Punk Paradise Lost
RAW Haus's creative life & sudden death
A hard rain fell as city inspectors Tony Savoni and Milt Andrews arrived at 715 Miller on Thursday, August 20. A pair of cops came with them, because Savoni and Andrews weren't there just to inspect the battered Victorian house next to Miller Manor. If it wasn't up to code, they were there to evict the residents--and nobody knew how they'd take it.
"When we pulled up, twenty young people scattered out the back door, along with a number of dogs," Savoni says. "One police officer went to the front door and asked everybody to leave, while Milt and I went around to the back.
"We entered the house and walked through. The house was very messy and filled with debris. There was graffiti on the walls. The upstairs plumbing did not appear to work. There was bedding in the basement. There was bedding in the attic. There appeared to be people living in the garage. The house was only to be occupied by six people, and there were definitely more than six people living there.
"Based on all these violations," says Savoni, "we determined the house needed to be vacated and posted immediately." Both 715 Miller and the already vacant house next door at 713 were boarded up that afternoon. And Ann Arbor's punk music scene mourned.
For ten years, the two houses had been an ad hoc artists' collective. The ever-changing cast of characters included glassblowers, circus performers, and a road-kill taxidermist, but the baselines were youth and music. A couple of times a month, hardcore bands would thrash the night away in the living room of 715. Residents documented the shows with a meticulous entry on punkopedia.com, a printed zine, and a MySpace page with 583 friends.
This youthful creativity flourished with the blessing of the houses' elderly landlord, who never seemed to mind his tenants' zany escapades. The downside, tenants say, was that he didn't maintain the houses--and finally stopped paying the mortgage. The landlord
says that's because the tenants didn't always pay their rent.
The crisis came this summer. In the end, the only question was who'd drop the hammer--the city inspectors or the bank.
"The RAW Haus never slept"
On a sun-drenched September afternoon, Chuck Rock meets me outside the downtown Sweetwaters. Rock's black hair streaked with red, his fingernails painted black, and his body covered with tattoos attract a lot of looks from passersby. A few men frown, and more than a few women smile.
Rock, thirty-one, earns his living as the receiving manager at the People's Food Co-op. By night, though, he's a punk celebrity: as Preposterous the Clown, he performs scary stunts like lying on a bed of nails while a confederate sledgehammers a cinder block on his chest.
"I was the first resident of the RAW," Rock says proudly. When he arrived in 1999, he recalls, "the floor was as polished as a basketball court--you could see yourself in it--and [the house] had nice wooden finishes and engraved door hinges."
RAW stood for Rotten Apple Workshop, from Rotten Apple Records, an underground label. "When it started, the RAW Haus was basically a bunch of people doing arts and crafts," Rock explains. "We had metalsmiths, jewelry makers, three glassblowers, painters in every medium you can imagine, sculptors, circus performers, burlesque performers, and writers.
"We had bands and shows on the weekend. We had Ninja Matt doing yoga in West Park. We had home brewing and a lot of cooking with a lot of potlucks. It was very much a community center, and it was always awesome."
None of this would have been possible, Rock says, without the blessing of the landlord, Art Simsar. Simsar had connections to the art world--his ex-wife, Alice, had owned a prominent local gallery--and he looked the part. One time, Rock went over to his house on Forest to pay the rent and found him smoking a pipe and drinking absinthe.
"Art would appoint a mayor over the house--they lived in what we called the mayoral suite, the biggest bedroom in the house--and he or she was the most responsible party there and in charge of getting the rent to Art," Rock explains. "We did pretty much everything ourselves--repairs, upkeep, and whatnot--and whatever we did, we could deduct it from the rent, and Art would say, 'Thank you so much. You are a saint, a saint.'
"There was never a lease," Rock says as he rolls a cigarette, "and there was only one key, so the place was unlocked the whole time I lived there. But the RAW Haus never slept. Because some of the people who lived there worked in bars or restaurants, there was always someone who'd just got off work up in the living room having a beer and unwinding."
Rock cages a light and continues. "We always took care of each other. We used to have orphan Thanksgiving and Christmas for people without parents or who didn't get along with their parents. We'd get food from the Salvation Army and make big dinners and watch movies in the living room, just like a real family. Because we were a real family."
A real big family. "The lowest number of people staying there was maybe five or six," says Rock, but, with friends staying over and visitors passing through, "mid- to high teens would not be an unreasonable number. Once there were twenty people living in bunk beds in the garage and surviving on food stamps. One guy kept a running tally of the people who lived there, and I'm confident it got into triple digits."
