Our Existence Is Political: The Undercroft, a sober, all-ages venue builds community in Remington

Sean McFarland Steph Joyal, and Chris Belkas of The Undercroft / Photo by Marie Machin

Steph Joyal saw the words posted outside Remington’s Church of the Guardian Angel — “UNDERCROFT FOR RENT.”

It was late 2017 and Joyal was a comedian working as a dog walker, but they had an idea which until that moment had been a more distant idea for them, like learning Japanese: To create an inclusive arts space which doubled as a community hub and avoided the many problems, organizationally and culturally, that marred many of the clubs and spaces around Baltimore.

“I’m just a random comedian who isn’t even out as trans yet being like we’ve gotta do something about these shitty, shitty venues,” they said, thinking back to summer 2016 when the idea was first percolating.

After seeing the sign, Joyal googled “undercroft” and found out that it’s a word that has been used since the middle ages to refer to a cellar or storage space beneath a church. When they reached out to the church to ask for a tour of the undercroft, they didn’t know what they’d find inside.

“I had no idea what was down here at all,” Joyal said. “I had no idea how big it was. I only saw the sign.”

A member of Guardian Angel’s vestry gave them a tour. What they found was a far cry from a weird little basement: A set of stone stairs beside the church’s main entrance lead down to a grassy courtyard. A mural on the exterior wall of the church depicted a city skyline and green mountains beneath a rainbow, a swirling sun and two angels in the sky. Inside, the walls were patterned blue and orange with pink trim. A brightly painted stage dominated one end of the basketball court-sized main room, bisected by wall that doesn’t quite fully stretch wall-to-wall.

The area was outfitted to be a daycare, complete with a kitchen and tiny, kid-sized toilets. Through a smaller carpeted room at the back, there was a dark, grimy storage room with rotting floorboards which was probably closest to the weird little basement Joyal expected.

For years, Joyal had been frustrated with venues that struggled to deal with interpersonal conflicts, problems with safety, sexual assault, and discrimination. More recently, they had come to realize that if they wanted to find a venue that matched their commitment to accessibility and inclusion, they’d have to open their own.

This space seemed like the right one.

Joyal pitched a plan to the Church of the Guardian Angel for a music venue that was also a way to expand community resources.

“I wanted to create a space that would fill the genuine needs of the community,” Joyal told me as they lugged music equipment around to tidy up the carpeted back room. “Trans people need safe space. People who don’t have money need space. Working families need space.”

They didn’t forget about daycare, though — that would operate there in during the day. At the time, one of Joyal’s dog walking clients was Angie Schaffer, a Remington native who had recently moved back to Baltimore with her husband and two kids after working in Brooklyn and D.C. While the two were chatting one day, Joyal started telling her about their idea for the space beneath Guardian Angel.

“I think I’m supposed to talk to you about that,” Schaffer told Joyal.

Schaffer, it turned out, needed somewhere for Red Wagon, her family meeting and play space for young children and parents to meet, talk, and learn together. There had been a few pilot launches for Red Wagon around Baltimore, but Schaffer was looking for somewhere more permanent. She wanted to set up a cooperative daycare where parents could take turns watching the kids while the other parents worked nearby. Red Wagon, even in its early phases, was shown to be as much a place for parents as kid.

“As much as kids need a place to be, parents also need a place to come and socialize,” Schaffer said. “We wanted to make people feel like there’s a place for families with young kids in the city.”

The day time daycare side of Joyal’s vision was in place—and because the church had used it as a daycare before, it had already passed inspection and had signs over emergency exits, push bar doors and a fire alarm system.  Within a month of Joyal’s tour, they presented a written business proposal to Guardian Angel’s vestry, including plans for funding though that wasn’t yet in place.

“They definitely put a lot of trust in me and gave me financial support by setting a rent within reach,” Joyal said.

Guardian Angel’s Pastor Alice Basset-Jellema considers the Undercroft part of the church’s efforts to make the church a community center for Remington — an addition to what Basset-Jellema called “standard church things” Guardian Angel does to make an inclusive and welcoming space, such as the church’s food pantry, thrift shop, and homework club.

As Remington has gentrified, Basset-Jellema explained, she has seen an increasing divide between longtime residents and those who have recently moved to the neighborhood. Though these groups often hold one another at arm’s length, Basset-Jellema said, she wants to bring them together.

“If we’re trying to heal the country, heal the city and heal the neighborhood, we’ve got to find ways for people from each economic identity to interact with each other in a neutral way,” she said. “We’re trying to make it a safe and welcoming place for everybody.”

