Despite Demolition Notice, LA DIY Institution The Smell Won't Go Down Without a Fight
We spoke with owner Jim Smith and No Age's Randy Randall about the venue's legacy and what happens next.
Photo via Instagram
Update (5:25 PST): The Smell's landowners may be changing their tune. Joe's Auto Parks COO Kevin Litwin tells Noisey that "We literally had no plans" to demolish the building, and that the company applied for the permit to leave the demolition option open. See below for a full statment issued to tenants.
If you’re in any way involved in a DIY scene, you’re already all too familiar with the frustration and panic that ensues when your go-to venue is threatened to be shuttered, destroyed, turned into a mall, a McDonalds, what have you. It’s happened countless times before—’tis the nature of the DIY beast for things to dissolve and be (hopefully) reborn—but patrons of downtown LA DIY institution The Smell aren’t letting the beloved punk venue and community space go down without a fight.
On the evening of May 27, owner Jim Smith discovered a notice posted outside the venue announcing that the property owners, L & R Group of Companies, have begun the process of demolishing the building, as well as the other buildings on the block, including The New Jalisco Bar, a gay bar that has served patrons for over 20 years, and the Downtown Independent, one of LA’s last dedicated independent film theaters. Since then, Smith has teamed up with the other tenants on the block to sort out what can be done.
“At first I didn't believe it,” Smith tells Noisey. “I thought the friend who brought it to my attention was confused, until they did some more digging, and sent me pics. Then it was just shock and dismay.”
The all-ages Smell has been a punk haven for kids and adults alike for nearly two decades; there’s no other place like it in LA. For both natives and transplants, the Smell is a gateway into the live music scene of a city whose decentralized layout, public transport woes, and particularly tight age restrictions can make musical discovery and collaboration particularly trying. Since opening in 1998, the venue has helped give rise to acts including HEALTH, No Age, Ponytail, Carla Bozulich, Abe Vigoda, and the Mai Shi; the venue is featured on the cover of No Age’s breakout Weirdo Rippers and was captured in the 2009 DVD Live at the Smell.
"The socioeconomic boundaries of LA are so strong—it’s a self-imposed segregation, but a place like the Smell defies race and class and all these other dividing markers in LA," says No Age guitarist Randy Randall. "It’s impervious to that. It has its own magic allure. It breaks down those barriers. The Smell lets you experience music and community in a real way where it wasn't a house party or community center.”
It’s the place where a kid who’s never picked up a guitar before will start a band because they saw their classmate play there, or where you can go see Ty Segall randomly on a Wednesday night, or Mika Miko before they became Bleached. The Smell is the kind of place where Smith will offer you a place to practice for free and put you on a bill because he believes in your band. More than a cheap, all-ages venue, it’s an entire musical community, and where the roots of LA’s local scene have been planted since it held its first shows 18 years ago.
"It was the first time I saw somebody play with no stage, no lights, no bouncers," says Randall, who attended some of The Smell's earliest shows, including the likes of Minutmen's Mike Watt, as a teenager. "People were all gathered there just to see someone perform music and had a shared passion about it. It really planted that seed that I could do it. Until then I was a shy kid in my bedroom with a four track. Then I thought, maybe I should get out of my bedroom. Maybe I should play a place like The Smell. But there is no place 'like The Smell.' There's only The Smell."
This is what we know so far: Legally, tenants must be given at least 30 days to vacate the premises after receiving a demolition notice, though Smith and company believe that they most likely have more time than that. While the permit itself has not yet been approved, the notice and 30 day wait period is standard procedure, and as the notice rather ominously notes, “public comment will have no impact on this project.”
Smith tried contacting the owners over the holiday weekend, but has thus far been unable to reach them. Noisey has also reached to L & R with a request for comment, but received no response at press time.
L & R is the parent company of Joe’s Auto Parks, which runs a number of pay lots in the area, and Smith has heard rumors from several sources familiar with the company that the block will be turned into either a parking lot or structure. Now, the group of tenants on the block is working together to see if there is anything they can do to stop the demolition process, or at least delay it for as long as possible.
In the meantime, Smith is taking the news in stride—after all, this is not the first time the Smell has been threatened with such action.
“For the first year and a half we were in North Hollywood at a much smaller space, and because of the forces of gentrification, we were forced to relocate. That’s how we ended up in the space we are downtown,” he says. “If we have to relocate, that’s kind of our ‘Plan B’, so the more time we have to plan that out and fundraise the better. Ideally we want to find a building we can purchase and put a down payment on and call it our own, so we won’t be back here in another five or ten years.”
Since posting a picture of the notice on the venue’s Facebook page Saturday morning, he has received an outpouring of concern and support from people all over the world—by his last count over the weekend, the news had been shared in over 20 countries, and he’s had artists reach out to him, including No Age’s Randall and Dean Spunt who have been meeting with him to figure out how to take on the situation, as well as share the impact the Smell has had on them.
Randall says the venue's location is less important that banding together to ensure The Smell continues to have a home somehwere in LA for the next generation of kids.
"That was always the idea, the DIY spirit. It’s a community of DIY people making the next phase even better," he says. "No Age started at a time when it wasn’t necessarily popular to be doing what we were doing, even in an undeground way. We asked to play The Smell, and I don't think we would've had that opportunity with the more traditional venues. For bands starting out you kind of have to suck for awhile, and The Smell helped us go through all those awkward growing phases. There would be maybe only 20 people there, if you’re lucky. It sounds like shit in there and you have to learn not to rely on the PA. So trying new ideas and meeting people at The Smell was incredibly beneficial."
“It’s been really moving,” says Smith. A petition to stop the demolition was started independently of the Smell and has since been adopted by the venue, which has also launched a GoFundMe page with an official statement on the news. The information, along with a guestbook where visitors can talk about memories they have of the Smell and what it means to them, will also be available on the venue’s website.
No matter what happens, Smith plans to remain in downtown LA. “I feel optimistic we can survive in one form or another,” he says, adding that Daniel, a local homeless man who has become the venue’s unofficial security guard, and nearly as iconic as the venue itself, has given his word that he will follow. “Wherever we move, he’s gonna come with us.”
In an email to Noisey, Joe's Auto Parks COO Kevin Litwin provided a copy of the following letter, which he says will be hand-delivered this week to tenants who received the demolition notice, including The Smell:
We apologize for any inconvenience or concern caused by the posting of the demolition notice this past Friday, we had hoped to communicate with you prior to that occurring. In no way should the demolition notice be considered Landlord's 30-day notice to terminate the Lease. Instead, Landlord is merely considering the potential for demolishing the building at some point the future, which is why the notice was posted per local rules as a prerequisite to pulling a demolition permit. Rest assured that if Landlord ultimately decides to demolish the building, you will be given adequate notice to ensure that you have time to make alternative arrangements for relocation.
Thank you for your attention to this matter. If you should have any questions related to this matter, please feel free to contact me at 310-207-6990 ext. 3225 or email me at . Thank you.
as agent of RP Realty Partners
c/o LR Main Street Arena, LLC
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.
Andrea Domanick and Peter Holslin contributed to this report.