Shortly before moving out at the beginning of March, Young Camelot knights gather in the first-floor space of the church where they hosted events from October 2014 till January 2016. From left to right: Colin Mulhern, Donnie Love (seated), Maureen Neer, Jeffrey Carl Mull, Emily Esperanza, Matt Gonzalez (arms crossed), Shane Prentice-Walz, Alex Rowney, Joey Eichler, Trina Certeza, Matt Uribe, Phillip Christian Swafford (pointing), Daniel Mozurkewich, and Chris Lee. Credit: John Sturdy

From February 2015 till it was shut down in January, an unlicensed venue in a former Jehovah’s Witnesses church in Humboldt Park was a routine part of my life. Almost every week I paid tribute to the local arts scene inside the cavernous first floor of 2733 W. Hirsch, home to a collective called Young Camelot. I felt more comfortable there—dwarfed by the old church’s high walls, ambling through a cloud of cigarette smoke in its small kitchen, or pressed by warm bodies against the base of its two-foot-high stage—than I did at any legitimate, licensed venue in the city.

“A lot of people came to Young Camelot because it was Young Camelot and not because a certain band was playing,” says Maureen Neer, one of 14 people who call themselves the “knights” of Young Camelot—and one of several who became my friends. “We fostered this sense that no matter what’s going on, you’ll know somebody, you’ll be comfortable and welcome—and that’s the downfall of a lot of legitimate venues that don’t work hard to build regular patrons.”

At a typical Young Camelot show, knights took turns at different jobs: checking IDs at the door, collecting donations, marking hands or wrists, tending the bar, circulating through the audience, resolving any disputes that might arise, monitoring the kitchen (which doubled as a smoking room), and checking outside to make sure no one was hanging around where they could bother the neighbors. Signs posted inside the church, which also provided living space for half of the collective’s members, encouraged anyone who felt harassed to find a knight who could address those concerns. One of the knights, Chris Lee, says that by the time the city put a stop to events at Young Camelot—roughly 15 months after its first show—the collective had almost finished soundproofing the drop ceiling above the stage.

Several knights told me that when Chicago police arrived in the early morning hours of Sunday, January 10, during what would be Young Camelot’s last event, it was the first visit from the cops the collective had received since leasing the property in October 2014. (The CPD’s news affairs office didn’t respond to an e-mail requesting confirmation of this claim.) The event in question, an afterparty for a Kirk Knight show at Metro, was also the first time the group had ceded control to an outside promoter, whom they declined to name. The end result was the closure of the venue and an early termination of Young Camelot’s lease.

The party’s promoter, Lee says, assured the group that no more than 200 people would attend. Young Camelot cofounder Joey Eichler, who’s also bassist and vocalist for the band Soddy Daisy, says the church could accommodate 450 people but that the collective preferred to cap attendance at 300.

“It was supposed to be a private party for the performers from the Metro and a couple of their friends, basically,” Lee says. “It was not supposed to be a large, public event at all.”

Lee was excited about the afterparty—Young Camelot is mostly known for rock-­driven shows, and he’d long wanted to connect with the city’s hip-hop scene. “That’s ultimately what got us shut us down—trying to bridge into the hip-hop community,” he says. “I think we got a little too ambitious.”

By the time I arrived, shortly after midnight, a line of people spilled out of the church’s gated setback onto the sidewalk. I’d never had to wait in line at a Young Camelot event, and due to the frigid weather I left without ever getting inside.

“We had heard from another DIY venue that got shut down to never do a hip-hop show,” says Young Camelot knight Emily Esperanza. “It’s not that they’re not good shows or that the people who come out aren’t great—it’s due to the fact that the cops are so racist.”

As Eichler recalls, the police arrived at 12:40 AM, soon after I departed. They gave Young Camelot knight Matt Gonzalez a verbal warning, demanding that he evacuate the church and get everyone off the street and the sidewalk within 20 minutes or face a citation.

Young Camelot knight Chris Lee as Alchemeleon at an experimental noise night in November 2015Credit: Trina Certeza

According to multiple members of the collective, an agitated man outside the entrance started a fight that grew to involve more than a dozen people, including several Young Camelot knights. A CPD report obtained via FOIA request confirms that during the fracas a 19-year-old man was attacked by ten to 15 people, who took turns punching him the face before someone ran off with his backpack and coat. The man and a 20-year-old woman told police they’d heard about the afterparty through an announcement at the Kirk Knight show, and that they’d paid $5 to attend. The report described the man’s injuries as “minor,” and he was treated at Norwegian American Hospital.

Police state in their report that they didn’t witness the fight but saw about 75 people trying to get inside Young Camelot. The party ended while they were on the scene, they say, and an estimated 200 people exited all at once, obstructing the sidewalk and street. Eichler confirms that officers returned to follow up on their warning to Gonzalez only after the fight was over.

