check out the beginning of this interview by going here.
In the first part of my interview with Dirt Palace, we talk about how the organization started and what it looked like in it’s nacent stages. It began as an idea for a bookstore, then morfed into a not for profit, women-run, studio space. Originally there were six members, but as the work of building out the space went on, it became clear that members within that group had different ideas. I think it’s important to remember that things start that way: it’s as if some kind of transcription is required when implementing a vision and that transcribed version will be invariably different from the original, shared (and I’d say elusive) dream. In this case, Xander and Pippi realized that not for profit status was not the best option for them. In order to arrive at that conclusion, however, they had to talk to a lot of people. At the same time interview is not only about the Dirt Palace, it’s also about how political events (rallies around the Eagle Square Development, and scandal around the mayor at the time, Buddy Cianci) directly impacted Dirt Palace development.
Rowing the Boat to Sea: Part Two
XM:Â So one of the ladies who was on the board just said OK, let me help you with this and made the introductions. At the time there was a political will to help artists, and that was always a big help. Like Burt from AS220, he set us up with people who worked in the city. And by the time this had happened all of the stuff had gone down at Fort Thunder where they had been evicted, so it was kind of this perfect storm of political timing.
PZ: There were huge city hall meetings where hundreds of people who were concerned for different reasons about the development on Eagle Square; there was a lot of public uproar.
CP: People were upset that Fort Thunder hd been closed?
PZ: Yeah. it was hard because it was all these artists who stayed under the radar, because they were living in Eagle Square illegally. So officials thought those buildings were abandoned, but as soon as the people started losing their living and work spaces, they started coming out of the woodwork, saying, â€œweâ€™re a vital part of this community!â€ Some people would say, â€œWho are you? Iâ€™ve never seen you before.â€ It was sort of a wake up call to us, that if you really want to be a vital part of a community you have to be visible and engaged.
XM: At the same time there were tons of peopleÂ who were saying this is the most important and powerful thing happening now. And the other thing about Providenceâ€™s trajectoryâ€”I think you totally wove that into your description, Pippiâ€”was the Safari Lounge, which was a dive bar downtown that there used host a lot of shows, even before things went down with Fort Thunder. The landlord evicted the guy who ran the Safari Lounge and there was a ton of community support aroundÂ that. And Kara, who was another one of the initial people who started the Hive [what those founding Dirt Palace members have gone on to do since their interests in the Dirt Palace split from Xander's and Pippi's]â€”I feel like the 2 of us in the beginning were the main forcesâ€”we had worked together on a lot on that stuff. Figuring out how to articulate a case, or how to talk to media about why itâ€™s shitty for a landlord to increase the rent by three timesâ€”and it was actually successful with the SafariLounge. Theyâ€™re gone now, but the proprietor got another 2 year lease because it got all this media attention from people freaking out.
So we had just come off this experience where we recognized what could happen when you collectivize and talk about things intelligently in a public way. Taking action can really change the outcome of events. I feel like that experience led us to really want to do something sustainable, in reaction to Eagle Square. We wanted ownership within our own project.
CP: Did you guys picket the Safari Lounge?
XM: We were really blessed by knowing someone who had a lot of money who decided that it was a super worthwhile thing, who helped us take out a full page ad in theÂ Providence Journal. Thereâ€™s nothing that freaks people out more than when people who they think have no power all of the sudden take out a full page ad. The ad was basically everyone who had signed a petition, which was probably a thousand people, so it was a thousand names in tiny print. Providence is only 150,000 people so we represented a voting block. Thatâ€™s going to make politicians think twice.
PZ: I think the whole thing with Eagle Square was just a deal that was going to go forwardâ€”there was this big money developer who came in and was going to come in no matter what. But because of this big uproar I think the city had to show that they were supportive of the arts, and that was right when we needed a loan. It was perfect timing for us.
XM: We werentâ€™ the only people who benefited either. There were a lot of projects that sprouted up around that time.
CP: That seems like an appropriate action for a city to take. I mean on the one hand you realize there is a problem because people are living in an illegal, and perhaps unsafe space. Even if they are active cultural producers, itâ€™s probably not a sustainable situation in the longrun, especially if you have to worry about liability.
