By Alex Distefano
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Photo by Jack GouldWilmington's staunchly all-ages PCH club weathered hundreds of hardcore kids, straightedgers, crusties, indie rockers and spiky mohawks-and-patches punks throughout its three-year life span, but it couldn't withstand one local newspaper reporter.
"The PCH club had to close its doors after authorities discover[ed] it did not have proper permits," read the subhead over South Bay Weekly (a Los Angeles Times community paper) reporter Stefanie Frith's Nov. 2 article. What authorities had really discovered was a letter from Frith herself, received by the LAPD's Harbor Division on Oct. 2, asking how the PCH could be legal.
"This takes place in a warehouse," she wrote, according to Harbor Division officials. "Just walking in makes you wonder if it's legal."
Police confirmed that Frith's letter, sent to the police media-relations office and forwarded to Harbor Vice, prompted the investigation that closed the club after its last show on Oct. 3, pending acquisition of the necessary permits.
"When we receive a letter, we have to investigate," said one officer.
So Frith was correct when she wrote that "an investigation was launched after a reporter who visited the club sought to verfiy [sic] if police or other agencies had investigated permit or safety issues"—but she doesn't acknowledge in her story that she was that reporter.South Bay Weekly staff did not respond to requests for comment after Frith's story ran, but in an earlier interview, city editor Mike Martinez, who contributed to the story, said that Frith's letter was a "very standard" request for information from the police and was not a complaint. He said Frith contacted the police after Alex Maciel, who had run the club since 1997, told her that officers had visited numerous times during his drug-and-alcohol-free shows and left without asking about permits. Martinez also said that the South Bay Weekly did not deliberately cause the club's closing.
"We were out to do a story that morphed beyond our original intent, and we felt a responsibility to do the story that was there," said Martinez. "And we felt we lived up to our responsibility. We had no intention of causing injury to anyone."
"It was just so abrupt," he said. "Boom! And everything ended."
Maciel says police told him the necessary permits would cost between $6,000 and $8,000, but he has been unable to confirm those figures with the county. For an all-ages club that charged only $5 per person, attracted mostly small crowds, and closed its doors $200 in the red, permits are not a realistic option, he said.
"It was just four walls and a ceiling," he said. "People would ask when we were going to get air conditioning—we just paid rent. If you're going to pay for permits and still charge $5 for shows, you'll have to sell a lot of expensive drinks."
Despite operating without the proper documentation and safety inspections, Maciel said there was never any trouble with the authorities before Frith began working on her story. Patrol officers had visited the space before, he said, but never questioned the club's permit status.
"They weren't looking for a problem," Maciel said. "They never asked us for anything."
Even one of the PCH's neighbors told Frith that aside from the occasional graffiti or trash on the sidewalk, "there just haven't been enough problems to shut it down."
Maciel said that support from the local music scene has been "overwhelming," with former clubgoers searching for a new location for the club, offering venues for suddenly jeopardized shows, and even compiling photographs and stories for a PCH memorial zine.
But the club's closure leaves a painful gap in an all-ages music community that's already stretched thin, said local promoters. The PCH was a vital complement to more established Orange County venues, such as Koo's Art Cafe and Chain Reaction, always ready to book little-known bands that couldn't make it into a more financially driven arena.
"Orange County and the whole SoCal area desperately need places like the PCH," said David Clark, a volunteer and booking coordinator at Santa Ana's all-ages Koo's Art Cafe. "They were mainly there for music—for something more genuine than profit. But for places that aren't mainstream and don't have mainstream ideals, it's hard to survive."
"There is rarely a club that has a community around it," he said. "But [the PCH] was about music and community first and foremost. They were contributing something important."
"It was the one place that was truly underground," said Brian Rogers, singer for Orange County's Fish People. "Shows there were always more fun than at other places. It was more like a family—Alex and Pete, who are such nice guys, would always be out front talking to everyone. It's like, 'Where do I go now?'"
Maciel said he hopes to secure permission to hold the annual PCH Record Swap, an event without live music that would be "one last chance to hang out."
"Every time a place closes, there are a lot of kids you won't see anymore," he said. "This was a big part of my life, and I'm sure it was the same for a lot of other people—a lot more than I thought."