation about nightlife at House of Yes, a DIY space-turned-legal-venue, during a rally he held there in December. Image by Caroline Lewis.

“These people don’t need drugs or alcohol,” he said. “They don’t necessarily need to have sex at the party. There are other, much more immediate and pressing needs we cover. We provide a sense of community, a sense of belonging, a sense of being safe at a place where there’s no judgement and no harassment.”

While the challenges facing DIY venues are shaped by the distinct economic, cultural, political, and physical landscapes of the cities they’re in, advocates are finding that similar solutions may be warranted. For instance, New York lost 11 million square feet of industrial space—perfect for DIY venues, artist studios, and one-off parties—to rezoning over the last decade. In Denver, the legalization of marijuana in 2014 led grow operations to devour the city’s supply of warehouses.

“That was something no one really anticipated and all of a sudden you had all these artists who once had access to spaces that were disappearing,” said Michael Seman, director of creative industries research and policy at the University of Colorado - Denver, who has done extensive research on DIY spaces. “It would be good for cities across the country to identify spaces that are underutilized or purchased for reasonable rates with the idea that this will be a DIY art space and can be brought up to code easily.”


In the meantime, though, DIY proprietors are coming up with their own ways to cope with the shortage of affordable space.

Nightlife University

In New York, many of those who once threw underground parties and concerts in industrial spaces have already taken the for-profit route to go legit. In the last couple of years alone, veterans of the Brooklyn DIY scene have opened (or reopened) House of Yes, Secret Project Robot and Elsewhere—all popular legal venues with full bars and calendars packed with experimental and diverse events.

Opening a legal business can be a way to get a longer-term lease and slow down the seemingly endless process of finding the next affordable space. It can also provide a more tenable lifestyle for members of the DIY scene who are getting older. But those who have made the leap don’t necessarily see mainstream venues as a replacement for the DIY spaces they came up in.

Trying to legally recreate Secret Project Robot—which previously occupied a giant lot filled with interactive art structures, home to an artistic community that birthed events like the ongoing queer extravaganza Bushwig—“hasn’t been a successful experiment,” assessed Rachel Nelson, half of the couple that runs the space, one afternoon in December. “You can’t have everything. You have to choose.”

Nelson was sitting with her romantic and business partner Erik Zajaceskowski and their newborn baby at a corner table in Flowers for All Occasions, a cafe with a small gallery in the back. Along with the pseudo-tropical bar Happyfun Hideaway, it’s one of two legal spaces the pair opened before the new Secret Project Robot so they could quit their old jobs. But they didn’t have the same aspirations for those establishments—to serve as a nonprofit community art space that just so happens to be supported by an attached for-profit bar—and so have no qualms with how they’ve turned out.

“Other people might be able to do it differently and enact their vision legally, but for Secret Project Robot, I’m uncertain if that’s possible,” said Zajaceskowski. “I think there are certain aspects you lose going from illegal and underground to legal.”

One, they argued, is the ability to curate the events they put on as much.

“Before we would only say yes to things we really wanted to do and now we’re sort of like, ‘Well, we have to have people working on Tuesdays, so we can’t not have an event on Tuesdays,’” Nelson said. "Before it was two or three shows a week, and now it’s seven.”

Having more rigid expenses, which total nearly $40,000 a month in the new space compared with $15,000 in the old one, contributes to a sense of greater responsibility and less artistic freedom, the couple said. And while the new venue has the mandated number of exits, Zajaceskowski says it feels less safe in another sense.

“Every week we’ve had to throw someone out and every month there’s a bit of aggression or violence,” he said. In the spaces he ran before going legal, he said he can only remember a couple of instances of violence over more than a decade.

“There’s something about an art space that is almost private but not,” he said, “like they’re letting you participate. Like you’re going to a friend’s house.”

Some who have made the move to open a legal nightlife venue are happy with it, though.

“I think it’s amazing, especially in our case,” said Anya Sapozhnikova, who partnered with investors in order to open a legal version of House of Yes, a club that puts on elaborate theme parties featuring impressive aerial acts. "Even just the amount of performers we hire is insane.”

Sapozhnikova, 32, said she doesn’t miss the sleep-deprived years when she and her founding partner ran House of Yes out of a warehouse on a tight budget, while also operating their own production company to make money. “I definitely don’t miss feeling like the whole thing can just come crashing down at any second if it gets raided by the cops,” she added.

But she also said she would not be where she is now—specifically, in the position to employ many of her friends—if she hadn’t spent a decade participating in collaborative artistic spaces where both the overhead and the barrier to entry was much lower. DIY spaces, she said, serve as New York's “nightlife university.”

“DIY spaces are the most important thing to keeping our nightlife thriving,” Sapozhnikova said. “That’s where all the new shit happens, and without DIY spaces and culture it would be impossible to have the chops to plug into something like House of Yes.”

Sapozhnikova was getting at something that almost goes without saying, but that people talking about how to transform DIY spaces into law-abiding, financially sustainable institutions often feel the need to make abundantly clear. As Zajaceskowski put it, even if there’s only one spot and it’s in someone’s house, “There will always, always, always be an underground.”

Correction: This piece has been updated to more accurately reflect Silent Barn's financial struggles upon closing.

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