The Brick House, the youth-based community center, has devolved into a filthy hovel. With its good intentions derailed by reality, can it survive?
PHOTOS BY MARTYPEARL.COM
Open the doors at 1101 S. Second St. and mold steals what little clean air is still shifting around in your nostrils. The single working bathroom, with a heart painted on its door, has a pool of stale urine inside. Dirty insulation pokes out, down and sideways from the ceiling, a beat-up checkerboard of missing tiles. Not long ago, a possum fell from there straight into a garbage can and, unable to crawl out, starved to death, rotting until the stench prompted volunteers to remove the critter. The other bathroom is unusable because recurring storm water backed up into the adjacent plumbing and leached out onto the carpet. Patches of it have been torn up and new carpet has yet to be laid.
The three-room studio housing 92.7 FM WXBH, the low-power FM frequency The Brick House shares with Fern Creek High School through an FCC timeshare agreement, has one mixing board that doesn’t work and another that does. WXBH gives Bellarmine University’s student-run station life on the airwaves — that station used to be Internet-only. By far the nicest room in The Brick is the meeting room, with its patterned couches and mural depicting a vast, natural wonderland.
The art room, diagonal to the radio studio, is cleaner than it’s been in weeks, “probably because the fire marshal came in,” says John Hicks, a community newspaper columnist-turned-computer programmer who is part of The Brick House’s Radio Collective. Inside the studio’s door hangs a calendar devoid of events or reminders. Toward the back of the building is the venue space where, in the spirit of DIY punk and hardcore, all-ages shows are held, although the number of them has tapered off.
According to the fire department, the glass door facing St. Catherine Street needs panic hardware, specifically beams that eventually collapse exit doors based on the amount of pressure exerted. The marshal was scheduled to visit Aug. 30, but, as of last Thursday, hasn’t arrived. Not that anyone can contact The Brick House: There is no phone.
“How much time do you spend here?” I ask Hicks.
“As little as possible.”
Good intentions gone awry
Jumpstarted in 1999 with a $150,000 grant from then-Alderman Bill Allison, The Brick House, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, has since allowed its quarters to devolve into a filthy hovel. The group can barely make its mortgage payments and has to prioritize which bills it pays each month. Day-to-day operations are overseen by a six-member board of overextended volunteer directors that should number as many as 15. “People have been asked,” to fill the vacancies, Hicks says. “They don’t say ‘no,’ they just don’t get back (to you).”
Continuity is basically a myth. Non-hierarchical collectives — associations of at least three people or more — manage different projects there: library and book sale events, art shows and painting workshops, the radio station, all-ages shows and bicycle repair.
That is, when the volunteers actually show up. Turnover is rampant and enduring, as is The Brick’s inability to raise, in a consistent manner, the thousands of dollars needed to rehabilitate its building and maintain programming. According to a series of posts on The Brick House Assembly’s message board, an anonymous donation of $700 to help with the August mortgage payment fell through, “and we’ve been hustling,” Hicks says.
In the past, the board has pulled in a couple thousand dollars here and there from external agencies to help with repairs. Despite these gifts, The Brick House continues to live hand-to-mouth, holding book sales and Texas Hold ’em tournaments to raise what will probably never be enough money for the extreme makeover it needs.
“I think The Brick House was a great idea, it worked very well for a while,” co-founder Jamie Miller says. “But at this point, it’s kind of a black hole. I feel like people who donate money now are using a spoon to empty the ocean. The people who are giving $50-$100 are covering the utilities, but that’s not paying for programs. It bothers me to say something like this, but I feel like I can’t, in good conscience, pretend everything’s OK.”
Miller and his wife Liz Palmer opened the original Bardstown Road Youth Cultural Center in 1999, in an old theater two doors down from Cahoot’s that now houses a Buffalo Wild Wings franchise. The two saw a need to give underage kids in the Highlands a place to go and something to do, “a youth-focused community center,” Miller says.
The BRYCC House quickly became one of the best places to have a rock show, particularly for the punk set, offering a smaller front room for shows that drew 100 or so and the much larger back area for well-known hardcore touring acts of the time, such as Dillinger Escape Plan and Today is the Day. It also paid dearly for its prime location: The $5,000 monthly rent forced Miller, who, as executive director was the organization’s lone employee, to look for cheaper digs.
Miller also saw the relocation as a chance to make the BRYCC House more community-focused, not just youth- focused, and to add some of the aforementioned programs. Leaving Bardstown Road also dated the acronym — thus, the emergence of its phonetic equivalent. But the stresses of management and upkeep at the Second Street location, coupled with demands at his teaching job and the fact that Miller and his wife were trying to have a child, finally compelled him to leave for good in 2005.
Since then the organization has been anything but organized, he says, and the source of The Brick House’s current crisis is twofold.
“There’s a long-term answer and a short-term answer. The long-term answer is that when 9/11 happened, and the country’s resources started to be pointing toward first responders, antiterrorism, things like that, we started to feel like it would be next-to-impossible for us to get federal grant money for the BRYCC house. Also Bill Allison, who fought for us, lost the primary election to (Metro Councilman) Tom Owen. There wasn’t a lot of city or federal grant money (after that),” he says.
“The short-term answer is that people running the place aren’t very good at fund-raising, and not only that, but I would say that some of the people currently running the place, the ones who were there in the beginning, not the newer volunteers, alienate the other volunteers.”
Here’s how the bills work.
“The mortgage is first, LG&E, then water, then phone,” says Meg Stern, 27. Stern is a kitchen manager and chef who spends Saturday mornings escorting women past anti-abortion protesters into the EMW clinic on Market Street. She also helped found The Brick’s Bicycle Collective, the most successful operation in terms of participation. It offers free maintenance and repair work for hobby and commuter cyclists.
