By Melissa Bell
Sunday, October 10, 2010; W10
A YouTube video loads to show an empty lot alongside a warehouse.
On the screen, a few guys mill about and a woman approaches. In front of the computer, Dan Zeman leans back in his chair and starts giggling.
The woman walks unsteadily behind a car closer to the camera. She crouches and fiddles with a crack pipe. Zeman would watch for moments like this from his apartment, waiting for the perfect time to flip an audio switch. On screen, the voice of movie character Napoleon Dynamite blasts out of unseen speakers: "Get off my property, or I'll call the cops on you!"
The woman jumps up and flees the scene. The men start running around, shouting. The voice of Arnold Schwarzenegger booms out: "Stop whining!"
Zeman hoots with laughter and loads another video. He provides a running commentary for a crack deal that ends when the dealer spots the camera and starts flinging bricks. "They try for the camera," he shouts. "They miss! They miss! They hit it!" The video screen snaps to black. "Oh! I've got hours of this stuff."
Back in 2005, when these videos were made, drug addicts had overrun Blagden Alley in Washington's Shaw neighborhood. Zeman had made the area his home. He and his friends wanted to convert the abandoned warehouse into an underground skate, art and music club, but it was effectively a crack den. Instead of taking the matter to the police, he waged battle on his own terms.
He built a tall fence around the yard -- two fences, actually, because the addicts tore the first one down. To scare the dealers off the corner, he rigged up the elaborate video and audio system, with the live feed coming in to his top-floor studio apartment. He would wait in his room, videotaping drug deals going down.
It worked. Zeman, 43, and his motley crew of friends won the battle for the building. For five years -- four years and eleven months longer than any of them thought possible -- it became a place to skate, listen to music and go a little nuts. A place where guys and girls from Sierra Leone and Fairfax, taxi drivers and rocket engineers, teenagers and middle-aged dads, could sit around bonfires, float in an 18-foot inflatable pool and play video games projected onto a cement wall. When rain or snow closed down outdoor spaces, skaters could huddle around fires in the huge, unheated room -- lined with wooden ramps, metal billboards and a giant tree root -- and ride hard and fast until steam rose from their T-shirted shoulders into the cold evening air.
They dubbed it "Fight Club." It was not, however, a club where grown men beat the living daylights out of each other, as in the book and movie of the same title.
"We don't even fight here," Zeman says, the yellow-hued remains of a black eye splashed across his face. He wears cutoff sweat pants and his hair is a wild, gray mass; if you ran into him on the street, you'd give him a wide berth. It is hard to take seriously a shirtless, shoeless man rocking a giant shiner when he tries to claim a place called Fight Club is not actually about fighting, but he says people started calling it that because it was a secret spot. "The first rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club." The only problem was that in Washington's tight-knit skate and art community, it can be hard to keep a secret.
Fight Club grew into a cultural mecca for the underground scene. Skaters flocked there. Top local bands played the parties. Artists chose to hang their work on the warehouse's bare walls instead of in an established gallery. Tony Hawk dropped in for a barbecue after a visit to the White House, to get away from the press.
The sprawling 12,000-square-foot playground was mostly just a haven for "crazy people being crazy," Bill Warrell says. In 1980, Warrell helped start a "grumpy little joint" called the 9:30 Club. "In the early '80s, artists had no fear; they didn't care where the money was coming from. I was wondering where that had gone," Warrell says. To him, Fight Club was the 9:30 Club's descendant, the last bastion of the punk rock, anarchic undercurrent that runs opposite Washington's buttoned-up, rapidly gentrifying mainstream.
The trouble comes when those two currents collide.
On a bright Saturday afternoon last December, Ben Ashworth, 36, drops four feet down slippery plywood into the indoor bowl he designed and built with Zeman. A clean-cut, blue-eyed skater, Ashworth once had some small sponsors, but he never went pro. Now, he works at George Mason University as the sculpture studio manager and skates whenever he can.
