- Michael Barnes
- PUNK HAVEN Former B-Ward members perform at Atlas Coffee with their new band RIITA.
It's a little after 6pm when an assemblage of people in boots, denim and leather congregate outside a small building on Orchard Street in downtown Santa Rosa. The flier said doors at 7pm, but the building opens early for the eager crowd.
These days, downtown Santa Rosa resembles more of a travel destination for Bay Area techies on a weekend getaway than a place for local youth longing for an escape from the suffocation of dead-end, suburban cul-de-sacs and business parks.
The cover charge is $7, but if you don't have that, the door will take $5. If you don't have anything at all, they'll still grant admission. No one is turned away.
A staging area for bands is set up in a corner of the room, parallel to an illuminated cross hanging on the wall. This is a house of worship; however, the hymns will sound slightly different tonight. Punk shows aren't typically held inside a church, but finding any venue willing to accommodate the subculture is slim pickings in post-wildfire Santa Rosa.
The punk scene here is mostly sour grapes for the dwindling population of "true heads" left. Ian O'Connor is a true head. He's the man behind Shock City, USA events (formerly Pizza Punx) for the past five years. A Shock City event may be the only live punk show in Santa Rosa for a month, sometimes longer.
"Pizza Punx started out as a joke on a flier," O'Connor says. "We'd get five pizzas from Little Caesars and two 24-packs of PBR for the bands. Now it's hummus and craft beer."
A Santa Rosa native, O'Connor witnessed the decline of what was once a promising environment for artists to live and express their art. "The people who used to make the scene left because of the expensive rent," he says. "We need new people. The older heads and key players aren't around anymore. Housing has a major effect on the scene."
Among the devastating fallout from the 2017 October wildfires is the damage done to the presence of a sustainable and thriving music scene. The wildfires' impact on the city's housing stock amplified what was already a housing crisis.
"In the early days it was smaller, DIY shows," O'Connor says. "In the first year of Pizza Punx, we had 100 percent house shows."
The existence of house-show hot-spots in the area, like Hendley House and Funkden, are now threatened by frustrated neighbors and opportunistic landlords looking to cash in, leaving the Orchard House as one of the only house-show options remaining in the city.
O'Connor has been forced to book shows at a tattoo parlor, a vintage clothing store and a tire shop owned by a friend's dad. Last April, O'Connor announced Shock City, USA will host its final show this fall. It's a major blow to a community attempting to establish an identity amid sweeping changes in a city forced to rebuild.
"The community that we worked so hard to build has been scattered," says Santa Rosa native and Acrylics vocalist Mark Nystrom. "Some of the folks who participate in attending shows don't have homes and had to relocate."
Nystrom started in the music scene four years ago. He now feels like the scene has to "start all over" following the wildfires.
"Just booking a show costs a promoter $200 to $300 to get a space, and that's a steal around here," he says. "We need to make spaces affordable and open to everyone; that means including more queer, more female and more people of color."
Local artist and event organizer Jasmine Partida collaborates with Nystrom to curate shows that provide a sense of inclusion. "I want to inspire the youth," she says. "I want them to see women, brown people, LGBTQ people, all of the above and beyond in bands, performing and showing art."
As a Mexican-American woman in a white male–dominated environment, Partida has a different viewpoint on the struggles within the scene. "I don't care about the music scene here because a lot of the men are so ego-driven, so insecure, so entitled," Partida says. "I care about the kids. I want them to feel inspired and let that inspiration drive them, mentally but also literally out of Sonoma County."
Nystrom shares her frustration and says the "farm-to-table wine country gentrification" creates an atmosphere only for those who can afford it. He believes Santa Rosa's economy is too reliant on tourism, which causes feelings of neglect among local youth. "Venues around here would rather have yoga night or wine country night than host a punk show."
Partida agrees. "Sonoma County has no interest in supporting artists and musicians that don't represent their aesthetic," she says. "If it's not Americana, or if the music or art steers away from wine culture, they're not interested."
One venue that serves as a beacon of hope is Atlas Coffee. The small cafe tucked away in the South A Street arts district of Santa Rosa is one of the premier places for punk shows.
Gregory Thompson, a local artist and Atlas Coffee employee, creates a welcoming space. "Being that artists run the shop and there is a recording studio next door, shows became part of the natural trajectory," Thompson says. "Atlas has been a hidden gem that provides unestablished artists the space to express themselves. We believe we need more spaces that run off creativity and not money. The owner is a huge supporter and advocate for the art community."
Thompson says the housing crisis is threatening people's economic security, which creates feelings of isolation—common themes among Santa Rosa's dwindling punk community.
"There is fear that having house shows will lead to evictions and not being able to find another home due to lack of housing because half our city fucking burned down," says B-Ward drummer and Santa Rosa native Mason Wilkinson.
B-Ward's guitarist, who goes by the name "Ducky," is a veteran of the scene and native of the city. "Ten years ago," he says, "I could get a room for $300; now you're lucky if you get a living room for less than $700."
The tech industry's rapid growth and the Bay Area's skyrocketing rents have forced many to cities like Petaluma and Santa Rosa. The influx of new residents and steady stream of tourists are straining local resources.
"We're getting all the problems that big cities have," Ducky says, "crime, traffic, rent hikes—but we're not getting the culture of a big city."
Ducky has seen fluctuating fortunes over time but he remains hopeful for the future. "The scene will be going off, then it'll die down, and pick back up again."
For others like Partida, it's not a matter of ebb and flow or raging wildfires; it's a matter of genuine unity. "The DIY scene here is not a strong community," she says. "I think the biggest threat to the community is the community itself."