Cops hop on hip
Joe’s Style Shop, an inexpensive place for art and music, has been closed by Sacramento officials because of safety concerns. The venue’s operator says it is harassment.
Joe’s Style Shop started as a clothing store, one of those places that had been a fixture of downtown Sacramento forever. But after the owner, Joe, passed away, the store found new life as an art space.
About five years ago, when a nonprofit artist’s group moved into the old building across from Cesar E. Chavez Plaza, the group kept the somewhat-kitschy name of the store. Since then, Joe’s Style Shop has become a hip gallery run by a nonprofit collective that also has hosted shows by local bands and hip-hop performers. The landlord rented tiny art studios and rehearsal spaces upstairs in the two-story building, and a small political group called Freedom Bound had space downstairs. Freedom Bound members called themselves a collective. The kids and artists who hung out there seemed to love the place: an affordable old joint where artists and freethinkers could hold fund-raisers, host shows and generally indulge their creativity.
All of this probably explains why they were so enraged last week when Sacramento city authorities shut the building down. Building, police and fire officials showed up mid-afternoon on Thursday, January 16. A couple hours later, an inspector with the city’s code-enforcement department declared the building at 920 J Street unsafe to enter. Tenants had a brief window of time to carry out their belongings.
When he arrived, Principal Building Inspector Josh Pino said he found a litany of safety violations that forced him to shut down the building immediately. Pino said he went out in response to a complaint from police, whom he had asked to tag along so that they could help identify violations they said they’d seen a few days before. After Pino issued the order to close the building on Thursday, workers were called in to board up the doors and windows, and a SMUD crew was called to cut power to the building.
Pino found rear fire exits boarded shut, a recording studio and performance stage that had been built without permits, and an electrical system that had been “severely tampered with by somebody who doesn’t know what they’re doing,” he said. Inspectors also believed that some of the art spaces upstairs were being lived in, though they couldn’t be sure.
“Based on what we saw, we had no option but to shut it down until the conditions were corrected,” Pino said. “It was very dangerous. If this place goes up, you’re not only endangering the building but the adjacent structures as well. You’d lose the whole block.”
The sudden closure left artists and musicians about two hours to get what they wanted out of the building. By nightfall, they were grumbling about the short notice and carrying boxes, art supplies and musical instruments down flights of stairs guided by flashlight.
Joe’s Style Shop coordinator Matt Rodriguez, however, said he doubts the building-code violations were the real issue. Instead, Rodriguez said, it’s the latest instance of Sacramento police unfairly targeting certain places. Rodriguez said the safety issues were an excuse to close down a venue that regularly hosts hip-hop shows.
“This has been an ongoing agenda with the city and the city police for the past year,” Rodriguez said. Police had been looking for a reason to jump on the gallery since a fight occurred outside the building, Rodriguez added, and had already dropped by “a couple dozen times.”
Rodriguez also said that police who accompanied the inspection last week “were searching through our stuff with flashlights and interrogating people who were in there recording” about who they were and what they were doing there. Rodriguez added that nobody lives in the building.
“It’s straight harassment,” he said.
Joe’s Style Shop, Rodriguez said, has been a gallery and studio for about five years, but it first started to attract increased attention from police “when we started having more than one hip-hop show a month.” The first incident, a year ago, Rodriguez said, involved a purse snatching and a fight that broke out in front of the building, neither of which involved anyone from Joe’s Style Shop.
Rodriguez insists that he didn’t dream up the idea that police were trying to shut the place down.
“In December, we had a hip-hop show, and four days before the show, we had a detective come in. He had a flier for the show, and he said the police department has concerns with hip-hop shows, and they’re trying to crack down.” (Officers from the Problem Oriented Policing beat who work the downtown area and are familiar with Joe’s Style Shop were unavailable for comment before press time.)
Department spokesman Sgt. Justin Risley said police have responded to Joe’s Style Shop several times in the last two months, though calls to the address weren’t necessarily related to the gallery or hip-hop shows.
On January 11, five days before building inspectors showed up, police were called to the space. Risley said it turned out to be because of a large gathering of about 75 people drinking alcohol around a makeshift bar.
Rodriguez and other artists who worked out of the building say the police inspection was a “raid” prompted by the police department’s discomfort with the hip-hop shows held there, but Risley said police routinely inspect establishments and tip off code-enforcement teams about potential violations.
Is the department trying to put a stop to hip-hop shows?
“It’s actually ridiculous that people make that statement,” Risley said. “It’s just simply not true. We want these things to go off and for everyone to have a good time, but public safety’s an issue, too.”
Risley added that it’s not necessarily hip-hop shows that police are concerned about. It’s any kind of an event at which promoters attract large crowds that drink a lot and that could cause problems in nearby areas. “We don’t focus on hip-hop shows. Any venue, the potential is there—bars, or anywhere you have large groups of people consuming alcohol,” he said. Just last weekend, Risley said, two people were shot in a parking lot outside of a bar where an overflow crow had gathered. One person was killed.
Still, the city has had repeated problems with hip-hop shows.
“It’s a really long history,” Risley said. “It’s been an ongoing effort with several downtown locations.” One of those was the Hard Rock Café, where promoters misrepresented an event that attracted a large crowd that later caused problems. Police and the restaurant, Risley said, later worked out “some agreements not to have certain types of shows.” In another instance last year, promoters booked a Cal Expo venue for a birthday party. “Next thing you know, it was a hip-hop thing, and when everybody left, people stopped their cars on I-80 and got out and danced and started squealing their tires.”
Recently, he said, concertgoers who left a show closed down by police committed a series of swarm robberies, robberies in which dozens of people cram into a small convenience store at the same time to grab whatever beer, chips or other items they can carry out.
“There’ve been instances where we’ve had problems,” Risley said. “It’s because of the way people behave afterward.”
As for Joe’s Style Shop, Risley said, it was most likely the January 11 gathering that caught the eyes of officers, not a general bias against any kind of music. “Probably during that, there were some observations made that led to the inspection,” he said.
Rodriguez allows that some problems may have plagued hip-hop shows at other venues around town. But he said Joe’s Style Shop doesn’t deserve to be lumped into the same category as other clubs that have had problems because Joe’s is open to all ages and doesn’t sell alcohol, he said. And plenty of other places have problems, he added. “When bars have shootouts, which many places in downtown Sacramento have had, we don’t see the city sending in building inspectors to try and find something wrong with their building to shut them down,” he said. “The bars stay open, serving beer.”
Paul Imagine, an artist who hastily arranged another location for the show he was to have opened at Joe’s Style Shop last weekend, also expressed skepticism about the closure.
“I think they’ve been trying to get rid of the place for a long time because it’s an art center where people are expressing their free speech. This city is not big on supporting places that are outside the box. We have very few real galleries here, and this is a true artists’ collective,” Imagine said.
Right now, Joe’s Style Shop and the rest of the building will remain closed until building inspectors deem it ready to reopen. The building’s owner told tenants that electricians would start working on the code issues this week and that he hopes to complete the required work soon, though he didn’t give a date. A few tenants who didn’t get to retrieve their belongings the day of the inspection will have a chance to go back inside sometime this week.
Though artists and musicians who rented space upstairs won’t have a place to practice for a while, Rodriguez said Joe’s Style Shop isn’t in a lot of financial danger because of the closure. Whatever money the venue does make—and it’s usually not much—is put toward paying the $1,100 rent on the space. “The shop’s only about staying open,” he said. “It’s a real nonprofit.”
Meanwhile, Rodriguez said, he’s thinking about filing a complaint with the city. A musician who was on hand when the building inspectors showed up recorded the event on video.