FEW CARS DOT THE BRAND NEW PARKING LOT
AT THE MANILA DUNES COMMUNITY CENTER on a quiet Thursday evening;
more will arrive soon for the monthly meeting of the Manila Community
Services District board, the de facto town council.
Tobin Poppenberg, a 23-year-old who says
he lives "a stone's throw" from the center, shows up
on foot. He has heard that the youth organization known as the
Placebo could face eviction from the community center due to
noise complaints. While he has only attended a few of the rock
shows the group puts on most weekends, he has drafted a letter
in support of the group and wants to speak on their behalf at
"Young people under the age of 21
don't have other places to go to see music for the most part,"
he says, emphasizing the fact that Placebo shows are kept drug
and alcohol free. "Even for those of us who are over the
age of 21, it's important to have a safe place that's not centered
around the use of alcohol where people can enjoy music.
"Also there are young people in the
Manila community who don't drive, who have an opportunity to
walk or ride their bikes to attend shows here," he adds.
Another Manila resident, Devon O'Leary [photo at right] ,
arrives, also on foot. He says he's been involved with Placebo
since he was 16. "I showed up for a show and didn't have
any money so they put me to work, and I just kept coming back."
now 21, credits the organization with keeping him out of trouble
in his teen years. "Most of the kids who come to Placebo
are at an impressionable age," he points out. "There's
a lot of ways for kids that age to go astray and end up in a
really sad situation. The Placebo, although it doesn't push anyone
in any particular direction, is the sort of environment where
kids can make the right decisions on their own -- and get some
support. Maybe they want to do something with art or music, or
get into volunteerism; there's someone who will say, `Let me
help you with that,' instead of saying, `This is what you have
No longer at that "impressionable
age," O'Leary has become one of a dozen or so Placebo board
members. Several more of his colleagues from the board arrive,
among them Abe Ray [photo
below left] , the tall, sandy-haired
24-year-old who founded the organization. They will be joined
by parents of Placebo members and others from Manila to speak
out in support of keeping the Placebo in the only permanent home
it's had in almost five years.
One of the
neighbors who has had problems with the organization in the year
or so it's been in Manila is Dan Edrich, a former community services
board member. In a written complaint, Edrich said that on April
16 he "was awoken [sic] by noise (music) from the community
center [that] continued 'til after midnight." Another unsigned
complaint objects to "very loud noise" the same night.
Both were filed within days of a formal warning issued to the
Placebo by the services board demanding that the group deal with
noise problems and make peace with its neighbors.
When Abe Ray was a high school student
in Benicia, he hung out and volunteered at a couple of all-ages
venues: One was a warehouse space where a group of high school
students and recent grads put on occasional shows, the other
a more formal youth group that ran concerts at an old theater
in town or the local Veteran's Hall -- both had strict policies
forbidding drugs and liquor of any kind.
Both outfits were loosely based on a legendary
youth-run club in North Berkeley known as the 924 Gilman Street
Project. Placebo board member Julie Ryan said she was inspired
to join the local organization because of her experience at Gilman
when she was a teenager.
place has been going as a volunteer-run nonprofit for something
like 17 years now," said Ryan. "I loved that it was
drug and alcohol free, particularly after going to un-checked
venues. Gilman was a lot safer space to be in, and as a female
it was cool to be able to hang out without being sexually harassed."
[photo at right:
Julie Ryan and Ryan Emenaker]
When Ray moved to Arcata in 1997 to attend
Humboldt State, he found a general lack of venues where kids
under 21 could hear live music. There were exceptions: A group
called Landslide Collective was doing rock shows, but mostly
in private homes. Another group of kids, working under the auspices
of a nonprofit called Tiffany's Garden for Children, was organizing
shows to raise funds for the Arcata Skate Park. Ray attended
some of the events, but was not involved in running them.
"I eventually started a band, Fiddlestick,"
said Ray. "After we'd played for a while, we just decided
that Arcata needed a more permanent music venue, one that catered
to all ages and brought bands into the area."
In the spring of 1999, Ray and Fiddlestick's
singer, Thoren Vidala, took out loans from their parents to pay
rent for a warehouse space on South G Street in Arcata. Vidala
came up with the name Placebo, chosen to indicate the drug-free
environment they insisted on at the venue.
"We didn't really know what we were
doing; we just did it," Ray admitted with a laugh. "Up
'til then, I was basically just a kid who went to shows. We hooked
up with some of the people from Landslide who knew how to put
on shows; they helped us make it work."
Word got around quickly, both in the local
youth music scene and among touring indie rock bands; by summer
the Placebo was putting on three or four shows a week, mixing
out-of-town acts with locals.
