Chris Jaszczak is no stranger to being under fire. As a young Marine from Detroit in 1968, he was in the middle of one of the most intense and prolonged battles of the VietNam war at Khe Sanh. Today Chris and his community performance space, 1515 Broadway, find themselves in the thick of another battle, this time with one of the toughest corporate players out there, Citibank.
I know that it is unlikely you have ever heard of Chris Jaszczak. I am fairly certain you can't spell his name. It is also possible that you have never heard of his small storefront miracle located at 1515 Broadway in downtown Detroit.
Chris has operated 1515 as a simple black box community performance and gathering space for almost 25 years now. He lives above the 150 seat theatre and cafe with his young son, whom I have on good authority is also known as (AKA) "The Prince of Broadway."
If you don't know his story or anything about his work, that is in part Chris' own fault. In a world of email, facebook, web sites and twitter, Chris uses none of them. Most strikingly, in a world full of some of the most shameless self promoters I have seen in any profession, Chris is not a self promoter.
Chris operated 1515 as a social enterprise long before anyone had a term for it. 1515's opening show in 1987 was Demolished by Neglect, driven by a group of anonymous civic activists, writers and photographers who were breaking into Detroit's great, abandoned theatres to document and protest their senseless destruction. Over the years, Chris has made 1515 available at no or minimal charge to countless progressive causes and issues. You all know who you are.
Chris operated 1515 as an incubator for emerging artists and arts organizations before we had any incubators, accelerators or arts fellows in town. Dozens of arts organizations got their start by using 1515's address, renting the theatre for their first performances and then after growing a fan-base and getting their nonprofit status, moving on to establish their own space. You all know who you are.
Chris has never received a dime of grant money. From anywhere. He has never received a dime from the alphabet soup of economic development agencies that have proliferated over the years in this city. He wanted it that way. Even now, facing his biggest crisis, he has been extremely reluctant to step forward, tell his story and ask for help. Now that he is, we need to listen.
This battle is about something more than just a little theatre and cafe-- this is about the heart and soul of our community and what we value and aspire to become. Rather than being some nostalgic and irrelevant footnote of our past, 1515 Broadway actually points the way forward for our community. It embodies exactly the values--courage, integrity, community service and a commitment to social mission that should be at the foundation of a revitalized, re-imagined Detroit.
The imminent threat to 1515 presents an opportunity for an intergenerational response by Detroit's cultural community. I say welcome to the hipsters from elsewhere, you who have washed up on our shores with visions of cheap real estate and cutting edge artistic expression dancing in your heads. You are enriching our city. You should know however, that if you want to understand Detroit's cultural past, there is a whole chapter on Chris Jaszczak.
A random sampling: In 1975, Chris, just back from holiday in Jamaica, brought Bob Marley and the Wailers to the Eastown Theater for their first appearance in Detroit.
In 1978, Chris squared off against the city fathers of Grosse Pointe Farms who banned him from presenting the Talking Heads at the Punch & Judy Theatre because they were a "punk rock" band and therefore a clear and present danger to that city's way of life. Chris prevailed, the show went on and Grosse Pointe Farms is still Grosse Pointe Farms.
In the early 80's, Chris ran the original City Club in the Women's City Club building, often turning out 2000 kids at the corner of Park and Elizabeth for shows when the area was best known for its houses of prostitution and crack and the only thing operating in the Fox Theatre building was a methadone clinic.
In the 90's, 1515 played a key role in incubating the techno and house scene in Detroit by among other things hosting late night parties that were an underground phenomenon. In March of 1995, the Detroit Police, under pressure to show they could control this after hours culture, raided the little theatre, closing down the rave (although it was perfectly legal) and ticketing over 200 people for "loitering in a place of illegal activity." With the help of Detroit attorney Bill Goodman, Chris prevailed in court and the city settled.
(Of course three or four years later the city that raided and shut 1515 decided to subsidize the first electronic music festival downtown which has morphed into what you all know as Movement, one of the premiere international music events held annually in our city.)
In 2011, it is hardly surprising that Occupy Detroit, birthed in nearby Grand Circus Park, would find its way to 1515, where Chris welcomed them with open arms and a donated community space to hold general assembly and committee meetings.
Which brings us to the matter at hand. Citibank is in the last stage of foreclosing on 1515 Broadway and evicting Chris and his son and putting them out on the street. It could all be over by February 1st.
Because Chris has kept the independent theatre's lights on and doors open solely on ticket and soft drink sales, he has never really had any financial cushion. Like many, the economic implosion of 2008-2009 took him by surprise and he fell behind on his 11.25% interest Citi mortgage. Today, the theatre and cafe are doing better than ever and Chris is capable of resuming his payments (and has in fact been putting money into escrow since last July).
Of all the banks to receive taxpayer bailouts, Citi took the most--$476.2 billion in cash and guarantees. In exchange, they agreed to review mortgages of homeowners facing foreclosure, making a commitment to modify them under certain circumstances.
Citi has refused, even under the strenuous urging of 36th District Court Judge David Robinson who has been hearing the case, to entertain a modification in Chris' case. They have moved for eviction and prevailed in the court. They have acted in bad faith by advertising the building for sale while foreclosure was being contested. Most appalling, Citi has turned down a cash offer for the listed amount from a supporter who would keep Chris in the building and allow him to pay off the mortgage. Only Robinson's intentional foot dragging on signing the papers is standing between Chris and eviction.
It is all hands on deck for this one. If even a small fraction of the people and organizations that Chris and 1515 Broadway have supported over the years were to turn out to support him and the community institution he has built, Broadway will be closed by thousands of angry folks saying no to eviction.
Let's tell Chris we stand with him, no matter what comes next.
Let's tell Citi that Detroit doesn't need any more empty buildings or broken dreams.