The Lemons perform on the roof of Animal Kingdom, an unlicensed DIY venue in Avondale.
The Lemons perform on the roof of Animal Kingdom, an unlicensed DIY venue in Avondale. Credit: Medium Gallery

On July 13 a shabby, 114-year-old house in Avondale, named Animal Kingdom by its tenants, hosted a concert in its backyard. Animal Kingdom had been an unlicensed DIY show space since summer 2012, and though this was far from its biggest event—that distinction belongs to an Independence Day bash in 2013, which featured 20 bands and a record fair and attracted hundreds of people—it would be the one that finally brought the house to the attention of 33rd Ward alderman Deb Mell. The complaints Mell heard from Animal Kingdom’s neighbors might’ve put a stop to the music for good—that is, if the house hadn’t already been as good as dead before the bands played their first note.

Retro-pop outfit the Lemons, whose large, loose lineup includes Animal Kingdom ringleader Kelly Nothing, set up a tiny drum kit and a couple guitar rigs on the roof overhang above the porch, in front of an upstairs window. They were the third of the four bands playing that night, and as they sound-checked at around 10 PM, the hundred or so show­goers who were scattered around the patchy grass craned their necks to see. Unfortunately, 10 PM is also the point past which Chicago’s noise ordinances forbid amplified sound that’s louder than ordinary conversation from 100 feet away, even on private property. At around 11:30 PM, when Portland garage band Guantanamo Baywatch were partway through their set in the backyard, the police shut down the show and gave Nothing a ticket.

Nothing says it was the third time the cops had shut down an Animal Kingdom show but the first time she’d gotten a ticket—which means the fine will probably be $300. By mid-July almost nobody still lived at Animal Kingdom, because the house had gone into foreclosure in May. The tenants were never formally evicted, but they expected to be at any moment—plus the foreclosure had forced them to abandon all hope of seeing repairs done to the building and its fixtures. They’d hoped to have a few good-bye shows, since the end was obviously nigh, but July 13 turned out to be the last one.

The next day a Facebook page called Avondale Neighbors appeared, and though it presented itself as a forum for improving the neighborhood, its “About” tab contained little besides invective directed at Animal Kingdom: “There have been loud parties thrown, where the little scumbags who call themselves ‘tenants’ have been charging admission, serving alcohol to minors, urinating in the alley on everyone’s private property, illegally dumping old furniture in the alley—like huge lime green 1970s hot tubs—and trying to use Facebook to advertise these parties.” (For what it’s worth, Nothing says Animal Kingdom did serve alcohol earlier in its history, but quit as the crowds at its shows got bigger and younger.)

It’s not clear who started the page, but at least one person, Terri Boyce, posted on it repeatedly from a personal account. I managed to reach Boyce, or at least someone with her name, after finding a cell-phone number attached to a likely looking bio online. (I also found an e-mail address with the user name “boyceterri” attached to a CAPS community complaint made shortly after the July 13 Animal Kingdom show, which alleged “illegal parties which violate noise ordinances, occupancy and safety ordinances for the area.”) She had no comment when I finally spoke to her on the phone, declining to confirm or deny her identity.

Avondale Neighbors asked residents to take complaints to Deb Mell and the precinct captain, and though the Facebook page vanished after less than a day, that was enough time to put Animal Kingdom on the radar at the alderman’s office. In the words of Dana Fritz, Mell’s chief of staff, “We call it the party house.”

Kelly Nothing on the front porch of Animal Kingdom, the DIY venue she operated with her roommates.Credit: Andrea Bauer

It’s tough to fault passersby for not realizing it, but almost everyone who runs a DIY space like Animal Kingdom sees it as more than just a party house. Such venues usually arise because kids who make music and art want a place where they can work, perform, and grow together, and the network of legitimate venues in Chicago has little room for them—it’s so dependent on alcohol sales for cash flow that people under 21 are shut out from most of it. DIY partisans also tend to revile corporate money and influence, which has grown increasingly ubiquitous in the underground-music ecosystem as traditional sources of revenue have dried up—think branded stages, sponsored tours, or Red Bull reps handing out free cans. DIY venues can also provide safe spaces for women, minorities, the disabled, LGBT people, and other marginalized groups who might be targets of harassment (or at least feel unwelcome or unsafe) in the mainstream club scene.