He scales walls and glides across railings. He's faster than anyone else there. He slides horizontally across windows; he turns nearly upside down. Scattered around the bowl, boys slam their skateboards up and down on the ground, wood hitting metal, applauding Ashworth. His feet kick the board off the wooden wall, and he floats 10 feet above the ground. He lands back on the board with a slam, rolls up the side of the ramp and pounces off, grinning.
The story of Fight Club starts with Ashworth. In 2005, he was helping with plans for the Green Skate Lab. At that time, the financing for the community skate park in Northeast had been tied up in litigation, and he was fed up with battling the bureaucracy. He just wanted a spot to ride.
Zeman, a Fairfax native, graduated from Flint Hill School, a private prep school in Oakton. He bounced around until he landed in Blagden Alley 10 years ago, selling antiques and then building salvaged wood tables. The buildings were mostly historic horse stables, and Zeman loved the area -- a haunt of artists and oddballs. He and his longtime girlfriend, hairstylist Jen Kesler, started taking in strays: dogs, cats and friends who needed somewhere to rehearse music or a place to crash.
A mutual friend introduced the two men. When Ashworth told Zeman what he wanted, Zeman had the perfect place in mind: a corner warehouse overrun by drug addicts. They pulled more friends into the plan: Kesler, photographer Anthony Smallwood and Steph Murdock, a grad student and skater whom "Zeman and Kesler just kind of adopted," Murdock says. The idea was to create a gritty, raw alternative to the suburban skate parks with their padding requirements and strict insurance policies, as well as a home for local punk bands to practice and perform.
They soon wrested control of the building and started constructing ramps, but they were still under siege. The addicts and prostitutes threw bricks at them, called the cops on them, urinated in the yard. In return, Zeman would flash a spotlight into the cars of johns and spill water from his roof onto prostitutes and their clients. Kesler would sometimes stay home from work, afraid Zeman would be killed while she was gone. But he wasn't concerned -- and he became the self-appointed sheriff of Blagden Alley.
But word of the venture spread and it wasn't long before other people were showing up to skate, play music or just hang out. At first, skaters wore surgical masks over their faces because of the dust and dirt. When they rode up the side of the bowl, they would slam into the ceiling, and drywall and wood would rain down. The building was on the verge of collapse and sucking money from the founding members. So, they swept up crack vials, repaired holes in the ceiling and floor, and threw raging parties with 70 skaters flying around the bowl and punk bands howling on stage. They also got a $15,000 loan from one of Kesler's friends, a government employee whose name only she and Zeman know. Zeman says only that the friend was amused by the club and wanted to help keep it running.
Edward Laios, the warehouse's landlord, had been unable to keep the drug addicts from breaking into the building, and tacitly looked the other way while Zeman and his friends set up shop. When they finally approached Laios, he signed them on to a three-year lease.
In 2007, with a valid lease, the group floated a story on its MySpace page, to the Washington City Paper, and to anyone who swung by to use the ramp, saying Fight Club was shutting down. The founders wanted everyone to stay away while they built a more permanent bowl and made the studio apartments on the second and third floor livable. They had official titles and big plans. They envisioned a nonprofit gallery, music space and private skate park. People would buy memberships. Fight Club was going legit.
When the club reopened, the building was no longer falling down on the skaters. The main drug dealer had been sent to jail. The prostitutes had found other streets to walk. The Blagden Alley Newsletter saluted Fight Club in April 2007, saying it helped make the area "a better, and safer alley."
When Fight Club worked, it worked well -- a group of moving parts. Zeman managed the day-to-day tasks, from unclogging the sewage system and fixing rain damage to keeping visitors in line. Geo White, lead singer of the Points, would book metal, punk and experimental bands from all over the country for shows. Anthony Smallwood would organize art openings, such as photographer David Alan Harvey's exhibit of Burn Magazine work. Steph Murdock would persuade groups to host their parties there. Her friends, many professional skaters, would drop in with their boards. Kesler would hand over most of her paycheck to buy supplies for the continuing repairs. Ashworth built the improved ramp.
