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Epicenter Zone

"I was there..."

The Epicenter Zone was a "punk project" on the east side of Valencia just north of 16th Street in the 1990s. It was a meeting space, record and zine shop, and resource center all rolled into one.

Kate Case describes the Epicenter Zone as the last possible place for punks in San Francisco. Originally recorded for the 2004 Audiozine "Long Ago and Right Now."

Gavin McNett, writing in Salon, July 1, 1999: Youth-centered dynamism made Epicenter such an important place. It was a nostalgia-free zone in a city top-heavy with radical old codgers--an Our Gang clubhouse for the anarchy set. The space was run entirely by volunteers from the S.F. punk scene, and in an odd, San Francisco-style inversion of things, they provided an important community resource for the city, hosting meetings of ACT-UP, the Prisoners Literacy Project, Alcoholics Anonymous and Food Not Bombs, among other organizations.

While the place was booming, it was also a vital piece of the local punk rock infrastructure. Epicenter housed a large zine library and put on all-ages shows. It stocked hard-to-find records and literature, and served as an all-purpose gathering spot. It also suffered through a heroic amount of disaster and neglect in recent years, before finally shutting its doors for good [in June 1999].

These are the voices of some of the folks who made it what it was during its heyday.

Gordon Zola: I wasn't there at the beginning. I started about 6 months after the store opened and people had been meeting for at least 6 months before that. The oral history is that it was started by the impetus of Tim Yohannon and Maximum Rock'n'Roll (MRR), and with their money (which can also be considered the punk scene's money in some ways). It certainly involved non-MRR people from the very beginning, including non or ex-punks, but it was definitely rooted in the MRR punk scene.

Mimi Nguyen: I actually started working at Epicenter even though there was a more obviously political option; there was an info shop in Berkeley. But I didn't want to work there because it seemed more serious in a weird anarchist "the revolution is around the corner" sense and there were weird older Park activists with whom I'd already had bad experiences. Like uncritically creepy, "Oh, she's Vietnamese! I love Ho Chih Minh!" Yeah. Okay, whatever…

So I wanted to work at Epicenter, probably because I had just moved to Berkeley and I didn't have a whole lot of new friends. A friend of mine who worked at the dorm cafeteria who was a punk rocker told me about a meeting that the Epicenter was having about the Columbus Day 500 year anniversary protest. And I probably started volunteering there about a month later. No, about three months later. It was really fun! (Most of the time.) I miss it a lot. Although it wasn't anything that was going to last. Probably a lot of my vague sadness is nostalgia and rose-tinted glasses. But I do miss the fun I used to have there. It was partly political, like Epicenter did all of these cool things --"Closed for riots, open on holidays" -- I thought that was great! It was nice to have a place to come to and be a part of something. Plus we were able to put on our own shows, film nights, and I helped to organize a women’s activist conference there in 1993.

Gordon Zola: The anti-hippie attitude (which wasn't used against ACTUAL hippies, but mostly punks and volunteers who wanted to process and talk out ideas more) was so strong at Epicenter because it was a punk project. I work in a 180-person worker-owned and run health food store cooperative where the punks and hippies (and everyone else) get along just fine for the most part. At least there is no overt factionalization.

My guess is that it has a lot to do with the ideology of MRR-type punk and punk in general, but I would also guess that a lot of the worker-owned businesses were very alienating to non-hippies when they started in the '60s and '70s. Such is the strength and limitation of organizing around subculture. I think the ones that survive, generally, have examined and worked against the idea of their own subcultural supremacy.

Larry-Bob: I was involved in helping to put together these Queers Together in Punkness [Q-Tip] shows. And I was also involved with this Dirty Bird Festival in 1996, which was this queercore festival. We had a bunch of bands… mostly from the West Coast. But then Epicenter closed.

I was never directly involved with running Epicenter, per se. At one point there was a flood at Epicenter, where someone at a show grabbed-on to a pipe that broke open and flooded the used clothing store downstairs. That was the end of live shows there. And that brought a lot of people in.

Mimi Nguyen: I actually really liked Epicenter as a space: the records, and the books, and the zines. Although I wished there were more emphasis on the books and the zines. After a while the community aspect part of it fell off. But for a time there were a lot of radical activist groups meeting there. There were film nights. There were all kinds of community-building events there. I'd keep all of that. I think that the problem with Epicenter was the high turnover rate in volunteers. Because the cost of living in San Francisco just went up, and up, and up. I can't remember if it ran on consensus or majority… I think majority. A lot of people were disaffected by the process, and just dropped out. There were just some different personalities…and then the uneven power relations that were often masked as differences in personalities.

