Riding the edge: For a moment, skaters, punk bands and artists had a secret place to call home.

How a group of friends turned a decrepit D.C. warehouse into a mecca for punk-rock cool -- and how it all fell apart.
By Melissa Bell
Sunday, October 10, 2010

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.

CONTINUED     1              >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company