PZ: That was before the station caught fire, so even though things wereÂ sort ofÂ crazy with the fire department, they got crazier later, after the fire. In 2004 a big fire brought a new fire code and a new phase of liturgical society- things got really crazy and beauracratic then. But all this happened way before that. We ended up getting a really low interest rate commercial loan from the city for this building and we had to put down a down payment and at the time there was this idea that Xander and I could front some money for a down payment but that there were some other people in the group would buy in and that the building wouldnâ€™t just be owned by the two of us. People were in different states; some people really had the interest but didnâ€™t have the financial realities of being able to do that and other people just wanted to be able to be here and have a studio but have the flexibility of not owning. We knew everyone was coming from different standpoints but when we first bought the building there was this idea that we had such a strong core, we thought more of us would buy in at some point, and it was also that it was a commercial loan/building so living here was totally illegal.
XM: The other piece of the story I like was the chaos of actually getting the loan. Which was, I donâ€™t knowâ€¦
PZ: I just remember because I was thinking about this all the time because I run now and Xander also runs, but at the time I was really unhealthy and I was really sort of like, I donâ€™t know I remember this one night where we had the accountant who was working for us pro bono give us the part of the business plan for application and it had to be in by five; the office was closing. It was like four-fifty-five. We were downtown and we had toÂ run to the other office with the stuff you know beucase the doors might close and I remember seeing her running ahead of me and being like, I used to run! I canâ€™t even run, but like actually running to get out application inâ€”
XM: Thatâ€™s funny thatâ€™s the part that you think ofâ€¦because now you can kick my ass running. Sheâ€™s such a better runner at this point. But I was thinking more about how our loan application coincided with the city’s Plunder Dome Scandall, when our mayor went to jail.
PZ: Oh yeah!
XM: It was the whole administration, so there were all these people who were like, â€œYeah no problem. Weâ€™ll approve that loan for you, just get us this, this and this. Youâ€™re good.â€ And weâ€™d keep calling and weâ€™d be like, â€œSo what do weâ€¦?â€ And theyâ€™d be like, â€œNo, no youâ€™re good.â€ And weâ€™re like, â€œSo what does that mean?â€
PZ: And then that person would resign because of the Plunder Dome.
XM: Right, and no one gave us any tangible documents, theyâ€™d just say, â€œYouâ€™re good darling, Youâ€™re cool, kid.â€ You know, like, â€œYou got it. Weâ€™re going to make this happen.â€ No official anything and then one night half of City Hall moves to South Carolinaâ€”everyone was just cutting their losses and getting out. And then weâ€™d have to deal with another Director of Planning. We had to deal with one and then another and then another untilâ€”luckily the people who we had to deal with, you know it seemed like the biggest thing in the world to us but we were like small pototaes, like itâ€™s $140,000 loan, not like this epic giant project that people really have ot think about. I kept thinking, â€œAre they going to leave note? Are people going to know that weâ€™re supposed to get this loan?â€
CP: So did someone call you eventually?
XM: We had a number of like fairy godfathers or fairy godmothers, just like people who like had our backs especially during the early days when there was a lot to get figured out. And our one friend worked there so he would help us make Xerox copies of all our documents. And he kept also saying, “Itâ€™s OK,” but it was just terrifying to wake up and suddenly think, â€œWait does anyone we talked to still work there?â€
PZ: I was so young I remember going to our hearing for whether we would get the loan. I remember trying to dress in business casual and taking out my nose ring, trying to look like someone who could reallyÂ doÂ things, but at the same time feeling really infantilized or young. I was sort of always wondering, am I doing something totally illegal here? Like for real? I think I still have that a little bit, but at that time I felt even less legitimate. Then we got the loan thatÂ didnâ€™t leave us much money for capital improvements so we were on a shoestring budget. I still feel like, for other people in the world, we still are, but for us things have definitely loosened up a lot over the last couple of years.
XM: We paid off the loan now, so we finally have money that can actually go towards capital improvements. Every year we have a little more to go towards improvements and O! We need a new door! And weâ€™re going to save for thatâ€¦
CP: When do you feel like that turn around happened?