“When [the cops] came back, the situation had deteriorated so rapidly,” he says. “I was standing in front of the police with blood on my jaw.”

Eichler and Esperanza say the police didn’t seem concerned about the injuries to Eichler or the 19-year-old partygoer. They cited Eichler for breach of peace, alleging that he “knowingly and intentionally invited patrons from Metro concert” for an afterparty “which caused sidewalk and traffic obstruction as the large crowd (75 people) were getting dropped off/entering residence.” The citation was dismissed on February 9 by a judge in the city’s Department of Administrative Hearings.

Young Camelot cofounder Matt Uribe, aka musician Honey Hole Johnson, didn’t attend the afterparty, but he thinks it’s “fishy” that police turned up—especially because Young Camelot had previously hosted similarly popular events. Less than two weeks earlier, he says, hundreds attended a New Year’s Eve show at the venue.

“The first time we have a show that’s drawing from a hip-hop crowd and drawing from a crowd that listens to music associated with people of color, we have cops knocking on our door,” he says.

Neer and Lee also believe the police intervention was race related. “If cops see a group of black kids outside a building, they are way more likely to stop than if they see a group of white kids,” Neer says.

“Or it makes the neighbors more nervous,” Lee suggests.

In my e-mail to CPD’s news affairs office, I asked about these claims of racial bias and the allegations that officers didn’t offer help to the injured; no one answered those questions either.

On Tuesday, January 12, CPD officer Jason M. Slater sent an e-mail to Miguel Campos at the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, writing that police had discovered the Hirsch Street church had “been operating as a music venue.” Police also sent the BACP screen shots of photos posted on Young Camelot’s public Facebook page.

“I have been in contact with the buildings management company, as well as the building owner and the attorney who represents the owner,” Slater wrote. “They have been extremely cooperative and reactive towards rectifying this issue.”

Following Slater’s e-mail, the city issued Eichler a cease-and-desist notice dated Friday, January 22. The four Young Camelot knights on the building’s lease—Eichler, Esperanza, Gonzalez, and Alex Rowney—also received a cease-and-desist letter from their landlord, Gino Battaglia, and his property manager, Rob Rudin of RSR Management.

The notice from the city promised fines or arrest if Eichler didn’t stop “advertising/conducting/hosting events that would require a [public place of amusement] license at a residential location” and to stop any “sales/storage/possession/service of/giving away of alcoholic beverages at a residential location for commercial purposes.”

An attorney for Rudin and Battaglia, David Dordek, says police contacted his clients shortly after the January 9 afterparty. He and an attorney for the Young Camelot collective negotiated an early lease termination agreement effective Tuesday, March 1. None of the knights felt the huge, hard-to-heat space was worth living in if they couldn’t hold events, but they needed some time to clear out and find new places.

Dordek says neither Rudin nor Battaglia had previously had any idea that the tenants of the Hirsch Street church had hosted shows and other events almost weekly for more than a year.

Rudin wasn’t managing the property when Young Camelot members leased the space in October 2014. “I knew very little about the tenants that were there,” he says.

Following the afterparty, says Dordek, his clients learned all about Young Camelot’s activities. “It was hilarious finding out what the hell was going on over there,” he says. “Having concerts, selling tickets, and serving alcohol—and not making the neighbors very happy.”

Eichler and Uribe say they were up-front about their intentions when they first signed a rental lease. Eichler says he told Battaglia and his previous property manager that the collective intended to record bands at the space and host events. Uribe says, “We strived to be honest and open about the fact that we would record here. We would have small showcases of artists on a regular basis.”

Part of a Starfoxxx stage show in November 2015Credit: Trina Certeza

The Young Camelot crew also modified the interior of the church, building three rooms on the first floor—two bedrooms for knights and a control room for recording shows.

Dordek claims that following the afterparty disaster the building was inspected by city employees, who found code violations resulting from the collective’s modifications. He says Battaglia has yet to decide how to handle any potential fines.

Eichler and Uribe insist they told Battaglia and his previous property manager they were going to build bedrooms. “We asked [Battaglia], if we’re going to try to make bedrooms, we’re not certified to do that. Would there be a way we could have—because he had construction guys—is there some way you could do that? And he said no,” Eichler says. He tried to convince Battaglia that extra bedrooms would make the property more valuable, but he says the landlord wasn’t interested in long-term improvements and instead gave the group “permission to build unacceptable rooms and told us we would not be penalized for that.”

Dordek says he’s not aware of any such conversation. The property was rented for residential use, he says, and any verbal agreements are “irrelevant.”

“If you want to have a recording studio in your own house and you’re keeping it as a residential use, I don’t see any problem with that,” he says. The problem arises, Dordek says, when tenants charge admission or sell alcohol on the premises.