Among the kids who heard about the fledgling
venue was my own son, Spencer, then 15. I had heard enough about
the place to know that one of the draws was the fact that it
was essentially a grownup-free environment. My wife and I agreed
that he could go, as long as I could check the place out, to
see the set-up and find out exactly who was running the place.
South G space was set among a nondescript row of garages; entering
a small room upfront, we were greeted by Willoughby Arevalo [photo at left] ,
a volunteer taking money at the door. Just 14 at the time, he
was someone I already knew as a good kid. "It's totally
safe here," he assured me, and he was more than willing
to find another teen to watch the door so he could give me a
An interior door led into a large dark
space where a band was tuning up in one corner. Stairs led to
a loft where couches provided respite from the dance floor. There
were no adults in evidence; the closest thing was then 19-year-old
Abe Ray. He reassured me by detailing the rules of the establishment:
zero tolerance for alcohol, drugs and any sort of violence. "From
the beginning we had kids who were all about having fun -- but
not being overly stupid," said Ray in retrospect.
Things rolled along on South G through
most of the summer of '99, until one evening when the kids showed
up at the warehouse to find a message from the police posted
on the front door.
"There was a note on the back of one
of our flyers basically saying, `Do not have the show
tonight or you will be shut down forever,'" Ray recalled.
While there had been no formal complaints, once the police learned
about what the kids were doing, running an establishment without
permits, the jig was up.
"The city told us we needed a business
license and said we weren't in a correctly zoned area. We went
to Tiffany's Garden of Children and they put us under their nonprofit
umbrella, so we were a legitimate [business] organization --
but we still needed to deal with the permits and the zoning [issue]
in order to do business in the space."
Ray and company wanted to go legit, but
found that jumping through the requisite hoops proved too expensive.
Since the warehouse was near the Arcata Marsh, and thus within
the coastal zone, the zoning change application fee alone was
$600, then there was the matter of rest rooms; the building had
one and the city wanted multiple stalls.
"The city was nice enough telling
us what we had to do; we just couldn't do it. We moved out and
the whole thing just died."
By the book
years passed before the Placebo concept was resurrected. Ray
brought the idea up with his friend Ryan Carlile [photo at right] ,
another HSU student, and a music lover. "Ryan said he
was into it, and we started asking other people. We put up some
flyers announcing a meeting and we were on our way again."
This time the plan was to do everything
by the book. "We wanted to create something that would survive,"
said Ray, "and we knew that a nonprofit was the way to go.
That way it's basically something that's built for the community,
and if the community wants it, it will thrive."
Realizing that achieving 501(c)(3) nonprofit
status was a long drawn-out process, Ray approached the Ink People
for help. The group's executive director, Libby Maynard, welcomed
them under that organization's umbrella, and the Humboldt County
Youth Arts Program was born. (Despite the new official-sounding
name, everyone persisted in calling it the Placebo.)
Nonprofit status allowed the group to write
grant applications and receive donations and enabled them to
rent city buildings while searching for a permanent site. The
city of Arcata offered the use of the D Street Neighborhood Center
for fund-raising dances.
"All we had to pay for was insurance,"
said Ray. But after 9-11, the insurance kept getting more and
There was also a bit of resistance from
neighbors who expressed concern about late night noise levels
and worried about teens hanging around outside the dances. A
neighborhood meeting was arranged where the kids allayed most
of the fears by agreeing to some basic ground rules, soundproofing
improvements were arranged, along with self-policing to ensure
that both outside activity and the noise were kept in check.
Meanwhile, the search was on for a permanent
location, a space where the group could institute ambitious plans.
The idea was to expand from simply putting on music events to
running a coffee shop-style hang-out that could be open after
school, with practice space for bands, a recording studio, an
art studio, a photo lab and a gallery. Essentially they were
proposing a youth-run teen center.
The group looked into a number of potential
rentals in Arcata. A space on the plaza seemed like a good possibility,
but the landlord ended up renting to another party; a space in
Sunnybrae fell through, as did plans for a space on M Street.
board member Ryan Emenaker [photo
at left] , a Humboldt State University
grad student who is also a member of the rock band Winston Smith,
explained, "We had a lot of people tell us, `You know, what
you're doing is great. I really support you; you're wonderful,
but I'm not going to rent to you.' It comes back to this perception:
People think it's a wonderful concept if we can pull it off,
but don't really believe that youth can be responsible, or that
rock `n' roll music is necessarily a good thing. The thought
is that punk rock or rock `n' roll is nothing more than destroying
things and messing things up, or being drunk and screwed up."
The bottom line: While community organizations
were supportive, no landlord was willing to take a chance renting
to a bunch of kids.
