Early last Friday night, the corner of First Avenue and Madison Street was abuzz with activity. Nearby galleries opened their doors, regional artisans set up their booths, and local bands provided live tunes. The Fox Blox First Friday block party was underway, celebrating the renovation of the Fox Theatre and the revival of the surrounding neighborhood.
Despite the festive ambiance, though, many of the attendees had little reason to celebrate. Recently, residents of the nearby low-income housing building, the Otis Hotel, received eviction notices from new owner RenCorp, which intends to renovate (or gentrify) the building.
Jeremy Rouse of Radio Arms would like to put a stop to this. After the singer and guitarist learned about the situation at the Otis in a recent Inlander article by Kevin Taylor, he knew he had to speak out. "Putting a dollar value in place of human dignity goes against any principles I've ever had," he says. "[Otis residents] have a right to fair housing. They can't just be swept under the rug." In response, he and his band asked the owners of the Empyrean to use their performance space for a benefit. The owners did one better, donating the room for free.
That's a powerful expression of solidarity and compassion for a business accustomed to a number of Otis residents outside its doors, often milling about asking for change.
Rouse says the decision to play at the Empyrean wasn't a random one. From the get-go he knew he wanted the show to be near the Otis. "Having it nearby would provide more of a symbol," he says. "The people at the Otis need to know that at least a small group of people think this is not right."
Though band members hope the benefit will shame developers into changing their minds, they want to at least be able to aid Otis residents in their transition. Thus the show's proceeds will be donated to a fund for that purpose at Spokane Neighborhood Action Programs (SNAP).
Taking a stand is nothing new for Rouse and his band. Their punk, folk and reggae-infused music has always been political. Radio Arms aims to bring ethical dilemmas to people's attention, whether the problem is international or local. "There's a big issue of homelessness and poverty in Spokane that people don't want to accept," Rouse states. "They don't want to lose an illusion of comfort."
Indeed, the Otis benefit seeks to remind people of the human cost of urban renewal. "We need to start from the ground up." Rouse says. "We need to roll up our sleeves and stop trying to cover it up." Therefore, instead of merely celebrating the renovation of the neighborhood, Radio Arms plans to celebrate those who have been forgotten. "We plan to let the tenants in for free," Rouse says, "and hopefully we'll play a good set."
Otis Hotel Benefit with Radio Arms, Table Top Joe and Nineteen Points of Nowhere at the Empyrean on Wednesday, Sept. 19 at 7 pm. $5; free to Otis residents. Call 838-9819.