Gordon Zola: I don't think that things are always quantitative. Like I was trying to get at near the end of my zine, people coming into social contact with each other is a very valuable thing especially as we get more dot-commed and gentrified in the Bay Area. Many, many great people came through Epicenter and the social and political connections made that way can help build communities of resistance, a place to work out political theories and basic knowledge of who to talk to about certain issues, where to find resources for events and actions etc.

Concretely, Epicenter provided meeting space for different community groups, none of which were limited to simply punks or EZ workers. Groups included: Food Not Bombs, ACT UP SF, Bay Area Coalition Against Operation Rescue (later Bay Area Coalition for Our Reproductive Rights), AA, Prison Literature Project, Roots Against War, and many more ad hoc committees. There was also a reading library and hang out space. Also, at times, there was a large selection of zines unavailable anywhere else in SF. Also there were many speakers, video events, readings, etc.

Epicenter didn't contribute much to the non-punk, non-English speaking community surrounding it except for helping out with an occasional anti-development campaign. I don't think "Liberated" spaces necessarily need to try and include everyone as long as they're honest about it and can analyze the possible class privilege involved and try to counteract it in some way, including by raising money for other groups to start their own projects. (Which Epicenter did NOT do.) Punks had been living and having shows and punk businesses in the Mission since 1979 so an argument could be made that a punk community center was a needed thing.

Larry-bob: It started to get to the point where I’d come in and I’d look for records, and they wouldn’t have them. Like, do you guys have the Fugazi video yet? You don’t have the Fugazi video?! Come on! You guys could sell that! Because they didn’t have enough money on hand to order the things they should have in inventory, things were just collapsing. That was my perception of why things were falling apart. There were less people giving input in various ways. And I think the people who volunteered there —some people volunteered there for selfish reasons: to get a discount on records. So I think there were less and less people who were actually ordering records that other people wanted. That was sort of my somewhat-outsider opinion. But I sort of think that volunteering to sell records is a little weird. I think some people involved in Epicenter -as they became politicized in other ways- began to sort of realize that. Is this the most important thing to do in the world? —to volunteer to sell records to middle class suburban kids…?

I sort of think that volunteering to sell records is a little weird… Is this the most important thing to do in the world? -to volunteer to sell records to middle class suburban kids…?

Mimi Nguyen: I think that its always good to live your life and your personal space in as ethical and as meaningful a manner as you can. But I don't think that punk rock as a lifestyle, for instance, is the answer considering how politics is effectively commodified and personalized, so that it doesn't necessarily challenge the late-capitalist notion that "identity" is itself a commodity. And a very lucrative one. It can become a purely personal-level politics that's very problematic because it ignores many very real structural problems.

If you think about the commodification of lifestyle in our capitalist society, we're now able to purchase any kind of identity you could possibly imagine within that--I don't think punk rock has escaped that at all! And I think that the idea that your money, how you spend it, is where your politics is expressed potentially reproduces the idea that capitalist democracy is this great marketplace of ideas where it's just up to you to pick and choose. It ignores uneven power relations, social relations, the fact that some ideas are more "valued" than others are and can quite literally be a matter of life and death for another individual or population.

Gordon Zola: I think you have to be very aware of the structures you're creating through your action or inaction. Again, I work at a worker co-op food store that's huge. 25,000 sq. ft., 180 workers, $24 million a year gross etc. We are the most democratically run big co-op I've ever heard of in the US. The heart of our structure is fairly autonomous departments that are allowed to do most things on their own. We have some hierarchy, but very little compared to most co-ops which start hiring general managers once they hit 20 or 30 workers.

How distinguishable are we from traditional businesses? It's hard to say since we're a worker--not consumer--co-op. We keep prices cheaper, approximately half the workers look like freaks, but mostly our benefit to the community is creating good jobs and setting an example of what a worker-run business can be.

Smaller collectives often have the exploit-yourself-because-otherwise-we-might-go-out-of-business thing going on and that's a real issue because in our capitalist world, most businesses get successful that way. It's how the system works. Full worker involvement, transparent process, defined and discussible structures can work against it. But at least in SF with the rents so high, you've got to be a hard worker in the capitalist sense, on some level. At Rainbow, our biggest turnover is in the first 3 months when people realize that we work hard and aren't some volunteer-paced easy jobs like the consumer co-op they worked at in college (in fact, most people who work there are not college grads).