The rock shows continued with the group
experimenting with other venues; HSU facilities were used occasionally
with support from a campus club. A series of shows was held at
the Arcata Denny's in a back room sports bar that went alcohol-free
for one night a week during Placebo events.
Dances at the neighborhood center continued,
but the insurance kept going up. Eventually, said Ray, the insurance
fees alone were running $200 a night, which did not leave much
for traveling bands who worked for a percentage of the door --
"We knew we had to lower our overhead;
that's when renting a space in Manila started making more sense,"
said Ray. With a long-term rental agreement, the insurance would
be based on a yearly rate rather than nightly. Even with rent,
the percentage for the musicians would be bigger and most nights
there might even be money left over to set aside for the future.
The group had already run occasional shows
in a converted cafeteria at the Manila Community Center. It was
suggested that a more permanent arrangement was possible. About
a year ago, with encouragement from the Manila Parks and Recreation
Department, the Placebo entered into a month-by-month rental
agreement for a space at the center.
"Kudos to the community center for
recognizing that this could be really good for the kids out there,"
Ryan Carlile echoed his sentiments. "They
opened their arms. That's the No. 1 reason we're there. They
approached us, saying they thought it would be a good place for
The Manila Community Center complex has
the unmistakable earmarks of a California school built in the
'50s or '60s -- two parallel wings have a breezeway on one side
and a wall of windows on the other. It was, in fact, a school
affiliated with the Arcata Elementary School District until late
in the '60s, when it closed for lack of enrollment.
Today the facility is home to a wide range
of organizations serving the Manila community: everything from
a preschool run by North Coast Children's Services and a branch
of Mattole Charter School called Dunes of Discovery, to classes
for Northern Humboldt Adult School and an MCSD-funded program
called Manila Teenship with after-school programs including art
classes and computer access.
Initially the Placebo had rented the center's
largest room, a former cafeteria space converted into a hall
for dances and other gatherings.
Prosser [photo at right] , who serves at coordinator for the Manila Parks
and Recreation Commission, welcomed "the Placebo kids,"
as she calls them. The bustling 50-ish mom, who exudes the air
of a mother hen, facilitated a more permanent rental agreement
between the youth group and the district.
"We saw a number of teens from the
Manila community who were interested in getting involved, along
with older youth in the early-20s category, all of them hardworking
and dedicated. I saw it as a good match," she said.
The only downside was what Prosser termed
"the noise issue" -- "music that's too loud running
There weren't a lot of complaints from
the neighbors, but as Prosser explained, the service district
staff takes any complaint seriously.
"When the board hears from people
in the community that they are not happy, they listen. When people
have issues, we try to resolve them," she continued.
In March of this year the Manila Community
Services District board of directors gave the Placebo board a
letter noting a series of community concerns, mostly related
to noise -- not just music emanating from the building during
concerts, but noise in the parking lot as concert-goers arrived
The Placebo kids vowed to be proactive
in addressing the issues. They nailed up more soundproofing in
the room and added noise-blocking barriers outside the door.
In addition, a community outreach program was established, with
Placebo volunteers going door-to-door in the neighborhood to
listen to people's concerns; a getting-to-know-you community
gathering was held.
In the midst of their multi-pronged attempt
at addressing the problems came a meeting of the MCSD board on
April 15 where the noise problem was addressed. After some debate,
an edict was issued, a tentative eviction notice giving the group
60 days to satisfy the neighbors' noise complaints.
"That was a complete shock to us,"
said Carlile, "that it would come down to a 60-day memorandum.
We talked at the meeting for something like an hour and a half.
I don't think I've ever been on the spot like that before."
"Dan [Edrich] was the most vocal,"
said Emenaker. "He kept restating, `Do we want this place
to be a venue or not?' He basically thinks the whole [community
center] should be shut down at 5 p.m. every day. The board's
position was that the center is a venue, and has been one for
years, so that's not the real issue. [There are other groups
who use the center after 5.] They wanted to evaluate [our use]
purely on the sound issue. It was difficult because they have
never really had an established policy on noise."
(Edrich did not return repeated telephone
calls. However, a board member confirmed Emenaker's characterization
of what Edrich said at the meeting regarding the community center.)
With some trepidation, the Placebo board
members accepted the 60-day deadline -- not that they
had a choice. They vowed to continue improving
relations with offended neighbors, but the April 16 complaints
-- filed about a show the following night -- demonstrated that
the issues could not be solved overnight.