An Old Louisville resident, Stern says she started volunteering at The Brick House in 2003 to “provide living resources and sustainable knowledge to low-income residents.
“We’ve been without a phone for a couple years now. Occasionally we get the water cut off. The lights we put higher than the water, because although we can’t open to the public, we can still go in and do our own volunteer renovations,” she says.
Estimates vary, but the ceiling, arguably the biggest renovation, could cost more than $15,000 to fix. It’s made of acoustic tile on metal tracking that’s old and warped. Complicating the speed of repairs is the fire marshal’s insistence that the building’s storage areas be enclosed with fire retardant material, “so we can’t have walls that stop seven feet below the actual roof,” Stern says.
Finding contractors who will do the work gratis is difficult because they can’t write off the labor on their taxes, she says. Thus, volunteers scope buildings slated for demolition for usable materials.
Long day’s journey
Long hours with no pay in dilapidated conditions have done little to keep the volunteers motivated. Those like Stern and Brick House secretary Selena McCracken came on board for altruistic reasons, and like many other volunteers, still believe that a collective like The Brick House cannot only thrive in Louisville, but everywhere.
McCracken, 23, who also runs the Library and Spoken Word collectives, first came to The Brick House when it hosted a rally supporting the Immokalee Workers, a group of tomato-farm workers in Immokalee, Fla., who protested the low wages being offered by Louisville-based Yum Brands while Taco Bell made millions.
Kristin Shelor, another co-chair who has a full-time job teaching in Jefferson County Public Schools, says the mission is fostering individuality and self-reliance.
“The Brick House’s true mission is allowing people independence,” she says. “Our mission is to make people take hands-on direct action, finding and bringing that process of change of values into one’s own life, a concept of being organic and accepting people for who they are, encouraging them to be empowered in what they want while maintaining this concept of collaboration. Collaboration is a really dangerously ambiguous concept.”
Loyd Coy would probably agree with that. Coy is a 29-year-old vegan straight-edge screenprinter who once worked for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. As part of the Noize Collective, he promoted and booked shows at The Brick House, but recently quit when he says he “noticed a lot of unprofessional stuff going on.”
Coy says he grew nervous about hosting shows not only because of the glut of all-ages venues, but also the building’s conditions. “I didn’t feel it was right to continue setting bands up with a show in a place that had a bank breathing ‘repossession’ down its neck almost every month,” Coy says. “I didn’t feel comfortable committing to a show when The Brick House was so far out of accordance with the fire codes and building codes that it could have been closed, at least temporarily, at any time.”
Beyond bricks and mortar, Coy says there is a larger problem maiming the group.
“The Brick House isn’t run at all, really,” Coy says. “It’s a small group of people who are not paid and all have personal lives and other jobs. Each of these people are taking on an (enormous) amount of responsibilities that should be distributed among several people. Bills get lost, things fall through the cracks, people get busy, and communication is lost.
“The bottom line is,” he continues, “The Brick House has went [sic] through several generations of mismanagement and now, even though all of those people are gone aside from one, it’s become a catch-22, where The Brick House needs more people involved in order to run properly, but people won’t get involved because it’s not run properly.”
The Brick House isn’t entirely lawless. Bylaws on www.brickhouse.cc, spell out the major duties of the board of directors: meet monthly, raise money; directors must serve a year from the date they’re selected, and they are responsible for filling any vacancies on the board.
The Brick House Assembly, which makes decisions on what programs it offers, operates in a less structured way, with an eye toward egalitarianism. No one can be fired, since only volunteers work there, but there is an “oppression-free” policy in place. “If an individual is in some way oppressing a group of people, there are policies in place where they have to cease that oppression. We resolve conflict ourselves,” says Stern, who adds that she doesn’t trust cops or the current criminal justice system.
In 2004, two volunteers got into a fistfight over shoes that led to the formation of the Conflict Resolution Collective. “The punishment depends on the wishes of the survivor,” Stern says. “If the person wanted to order that his person take an anger management class, that could be adopted into The Brick House’s policy.” Even though The Brick House can’t legally enforce that.
Shelor says the group is always looking for new routes for communication: “The truth about any format is it’s only as powerful and effective as the individuals using it.”
Or misusing it. As Miller points out, after the Bardstown Road location closed, “the separation between the board of directors and the governing collectives disappeared. I think that the board of directors has fallen by the wayside,” he says. “They are still meeting their legal obligations.”
His comment hints at an issue of checks and balances: Would outside professionals be welcome in The Brick House? Stern, who once put in 13-hour days to a hit a grant deadline for the bike workshop, is cool to the idea but doesn’t rule it out: “We’ve asked, ‘Why don’t we hire a grant writer? Why don’t we hire a development director?’”
Paid positions mean less people willing to take out the garbage, do dishes or collect money at shows, but Stern’s anti-authoritarian streak might not be so strident.
Asked whether it would help to have an outside grant writer, she says, “It absolutely would.”
Even anarchy needs a little order.
The Brick House
1101 S. Second St.
or to donate, visit savethebrickhouse.org
WXBH organizational meeting:
Saturday, Sept. 13, 2 p.m.
Louisville Free Public Library
Fern Creek Branch
6768 Bardstown Road
Sundays: Community Potluck, 2-4 p.m.
Mondays: Optional Workday for collectives
Tuesdays: Weekly Assembly and Freewheel Bike Workshop, 6:30 p.m.
Thursdays: Freewheel Bike Workshop, 6:30 p.m.; Creativity’s First Hand Kentucky Women’s Art Collective (KYWAC), 7 p.m.
Fridays and Saturdays: Midnight Meet-Up of Drugs Sux Community