"It was paradise"
"The first time I went there was with my band, the Axis of Evil, in late 2001," says Jef Jenkins, now a manager at the Blind Pig. "We set up our show there at the last minute, and it was great: three bands, and the place was packed." Jenkins liked it so much he moved in.
Rachal Holmes, currently a Washtenaw County staff attorney, didn't live there, but she vividly remembers going to shows there. "It was definitely ill kept but funky--creatively decorated and a little run-down, but fun, a place where you could party without breaking anything nice."
The landlord didn't seem to mind. Jenkins says Simsar "could be very persistent when people didn't pay rent," but he never evicted anyone. "People wanted to go there and have fun no matter what," Jenkins recalls fondly, and "you were able to go there anytime, whether you were invited or not."
As Jenkins got older, though, the constant partying got to be too much. Three years ago, he moved out (Chuck Rock left around the same time). But Jenkins didn't go far--just next door, to the "WAR Haus" at 713 Miller. "It's called WAR because it's backwards to RAW," Jenkins explains. He still hung out at the RAW, but when things got too wild there, he'd retreat to the quieter house next door.
But for every resident who got older and moved on, there was a new kid drawn by the music and freedom.
My son, John Leonard, started hanging at RAW in 2005, when he was sixteen. In April 2008, he and his friend Joe Kupiec moved in. "It was filth and squalor," says John, "but there were older people living there then, and they kept things in line."
"It was paradise," says Joe, a nineteen-year-old with bushy sideburns and a ready smile. "All the cool people were there!"
But paradise would soon be lost. "All the people who were mentors left," says Joe. "They'd all been doing it since high school, and they were sick of seeing crusty kids moving in and messing things up. With all the kids my age who moved in, there was a gap between the two generations."
Time might have fixed the generation gap--everybody grows up eventually--but by then, time was running out.
A no-tolerance policy
Considering all that went on there, the residents of the RAW attracted surprisingly little attention from the Ann Arbor Police Department. From 2002 through 2007, the police were called to the house just eight times and wrote two noise tickets--pretty paltry considering the hundreds of punk shows held during those years. But in the house's last eighteen months, the cops came forty-two times and wrote sixteen tickets for noise, disorderly conduct, and sundry other misdemeanors.
There were never any drug or felony charges. "These guys aren't hardcore criminals," explains AAPD Sgt. Craig Flocken, who worked the midnight shift last summer. "They're just kids that haven't moved on into the real world yet."
The cops won't say--and redacted responses to FOIA requests don't reveal--who started calling them on a regular basis starting in the spring of 2008. But John and Joe believe the authorities targeted them. John says, "The cops have a no-tolerance policy towards the house."
Bob West, the assistant city attorney who's followed the property for years, says the residents brought the trouble on themselves. "Is 715 Miller a public nuisance?" he asks rhetorically. "For the people who live around it, it is....No matter who the tenants are, there's always noise violations. It's young white kids into bands. There's nothing wrong with that per se, but, when you live next door, it's a problem."
There were few complaints last winter, when people had their windows closed. But come spring, the AAPD was often getting called to the house once or twice a week. This year, Sgt. Flocken's first call to 715 Miller came just after midnight in late April.
"When I got there, a bunch of people were on the front porch, and when they saw us pull up, they scattered into the house so they didn't have to talk with me. But one person came out wearing clothes that appeared to be a dress--the people there dress in all sorts of ways--and he was very cooperative. As far as that goes, they're always very cooperative."
Flocken gave the residents a warning that night--but from that point on, he says, the midnight shift did in fact adopt a no-tolerance policy. When they got another complaint the following week, the responding officer wrote my son a $150 ticket. "We like to start the summer off with the houses getting tickets for parties, so they get the idea that this is not the most conducive way of doing business," explains Flocken. "We do it with fraternity houses and any other houses that disturb the peace consistently."
It was an expensive lesson, but not fatal. In the end, it wasn't the police who shut down the RAW Haus. The Ann Arbor building department, the bank, and his own freewheeling tenants finally caught up to Art Simsar.
"It's a lost cause"
Simsar was famous among the houses' residents for dodging city inspectors--Chuck Rock calls it "false fronting." But last November, an inspector got into the RAW and wrote a damning, two-and-a-half page report. The violations cited ranged from "over occupancy" to "residence appeared uninhabitable."
At that point, "a letter was mailed to the owner, who had sixty to ninety days to take care of the violations," inspector Savoni says. In late March, another inspector went out, "but nobody was there to let him in."
At that point, apparently, the house fell off the inspectors' radar screen. But the same month, CitiMortgage foreclosed.