XM: Pretty much when we paid off the mortgage. Ten years after we started.
CP: God that must have been awesome. Did you all have a party?
XM: I donâ€™t know if we did.
PZ: I donâ€™t remember.
XM: I think we high fived.
PZ: Yeah, parties are huge work. You donâ€™t want to have to clean up after all these slobs afterwards..
XM: we must have at least gone out to dinner.
Check out the final installment of this interview by going here.
There are many things to say about the Dirt Palace â€” an impossible many. It started in 2000 as an artist-run performance space in Olneyville, the same neighborhood that used Fort Thunder used to be in. The building is old. It used to have many more floors (as you can see from the photo above: at this time, the building only has two). I heard it was once a pharmacy and once a library. I’ve also heard it was a nunnery, but I don’t know that I believe that story. Before founders Pippi Zornoza and Xander Marro moved in, it had been abandoned. Since purchasing the building they have hosted countless events and residents: artist live upstairs and it works like a kind of collective. Â They curate their storefront window, occasionally make their own mead and boast a S.S.C.O.W.L. library (Shivering Shelves Collection of Weirdness Library).”S.S.C.O.W.L. houses an extensive collection of rare and independently published comics and zines as well as antique, arcane and unusual books, periodicals and videos on a wide variety of subjects.” The library is open to the public on days when guest librarians have curated the collection around a particular theme.
When I visited the Dirt Palace this summer, it reminded me ofÂ a Wes Anderson set. Pippi was creating a stone mosaic for the building’s exterior in their main ballroom on the first floor. A few others worked on other projects: the ballroom I stood in was a communal studio. Adjacent stood the band room, complete with a drum set, guitars and recording equipment. Nearby was a dark room for burning screens, a cartoon studio with hand-me-down equipment procured from RISD and a separate printing studio with a wash tub. Everywhere I looked I saw original prints.
Xander led me up Â the widest flight of wooden stairs I think I’ve ever seen. The banister was thick and, like the stairs, stained dark. I remember the wallpaper was a deep rose, printed in a Victorian pattern. Did I mention the height of the ceilings? The ceilings were high, everywhere: like 12 feet at least. The whole place felt like an old and giant East Coast house, a little rickety and creaky and very likely full of ghosts. The library was on the second floor, as were the bedrooms: seven separate rooms, all built out with lofts. There was a bathroom on one end of the hall and, on the other, a lovely kitchen with a living room. The kitchen was bright and full of light. Plants and knick knacks were everywhere. The wall behind the stove had images from vintage cookbooks wheat pasted all over it like a homemade wallpaper. There were two fridges to accommodate the various residents and tons of plants and a breeze blew threw the house so that, despite the day’s heat, I felt pretty cool. And certainly, totally bowled over by the imagination that just seemed to leak out of the walls.
How does a space like this come to be? How do a couple of twenty-year olds go about buying a building? What is like to interface with the politics of one’s own environment? This is what I’d come to ask; it was why we were in their kitchen and why we sat down.Â Xander and Pippi were immediately affable; it was obvious they had invested years not only in a physical space, but also into their friendship.
I’ve divided the following interview into four parts and will post it over the next four days. This first section I call, The Early Years.Â
Caroline Picard: Iâ€™m interested in how the Dirt Palace started.
Pippi Zornoza: When we first started the space Xander and I had both at different times lived in this building that had gone through a series of evictions of artists who were illegally living there. They would sort of fill up the spaces and after a certain amoung ot time the fire department would pay attention and all of these people would get evicted. It was also the same time that they were starting to look at the Eagle Square development, which is the building that Fort Thunder was in. There were alot of artist studios in that same building. Iâ€™m not sure how many people actually had spaces there, but it seemed like there were a lot. And so around that time I think we first started working on acquiring the Dirt Palace property; before Eagle Square became a development-
Xander Marro: There were people in suits walking around [Eagle Square] taking measurements but it wasnâ€™t like their development plans were public; no one knew what was going to happen.
