DIY or Bye: Artists, Makers Cling to Their Space

paper and provisions warehousePhotos by Chrissy Bulakites

You may have noticed it while fighting for parking at Market Basket. You may even have stepped inside to restock your spice rack at the Little India grocery store. Or you may have missed it altogether. Either way, the Paper and Provisions warehouse on Somerville Avenue has been a vital part of Somerville’s creative scene for decades. Unlike many other artists’ spaces, this warehouse has managed to maintain a uniquely underground atmosphere. There is no front entrance. To get inside, you have to circle around to a back alley and procure a door code. Inside, you’ll find a maze of ad hoc spaces that have housed everything from an egg processing facility to a Pentecostal church. Rooms have been carved out as needed with little more than drywall and desire. There is no master plan—only improvisation.

Like the rest of Union Square, the warehouse is on the verge of a drastic change. Somerville secured funding in March to add the warehouse and six surrounding buildings to the National Register of Historic Places. This will provide tax incentives for redevelopment, ensuring that the warehouse will soon be unrecognizable. For now, though, it provides a creative haven where rents are cheap and artists of all stripes can flourish. Scout talked to some of the current tenants about what the warehouse space has meant to them and what they hope it might become.

paper and provisions warehouse

AN INDIE ARTIST’S DREAM

Singer-songwriter Audrey Ryan started renting space in the warehouse in 2004 after being given a tour by the building manager, who happened to be a professional clown. “Immediately I knew the other tenants were eccentrics,” Ryan says. “I looked around at the raw space and knew I could do cool things there.” Ryan has indeed been responsible for many warehouse happenings, including her much-loved Loft shows, which have featured countless local bands as well as acts from Nashville, Los Angeles, New Orleans and other far-flung locales.

Artists who have played at the Loft are effusive about its charms. It’s “the type of space that most indie artists dream about, where people come to listen, not yack,” says poet and songwriter Chris Robley. Jess Baggia of local band Red Right Hand agrees. “Bars expect to make a profit,” she says, “but places like the Loft are all about the music.”

The warehouse is also a boon for local bands with small recording budgets. The Napoleon Complex recording studio, like the rest of the warehouse, has been built bit by bit to create something truly unique. “We don’t have a $50,000 mixing console,” audio engineer Shaun Curran says. “All our equipment has been purchased out of pocket. But we try to make up for our lack of sparkle with extra commitment. It’s not unusual for us to record for a solid 14 hours.”

Such feats of endurance are possible because the studio feels like a home away from home, according to Curran’s bandmate Dwight Hutchenson, who says, “We definitely couldn’t do what we do without it.Our band, SoftPyramids, does everything there—without that space we’d be in trouble.” That sentiment is echoed by Tyler Drabick, who has run the Boss Organ repair shop from the warehouse since 2005. “This building is amazing,” says Drabick. “Nothing I’ve found is quite like it. It’s not just a bunch of boxes cut into a warehouse; each space is unique.” Drabick cites the location and the low rent as crucial for his small business. Being in close proximity to so many other musicians also creates a win-win situation; as Audrey Ryan explains, having Boss Organ nearby has helped keep gear working properly.

paper and provisions warehouse

UNINTENTIONAL COMMUNITIES

It’s not just musicians who find the warehouse inspiring. Since 2010, the Pirateship makerspace has also found a home there. Co-founder Jeff Warren says that the warehouse’s idiosyncrasies have enabled a freewheeling, non-hierarchical community to develop, which doesn’t always happen in comparable makerspaces like Artisan’s Asylum, located a few blocks away.

“The Artisan’s Asylum approach has been to majorly institutionalize, which creates a certain type of community,” Warren explains. “The Pirateship has resisted formalization, and the warehouse is a big part of that. If it were more public facing, the space would have a different tone.” Pirateship president Brett Dikeman notes that the building’s quirks also keep space affordable, adding that, “the amount of space for the price is crucial for our projects.”

Warehouse residents hope that the correlation between affordable space and diverse creative pursuits can be maintained in the years to come. As Jenn Harrington puts it, informal spaces like the warehouse “make it possible for people to gather in different ways; they allow for something uncommon to thrive.” All of the inhabitants worry that the uncommon creative culture at the warehouse will disappear if redevelopment isn’t handled carefully. “This is a very special place, where artists get to work,” Curran explains. “In this building I can do what I love with bands who are passionate but can’t afford the rates of a professional studio. It’s DIY at its finest.”

Somerville has made it clear that it wants artists to have a home here. But the city’s development plans also focus on the creative economy, which often means prioritizing profit-making enterprises that can squeeze out small-scale artists. A sign of the coming times can be seen in the complex that houses Artisan’s Asylum, where a boutique restaurant (meals start at $150 per plate) just moved in. For now, those $150 dinners exist uneasily side-by-side with the warehouse loading dock where artists gather to talk and consume cheap provisions from Little India. “Somehow we’ve managed to stay here this long,” says Ryan. “But if what has happened to real estate in the last couple years is an indication of what’s to come, we’re in for a battle.”

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