Young Camelot have since vacated the church. Eichler says that before he moved out, Peoples Gas employees who came to retrieve meters from the basement of the building told him it was going to be demolished. I couldn’t find any relevant permit on record with the city, but Eichler got an e-mail from Rudin last week saying that Battaglia had sold the building in early March and that the church would mostly likely be demolished.

“If I were the owner, that’s what I would do,” Dordek says. “Wouldn’t you? If that was your goal—if your goal was to make money, that’s what you’d probably do.”

The church’s former tenants have moved into apartments, where they say they have no intention to host any performances or events. (Since last month I’ve shared an apartment with two of them, Rowney and Trina Certeza.) Young Camelot knight Daniel Mozurkewich says the risk is just too great to continue using unlicensed spaces.

“Even though I love the DIY community, I feel like our brand has grown too large,” he says. “And I don’t think we’re going to get another opportunity to move into a space that is as exceptional and unique as the Young Camelot space was in the Humboldt Park church.”

This misfortune hasn’t caused the Young Camelot crew to falter in their commitment to fostering the underground arts community, though. For now the group are putting on shows at traditional venues. Last month, Western Avenue dive bar the Mutiny hosted a show curated by Young Camelot, and on Friday, March 25, the collective will present a $5 show at the Empty Bottle featuring Space Blood, KO, Daymaker, and Pussy Foot.

“We still want to pay all the bands, so it’s not like we’re making much money. But every little bit helps,” Neer says. “It’s making sure we’re relevant and staying involved in the music scene, because it’s ever evolving and shifting.”

All six Young Camelot knights interviewed for this story agree that in the long term they’d like to lease or buy a commercial property. They want to establish a licensed, above-board venue (perhaps with a cafe) and run it according to the principles that guided their actions as operators of a DIY space.

Eichler, Uribe, and Neer say going legit has been a primary aim of the collective since they began hosting events in a different building more than three years ago. While at the church, they didn’t apply for a public place of amusement license (which could’ve made their events legal) because the property wasn’t zoned for commercial use. Finding such a property that they could afford was and is very difficult.

The Highness Collective perform at Young Camelot on October 24, 2015, to celebrate the organization’s third anniversary.Credit: Lee V. Gaines

The Young Camelot story can be divided into three distinct periods: Ghaye House, Old Young Camelot, and New Young Camelot. Eichler and Uribe started Ghaye House in late summer 2012, throwing a show in Eichler’s second-floor apartment at 2200 N. Milwaukee. Uribe headlined as Honey Hole Johnson, playing music inspired by blues, country, and ragtime.

“A lot of people showed up,” Uribe remembers. “During my set everyone in the party got crazy, they were having a good time, we were selling beer. . . . All in all, it was a very successful night.”

Eichler says, “That’s when it sort of dawned on me that maybe this is something we could do.”

Uribe wanted to work differently from venues obligated to look after their bottom lines first. “It became clear that the way we would set ourselves apart from everyone else is that we would be a catalyst for sharing the profits of a show,” he says. “And we did that because, well, one, we felt it was the right thing to do, and two, if musicians feel like they’re being treated fairly and being treated with respect and shown appreciation not only from an audience but financially, they’re going to want to come back and play shows again.”

The name “Ghaye House” attracted some flak, and in September 2013, the fledgling collective took the name Young Camelot—Eichler says he had a burst of inspiration while playing the strategy game Civilization.

Lee, an Ohio transplant who drums in Soddy Daisy with Eichler and Neer, joined the collective soon after the name change, before it moved from the Milwaukee apartment to the Hirsch Street church. He and Phillip Christian Swafford, who plays guitar in Soddy Daisy, soon began a tradition of recording every Young Camelot set.

“I’m obsessed with documenting things,” Lee says. “That’s why I started getting into recording—I wanted to capture all the things me and my friends do that matter to me.”

The group invested in new equipment with funds they raised during shows, Eichler says, and they never charged bands for recordings of their sets. The recordings let Young Camelot give the acts they booked something more than money.

“There are places that would do that—record off the board and then charge you for that,” Uribe says. “It seems kind of gross to me. Some bands thought that was our angle. . . . That was not our intention at all.”

Lee says the collective recorded a total of about 325 live sets on Milwaukee and at the church. All but a few can be found on the collective’s Bandcamp page.

Young Camelot were forced to vacate the Milwaukee space in late spring 2014 to make way for the Madison Public House, and Uribe says he spent months spent biking around the city block by block, noting addresses and inquiring with landlords and property managers. The group learned about the church when Andy Ryan of the band Mr. Ma’am sent Eichler a Craiglist post advertising it.

“I was amazed. I thought, This is the perfect place,” Eichler says. “There is no better place to have a DIY venue than this building.”

