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An ode to the punk house

For the right kind of person, the punk house is its own utopia

When I was a kid my mother would regale me with tales from her college years. She graduated high school in 1969 and went straight to UC Berkeley, so hers were not stories of sorority dances or tailgating at football games but rather of Barrington Hall, a notorious co-op that had a mural of a yellow submarine and hosted something she called “nude wine dinners.” I was probably 10 years old and, as an only child, spent a lot of time in solitude. Hearing my mother’s stories, I imagined wandering from room to room and watching people make papier-mache sculptures, debate politics, or do other interesting things all around me. I became obsessed with the idea of living communally.

By the time I was in high school, I got a taste of that life, that just-controlled chaos, in the form of a punk house in Santa Cruz, California, the town where I grew up. The punk house is a communal home, often to people roughly commensurate to college age but not necessarily, where residents live and love and pursue creative projects in tandem, all under the do-it-yourself ethos of punk. If you spy shredded vintage Star Wars sheets used as curtains, it is probably a punk house. There are screen-printing projects, mismatched dishes, tofu in the middle of being fried, and someone always sleeping on a couch. A punk house doesn’t have to revolve around a band, but many do, and host concerts in their basements or living rooms.

For the right kind of person, the punk house is its own utopia. The creativity, the music, the DIY lifestyle, and the idealism make it something more than a group of roommates sharing a house. But there’s also an anything-goes attitude that’s essential for living in a place where a band from Minnesota could be sleeping in your living room at any given time. In that way, the punk house lacks the rigidity and rules one associates with intentional living.

“It came out of the hippie movement in the 1960s: a combination of communal living and living with a group that’s not the nuclear family,” says Abby Banks, a photographer whose book Punk Houses: Interiors in Anarchy (Abrams) came out 10 years ago. She put the book together after she and a friend took a three-and-a-half-month road trip across the country in the fall of 2004 and shot 6,000 photos in 65 punk homes with names like House of 1,000 Daggers, Fuck Pit, Anarchtica, and the Ark.

“Children of counterculture parents who got into punk may have had similar values, but there was some rebellion there, so some places that had been hippie communes morphed into punk as that culture grew from the two coasts,” Banks says. I guess, in that way, I was typical. I didn’t want to follow in what I saw as my parents’ generation’s footsteps and, say, follow the Grateful Dead on tour. Hippies, I would sigh, and roll my eyes.

Instead, I found myself in my early teens through punk. I started high school right as Nirvana’s Nevermind had come out, and went down an indie music rabbit hole from there. By the time I was a junior in high school, around 1994, I had seen mysterious paper flyers for concerts—we called them “shows”; “concerts” sounded like seeing Metallica—with what looked like home addresses or strange names listed. “Bixby,” “Gault Street,” and at strange hours like 3:00 p.m. on a Sunday. Eventually, some friends and I shored up the courage to explore.

If my life were a movie, this would be the part when Dorothy lands in Oz and suddenly the film goes to color. Everyone around me seemed so much older and more sophisticated (in reality, they were maybe two or three years older than me, but anyone with their own checkbook was a grown-up in my eyes). Who lived there? Certainly not all 30 or so people there could. At home, my bedroom was a yuppie splendor of matte white walls, glass bricks, and mauve blinds, but here rooms were mostly empty save for an occasional couch shoved to the wall or an armchair with the stuffing creeping out of it.

My friend Summer, who lived in one of the houses, remembered the kitchen. “We had flour tortillas, Rosarita refried beans, beer—so much beer—whiskey, maybe some cereal if we were lucky, and God knows what else,” she said. “In the bathroom there was makeup for the boys and the girls. There was a photographer I was in a love triangle with—I was the one who didn’t have two partners—who took these amazing black-and-white photos of everyone that would hang on the wall. She really had a beautiful eye, and would put her friends in thrift-store suits or capture them drinking and smoking or just staring dead on in the camera with an arresting Mapplethorpe gaze. And she had a typewriter and perennial cigarette. In fact we all had typewriters, and would clack away sending love letters to each other, our favorite bands, or in the production of our zines. It was like our own little Andy Warhol factory.”

Even though I went to shows where Summer lived and saw her band play, we never really knew each other. I was shy then in a way that feels almost laughable now. But those years have a way of staying with us. Through friends I did make in that era, I met a woman named Cathy in New York City after college. Cathy had gone to college in Santa Cruz and had worked downtown at a famous cookie shop. She has the kind of bone structure money can’t buy. Summer had noticed her during college, and at shows, as the super-cute cookie girl as well. “Punk organized us in ways we could have never guessed,” she said. Almost 20 years after the three of us were all living in Santa Cruz, Cathy and Summer reconnected. That launched an epistolary romance that turned into a real-life romance. I attended their wedding a couple of years ago. It’s weird to think we were probably three of just a few dozen people watching a band play in a living room on the other side of the country.

