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: 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, “we’re a vital part of this community!” Some people would say, “Who are you? I’ve never seen you before.” 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 people who were saying this is the most important and powerful thing happening now. And the other thing about Providence’s trajectory—I think you totally wove that into your description, Pippi—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 around 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]—I feel like the 2 of us in the beginning were the main forces—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 it’s shitty for a landlord to increase the rent by three times—and it was actually successful with the SafariLounge. They’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 the Providence Journal. There’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. That’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 forward—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 werent’ 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, it’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 were sort of 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 wouldn’t just be owned by the two of us. People were in different states; some people really had the interest but didn’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 don’t know…
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 don’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 to 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 can’t even run, but like actually running to get out application in—
XM: That’s funny that’s the part that you think of…because now you can kick my ass running. She’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, “Yeah no problem. We’ll approve that loan for you, just get us this, this and this. You’re good.” And we’d keep calling and we’d be like, “So what do we…?” And they’d be like, “No, no you’re good.” And we’re like, “So what does that mean?”
PZ: And then that person would resign because of the Plunder Dome.
XM: Right, and no one gave us any tangible documents, they’d just say, “You’re good darling, You’re cool, kid.” You know, like, “You got it. We’re going to make this happen.” No official anything and then one night half of City Hall moves to South Carolina—everyone was just cutting their losses and getting out. And then we’d have to deal with another Director of Planning. We had to deal with one and then another and then another until—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 it’s $140,000 loan, not like this epic giant project that people really have ot think about. I kept thinking, “Are they going to leave note? Are people going to know that we’re supposed to get this loan?”
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, “It’s OK,” but it was just terrifying to wake up and suddenly think, “Wait does anyone we talked to still work there?”
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 really do 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 that didn’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 we’re going to save for that…
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 don’t know if we did.
PZ: I don’t remember.
XM: I think we high fived.
PZ: Yeah, parties are huge work. You don’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.