Simsar had bought the properties in 1985 for $45,000. County records show that he refinanced them seven times in the last twelve years, each time for bigger amounts. By the time he stopped making payments late last year, he owed $170,000.
It wasn't all Simsar's fault. The RAW Haus rented for $1,700 a month--not bad split six ways, and even better split eight, ten, or even twenty ways. John and Joe say that when they lived there, the rent was paid in full every month. But next door at WAR, the $1,600 rent was split just four ways--and according to Jef Jenkins, "somebody would be always be hundreds if not thousands of dollars behind."
In March, the chickens came home to roost. "One day, there were notes taped to the front doors saying the house was being foreclosed," says Jenkins. Residents say Simsar came by the WAR Haus only once after that: "He said something like, 'It's a lost cause, best of luck to you,'" Jenkins remembers, "and we never saw him again."
Next door at the RAW, no one remembers even a perfunctory goodbye. "We got a notice on our door saying the property had been foreclosed," says Joe--and since they'd been paying their rent consistently, "it was a real kick in the pants."
By then, "the house had started to go to shit," John says. "The plumbing was almost entirely shot; the downstairs toilet hadn't flushed in months and was beginning to reek so strongly of piss that I had to keep the bathroom door shut at all times. Until then the house was still pretty well maintained, excluding the problems that that shystie little muppet Art should have fixed. However, once we knew we were getting evicted, we trashed the house. We hardly ever cleaned, we spray-painted the walls, one night we went after the wall with sledgehammers and steel chairs. Once we stopped caring was the beginning of the end of house."
John, Joe, and their housemates left the RAW in June. The residents at the WAR left shortly afterwards. "When they moved out [of RAW], it was a big incentive for us," says Jenkins. "When there were people there who paid rent who took care of things, I could talk to them. Now I had a cadre of squatters who didn't care all that much about anything."
The squatters who moved in after John and Joe left included their friend Austin Donnelly. Despite its dire physical condition, Donnelly says, the RAW was "the kind of place I like to live: a house where people trade skills and share food and learn to live as a small community with ideals and stuff." He was one of ten people living there, none of whom paid rent--though Donnelly says they did spend some money to fix up the back stairs.
Even among the squatters, the communal spirit of the house lived on. But the stairs were the least of the RAW's building code violations. On August 18, both Sgt. Flocken and I independently called the city attorney's office with questions about the house. On August 19, assistant attorney Kristin Larcom looked at the property--and the next day, she had Tony Savoni and Milt Andrews out there to close the house down.
Afterward, Larcom went to Simsar's home on South Forest. Like the Miller houses, it was fronted by shrubs so overgrown they shaded the second-story windows.
"We spoke face to face," Larcom reports. "I'm guessing [he is] about eighty. He was well dressed and appeared to be in good health. He didn't seem aware of the condition of the property. It would be my assumption he hadn't been there in a while."
When I called Simsar about the eviction in August, he told me, "I don't want to talk about it." But when I called back in October, he was more forthcoming. Asked about the maintenance problems, he says the buildings were expensive to keep up and the tenants "were behind with the rent." As for the foreclosure, he says, "I couldn't make the payments. And that was that."
As Larcom guessed, he hasn't seen the place in a while--and he says "I'm not interested in seeing it now." But like the residents, he'll miss the RAW: "I loved it, too. It was beautiful."
Simsar "hasn't been charged with anything," Larcom points out. "From the city's standpoint, he has to pay the bill for the boarding up, and it costs a lot to get a contractor out, especially at short notice. But the rest of it--the inspectors, the police, everybody's time and energy--is your taxpayers' dollars at work. We all pay for it."
Who killed the RAW Haus?
"Who's responsible?" asks Chuck Rock. "That's a sticky wicket. You could blame Art for stopping taking care of the house. Or you could blame the kids for being late with the rent. In the end, it's really everybody's fault." Rock says with a sigh. "I'm just sad to see it go."
John and Joe are too. "I had some of the best times of my life at that house," John says, "and it is a shame that it's gone." But they have moved on--and, some might say, grown up.
With friends, they're now renting a house on North Main. "We're trying to keep the same spirit but without all of the problems of the RAW," John says. "We all learned a lot about living in a house, and we're trying not to fall into the same traps."
They've already avoided one. When John's band, FAS, wanted to play a show there, they got a noise permit from the city beforehand--and promised to shut the music down by 10 p.m.
Predictably, their new neighbors called to complain. But this time, when the cops showed up, they saw the permit, smiled, and wished them a good evening.
[Originally published in November, 2009.]