The Firehouse Builds Toward Its Future With This Weekend's Share Fire Festival
The Firehouse along First Street in downtown Phoenix.
Michael 23 is kind of what you'd call a survivor. Over the past several years, the enigmatic artist provocateur and co-founder of The Firehouse has endured personal tragedies, professional setbacks, financial hardships, stressful legal battles, and other such emotionally draining drama.
Like anyone who's faced such situations, he's acquired loads of wisdom and patience as a result. Both have become almost de rigueur for Michael 23 and others behind the scenes at the downtown Phoenix performance space, art gallery, and music venue, especially given some of the issues its been through in recent years.
Since 2011, the Firehouse has had its premises repeatedly nitpicked by city officials, a number of live music events shut down by the Phoenix Police Department for noise or curfew issues, and some municipal code citations being thrown their way (one of which caused the spot's outdoor stage to go dark for most of 2012).
There's also been a few thefts and money crunches, as well as the usual woes associated with the ongoing gentrification of nearby Roosevelt Row and the surrounding neighborhood.
Michael 23 -- who, as his moniker implies, has a fascination with the number 23 -- and the other members of Firehouse's resident crew of artists, musicians, and performers have steered through these troubled waters, however, thanks to their fervent devotion to the DIY space, a never-say-die attitude, and some ingenuity. They've also gotten a lot of help along the way from its wealth of friends and supporters.
"People like Firehouse because it's very free for people to do the kind of performances that they want to do," Michael 23 says. "We keep it accessible and affordable and it's a very community-centric place [where] most of the people around here are artists, musicians, or performers."
That's exactly the sort of cats that will be in attendance at tomorrow's Share Fire festival and benefit at the space, which will offer 12 hours of music, spoken word, live art, comedy, and other performances.
The lineup features more than 20 bands, include many local and downtown favorites, such as Snake! Snake! Snakes!, Enemies of Promise, Glass Popcorn, Andy Warpigs, Field Tripp, Jerusafunk, Hug of War, Bad Neighbors, Carol Pacey and the Honeyshakers, Matt Braman, and Ichi Sound. DJ Scapegoat Andy will also spin, Wolvves is scheduled to offer their first-ever acoustic set, and neighboring smoke shop Bud's Glass Joint will host a second stage.
[Full disclosure: Frequent New Times contributor Jeff Moses is helping promote the event and booked its music acts.]
Firehouse has been a major nexus of live music, local art, and outsider culture (as well as host to sketch comics, burlesque queens, fire performers, DJs, poets, avant-garde theatre troupes, marijuana activists, sideshow types, and even the pugilists of Fight Club Sadisco*) since its opening in 2001 as an offshoot of Michael 23's old space Thought Crime. Accordingly, its earned countless fans and friends.
Naturally, most of the participants involved with Share Fire -- ranging from co-hosts HotRock SupaJoint, Kevin Patterson, and Ernesto Mocanda to many of the musicians -- are either regulars or resident artists at the Firehouse, all of whom are eager to lend a helping hand.
"We're really very appreciative of all the artists that are coming out to support us," Michael 23 says.
A local DJ performs on the Firehouse's stage in 2010.
Saturday's fest is part of a two-pronged effort that aimed at raising money to help pay off a $2,000 debt that Michael 23 and his wife Joanna accrued while resolving wiring and electrical issues mandated by City of Phoenix officials earlier this summer.
According to the artists, building inspectors visited the Firehouse in July due to follow up on an unresolved permit issue with a proposed renovation to the space's outdoor café and discovered an outdated electrical panel.
"They were kind of looking around the property for things that were amiss and determined that our electrical panel was needing updates, which snowballed into $7,000 worth of electrical work," Michael 23 says. "They said it posed an 'imminent danger' and if it wasn't corrected immediately, they'd have to pull the meters to the whole building. So we had to decide quickly and we made the judgment call to spend the money and survive this time by getting it done, because it would've meant shutting down the Firehouse otherwise."
It wasn't the first time that the Firehouse ran afoul of the city. In 2011, the city determined that its main stage in out back and a makeshift equipment rig wasn't up to code. Michael 23 says its would've involved more than $25,000 to fix, which they could ill afford, so the space went without any performances for upwards of 18 months. (They eventually got in compliance by removing the offending equipment and reducing the size of the stage to 300 square feet.)
This time around, Michael 23 and his wife bit the bullet. Thankfully, their landlord contributed $5,000 and a recently launched Indiegogo crowdfunder, which is still ongoing, raised more than $2,700 in less than a week's time, illustrating the Firehouse's esteemed status in the downtown scene.
It more than covered the couple's debut, which they'd placed on their credit cards, with plenty of money left over to help accomplish the crowdfunder and festival's other goal: helping ensure the future of the Firehouse and its artists, musicians, and performers.
Michael 23 is planning to use money raised by both Share Fire and the Indiegogo campaign to establish a non-profit organization that will take over operating the Firehouse, get it through fallow periods like the summer, fix or replace broken and stolen equipment, or remedy any potential problems with the property before its cited by the city again.
"It's just me and my small family running Firehouse, we can't afford to kind of fight the battle alone," he says. "So the funds that we are raising aren't only to pay for the electrical upgrade, its also providing for a non-profit to take over running Firehouse."
And it's also going to provide "seed money" to look for another art space and performance venue for the Firehouse crew, he says. That's because Michael 23 is very feels the day will eventually arrive when the space has to leave its home due to the ongoing gentrification of First Street and the downtown arts district, which he claims is one of the reasons why Firehouse has come under increased scrutiny from the city.
"From our perspective, the writing's on the wall with First Street and its gentrification," he says. "We've watched our rent quadruple on First Street there since we opened. We needed to rally some support to hold our ground in that neighborhood, because I feel like the pressure of gentrification is only beginning."
[New Times was unable to confirm the veracity of his claim with officials from either the city or Phoenix P.D.]
While he stresses that Firehouse isn't moving anytime soon, and hopes that it will stay put for at least another decade, Michael 23 realizes that they'll eventually exit the area. Hence the reason why he hopes to find a second location either south of downtown or somewhere in Central Phoenix.
"We hope to have a good long time at Firehouse in its current location, but we are beginning the hunt for a new venue, something that can enable us to do the food service and [an] indoor performance space," he says. "And were thinking of kind of looking off the beaten path as well, because First Friday really ain't what it used to be. We're kind of looking to start something new somewhere else in Phoenix."
This is all familiar territory for Michael 23 and his cohorts, as the Firehouse operated simultaneously with Thought Crime for four years until they were forced to leave the latter space in 2005 due to its owner's desire to redevelop the Central Avenue property.
Michael 23 hopes to do the same with the new place.
"We want to have a brand new space for it to cut its teeth on and have a good ten years to rise up and get organized. We don't want it to get going in the twilight of our current location. We plan to play the Firehouse until it breaks." he says. "Our goal is to get 23 years out of it, but it makes sense that we have such a cultural capital going on and people are very interested in our survival. So with the non-profit, one of the solutions is to start working on our next location. It's protective of all we've got going."
"It's the kind of thing that we've seen coming for a while after our experiences at having the Thought Crime space close. But we couldn't imagine doing it by ourselves."
The Share Fire Festival takes place from noon to midnight on Saturday, September 20, at The Firehouse. Tickets are $10 in advance and $15 at the door. Sliding scale admission will also be available.
An after-party will follow from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. at the Icehouse.
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