PZ: And Xander had a friend looking into opening up a bookstore, so she had been looking at spaces and was looking at the space that is a kitchen right now for the bookstore, and found out it was not that much more expensive to just rent the whole building. So she and Xander started talking about it, and I didnâ€™t even know Xander at this time, but she had the idea of, â€œOK, so what if we got this space and it could be another collective space.â€ The landlord was sort of pitching the rent-to-own agreement, so it started from thatâ€”people just reaching a certain frustration level with other people being evicted over and over again. We wanted some sort of sustainability.
The bookstore idea fell out of the picture really quickly, and Xander approached me and some other people, and as we started getting a group together we asked what this could really be? Maybe we could actually buy this building. The model of AS220 was already there, so we thought what if there was this artist not-for-profit women-run studio? We were really young, I was 21 at the time, you know, and really idealistic. I had a lot of naive but positive energy, and we just sort of threw ourselves into the idea, almost in a cockamamie way. And now looking back and knowing the trajectory of course I still would have, but I definitely went into it, I would say more than Xander, pretty naively.
We had this idea of starting a not for profit, which we did. And that the NFP would own the building and there would be artist living spaces up here, and shared facilities downstairs. Definitely with the idea that the studios downstairs would be more open to the community. Within the first year it became really clear that there were different goals and motivations from different people in the group.
CP: How many people were involved?
PZ: There were six of us originally. And there sort of became a little bit of a faction of what the direction was going to be. We spent a lot of time forming the NFP and creating a board of directors and applying for a grant, and we had 18 months of the rent to own agreement. The landlord was a slumlord. He pretty much knew we would do some improvements to the building, thought we wouldn’t be able to buy it, and imagined he would reap the rewards after he evicted us, or keep us on as tenants until he could sell it later.
XM: We had the fear of him yanking it out from underneath us and I think that fear wasnâ€™t irrationalâ€”I donâ€™t think he was a nefarious person, but I do think he was in it for the money-
PZ: He was definitely in it for the money. And it also became clear at some point just- well there were two different conflicts of interest- we were just working on the space every moment that we werenâ€™t working our day jobs. it was just what had to happen at the time, because there wasnâ€™t really plumbing upstairs. We couldnâ€™t wash dishes. I donâ€™t think we even had a stove right awayâ€”people were sort of camping out in different areas of the building and we just wanted to get it to a livable place.Â I had just been evicted a few weeks before we started this project and I didnâ€™t have a place to live, so we just sort of moved in and started working.
XM: I remember you were sleeping at the top of that stair because all these windows were boarded up and that was the only crack of light.
PZ: And I had just heard a bunch of rumors about this building being broken into all the time, and people squatting here
CP: Was this a sketchy neighborhood?
XM: I think socioeconomically itâ€™s probably similar now, but the trajectory that drug use has taken over the past ten years, like there were more crackheads basically. There were more people who were just freaked out and whatever else that stuff does. I think that maybe the average income and whatever other factors people throw into a good or bad neighborhood, crime is probably the sameâ€”I never felt super unsafe, but I think there were just a lot more visible drug users.
PZ: And that was when I was here. I was sleeping in this entire abandoned building alone. I was irrationally scared, just cause there was no electricity up hereâ€”now when I think back on it I think that the doors all worked. But you know, being a woman in this building that people identified as being abandoned, sleeping here at night, it was sort of sketchy.
CP: Especially since youâ€™re removed from usual domestic things.
PZ: Yeah, yeah. So it became clear to us A) that we were spending our own money. We needed drywall, so we would just go buy it and split it amongst the six of us. And it just wasnâ€™t the proper model for a NFP. There was no real business structure except for that we split expenses.
XM: And that there was a board but they were really backseat.