But I think maintaining radical principles in a capitalist society is very hard in general, more so in a structure where you have to be somewhat successful on a capitalist level to survive. It's radical on some level to work cooperatively, but it can become a business-partner type situation if you're not careful. I believe that it's also caught up with how popular radical views in your community are at a given time.

I'll quote Malatesta: ". . .I recognize the extreme usefulness that co-operatives, by accustoming workers to manage their own affairs, the organization of their work and other activities, can have. . (However) I combat the shopkeeper spirit which seems to develop naturally in their midst. In my opinion, co-operatives and trade unions under the capitalist regime do not naturally, or by reasons of their intrinsic value, lead to human emancipation, but can be producers of good and evil; today organs of (conservatism) or social transformation, tomorrow serving the forces of reaction or revolution. All depends on whether they limit themselves to functioning as defenders of the immediate interests of their members or are animated and influenced by the anarchist spirit, which makes the ideals stronger than sectional interests."

--Errico Malatesta, Umanita Nova, April 13 1922

In terms of personalities at Epicenter, there was almost always a person (or a couple of people) who took a big, leadership-type role. It fed on itself, lots of work wouldn't get done so someone would devote a lot of time to doing it. People would then start doing less work because it was "magically" getting done and the leader-type would burn out in a month, 6 months, a year, whatever. Then we'd have a big meeting, dividing tasks that would get done for a short period of time until the process started over.

I don't think anyone ever set out to take over the place, but if you were there 5 days a week, you'd end up making lots of decisions. Lack of accountability is a huge issue for collectives because when there's no accountability some people end up taking power because they have to--just so necessary stuff gets done.

Mimi Nguyen: I think I would change it in that I would want to pay people to keep a core number who were there to do the work and not goof off, or get "cool points" or whatever for being at Epicenter (and not doing any work!). I think I would change the process. Although there was pretty good delegation and stuff; I just remember there being a lot fights about it while I was there.

Gordon Zola: Decentralization, true democratic or consensus-based practices, commitment and accountability. Oh, and providing something people want or need. And some willingness to compromise with capitalism.


Gordan Zola: It was a separate group within the collective. Some who were very involved in the forming of the store and others had very little connection with the retail end of things. It was modeled after the Haight Ashbury Switchboard which had closed down about a year earlier. It was an information and referral service, answered by volunteers. Mostly people asked where to get free food, shelter and how to contact various political groups.

It wasn't particularly effective in that on most shifts no one called. Unfortunately it attracted some fairly unstable people as volunteers also and between inaction, flakiness and one or two people being asked to leave it kinda withered away. Constant uneasiness between not being sure enough that people would staff the shift led to not very regular promotion which led to less people calling etc.

However, the information compiled was available to Epicenter workers (who cared enough to look for it) to give out to people who would walk in asking for it (usually visiting punks, runaways, homeless people etc.) making us a sorta, kinda, walk-in center. Service varied depending on the workers and it increased tensions between more apolitical music types and the community-minded folks.

Mimi Nguyen: The Riot Kids vandalized the store, something about it being a white-straight-punk-boy scenester-circle-jerk and accused Epicenter of gentrifying the neighborhood. Of course, less than a third of those with responsibilities were straight-white-punk-boys--half were women, a third people of color, and not a few of us queer.

It was a unique situation. The Bay area is more racially diverse even in terms of its functioning--I mean, even in punk rock--than most places are. Maybe New York is like that. In terms of the racial diversity, that was pretty unique to the Bay Area. But I think--for the purposes of the kids who vandalized the store--who also happened to be punk rock kids, and very into the '77 revival scene now, and being cool kids--I think it served their purposes to pretend that we (the white women and people of color) weren't there, or that we were sellouts. It served their purposes for their own ideological agenda, whatever it was.

It was argued that Epicenter was one factor in the gentrification of the Mission District, which had been a primarily Latino working-class neighborhood, but I do think its role in that process was relatively minor when arrayed against the many coffeehouses, thrift stores, et cetera, that also lined Valencia. And which are still there and thriving, now that Epicenter is gone. I mean, Good Vibrations would have to shoulder part of the "blame" as well as one of the first non-Latino, more middle-class retail stores to open up along that strip, but you know, it's easier to target a ratty punk store than a "cool" sex toy shop.