Last Friday was a typical one at the Silent Barn— Bushwick’s beloved multi-faceted DIY music venue, art gallery, studio space, and artist residency is teeming with activity almost every day and night of the week– Freak Out Fest raged downstairs while a band practiced upstairs. And one resident was in their room when a fire broke out, one that the artist collective believes was caused by an “electrical malfunction.” Thankfully, spokesperson and longtime Silent Barn member Stephanie Griffin told us that no one was hurt. Of the 60 or so people at the show, “everyone got out within two minutes,” she said. But the damage is significant and threatens to upend Silent Barn’s delicate financial situation.
When I arrived at Silent Barn this morning, drywall was strewn everywhere and the ceiling in the main show room was almost completely hollowed out. Though the fire occurred in an apartment on the third floor, the rest of the building sustained serious damage as well when firefighters smashed windows, broke down doors, and put holes in the roof in an effort to make sure everyone was out and to sufficiently douse the flames.
“We’re ripping out the ceilings and insulation ourselves– we can’t wait for someone else to do that, because if it starts to mold it could spread to the rest of the wood,” Stephanie said. “And that’s what would endanger the entire building, really.”
Making my way upstairs, the place reeked of fire and I saw that the room where the blaze started was scorched, many of the tenant’s belongings still inside. “They got out really quickly, and so did the cat,” Stephanie explained. “But that means they left everything: their phone, their passport– they’re not from the US– money.” Unfortunately insurance doesn’t cover the cost of the resident’s belongings. Stephanie described replacing the resident’s possessions and getting them back on their feet as “our biggest money concern right now.”
The cost of fixing the structural damage to the building is currently being assessed by contractors. “It could easily be more than $20,000 for that alone,” she guessed. “It’s a little scary, because the timeline for getting paid out by insurance is so long, and not only do we have to front the cost of repairs, but we have no guarantee we’re going to get back what we put out in repair costs.”
Almost immediately in the aftermath of the fire, support began to mobilize, almost spontaneously. “The effort formed on its own,” Stephanie explained. “It’s pretty amazing, even an hour after the fire we were all here, going through the room, drying things out, and already like 100 people have started sharing the donate link online, so we’ve had a lot of help we didn’t even expect.”
The Silent Barn quickly took to social media to get the word out about the accident, in an effort to solicit help and donations. On Saturday night they posted an update on Facebook about the fire, let people know how they can help, and alerted show-goers that many of the concerts scheduled for the next three weeks would be suspended.
But the venue is pressing on with some of the smaller events, which will be moved to the yard or recording studio in the back of the building. “So it’s not our entire calendar that’s being moved, we have a few sold-out shows that were online pre-sales that we have to honor,” Stephanie explained. “Moving those to another venue that’s also all-ages and wheelchair accessible is important, and that process is pretty complicated, but we’re on top of it. We actually moved a bunch of shows quickly and painlessly.”
A couple of shows have moved to Secret Project Robot and Shea Stadium, while Bohemian Grove is hosting a fundraising show tonight. “Alphaville offered to let us work the door, and some bands have offered to turn those shows into benefit shows, or even if it’s not an official benefit show, they’re donating their cut,” Stephanie said. “There’s even a benefit show coming up in Boston.”
The Silent Barn is still functioning in some other ways as well. “People in the back studios are OK– they’re recording an album right now, actually– so it’s nice that we don’t have to be completely closed,” explained Stephanie. “But it definitely feels weird to not be able to do what we do on a daily basis or go upstairs and have dinner with our friends.”
The problem of canceling or moving some of the bigger shows is not just the loss of revenue from tickets sales, but also missing out on proceeds from the bar. “We can’t spend money buying more things, so we can’t stock the bar,” she explained. “So we’re trying to get donations of seltzer and whatever we want to sell at the stuff we’re still putting on.”
Stephanie estimates that having to close the main room for a month as well as the bar will cost the venue “tens of thousands of dollars.” Then there’s the added cost to the employees who are out of a job for at least a month. “We pay about $7,500 a month to our staff, you know, and it’s a super talented group of sound people and curators, people who should be working elsewhere and getting paid a lot of money, but really love being here, and they’re now displaced from that job. So it’s hard.”
After only a few days of fundraising, and even before they launched an official campaign (something the venue is holding off until they have a better idea of how much reconstruction is going to cost), the Silent Barn has already received $16,600 in donations.
“That’s amazing, and that feels like a lot of money, but I also know it’s nowhere near what we need,” Stephanie explained. “So we have to keep asking for money without setting a limit on it for a few days. I’m trying to figure out how to keep doing that without it getting old. It’s hard to ask a bunch of punk kids going to a show to give $5 when we’ve raised more than $16,000 already– but really, every little bit helps.”
Despite the enormous outpouring of help, Stephanie still seemed fearful of how the Silent Barn is going to keep up with the seemingly exponential costs of the fire. “The big thing is that we have to pay rent the day after tomorrow, on the first,” she said. “And we still have to pay out all of our bills, our insurance, everything like normal. “
People are helping out in ways other than simply donating cash, even though money is something the collective needs desperately. One member created a Helptagon site, which helps coordinate people willing to volunteer, assigning work– everything from demolition to assisting residents in moving out of the unlivable space.
Turns out many of the members have professional skills that are useful to the recovery effort as well. “We have a lot of really talented people who know what they’re doing– one volunteer is an architect and one’s a contractor, we also have lawyers,” Stephanie said.
“I feel like on a smaller scale the people that have been really helpful are friends dropping by and bands that have played here stopping by to see how they can help.”
And even neighbors have come out to support the Silent Barn in whatever way they can. “Norbert’s sent over a bunch of pizzas with a note that said, ‘Sorry about the fire,’ and I immediately started crying, of course we were all hungry and not taking care of ourselves, so that was so nice,” Stephanie recalled. The fight to save the venue has taken on such urgency, even meal time was given low priority. “I think that we’re lucky that, even though we’re all volunteers, we’re a group of people who prioritize this above anything else,” she said. “A lot of us have taken off work to be here. It feels weird to leave.”