DIY venues are often run by under­employed young people with no prayer of securing a Public Place of Amusement license—even if they could pay the fees, there’s no way they could get a building up to code (not the sort of building they could afford in the first place, at any rate). As a result, most DIY spots double as living spaces, even when they’re in warehouse districts rather than residential areas. Running an underground venue is far from glamorous, but it can make a world of difference to the kids who find them. “It really saved my life to be able to go to spaces like that,” says Split Feet guitarist Jes Skolnik, who’s on the board of directors for Pure Joy, a licensed all-ages music and arts collective that’s due to open by the end of the year. “I was involved in some really fucked-up shit as a teenager, and to be able to be involved in a creative space literally saved my life.”

Nothing and her eventual Animal Kingdom roommates, most of whom are musicians, started looking for a place to rehearse and have shows in spring 2012. Though they’d hoped to find a big warehouse or a loft zoned as a live-work space, “no one took us seriously when we approached them,” she says. “We just ended up with a house.” Nothing, who’s 24, grew up in Peoria, where her parents forbid her from going to Warped Tour but didn’t object when she went to see shows in basements and American Legion halls (she even went to one in a storage unit). “I just always sought that out,” she says. “It’s different when it’s organized by people, for the people.”

Nothing found the DIY scene in Chicago after moving here in 2008 to attend North Park University, where she majored in economics. She fondly recalls biking to Little Village to see Rabble Rabble at Mortville, which closed down in summer 2012. “That’s like a DIY space on a whole ‘nother level. It just blew my mind—they would make these art installations and they would redo them, make new things, every three months,” she says. “It was just these people who did it ’cause they wanted to do that, and I was impressed by that. It takes a lot of work, motivation, and creativity.”

Nothing had the necessary motivation when she graduated in 2012, and along with her five roommates, she made Animal Kingdom work. Because it was a single-family house, they had to get creative—they even built a wall in the master bedroom. “We converted what was like three bedrooms and an office into six different rooms for people to live,” she says.

Animal Kingdom was cramped, but it had a basement—which Dominican hardcore outfit La Armada had already proved could be a viable place for bands to play. In 2010 and 2011, they’d lived in the house and run a DIY venue called the Caribbean Slum.

Bring Your Ray Gun performs for the crowd and the neighbors alike at the Summer Slammer festival at Animal Kingdom.Credit: Medium Gallery

“I just wanted to throw shows; I didn’t really expect it to become what it was,” Nothing says. Animal Kingdom quickly grew into a hub for a young faction of Chicago’s underground rock scene: up-and-coming garage hotshots Twin Peaks played at the house frequently, and the Lemons debuted there during a 2012 Halloween covers concert called Night of the Living Shred. (They performed as “the Melons” and didn’t cover anybody.)

That Halloween show was also a fund-­raiser—it paid for a PA system so Nothing didn’t have to keep borrowing one from another DIY space every time Animal Kingdom had a gig. Under ordinary circumstances, nobody in the house made any money from a show, even though their combined rent was $2,200 per month. Admission was technically free, and the “suggested donations” the venue managed to collect always went entirely to the bands (“I don’t like it when people make a buck off of other peoples’ art,” Nothing says). Nothing learned to work with a minimal budget, getting advice from White Mystery front woman Alex White. She says Halloween 2012 was the first big success, after which their shows reliably drew 100 kids or so.

Numbers like that can turn a scene into a great incubator, but they can also be detrimental to its future—as a general rule, the more people who show up to a DIY venue, the more likely they are to be a party crowd, not particularly interested in pitching in with the hard work and creating something. “Those spaces become community hot spots,” says Skolnik. “That can be amazing for nurturing artists, and it can also be really difficult in terms of sustainability. Once a space attracts a certain amount of interest, it’s going to disrupt the community around it.”

After all, when the police turn up to put a stop to a DIY show, that generally means somebody called them. Noise can be especially hard on families with infant children, and nobody likes the mess that seems to follow any large crowd. Some residents worry about what underground venues will do to their property values—which is ironic, since such spaces are often harbingers of gentrification.

By and large Nothing and her roommates kept things cordial with Animal Kingdom’s neighbors. They mostly threw shows on weekends, and made sure the place was cleared out at the end of the night; often Nothing would roam the neighborhood picking up trash till three or four in the morning. Ne-Hi drummer Alex Otake didn’t live at Animal Kingdom, but because he’s dating Nothing, he spent lots of time there. “The people across the street and the people next door would have big parties and invite us over,” he says. “And whenever we had shows we’d invite them over.” Twin Peaks guitarist Clay Frankel, who lived at Animal Kingdom last winter, says Nothing was especially friendly with a large Latino family next door. “I remember Kelly giving them one time a $150 gift certificate for the grocery store just for not calling the cops,” he says.