The Undercroft stage / Photo by Marie Machin

Joyal had no funding yet, no experience running a DIY venue, and really, no partners to help bring their vision to life. Then a friend introduced them to Chris Belkas, a member of Charm City Arts Space (CCAS), an all-ages, volunteer-run venue which closed after 13 years in 2015.

After CCAS closed, Belkas worked with fellow CCAS member Sean McFarland to start a new organization, but they struggled to find a venue that was big enough with low enough rent. Joyal wanted to learn more about Belkas’ experiences at CCAS so that they would have a better idea of how to go about opening their own venue.

In 2009, before both Belkas and McFarland were part of CCAS, a CCAS member alleged that they had been abused and their consent violated by another member. According to Belkas, CCAS didn’t have a clear plan in place to respond to the situation. Many in the scene said the space mishandled it (for details on CCAS’ history and the 2009 incident, read founding CCAS member Jes Skolnik’s “An Elegy For Charm City Art Space”). The eventual end result of this public reckoning—years before #MeToo finally made the public at-large aware of these institutional issues—was that CCAS became part of Hollaback Baltimore’s Safer Space Campaign, publicly committing to ending harassment against women, LGBTQ+ folks, and facilitating a safe space.

“Sometimes the best way to learn how things work is to be a part of them when they don’t work,” Joyal said.

Belkas and McFarland explained that when they sought to open a new space, it was important for to establish a clear set of policies about how to address these conflicts that he and his fellow members agreed upon. They would build on the lessons learned at CCAS.

“We aren’t going to be dragging our feet and questioning what we should and shouldn’t do. We need something in place that we can easily follow — an action plan,” Belkas said. “It’s important, while we’re asking people for money and putting ourselves more out into the community, that we have these kind of things in place.”

Joyal and Belkas arranged to meet at Common Ground in Hampden and the encounter felt profound.

“We were sitting in the back room and the walls were empty, and somebody was like, hanging a new art show,” Joyal said. “Chris was like, ‘I just want to point out I think it’s very serendipitous that over the course of our conversation about building a space, the room we’ve been sitting in has suddenly been filled with art.’”

Belkas agreed to get involved. McFarland came on board with Belkas soon after, and with Joyal, Belkas and McFarland working together, The Undercroft Collective was born.

In just a few months, they worked to transform the interior of The Undercroft. They painted over the bright colors around the stage with black and white and created wall panels on wheels to close off the daycare in the evenings. They turned the carpeted back room into a practice space. Joyal’s friend Corynne Ostermann, a local artist and designer and member of the band Natural Velvet, donated a dozen 4×8 wood panels painted with a maximalist floral design which she had created as a backdrop in the music video for Micah E. Wood’s “Club Song.”

“I’d primed the stage grey to just neutralize the daycare colors, and it looked boring,” Joyal said. “I had these floral panels sitting in the back, so I just put a couple of them on the stage as a temporary solution and people fell in love with them immediately.”

Things moved quickly from there. Red Wagon moved into the space in June, and they began renting the practice room out for band rehearsals around the same time. Punx Picnic in early July was The Undercroft’s first booked show. A couple of the musicians who used the practice space were also involved with organizing Punx Picnic, Joyal explained and The Undercroft was able to host the second night of the festival.

A couple of weeks after Punx Picnic, The Undercroft hosted punk band Santa Librada for the launch of their latest record “Something to Say.” It was the first day of Artscape at the peak of July, and it was hot and stuffy inside The Undercroft.

“We had this really awesome, loud, very sweaty queer rock show,” Santa Librada frontwoman Rahne Alexander said.

A sweaty, queer rock show was certainly a marker for success for The Undercroft. Alexander had known about The Undercroft early on: Joyal spoke with her about the idea before even finding the space, identifying the need for an inclusive space like The Undercroft in Baltimore.

“There was plenty of room for the establishment of a place that was welcoming, especially to gender variant folks, queer folks and other marginalized people,” Alexander said.

Alexander said that The Undercroft could fill some of the space left in Baltimore’s arts scene after The Bell Foundry— an enclave for queer artists and artists of color—closed in December 2016. The city shut down The Bell Foundry citing code violations just days after 36 died in a fire at Ghost Ship, a similar arts space in Oakland. The Ghost Ship fire also kicked off an attack by right wing trolls reporting DIY and underground arts spaces across the country for code violations. The Undercroft then, is an attempt at bringing spaces in Baltimore for local arts communities back.