PZ: Yeah really backseat, like people who were excited about the idea, and who had some sort of connection either through the city, but mostly just people who were idealistically supportive. Even maybe in a different echelon of professionalism, but not people who were gonna come home from working their day job and throw in a bunch of hours of work. It was more like, you ladies do the work and weâ€™re the figureheads who are supporting you to provide legitimacy. So we just started realizing that the way we were running the project, even though we knew that we were working towards this NFP model where the structure would be different, what we were doing just wasnâ€™t sustainable. Being a constant volunteer but also in the place where you lived. Even the idea that once things were comfortable there would be programming, it was the idea that youâ€™d wake up, go downstairs, and work more. And we all wanted to be artists as well, so that balance of artist, art administrator, and not getting compensated, was all really blurry. And also just realizing that we were running out of time;Â if weÂ were going to fundraiseÂ 40,000 dollars, we werenâ€™t going to make it.
XM: We had to come up with a down payment, and mortgage, and financing if we were going to buy the building.
CP: And it sounds like the amount of construction that you had to do, if you got it professionally done, would have taken a year at least.
XM: And it would have doubled our mortgage. We just figured it all out to do it ourselves.
PZ: Yeah, scrapped things together- you know, like maybe we did some things illegal, maybe we didnâ€™t-
XM: We tried to build up to code.
PZ: We did try to build up to code. I meant more being like, â€œOh thereâ€™s this giant stack of 2×4â€™s that are twelve feet long outside of that Dominoes; theyâ€™ve been there for 6 months, maybe we should just go there in the morning and take them.â€
XM: Oh yeah! I remember that.
CP:Â But still everything was so compressed. On top of the timeline you had to build the physical infrastructure , and organization, you were trying to raise money.
PZ: And also people didnâ€™t have experience and at the time we operated by consensus. I like the idea of operating with a goal towards consensus, but for me through that experience I came up with the phrase tyranny through the minority, you know? If one person doesnâ€™t like the idea, but everyone else thinks its good, itâ€™s hard to move forward. I do think we strive here to agreon everything, and thereâ€™s sort of a give and take and compromise, but consensus was a hard way to operate.
CP: How the group was splitting?
PZ: Oh yeah the group. Oh and the other thing was that the board of directors has to be comprised of a certain amount of outside people. We couldnâ€™t all just beon the board. Maybe one of us could, but at any point the board could decide that people were only allowed to live here for 2 years: We realized that we had no control over our home.
I think we decided that we had put so much time and engery into this- what was it going to amount to in the end? Really nothing. And realizing that we had no control over it, it just felt sort of wrong. There were so many conflicts of interest and there became a split in the group where some people really wanted the NFP to exist, and maybe change the thing so no one lived here, and there were other people who I think had been more present for a lot of the work who thought it made more sense to privately buy the building but still do what weâ€™re planning on doing, but not to run it as a NFP.
XM: In a lot of ways it had to do with mentorismâ€”people who had experience in this communityâ€”AS220 was the real first experiment that had existed for how artists could own real estate and how artists could collectivize and work together in all those things. So that was like, a real instant modelâ€”when we decided to do this we talked to a lot of people. I feel like we were on a listening tour of everyone who had done something similar, asking them toÂ impart their wisdom. The wisdom of the day was to do the NFP model and it took a while for a few other people to really understand who we were even as individuals and say hey you know what, why donâ€™t you try this other way. I felt like finally we started to listen and say well tell us more about what you know about this other wayâ€¦ and realized that it kind of made more sense.
PZ: Yeah and it got a little complicated, we ended up getting an outside moderator to listen to both sides and the decision that we came to was that the NFP would still exist and those people could take the name of the NFP and the grantâ€”we had a $40,000 grantâ€”and thatâ€™s the Hive Archive in town. And they ended up purchasing a building on Aleppo, and theyâ€™re still working on that building and I think theyâ€™re starting to do some programming now. And then we were able to keep going with trying to buy the building
XM: And one of the people who was on the board, who had personally gotten a loan from the city for her own business, held our hand and walked us through that process. Because the grant we had gotten was from the city, through their CDBG money, but they also used CDBG money to help give loans to small businesses. And there was no way we wouldâ€™ve gotten a loan otherwise, you know- Pippiâ€™s 21, Iâ€™m 25. Iâ€™m a teacher and sheâ€™s a waitress.
PZ: Yeah and I was totally working off the books.
…Go here to read the second part of this interview…
(Special thanks to Daryl Meador for help transcribing this audio into text!)