Plans were drafted to create a new entry
door on the side of the room away from the neighbors, to alleviate
a problem with noise escaping when people enter or exit. Pierson
Building Center donated further soundproofing material. Since
comments at the meeting made it apparent that loud music was
not the sole problem, a flyer was drafted instructing concert
attendees on parking lot etiquette.
Enforcing the rules is the job of kids
like 17-year-old Samantha Fox, a Manila resident who play bass
in a punk band and serves as a Placebo board member.
Above: Samantha Fox (R)
playing with her band Talent Show
"I work the door sometimes and I do
security a lot. You make rounds and make sure people aren't drinking,
making too much noise or stuff like that," she explained.
There are, in fact, consequences for offenders.
Anyone who attends a show must join the Placebo and sign a pledge
to follow the rules, including, "no drinking, drug use or
vandalism in or around the venue." Those who break the rules
can lose their membership and the right to go to future shows.
But, according to Fox, just asking people to straighten up is
"Nobody who works as at the Placebo
gets paid. We volunteer so that other people can have fun, and
we have fun too. People recognize that if they do something like
vandalizing the bathroom, it ruins it for everybody."
All of those efforts and more were brought
up when the group's tentative eviction was revisited at the Manila
board's May 20 meeting. The majority of the audience was there
in support of the Placebo, and a number of people -- parents,
board members and other community members -- spoke with passion
about the importance of the organization and its mission.
None of the complaining neighbors came
to the meeting. Board member Nancy Ihara mentioned that she had
called one of the more vocal neighbors -- not Edrich -- and found
that he had no further complaints; in fact he was not even aware
that the Placebo had put on further shows every weekend in the
month of May. The closest thing to a negative comment came from
Manila poet Jerry Martien, who suggested that that the board
should focus on what he termed "off-site impacts" of
the after-hours use of the community center rather than the value
of the youth group.
When the time came for a vote, the board
was unanimous -- the eviction notice was lifted -- but with the
reminder that the group's rental agreement is, and always has
been, on a month-by-month basis. It seemed the Placebo was home
free -- at least for the time being.
Next on the agenda was permission for the
Placebo to create a new door in the south wall of their space.
That too was approved unanimously; the board even agreed to reimburse
them for the cost. Emenaker noted that the price would be relatively
low since Arcata City Councilmember Dave Meserve, a long-time
Placebo supporter who works as a contractor, has volunteered
his labor for the project.
"I think the board has been impressed
by the effort the kids put into finding a solution to the problem,"
Prosser said after the meeting. "That's what community centers
are all about: finding solutions to problems so you can offer
the kinds of things that people want and enjoy."
Saturday, two nights after the eviction
notice was lifted, it's showtime once again at the Placebo. The
"Randy Pony Tour" is here from Olympia, Wash. The vanload
of alt. folk-rockers includes a band called Liarbird and two
singer/songwriters: Tara Jane O'Neil and Mirah. In nine days
they've done nine shows, all of them at all-ages venues.
Mirah with Themba of Liarbird
"We've been so fortunate to be able
to play places like this," says Liarbird's lead singer,
Kanako. "It's such a different environment [from playing
in bars]. The independent music scene has always been driven
by youth, and a lot of our fans are underage. Who wants to play
in a bar? They're stinky and noisy and people aren't paying attention
half the time."
Liarbird's music is far from loud, closer
to folk than rock. It's easy to see why they would prefer Placebo
to a raucous bar: Kanako's introspective lyrics demand the close
consideration the attentive audience gives them.
The same could be said for Mirah, who strums
a guitar accompanying songs exuding sweetness and light. As the
show nears its close, she invites her fellow travelers back to
the stage to join her in a swinging quasi-tango. As the song
ends, the clock strikes 12. Mirah knows about the sound curfew,
but the crowd wants more.
She wonders aloud, "Do you suppose
the neighbors would mind if I sang one more song a cappella?"
No one seems to think they would, so she does just that, leading
a sing-along on her reworking of an old spiritual, "I Am
the Light of This World."
The crowd joins in, then the song ends
-- it really is time to go home. The gathering breaks up, kids
filing out into the night, some of them perhaps contemplating
the light of this world.
My guess is the Placebo kids are thinking
in less lofty terms. Lingering after the crowd left, they set
about cleaning up their space, and talk turns to who's doing
what at the next show.
While the stragglers depart Julie Ryan
patrols the parking lot with a mag light, picking up pop cans
and food wrappers. Some might find the work menial and thankless,
but she doesn't. She figures the show was worth it.
"Music is a great analgesic, it allows
you to forget your troubles for a few hours," she says.
But there's more to it than that. "For me personally, a
lot of it is about giving something back," she continues.
"I think back to when I was younger and having a positive
safe place to just hang out. I want other kids to have that,
too. It's important."