Local blogs lauded it and used FCDC as shorthand when announcing parties there. Vice Magazine wrote, "It has officially Been Discovered." The parties went from gatherings of a hundred people to art shows with huge lines wrapping down the alley. The club never charged for admission and, because it had no liquor license, never charged for drinks. It only took donations, collected in a five-gallon plastic water bottle; Fight Club could pull in as much as $3,000 a party. Outside groups such as the Surfrider Foundation and FotoWeek DC hosted events there. They wanted the built-in audience. They wanted the gritty reality of the club. During one art show, a group of Japanese businessmen wandered around viewing the work when a blond, svelte skater traipsed by wearing only a towel, on her way to the outdoor shower. It was the beginning of the end.
One night last winter, on a rickety metal screen over a barrel fire, Zeman pours cans of red beans, black beans, stewed tomatoes, cut-up hot dogs, potatoes and onions into a covered serving tray. "Fight Club Hash!" It will cook there for three hours. Occasionally, Zeman will grab it, using his sweatshirt for oven mitts, and vigorously shake it, with tomato juice running out the sides. "Gotta feed the poor skaters," he says. People bring food as well, a potluck of convenience store frozen burritos and chips and peanut-butter cookies.
At Fight Club, Zeman was "part Pied Piper and part a-hole," says his friend Carter Anderson. Zeman watched out for the kids who came to skate; if they didn't have money, he'd give them odd jobs and spot them cash. He vacillated between pulling a seat closer to the fire for women and threatening teenagers with death for minor offenses. He would push people around and get in their faces about politics, but the instant a tipsy friend would say he was leaving, Zeman would switch to caring older brother. "You're not driving home drunk!" he would yell, until the friend promised to take the Metro.
Ashworth said that when the group signed the lease, things started to go sour. Zeman saw Fight Club as his more than the group's, but some members grumbled that the other founders could run it just as well if they had a chance. Before the lease, he had total control. The rest of the group caved to him, because he knew how to terrorize the drug dealers, he knew how to live off the grid, and he knew where to salvage wood from old Virginia barns to use for the skate ramp. When the five founding members signed the lease, the others thought the dynamics would change: They would have a say in the direction of the club.
They met weekly, came up with huge to-do lists, and fought. At one point, Murdock stopped talking to Zeman and Kesler. Ashworth threw down his tools and walked out for six months.
"Five partners, all different ideas . . . I'm not a commercial person. I'm kind of Willy Wonka-ish. I just want to hang out and do my thing. They were more into it to use as a platform," Zeman says. "A: I want to have fun. B: I want other people to have fun. C: I like to build things."
Kesler spent her days at PR at Partners salon on K Street, styling the hair of socialites and senators, ordering around a team of assistants and rarely mentioning the warehouse -- she refused to call it Fight Club. Murdock attended a master's program at George Washington; she kept her second life as "a squatter/skater punk" a secret from her school friends until her graduation speech. Ashworth moved in with his girlfriend and gave up his studio apartment in the Fight Club warehouse to a rocket engineer, who would fly off to Kuwait and Lahore, Pakistan, to run missile tests with the Navy and then fly home to wander through the warehouse in slippers and a bathrobe. They would joke about leading double lives.
Zeman didn't have a second life. He would rarely leave the warehouse; he hardly used a cellphone. Fight Club consumed him. "Anybody with any sense would have been overwhelmed and quit," said Geoff Dawson, who owns the building next door to Fight Club. "But he is filled with moxie."
Zeman says he was confused by his friends' anger, but then he hedges, "I'm a little bit of a taskmaster. That might have a little something to do with it." He also drinks beer. A lot of beer. He would be drunk by 10 p.m. after pounding 16-ounce Budweisers all day. Zeman shrugs it off: "Which would you rather be? Corrupt or an alcoholic? I'd rather be an alcoholic."
Dawson, who is an owner of a slew of bars around the District, including Iron Horse Tap Room and Bedrock Billiards, said Zeman's drinking causes problems. "You've got to decide if you're going to drink beer all the time or run the place. He starts drinking at 10 in the morning. He can work his way through it, but there's more there that he could unleash."