People who run DIY spaces often do this sort of thing to keep them going—nobody would put up with the drudgery, the loss of privacy, and the ever-present threat of eviction that come with the territory if she didn’t care about the communities both inside and outside the venue. In a Washington Post feature earlier this month on Omaha’s indie-rock scene, Michael Seman, a senior research associate at the University of North Texas’s Center for Economic Development and Research, says he discovered that “music scene participants are civic-minded and often become involved in philanthropic pursuits, run for political office, and seek employment in city departments.”

All that said, it can be tough for DIY venues to keep the peace with neighbors who aren’t familiar with the culture. “From outside the community, people don’t recognize the importance of these spaces,” Skolnik says. And it can be even harder to go legit, as Pure Joy is attempting—Skolnik and her collaborators have had lots of trouble trying to rent a building. “We’ve run into roadblocks from bans; we’ve run into roadblocks from commercial real estate folks,” she says. Part of the trouble is convincing people that Pure Joy can cover remodeling costs. “We’ve had a lot of leads on really amazing spaces, and at the end of the day the landlord will come back to us and say, ‘OK, you need $300,000.'”

The crowd in the backyard of Animal Kindom’s last showCredit: Courtesy Medium Gallery

Financial difficulties and red tape drive DIY organizers underground—and into some disgustingly suboptimal living spaces. All six Animal Kingdom tenants shared a single bathroom; their oven didn’t work, the shower had no water pressure, and at one point they lost heat. Frankel fixed a broken window in his bedroom with Styrofoam and coats. “It was freezing cold in my room,” he says. “You were either in my room and under the blankets or you weren’t in my room at all.”

The basement wasn’t in great condition—damp and unventilated, it had low ceilings and a treacherous metal knob jutting up from the floor—but it served Animal Kingdom well for close to two years. Even without the foreclosure, the space might not have lasted much longer, and not just because it was so hard to live in it. Some of the bands that regularly gigged there had outgrown it, notably Twin Peaks, who headlined at Animal Kingdom a few weeks before their set at this year’s Pitchfork festival.

Larger crowds made it harder for Animal Kingdom to stay inconspicuous. For almost two years Francisco Ramirez, 57, who lives just down the street from Animal Kingdom, had no idea the house hosted shows, but he learned in its final days. “Probably a week later,” he says, “my son says he saw an eviction notice there and the windows and doors were boarded up.” (Given that there was never an eviction notice, the sign in question was probably posted to indicate that Animal Kingdom had failed a building inspection on July 15; the city declared it vacant on July 30, by which time it had boarded up the house and changed the locks.)

On July 14, the day after Animal Kingdom’s last show, Nothing posted to its Facebook page, urging its community to contact Alderman Mell and make a case for the value of DIY spaces. “We need a collective plea for a place to gather, without capitalism and ageism, in our own neighborhoods,” she wrote. “They need to know they’re not just ‘shutting down a party.'” On July 16, Nothing met with Mell during her weekly office hours, attempting to explain what she’d wanted to accomplish with Animal Kingdom and seeking guidance about a space in the ward that might work better for all-ages shows. As Nothing remembers their talk, Mell’s advice was to look for something in an industrial area, not a residential one.

For now Animal Kingdom lives on in Nothing’s other projects. Next Saturday at ChiTown Futbol she and Alex White are helping to present Shred Fest, a project of Oregon-based magazine She Shreds, which is dedicated to women guitarists and bassists; she’s also making a zine called Tuff + Rumble on how to run a DIY space (it shares its title with the cassette compilations of local bands she used to put out). Unfortunately, Nothing has had to put a few things on hold because Animal Kingdom was robbed at some point in late July, before she’d moved out all her belongings, and she doesn’t have renter’s insurance to help replace the video and audio equipment she lost.

Nothing has yet to appear in court for that ticket, so she’s thinking of selling T-shirts to pay off the fine. She postponed her original date, on September 2, because she was on the road with the Funs selling merchandise, and she’s not sure when the rescheduled date will be—she’s between living situations, and has a feeling she’s missed a lot of mail. Nothing still wants to keep her dream of an all-ages show space alive, and she’d like to do it in her own community. “We shouldn’t have to be pushed to Garfield Park. They’ll probably tear down Animal Kingdom and build a nice condo,” she says. “I just hope that we can cut the red tape in Chicago and decriminalize DIY.”

Correction: This story has been amended to correctly reflect Kelly Nothing’s role as the merchandiser for the Funs on the band’s recent tour.