As rents skyrocket in the District, sustaining these kinds of DIY venues over the long haul is a challenge. Northeast multipurpose space Union Arts, Columbia Heights’s the Dunes and other haunts that once championed D.C.’s independent ethos have become relics of the city’s past, oftentimes because of being priced out of their current homes or forced out by developers. But the Cheshire, Takoma’s RhizomeDC and Northeast hangout Dwell — three young DIY venues, each with a distinct personality — are trying to stand their ground in a city where doing so seems virtually impossible.
“Creatives need somewhere to go,” says Ian Fay, a local film producer who helped build the Cheshire. “D.C. has a tendency of these short run things that last three to five years, and then the operators of these spaces get worn down or the money isn’t sustainable.”
So how do these spaces thrive in a rapidly changing Washington? We asked their operators how they’re trying to forge a brighter future for local music and the arts community at-large.
Fay had a solid vision of what the Cheshire would be when he began renovating an early
20th century luxury car garage in August 2018, but the odds were literally stacked against him.
“There was 6,000 square feet that was filled to the top with what looked like the death of
50 real estate sales,” says Fay, noting the mounds of items the previous owners had left behind when his friend Scott Williams, owner of design firm Maga Design, bought the property in 2016.
Williams initially intended the space to be a design office, but when those plans fell through, Fay thought of something more momentous: a dedicated workspace and enclave for local artists. Fay knew how to make it happen — he already had experience running a co-working office called the Lookout for roughly
six years in Adams Morgan.
The Cheshire, which opened in July, is partly funded through five studios that are rented by such tenants as furniture brand Nôs/Nös, clothing company Tribute and Fay’s film company, Lookout Productions. Ticketed events, organized by Pakke
, also help keep the lights on. Since the Cheshire’s summer opening, Pakke has hosted over a dozen events in the venue’s spacious main foyer, including an album release show by local experimental folk act Near Northeast and a climate change art exhibition with music by ocean scientist Alexis V.O.
“Our lives are stressful, and people can feel lonely and disconnected from the world,” says Pakke co-founder Amy Morse. “But music and art can help bring everyone a little closer together.” 2412 18th St. NW. thecheshiredc.org.
Upcoming events: DC Arts Center 30th Anniversary Party, Oct. 12 at 6 p.m., $20; Sweet & Spooky: A Halloween Revue,
Oct. 19 at 8 p.m., $13-$16.
Twelve years ago, Dwell owner and operator David Bernhardt bought a carriage house in an alley near the H Street NE corridor that was nothing more than storage space. As he chipped away on renovations, the house blossomed into a hangout spot for his children — and eventually a hangout spot for the city by March 2018.
“I’ve described Dwell as an untethered temple to empowerment, especially for people who have been marginalized,” says Bernhardt, who runs Dwell with his daughter, Hannah, who’s now 23.
Dwell picked up steam through the local music community, initially booking shows several nights a week under the direction of Bernhardt’s friend, Holly Herzfeld, before expanding to more types of community-focused programming. Now, there are yoga classes, a biweekly queer barbershop, charitable fundraisers, comedy shows and more things to see and do, all held within its large, earthy main room surrounded by lush plants and other charming decorative knickknacks. Dwell maintains a wholly DIY spirit, even in the way it operates — Bernhardt notes that it’s “radically self-reliant” all year round, using solar energy, firewood for heat and recycling rainwater.
“All of the diverse events we do are helping the community, and it’s because we’re creating a space where that can organically happen,” says Hannah, noting that Dwell relies on event donations to maintain its operational costs.
“There are lots of little DIY spaces that are established and doing similar stuff to what we’re doing,” David says. “But on that same trend, we have an opportunity right now to set the tone for the future.” In the alley behind the 1200 block of Florida Avenue NE, between Montello and Trinidad avenues. dwelldc.info.
Upcoming events: Elevated yoga with Hermione, Oct. 13 at 10:30 a.m., donations; Drip community dance class, Oct. 17 at 6:30 p.m., suggested donation of $5-$15.
DIY house venues have long been a part of D.C.’s music topography, but RhizomeDC is something of a unicorn. No one lives in the house near the D.C.-Maryland border; it has served solely as a stand-alone venue championing experimental music and arts since 2016. That’s one of the main reasons Rhizome is able to host events nearly every day of the week. Tickets sales help keep the ship running, along with grants, individual donations and a monthly membership program.
“Someone might have come in [to Rhizome] with assumptions about where a concert can happen and what it looks like, and they leave with an expanded sense of what is possible,” says Layne Garrett, one of Rhizome’s founding members and curators.
Rhizome has played host to a music collective that uses balloon animals as instruments (Sgt. Pepper’s Plastic Inevitable Pet Sounds), an obituary writing workshop and everything in between. Most of its idiosyncratic live shows take place in the venue’s tiny but cozy living room, where it feels like you’re casually stepping inside a good friend’s home. You might not be familiar with the band you’re about to see, and that’s the point — to walk into something with zero expectations, and with an open mind.
“I think people who are expressing themselves and content outside of the mainstream have the most important things to say,” says Garrett. “It feels important to support people in their expression who otherwise wouldn’t have a place to do it.” 6950 Maple St. NW. rhizomedc.org.
Upcoming events: Fuss Pluss and Rogerio Boccato, Oct. 11 at
8 p.m., $10; “Animate Landscapes” film program, Oct. 12 at 8 p.m., $10; Kelton Norris and Joe Brotherton, Oct. 13 at 7 p.m., $10.