Other neighbors started getting fed up with the club's antics. The neighborhood that Zeman had a hand in cleaning up had been cleaned up. Yoga studios and coffee shops lined the street. A city garden was planted next door.
Dawson said that Fight Club, given its history with the neighborhood, could have pursued the necessary licenses to formalize the club, but the group could never agree on what to do. And, Dawson says, "Whatever they did would have changed the beautiful thing that is the Fight Club."
The biggest problem, however, was that it didn't make enough money. Murdock now works at a nonprofit helping people with developmental disabilities. "We came into it with so much zeal and enthusiasm," she says, but people felt pushed out by Zeman, and some of the founders stopped contributing financially. Murdock said most of the money raised through the parties went back into fixing up the building, and there was never enough. The group fell behind on the rent -- very, very behind.
Eventually, the landlord had enough and pushed the group to pay more than $100,000 in back rent. He initiated eviction proceedings. Zeman thought they could come to an agreement, that the work they had put into the place was valuable and it was better to have them there than let the building fall back into the grip of crack addicts. But the land was worth more than $3 million and development was picking up in the neighborhood. The landlord stuck to his word. The three-year lease was expiring, and he wanted them to vacate the premises by June.
"If money comes in, that's the end of anything interesting," says Warrell, who also has a studio in Blagden Alley. "You get factions like the 9:30 Club, d.c. space, the Fight Club. They're always kind of the bridge, and then we get swept aside."
It's early June, and Digital Capital Week has descended on the District. Billed as a 10-day festival "focused on technology, innovation and all things digital," it is holding its opening event at Long View Gallery, one of the newer additions to Blagden Alley.
It's early evening, and the line of partygoers waiting for wristbands snakes through the graffiti-painted alleyway. Suddenly from around the corner, a giant moving van barrels toward them. Security guards jump up and down, shouting, "Stop, stop!" Women teetering in high heels move back; the line recoils from the truck. At the last minute, Zeman slams on the brakes.
People with clipboards yell at him to move his vehicle. He jumps out, slams the door and walks toward the roped-off area. It is the only path through the alley to Fight Club. He tries to push past the security guards. The crowd gasps and boos.
"I live right there!" he shouts.
"You gotta go around, man," the guards say.
Zeman stalks away. He'll have to walk around the block to the street entrance. The sheriff of Blagden Alley is not allowed to walk through Blagden Alley anymore.
This party might have taken place at Fight Club, were Fight Club not packing up. The skate ramps have been taken down. Some will be put in storage at Zeman's parents' home in Fairfax.
Zeman will set up Fight Club again, he says. He envisions a mobile skate bowl and sketches out plans for giant ramps that can fit on the back of a flatbed truck. It would be like Fight Club on the road. No more landlords. No more neighborhood associations. No more arguments. Kesler is staying with a friend in the city, but whatever Zeman's next venture, she'll follow him. "For as many years as we've been together, I just let him do his thing and it always works out," she says. "We've done a lot of stuff, and whatever it is, you never know if it's going to work out. If it ends, well, we're on to our next adventure."
But the rest of the original Fight Club group won't be on board. They'll come by to skate, Ashworth says, but they're relieved to be out of it. Murdock says she feels a little frustrated, like they failed to see it to the end. "It's like a breakup," she says, but she's busy working to design a skate park in her hometown of Baltimore. This one is being done with government permission and fundraising. Ashworth is ready to stop building skate ramps for a little while and concentrate on his artwork and building a house with his girlfriend. Smallwood is working on a photography career.
At the Digital Capital party, a fire-thrower starts to dance. Social media consultants drink Pabst Blue Ribbon out of red cups and talk about how cool Washington has become. In the corner, a security officer stands guard in front of a metal gate. A few people try to peek around it, but the guard gestures them back to the crowded party.
The gate leads to the yard of the place that once was Fight Club. Zeman sits just inside it, alone in the dark, empty yard, blasting the Sex Pistols and drinking Budweisers.
Melissa Bell is a Washington Poststaff writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.