Best Of '99: Berkeley Club That Launched Green Day Under Attack

City and neighbors push to control club-goers who, they say, are vandalizing the community.

[Editor's note: Over the holiday season, SonicNet is looking back at 1999's top stories, chosen by our editors and writers. This story originally ran on Wednesday, Jan. 20.]

BERKELEY, Calif. — The famed 924 Gilman St. club, the local venue that helped launch fledgling punk bands such as Green Day to stardom, has been grappling in recent weeks with city officials and neighbors in a battle that could ultimately shut the venue down.

Mike Stand (a.k.a. Mike Limon), a former director of 924 Gilman St. and currently part of a 20-person core group of volunteers who help run the establishment, said that in recent months the club has been under fire from the Berkeley city government and police department over problems of vandalism and graffiti in the area around the venue.

"Most of the people we've been dealing with from the planning and zoning departments don't like us, in our opinion, and want to see us gone," Stand said. "No matter how much we talk to them, they are unable to see the benefits we bring to the community. They've been treating us the same way they'd treat a crack house, trying to find minute violations in our conditional-use permit."

Over the years, 924 Gilman St. has been recognized internationally as the venue that helped launch punk bands such as Green Day, Rancid and Operation Ivy to prominence. Since opening 13 years ago, 924 Gilman St. has earned a reputation as a punk-friendly club that works closely with the community to recruit local youth and establish a safe environment where they can work and learn about one aspect of the entertainment industry. It is also one of the only nonprofit, all-ages, alcohol-free venues in the Bay Area.

Ken Brown, spokesman in the human relations department of 924 Gilman St.'s longtime neighbor Dicon Fiber Optics, said the company has discussed its complaints of vandalism with club officials before, but recently has turned to the city for help in resolving the problem.

"We've been experiencing vandalism throughout the years, including graffiti, broken bottles in the parking lot and, most recently, trees being hacked down. We tried to deal with the club in the past, but it hasn't worked, so we went to the city about it," Brown said. "We believe [the vandalism] coincides with the events that go on at the club... We've addressed these concerns many times in discussions with Gilman St. But the problems haven't been solved to our satisfaction."

Wendy Cosin, Berkeley's deputy planning director, said the city has no intention of shutting the club down, but acknowledged that 924 Gilman St. was under increased police surveillance in December. The surveillance came as part of an investigation into vandalism and graffiti in the neighborhood.

"We are having vandalism in the area, graffiti, landscaping destroyed, broken bottles in the street, that kind of thing," Cosin said. "At this point, what we're doing is talking with the 924 Club to see if we can reach an agreement on what they can do that will convince the city that they will have better control over their members, so there won't be neighborhood vandalism."

Stand acknowledged past problems with vandalism, but said that the club spends hundreds of dollars every year on paint matching the color of buildings in the area to cover up unwanted scrawlings. He added that the amount of graffiti and litter has declined greatly over the past couple of years.

Christopher Applgren, president of Lookout! Records, the same imprint that was home to pop-punkers Green Day and Operation Ivy in their infancy, said 924 Gilman St. played a crucial role in the development of both bands, and of the East Bay music scene in general.

"If Gilman St. had not existed, Lookout! certainly would not have existed. We started in hopes of cataloguing and releasing that music when it seemed inappropriate to release that hybrid of punk, pop, humor and intelligence," Applgren said. "Gilman St. is undoubtedly one of the biggest factors in what Lookout! is; it's impossible to distinguish the two in my mind."

One of the city's suggestions to 924 Gilman St. has been that the club hire outside security to help cut down on vandalism in the area. The job is currently filled by members of the venue's young staff, who tend to be familiar with the music being played and with the club's clientele, and add to the overall club environment on which 924 Gilman St. has built its reputation.

Of primary concern to Stand is the idea that a "rent-a-cop" or outside security personnel, with no ties to the club or understanding of the venue's vibe, might drastically overreact to the clientele, with disastrous consequences.

"My main concern is that they make us hire a rent-a-cop and we have to go to a security service," explained Stand, who said that an outside guard hired by the club previously was found to have a gun under the seat of his car. "Maybe it's the regular guy, but one night he might not show up, and they'll have to send a replacement and some guy will shoot somebody in the stomach."

While some locals fear that the recent police surveillance and heightened monitoring of the club are part of a larger plan to shut the historic venue down, Cosin insisted the city's discussions with the club seek to resolve a neighborhood conflict.

"We don't want to shut them down. We're trying to figure out what the club can do voluntarily to resolve the problem," Cosin said. "If we can't agree, we could go to the zoning adjustments board and suggest they add additional conditions to their use permit."

Among those unwilling to sit back and just see what happens are Applgren and Lookout! Records. "We're doing our best to get everyone to send in letters. Gilman's pretty internationally known," Applgren said. "I think it would be an awful shame if we lost it. It's the only place of its kind in Berkeley right now catering to the all-ages punk scene. It would be a tremendous loss with regard to young bands."