On Halloween in 2014, the inaugural show at the church—also known as New Young Camelot—featured cover sets by Kangaroo, Everything’s Alright, Soddy Daisy, and Bad Bad Meow, among others.

“Everybody was so well behaved and so kind,” Eichler says of the show. “The true nature of DIY is people who want to see music and they want to support people who make music. Nothing was broken, no one was hurt. No one got drunk and hurt. No one did anything wrong. We had all these people in the house, and everything was just perfect.”

The collective soon opened up their programming to filmmakers, visual artists, and theater people. Esperanza is a filmmaker, and she curates a film and video series called the Wretched Nobles of the Exiled Dynasty. She lived at the church the whole time Young Camelot occupied it, and she screened 14 monthly programs there featuring roughly 100 filmmakers. She says her series began as a traveling “freak show” before finding a home at Young Camelot.

“It started as this burning passion to show some of my work and some of my friends’ work that wasn’t getting acknowledged or appreciated because it was a little too edgy or off the wall,” she says. Screenings often had themes, including the occult, documentaries, and music videos, and some drew more than 100 fans.

“It was cool because this thing that was originally ten people in someone’s attic turned into 150 people in this one sacred space, worshipping this amazing medium—and people would actually come out to it and get excited about it,” she says.

Thanks to the exposure the series got at Young Camelot, Esperanza has been able to keep the Wretched Nobles going elsewhere—at Beauty Bar in February and at the Comfort Station this month. She plans to continue to do so until the collective finds a new home.

The underground film series Wretched Nobles of the Exiled Dynasty on December 3, 2015Credit: Trina Certeza

Mozurkewich, a graduate of DePaul’s theater program, led the collective’s foray into DIY drama. “There’s so much more to be learned from creating your own work without expecting success or press attention or something that’s a career stepping stone,” he says. “Trying to create work simply because you want people to come and enjoy it and take away from it what you’re trying to share—that, I think, is the most essential part of being an artist, and that’s something you don’t get when you’re thinking two steps ahead and trying to land a role at the Steppenwolf or Goodman.”

Mozurkewich says DIY venues such as Young Camelot offer the actors flocking to the city a chance to push the boundaries of acceptable art and take on roles unavailable in traditional theaters. A DIY space, he says, also appeals to younger audiences who may not feel at ease at a place like Steppenwolf.

“The theater community is aging, and the choice of plays, choice of actors, choice of set props is dependent on the tastes of that older audience,” he says. “Which is good for maybe ticket sales, maybe for people with more than $5 to throw at the door, but it’s terrible for people who are tired of the paradigm that exists.”

Young Camelot also strove to diversify its music programming. Neer, who sings and plays guitar in Soddy Daisy and also performs solo as Bloodhype, spent six months organizing a two-day event called BitchFest this past August, which featured visual art, crafts, zines, and music produced by women in the community. (I produced a BitchFest slide show featuring excerpts from interviews with female performers.)

“I really just wanted to showcase female artists of many mediums,” Neer says. “Because I’d still say it’s not that there are more male artists than female artists, but I think it gets documented disproportionately.”

Uribe says Young Camelot never set out to throw huge, out-of-control parties. They wanted to be an asset to the community—a place where people come together, regardless of class, race, or gender, and enjoy work by primarily local artists.

Providing a safe, welcoming environment remains important to Young Camelot. The group had a protocol to deal with disputes among patrons, Uribe says, and on occasion, they had to force attendees to leave because they posed a threat to those around them. But with the exception of the violence at the Kirk Knight after­party, he says “there were no fights—no one got hurt or raped.”

Mozurkewich emphasizes the collective’s commitment to creation for creation’s sake, rather than for financial gain. The knights want to continue to live by that rule as they work toward legal legitimacy. Neer knows their dream “could all just fall apart,” but she hopes the group can attract investors who respect their principles.

I reached out to the office of First Ward alderman Joe Moreno, because the Hirsch Street church (in the 26th Ward) borders his jurisdiction. I asked his chief of staff, Raymond Valadez, whether Moreno would support Young Camelot’s efforts to go legit, even in light of their recent run-in with law enforcement. Valadez wrote in an e-mail that the alderman was “open to having this group apply for a PPA at an appropriate location in the 1st Ward,” meaning “a location that is most likely on a commercial corridor and that has the support of the local community where it would be located.”

Twenty-Sixth Ward alderman Roberto Maldonado did not return a request for comment.

“The danger of legit venues, of us going legit, is the idea that profit will take over all considerations,” Lee says. “That’s what most venues have in mind. It doesn’t matter who they have onstage or what’s going on, as long as they know they’ll make money. That’s their main concern, and in our case, we’re not guided by profit motive but by wanting to fill these voids we saw.

“I think you can still have those kinds of principles and make it work in a legitimate business,” he adds. “But we’ll see.”  v