“After Ghost Ship burned down in Oakland, neo-Nazi trolls started looking up the addresses of DIY venues and reporting them to the city inspectors, so people were getting evicted, places were getting shut down, and people were essentially not running shows anymore,” Joyal said. “And so I knew that people needed a performance space and I figured we could get more volunteer community involvement in, or more involvement in community work and not just lip service activism if we were able to provide a resource to people.”

“In terms of what the space can do and in terms of its ethos, it’s able to provide something that doesn’t exist anywhere else in Baltimore currently,” Alexander said.

Hanging on the wall of The Undercroft / Photo by Marie Machin

The Undercroft occupies a liminal space — run like a DIY venue but with all of the proper permits and administrative structure, McFarland said: “Where we sit is maintaining our DIY collective ethos but bringing a more rigorous, systematic approach to the way that those things are typically handled. It’s not often that a DIY arts collective gets a federal tax ID, right?”

The Undercroft is also a sober, all-ages space, making it more accessible to a larger community.

“If you don’t have anything to do that’s fun and late on the weekend until you’re 21, that’s not really the best thing for kids,” Schaffer said. “Steph’s vision of the dry DIY venue for everyone — seriously everyone — takes it a step further.”

Schaffer noted a contrast between the people who use the space for Red Wagon — young parents, caretakers and even grandparents — and those who typically use The Undercroft as an arts space — mostly a younger crowd. Creating a space for that diversity is important in Baltimore, Schaffer said: “It sort of purposefully gets people together that might otherwise not have any opportunities in the natural course of their days to actually get together and talk with each other.”

At a show in February, that crowd filled the space in front of the stage, buzzing with chatter as they waited for the show to start. They’d come to see four local groups — Gloop, Leisure Sport, Manners Manners and Strange Attractor. As the few dozen folks milled about waiting for the performance to start, audience members gushed about the brightly painted floral panels, poked their heads back to check out Red Wagon’s daycare space or dropped their bags and jackets on the row of plastic elementary school chairs along the back wall.

Joyal kicked off the show by climbing on stage with a few reminders — including the no drinking rule. With the house lights down, a soft yellow glow bathed the stage in warmth and Gloop’s Dominic Gianninoto leaned into the mic and paused before strumming a single psychedelic chord to say, “Thanks for hanging out.”

The vibe, in a word: welcoming.

“It’s like a big home — the hominess of your living room,” Grace White, a member of local music collective Strange Attractor said that evening at the show. “I would bring my parents here. I’d also bring my kids here, but it still has the essence of Baltimore DIY.”

Along with shows, The Undercroft has hosted a clothing swap, a collaborative art workshop, a reading by trans science fiction author Otter Lieffe and an class on understanding the vital signs, among other programs. The number one long-term goal for The Undercroft is full physical accessibility—they’re planning to work with the church to get the grant money for an elevator.

“That would radically change the way the space exists while maintaining the ethic that we currently have,” McFarland said.

Belkas, Joyal and McFarland are this for the long haul. McFarland, who is looking to pursue a doctorate in music, only applied to schools in Maryland so that he would be able to stay and work with the space.

“It’s the furthest step I’ve ever taken towards doing this kind of work that I want to do, so I’d like to keep doing it,” McFarland said. “It’s very important to me.”

Joyal said that they would eventually transition to a membership model, which would hopefully encourage people to invest in The Undercroft not just financially but personally. A membership model would help The Undercroft make sure that everyone who wanted to get more involved shared the same commitment to the ideals of the space.

“We could give more to people coming into the space because they feel that they will be heard,” Joyal said. “A membership model would be a step towards building a community culture here that is a healthier discourse.”

Photo by Marie Machin

They is also a list of documents to be written, including an expanded mission statement, a sobriety policy for events, guidelines for volunteer training and others.

Joyal returned to their commitment to providing an accessible and inclusive space not just for artists but everyone in the community. Much-needed community resources, they said, would ensure that The Undercroft offered more than just “lip-service activism.”

“I wanted to see a space exist where, one: you encouraged an environment, you built a community that didn’t engender discriminatory behavior,” they said. “But also a space where you expect conflict because there will always be conflict and in that spirit you would be able to have a way of dealing with it.”

Joyal and McFarland, had been dragging a speaker across the practice room’s thin carpet. They paused to consider whether founding The Undercroft was a form of activism.

“Activist-leaning?” McFarland answered.

“It’s a political statement to have a sober, all-ages, volunteer-run venue founded by a trans person in an extremely liberal church,” Joyal said. “Nothing is apolitical. Our existence is political.”

On March 30 at 7 p.m., The Undercroft hosts “Steph + Marcy Host To Host,” a fundraising event and celebration featuring stand up comedy and live music.

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