I ended up going to college in Olympia, Washington, and living alone. Maybe craving solitude is a legacy of being an only child, maybe it’s because I turned out to be something of a neat freak, or maybe it’s just because I can’t get work done without a lot of silence. But my entire social life revolved around a punk house called the Bus Stop that all my closest friends—Chamomile, Amanda, Anitra, and Marc—lived in together. (Chamomile moved out after a few months and another friend, Kathryn, moved in.) I want to say I found the ad on campus for a house on the city’s East Side for rent in the late spring of 1996, but maybe that’s my memory writing myself into the narrative.

“There were a lot of art projects—photo shoots where we would melt wax on ourselves and pretend we were in a zombie movie,” Kathryn told me recently. “Amanda once made a super 8 short where she got in the bathtub and filled it with milk.” They had a mini George Foreman grill that they made little toasted triangle sandwiches on, and Amanda went through a phase where she made a lot of crepes. It was fairly clean for a punk house, but I still vividly recall picking up a container of noodles from Saigon Rendez-Vous, the Vietnamese restaurant everyone loved, and eating it until someone told me they had been sitting out on the counter for a few weeks.

Kathryn is 40 and I’m 41. It’s safe to say neither one of us has a solid grasp on how people half our age are living, but punk houses are surely different. “It doesn’t exist anymore, not in the pre-internet, pre-social media way we had it,” Kathryn says. “There were probably 1,000 people total in that underground punk scene across the country. It was a small community with DIY values—that was the ethos of what that scene was. You know: We’re not selling out, we’re doing our thing that’s not part of the mainstream. There was a lot of judgment about what you could and couldn’t do, what was permissible and not, which is both good and bad.” Even though people streamed in and out of the house, there was no theft—the values of the scene prevented it. But maybe living in groups and making decisions as groups and following chore wheels can be exhausting, and that’s why punk houses have high turnover rates.

The Bus Stop no longer exists as a punk house. The structure is currently the Myong Sae Salon & Spa and is painted several shades of purple with hearts on the shutters, like a psychedelic gingerbread house. Other punk houses that dotted Olympia are gone, like Lucky 7 (named for a convenience store nearby), the House of Doom, the Taco Bell House (which was stucco, like the signature architecture of the fast-food chain). But there are ones that made it. The Track House in Olympia is still a punk house and now painted black, supposedly by the landlord, rumored to be a Satanic dentist who owns several investment properties, all painted the same dark shade. The Track House even has a house Gmail account, but an email I sent to it went unanswered. Very punk.

It’s hard to say if there are fewer punk houses than in the ’80s or ’90s partly because of their transient nature. Most people live in punk houses during transitional periods of their lives. Like my friends at the Bus Stop, they graduate and move out, or they move to a different city, or they do something else with their lives, or move in with significant others, or decide they want nice furniture and to live alone. Certainly not everyone—there are couples with kids who live in them, and punk houses where a collective owns it, like Collective a GoGo in Worcester, Massachusetts, which is celebrating its 23rd year.

The dissolution of some punk homes is about more than personal choice: They’ve fallen to neighborhood change. Punk houses are often in neighborhoods that were once cheap, but the cycle of gentrification makes their property highly valuable (and loud music coming from a house not). “Cities and neighborhoods change over the years,” Abby said. “If you look at Oakland and the massive changes that have been happening there, or LA on the eastside.... In Portland, Oregon, there are tons of punk house bought right before the real estate tipping point.”

Or maybe it’s a case of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. These days, maybe there’s a group text instead of a chore wheel and a pilfered Netflix password instead of stolen long-distance calling cards, but the decor, the rite of passage, the vibe of punk houses remain the same. “Some punk houses have been passed down through generations. There’s a spot in New York City that’s been handed down from person to person,” Ben Charles Trogdon, a punk and photographer, told me. “But then there’s the older generation who maybe weren’t opening their houses to crazy kids so they started their own. That energy always exists. You know, where your friend’s black metal band is practicing at 2 p.m. on a Saturday and you can’t hear anyone talk but you have to be cool with it because that’s the only place and time where it could happen. It’s a little like camp. It feels very free.” People even post photos of flyers for punk shows on Instagram. The location is the hashtag #askapunk, so you have to know to DM that person or ask around (which protects the house’s location), but it’s a small barrier to entry for those interested.

Ben had been in Olympia recently. One morning, he showed up at a punk house he had been to before even though he didn’t know anyone who lived there or if they were awake. “I knocked on the door and it was unlocked, so I opened it up and walked in,” he said. “Of course there was someone sleeping on the couch who was really hungover. So I just shot the shit with this 19-year-old on the couch and slowly but surely more people woke up. Then we spent a lot of time just drinking coffee on the front porch. It’s a community hub and you know someone’s always going to be there. I instantly felt calm and at ease there. It’s where I belong, in a way.”

Marisa Meltzer is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn.