Written by A. Iwasa
When collective living isn't just another way to shit both where you eat and sleep, it can be a fast track towards self-actualization by meeting so many of our human needs. This is a piece about a writer's experience of punk house dwelling in various cities around the country, from 2003 til present.
For me, the quintessential punk house dwelling story starts at a Halloween party at the South Side Punk House in 2003. Our live-in slum lord's older brother was shooting off fire crackers into our library. It was about then that I noticed there were no smoke detectors in the house.
As soon as possible, I bought three, one for each floor. Then of course, what happens? One gets smashed apart, another disappears, and I take the last one into my room since at least I have a safe and easy direct exit.
The runaway best summary of being a punk house dweller I've ever read appeared in Ker-bloom! #81 by Artnoose: “I’m a house punk in every sense of the word. For me, a house is not just where you sleep at night; it’s where everything happens. It’s where the shows are, where the skills are learned, where benefit brunches occur, where band practice is, where the visiting writers stay, where relationships begin like hot maple syrup & where they end like broken windows, where babies are born, where people die surrounded by loved ones, where stray cats show up, where we confront our fears of heights & failure, where we feed our friends, where we facilitate workshops, where we console the brokenhearted, where we print flyers and zines, where we write and publish our first novels, where we love passionately, where we call people out, and where we imagine our most fanciful experiments.“
It's been my general experience that different forms of collective living are cheaper than living alone, or just one roommate. Money saved can either free up resources for things other than rent and utilities, or reduce the hours you need to work.
Excess money and/or time in turn can go into projects such as serving free food, volunteering elsewhere, some other form of activism, and of course creative endeavors such as making art, writing, going to and/or even hosting shows and film screenings, etc.
Abraham Maslow was a psychologist who created a hierarchy of needs, with things like shelter and food under the psychological needs at the base, building up towards a pinnacle of self-actualization. Though I used a negative example as my primary example of punk house dwelling, I still operate with the mentality that when living collectively isn't just another way to shit both where you eat and sleep, it can be a fast track towards self-actualization by meeting so many of our needs. Perhaps as Archer would say, it's a little Column A, a little Column B.
The list of things I wouldn't have been able to do without sharing space and resources with others while living in different collective forms is long, and I think it is unfortunate and inaccurate when most people think of collective living it's in the forms of hippie communes or cult compounds. Sort of the opposite side of the same coin, I don't want to paint some sort of picture that collective living is the be all and end all that some people make it out to be. Living in an intentional community may be part of a revolutionary project as I believe the Black Panthers made clear with their Panther Pads or more recently the camps at Standing Rock against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). But it isn't the revolution in and of itself. Racially and ethnically diverse groups can come together to flourish in ways we can't on our own. Differences such as class origin are difficult to navigate, but that's the whole point of putting stuff out like The Modern Utopian and Kaliflower, or like this story — magazines like Communities aren't for us. Let's talk about the hard stuff, try to overcome it, and have some fun while we're at it!
The first few punk houses that I hung out at were in Chicago, two in particular. The oldest, the South Side Punk House, started around the time of Operation Desert Storm in West Lawn near W. 67th Place and Pulaski before it was a barrio from what I understand. The South Side Crew became seriously politically activated in the anti-war movement at the time.
I first came there during the events against the TransAtlantic Business Dialogue (TABD) in November 2002. I had been invited to come participate in the actions and cultural events by my original Chicago political contact, that I had met at a Free Mumia! demo in Philly. We had kept in touch for some 11 months, occasionally corresponding about protests and travels. He was in the South Side Crew, and lived in their house where we stayed during the protests and what not.
I had been protest hopping for about a year and two months when I came to Chi to protest the TABD. It's where I first became exposed to the idea that creating counterinstitutions was a tactic for how to both overcome and replace the political state and big businesses. In addition to visiting my first punk house, I also visited my first infoshop, the Autonomous Zone (A-Zone) which went on to be my first collective. I was also introduced to my first formal housing collective, The Crib Collective, and some real old school radical history when I made my first pilgrimage to the Haymarket Martyrs' Memorial. I was hooked, and came back to town for another demonstration about a month and a half later, then moved to town about a month and a half after that. I have remained committed to counterinstitution buildings since then, participating in a number of urban houses and rural land projects for years, and visiting as many as possible for ideas and inspiration.
Back to the South Side Punk House: it had an interesting oral history, but I’m not sure how much of it I believe! Some of it, such as their stories of fighting Nazis during the white flight from West Lawn jives with both my experiences in 1990s anti-Fascism and my understanding of white flight from Chicago.
Years later I heard that it had burned down, which I had considered historically inevitable. From what I understand, no one was hurt. Shouting matches and the sounds of things breaking at all hours had been normal there. I had so much food stolen from me I was going broke just trying to stay alive, it quickly became the worst place I ever lived. But I suppose something has to be the worst, so you draw lines and figure out what's unacceptable. Now, things like some sharing food with roommates have become mandatory for me since when I'm thinking about what makes or breaks a potential living situation.
The next summer I had started hanging out at the first ASAP House, which was started by the Anarchist Skins and Punx Unity Crew (ASAP) in el barrio Pilsen, Chicago. My experiments with different forms of collective living were still mostly on the upswing, it was a good part of my life. The best up to then, really. Unfortunately, when Pilsen started to rapidly gentrify, there started to be a lot of bad blood between many comrades of color and white hipsters, and what started out attracting me to the city eventually drove me away from it.
I would frequently go to house after-shows and/or parties at this time. There was a hall in Pilsen called the Swazey Compound where there were frequent shows, and a store front next to Radio Arte was another regular venue at the time. It's a bank now. I also saw a couple house shows in the South Side and bar shows in the North Side at the time getting into some of who came to be my favorite bands for years like Reaccion and Tras De Nada. But I also started to drift apart from ASAP as their crew grew pretty large quickly, then fell apart even faster.
Aside from a visit to a second ASAP House also in Pilsen in early ’05, and a brief stay at the Punk House in Tulsa, Oklahoma in early ’06 on my way from Tucson back to Chi, I rarely even heard about people still living in punk houses much less starting them. Though a lot of the Chi housing collectives from circa 2006-'10 probably would have called themselves punk houses if they had existed in 2003 or so such as the Lower Case Collective which was in Logan Square, and the Cunt Collective, which was in Bucktown.
The next time I came to Tucson in the spring of ’11 I was pleasantly surprised to find a number of punk houses whose dwellers were involved with the two reasons I came back to town: No More Deaths doing, amongst other things, food and water drops on the Migrants’ Trail from Mexico into the US in the Sonoran Desert, and the Dry River Radical Resource Center, an infoshop in the Dunbar Spring neighborhood where I taught a series of weaving workshops, and in turn started writing political prisoners again and caught a handful of great shows, including the first Ramshackle Glory show, where they played as Pat the Bunny since their original name was taken, and they hadn't thought of Ramshackle yet.
At the time, my favorite Punk House in Tucson was The Vegan Straight Edge (XVX) Punk House. It was the first house that welcomed me in, and the place I stayed the most that visit. Though most of the people who stayed there weren’t involved with Dry River anymore and no one was involved with No More Deaths, they all supported the work I was doing and were glad to have me around. People living there played in Busted Bearings, Honey Badger, Double Tap, Commodity of Death and other bands.
Ian from The Tics and Honey Badger who lived there, for example, later moved to Oakland and started a band with little Shane from Tucson's Truancy and Man Bites Dog, called False Figure and I got so see a good handful of their practices and shows in 2017, frequently staying in Ian's warehouse space with a ton of other people including another Tucson ex-pat who had been in Vanish Twin, and another ex-XVX House dweller living upstairs!
Andy from Commodity of Death is in Tucson's NCNS now, a rock 'n' roll outfit I got to see at Wooden Tooth Records just before all this Covid-19 excrement started hitting the air conditioner. Sure, it's only rock 'n' roll, but I think they have that edge that some ex-punk artists never lose whether they are writers like Neil Gaiman, visual artists such as Joe Sacco or have just moved on to another genre of music like The Beastie Boys.
I went on to stay with a couple of the kids from the XVX House at other punk houses in Tucson also such as The Barnyard (also known as The Slaves’ Quarters and Fresh Country, featuring members of En Cahoots and Muscular Development) and the inaccurately named, punk house lite, Havoc House (not much havoc there). The XVX Punk House shut down in the summer of 2011, about two years after it started. But since I never got past my honeymoon phase with it, it remains my favorite punk house, and I'm still on good terms with everyone I know from it.
