Is LA Losing Its Smell? The Future is Uncertain for the All-Ages Punk Club

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In downtown Los Angeles, there’s an all-ages punk club called The Smell. In the 17 years that it’s been open, it’s become a real hub for local underground music. But after the land it sits on was purchased last year, it now faces the possibility of being shut down. The news sparked outrage mixed with anxiety that the changes taking place in downtown are not all for the better.

For kids under 18 who want to see great bands play for a few bucks, the options in Los Angeles are limited to a handful of warehouse spaces, backyards or strip mall venues. Most underground all-ages music spots never last more than a few years, a combination of rising rent prices, the challenge of getting permits and licenses, and police interventions.

Yet downtown LA’s The Smell has been open since 1998, spawning a local music scene and launching bands like No Age, HEALTH, Abe Vigoda, Mika Miko and dozens of others. The venue has developed a fierce loyalty among young purveyors of noise, punk and underground music, and its policy of not allowing drugs or alcohol makes it a safe hangout for teenagers.  “This is somewhere that kids can come and be together, and I think that’s really cool,” said Violet Romero, 19, singer and bass player of the local band Celebrity Crush.

So it’s understandable that there was a huge outpouring of support from the local music community when news broke over Memorial Day weekend that The Smell’s owner, Jim Smith, found a demolition notice posted on the entrance to the club.

This photo of the demolition notice was posted to The Smell's Facebook page.
The Smell posted this photo of the demolition notice to its website.(The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The notice from L&R Group of Companies, the parking lot developer that owns Joe’s Auto Parks and WallyPark, stated that an application to demolish The Smell’s one-story building had been filed with the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety. Other businesses on the block, including the Downtown Independent movie theater and the New Jalisco Bar, a gay Latino dive bar, also received notices.

The building was purchased last year and Smith said he started to see immediate changes. His rent changed overnight from $2,375 to $4,000 a month – an increase of 68 percent. 

“It seems like there’s a hell of a lot of parking lots on this block,” Smith said. “And I’ve never seen them full, so I just don’t know what the reason is. And it’s like, ok, great, knock down the block, you’ve got plenty of parking, but is there anything left that’s going to draw people down here that are going to want to pay for parking? In that regard it just doesn’t make any sense.”

However, the property owner insists there are no plans to turn The Smell into a parking lot – or anything else.

“As a fellow lover of music, I appreciate the history of The Smell and its impact on the music community,” said Kevin Litwin, Chief Operating Officer for L&R Group of Companies, in an email interview. “As of today, there are no development plans at all for this site or these buildings.”

Litwin expressed regret for how Smith learned of the demolition notice. In an email sent to Smith, he wrote:

“We should have reached out earlier to communicate our intent to all our tenants so that they understood the process. The notice that was posted on your door last Friday was merely a formality to keep our options open. It is required to obtain a demolition permit in the event that it may be needed in the future. We support you and your message of providing a community within Los Angeles. We look forward to continuing our relationship with you. If at some time in the future we decide to develop the properties at that site, we will provide you ample time. If we’re able to help, we will.”

On a recent Saturday night, the alley between a parking garage and a row of brick buildings was full of young people. The show was sold out, and attendees stood outside in circles, some smoking cigarettes and others checking their phones, while they waited for the next band to start.

Those just arriving stood in line, then entered and handed over five bucks to a couple of volunteers at a table, who were blowing soap bubbles and eating candy in between affixing wristbands. Another volunteer sold candy bars, bags of chips, and water bottles. The walls are spray-painted, and kids sat on busted-out couches or stood in clusters as the music poured out from the stage. As bands filled the small room with raucous, blistering noise, a mosh pit formed and the smell of dozens of sweaty bodies filled the air.

The Smell opened around the same time that another all-ages venue, Jabberjaw, closed. Many venues have closed in recent years, or have been threatened with closure. Pehrspace, a small all-ages venue in a strip mall in Historic Filipinotown, received a 60-day eviction notice earlier this month. Church on York, an all-ages space in Highland Park, was shut down in 2014 after being open for one year, because of noise complaints, a lack of permits, and underage drinking. 

Jim Smith, owner of The Smell. Photo by Avishay Artsy.
Jim Smith, owner of The Smell. Photo by Avishay Artsy. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Some of the fans of The Smell acknowledged that as rent prices increase in downtown LA and across the city, closures are to be expected. “It happened in New York with CBGB’s,” said Adam Weintraub, 17. “It’s kind of inevitable in any city that’s going through change and gentrification. But I think it takes away a huge part of the culture, and it just makes it another bland city. And it takes away a lot of the creative aspects of LA.”

“I like to think that a good city needs an element of danger,” added Baron Rinzler, 18. “But they’re robbing us of all that goodness. Who wants to come to a city that’s gentrified, that’s full of high rises? That takes the heart out of the city, really.”

However, the dislocation of some businesses may be inevitable as downtown changes. “This is an example of the mixed blessing of urban revitalization,” said Dan Rosenfeld, a real estate developer with the Trust for Public Land. “Preserving these ventures is going to be difficult in a purely economic age. The value of the land has increased, rental prices have increased, to some degree the demographics have changed,” Rosenfeld said.   “On the other hand, the demand for the cutting edge, for the next and the newest, will not abate. I suspect that cultural venues like The Smell will pop up in other neighborhoods.”

Three longtime fans of The Smell, from left, Adam Weintraub, Grace Rolek and Baron Rinzler.
Three longtime fans of The Smell, from left, Adam Weintraub, Grace Rolek and Baron Rinzler. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Smith said there are plans in the works to keep the club open, including an effort to have The Smell declared as a cultural landmark. That may not save them from demolition, Smith acknowledged, but it could buy them time. There are also plans to host benefit concerts and a music festival with some of the more successful bands that have played at The Smell over the years. Smith has also launched a GoFundMe page with a $1.4 million goal.

If The Smell is forced to relocate, Smith said he hopes to find a location close to a Metro station.  “Downtown is great because it’s central to transit, and we get people coming here from all over the region – the [San Fernando] Valley, South LA, East LA, San Gabriel Valley, Orange County – and downtown is kind of central to all of that,” Smith said.

Smith’s tenacity and altruism is one of the reasons The Smell has lasted this long, said David Scott Stone, a friend of Smith’s and a patron of the club since it opened. “Jim works full time, and he comes here every night to open up the space, clean the bathroom, kick kids out that are trying to sneak booze into the place,” he said, “it’s an absolute labor of love for him.”