Since 2006, the Echo Curio Curiosity Shop and Art Gallery has hosted experimental all-ages shows in its living room-sized storefront on a popular Echo Park strip of Sunset Boulevard.
But earlier this month, the privately owned community space known for its support of the freaky, demented and avant-garde side of Eastside culture was unceremoniously shut down by the Los Angeles Police Department, which cited the gallery-turned-venue for not having the proper entertainment permits.
The raid — which followed in the footsteps of a vice squad crack down on Echo Curio’s bring-your-own-booze policy last August — puts the important underground space in the same position as other prolific Los Angeles venues that ended up on the LAPD’s bad side, raising issues of enforcement that are ever-present for those creating and consuming music on the fringes of traditional media.
Though hardly low-key — shows filled with brown-bagging artistic types consistently flood the area’s main drag — the venue is one of many that have operated under the radar to provide a space for those contributing to the anti-mainstream musical identity in this city.
Similar to infamous Hollywood punk club The Masque, which was closed down for building violations in 1978, and the Sun Valley bowling-alley-cum-hardcore venue Godzilla — closed in 1982 after spending money on redecorating instead of permits — Echo Curio is the epicenter of an up-and-coming music movement, one ignored by established venues with expensive permits.
By allowing these community centers to thrive for years before suddenly enforcing live music permits or building codes, the LAPD effectively puts an end to built-up eras of expressive freedom, which one could infer is its intention judging by the arbitrary nature of these raids.
Take, for example, the PCH Club in Wilmington, Calif. From 1997 to 2000, the venue held drug-and-alcohol-free shows featuring bands such as Modest Mouse, Jimmy Eat World and Botch without any interference from the city.
Owner Alex Maciel said officers made numerous site visits to his establishment and never asked him about permits. A music scene flourished around the tiny stage on an industrial strip of Pacific Coast Highway until a reporter from the South Bay Weekly, a community paper of the Los Angeles Times, wrote to the Harbor Vice Division questioning the club’s legality, resulting in an investigation that abruptly shut down operations.
For the original Koo’s Café in Santa Ana — which held concerts without a permit for almost eight years because of its non-profit status — all it took were some impulsive threats of citation from the police department to get the volunteer-staffed coffeehouse and cultural hub to move.
And in the unfortunate case of Echo Curio, the LAPD started looking more closely at the space after a loud night of bass-and-guitar drone improvisations by local experimental composers garnered complaints from neighbors.
The solution to these types of raids seems like it should be easy: If a venue is cited for not having the proper permits, then the owner needs to go to the LAPD and apply for it, right?
As Echo Curio’s owners Justin McInteer, Grant Capes and Tim and Heather Goodwillie have found out in the last month, however, bureaucracy is never that straightforward.
According to Echo Curio’s blog, the space that has given some of Los Angeles’ most-loved experimental acts such as Pocahaunted, Magic Lantern and Random Patterns a stage to call home is only zoned for retail and is therefore ineligible for entertainment permits.
With this news, it looked like the gallery, curiosity shop and sometimes venue was going to throw in the towel and bow to the city’s threats by closing at the end of the year.
But on Friday, a post appeared on its blog that explained a new plan to add a tea room, apply for re-zoning permits and hope for the triumphant return of the music-minded community space.
On one hand, Los Angeles needs venues such as Echo Curio to run events with a devil-may-care attitude in order for cultural progress to be made without interference from government, but the unfortunate truth is that at some point, these idealistic projects will outgrow themselves and cooperation with the city becomes a must.
To continue its influence on the Eastside community, Echo Curio will have to cooperate with the same system that its events are speaking out against and, like its Downtown counterpart The Smell, abide by the rules. If not, it will be lifted into the pantheon of other long-lost open-minded venues that — even if it was only for a brief moment — gave the weird, the wonky and the off-beat Angelenos a safe place to hang.
Sarah Bennett is a senior majoring in communication. Her column, “Fake Bad Taste,” runs Wednesdays.