When Dry River was still going, two of the bands I saw there, Towardis and Let The World Die, were from Flagstaff and had members who were involved with the Taala Hooghan infoshop there, one of which invited me to town to teach a weaving workshop. It would be about six months before I did go, but I ended up catching shows at a couple of punk houses there too, The Big House and Cottage House. There wasn’t too much cross over between the downtown punk houses and the Taala Hooghan, but people were still friendly and receptive to radical literature and what not at the house shows.
In the spring of ’12 I ended up spending a great deal of time at the Barnyard, which was the original work site of the Autonomous Community Sustainability Project. I went back out to the desert with No More Deaths a couple of times then, and like before, though no one else from the house was involved, everyone supported the work I was doing. Sadly the house shut down in the fall of ’12, also about two years after it started.
In late February ’13 I went to Tucson for what I thought was going to be a brief visit, largely because my two favorite punk houses were closed and I didn’t really fit in at the ones that were still going or started more recently from what I knew. I ran into a couple comrades from the old Sunday Food Not Bombs at a Blackbird Raum and Ramshackle Glory house show at The Boxing Gym, and ended up staying with them at a new punk house they had just started with a couple of their friends, which was being named The Halfway House about then. I ended up staying for about four and a half months, long after I ran out of money.
We started having house shows in April with both touring bands, Fucktard and Black Market Prophets and local bands, The Syndicate and Chicano Brown. We had shows about twice a month and it was the first and so far only place I ever booked a show. This was the month I basically ran out of cash and could no longer pay rent or buy food. But I did get a great deal of the old silk screening equipment from Dry River, organized people to go to free meals, shared my food from them, and recycled many of the beer cans mostly to keep toilet paper in the house.
While I was there, we weren’t able to get the silk screening equipment going, but the work I put towards that end was the sort of unwaged labor/useful unemployment the people who wanted me there and I was considered worthwhile. I also did a great deal of reading and writing, most of which was for book reviews that were posted on People of Color Organize!
I left after having a falling out with a few of my housemates over a show I was trying to help them book. Someone who had never paid rent said I didn't contribute anything to the house in front of most of our housemates, and no one stuck up for me. I had felt I wasn’t being as productive there as I could have been somewhere else and I was having a hard time finding a job.
I hitch hiked to Olympia, Washington via San Francisco and Portland, before eventually learning to hop freight and hitchhiking and walking back to the San Francisco Bay Area where among other things I was able to get involved with a couple of different squats. One whose media name was The Church of Carl Sagan, reminded me a great deal of many of the punk houses that I’ve enjoyed so it was a good fit for me.
Further reading: Back in 2013, I had been hoping that Kids of the Blackhole: Perspectives on the North American Punk House was going to be an ongoing zine for punk house dwellers, and I enthusiastically drafted a 5,000 word review for Slingshot, that got chiseled down to something more like 117 words, but I still wouldn't mind doing something more like long form peer review with zines. Also I got to review Tucson's MalintZINE #1 in that issue of Slingshot, and it remains one of my proudest moments as a writer.
If nothing else, Kids of the Blackhole did prompt to finally start reading Cometbus, and if you want to read more about the day-to-day in punk houses, Aaron Cometbus' Double Duce is for you. But I want to get more past the fun stories (though I still try to share them along with the nightmares) and get more into things like the economics of punk houses. We have to write and talk about gentrification and ways to make money that don't kill us or our souls.
I first became familiar with the term punk house in an article I saw in the summer of 2002 entitled, Making Punk Houses a Threat Again. It was attributed to CrimethInc., but I can't find it anymore. I was amped, since I had only been to a couple of different kinds of collective houses at the time, and it was the first time I saw a vision about living in an intentional social change community laid out. I was going to be graduating community college soon, and eager to start experimenting with communal living, so this was a hot lead.
Also there are fantastic chapters on the Native American occupation of Alcatraz and the communalism in the Black Panther Party in West of Eden: Communes and Utopia in Northern California edited by Iain Boal, Janferie Stone, Michael Watts and Cal Winslow. Of course not about punk houses, still important accounts of collective living.