Situated on the industrial outskirts of Gainesville Regional Utilities’ towering power grids, nestled behind a wall of palm trees and foliage, sat the 911 House. Like any of the multitude of houses rented out to broke college students, the outside was old and faded, with its subdued seafoam green paneling and white trim.
But walk up the bare, skeletal porch steps and pass through its red door, and you’d quickly realize that number 911 was a world of its own.
Part of the roof had crumbled away, which someone had patched up with tarp. There was a trampoline and a skate ramp in the back yard. After hours, foreboding red lights flooded the front of the house; this was when 911 came to life.
When the sun fell, the punks came out. Over past two decades, the 911 House had become a local spot for punk shows, with bands from around the city and across the nation performing heavy, messy music to sweaty, teeming crowds. The scene defied conventional tastes with its raw sound and equally unpolished audience, but it was all about celebrating creativity, nonconformity and individuality.
Then, one late night in early January, half of the house burned down from an electrical fire. Its tenants, who preferred to not be interviewed, were suddenly without a home.
In an effort to commemorate the people, music and culture of the 911 house, the community came together and raised over $10,000 plus replacement house supplies to get the most recent generation of tenants back on their feet.
Only a specific group of Gainesville residents knew what the 911 house represented, but, as Daniel Halal, owner of Arrow’s Aim Records and former resident said, it still meant a great deal to the punk community.
“It was just a house that had five bedrooms and where musicians moved into in the mid-1990s,” he said. “In the past eight or 10 years, mostly punks started living there who played in bands or held shows.”
Halal described the 911 house as a crossroad for everyone in the punk community and also as a home for widely known punk musicians back in the day.
“Every punk band that has ever existed in Gainesville played there,” Halal said. “Even some of the members from the band Against Me! used to live there.”
Halal, now 30, lived there six years ago but knew about the 911 house even as a teenager.
“I grew up two hours away and started to come to shows and parties there,” Halal said. “I moved to Gainesville 10 years ago and played in bands, and we had shows at the house.”
He noted that numerous items are currently being donated to the residents and dropped off at Arrow’s Aim Records, along with planned benefit shows to raise money to help them recoup from the fire and start a new chapter elsewhere.
Samantha Kirkland, a local metalsmith and bartender at Palomino Pool Bar, spearheaded the GoFundMe campaign that raised $10,000 for the residents. Kirkland, who herself doesn’t identify as punk, started it without predicting the magnitude of support that would come from both those in the punk community and people who had no idea about the house or the Gainesville punk scene.
“It’s wild that so many people don’t know about it,” Kirkland said. “But after hearing about the fire, a lot of people contacted me. It woke up the community.”
Kirkland said she wasn’t particularly close to any of the tenants or even involved in the punk music community. Instead, she simply wanted to support Gainesville.
“A part of me said, ‘I just want to do something a little more; I want to be a better friend; I want to be a better version of myself,’” she said. “And what better way than to put yourself out there and help?”
Kirkland noted that people donated everything from clothes, hair curlers, plates and jewelry to fundamentals such as mattresses.
“The residents haven’t asked for a cent,” she said. “They’re really so humble.”
Kirkland’s been in Gainesville since 1997 and, like Halal, knew a great deal about the 911 house and the years of punks and bands that passed in and out of its doors.
“It was always a safe place to go and where everybody could get together,” she said. “I always viewed it as a house of culture.”
This house of culture, which draws the 911 moniker from its street number, is also steeped in mystery: There’s a longstanding rumor that the musician Bo Diddley once lived there.
“It’s a total folklore thing… one of the ladies at the post office when I lived there used to say it was Bo Diddley’s house,” Halal said. “His name is written in the concrete of the back steps.”
Kirkland has some suspicion whether it’s true or not.
“I don’t know if it’s true. Who knows?” she said, “I’ve heard it from enough reliable sources to believe it.”
Even former tenants such as 21-year-old Joey Young knew of the Bo Diddley myth.
“I remember someone said there was a curse where if anyone painted over the wall of his former practice space they’d be in deep shit,” he said. “My roommate Kyle’s bedroom was Bo Diddley’s studio.”
Young, who lived at the home for three months in 2014, is the embodiment of punk fashion with his gelled-out hair, boots and black attire. He remembers the house as an enjoyable place to live.
“It was a chill place to go,” Young said. “There were a lot of parties at 911, and people were always getting down to play music or just hang out.”
Young said he and his roommates kept the house clean and made repairs during their time there, but he also described it as being in disarray, with piles of garbage scattered across the house–the largest was four feet tall, located in the fireplace.
“There was a time when the power was off for two weeks over the summer, and we just hung outside,” he said. “Wind would go through the hallway and we’d cool off.”
Young always thought about the possibility of the house burning down because of its lack of maintenance.
“I thought that if the house burned down, it was going up,” he said.
Regardless of its condition, Young considers the 911 house a symbol of friendship and unity in the name of punk.
“Hopefully it won’t be forgotten,” he said. “It was the place to go.”
Connor Harker, one of Young’s roommates who lived in the house during the same period, shared similar memories of improving the home to keep it alive and well.
“I built a mini ramp there and brought a lot of skaters more towards the Gainesville punk scene,” Harker said. “The roommates were awesome, and we all just wanted to fix up the place and start having shows there again.“
Harker described the house as being a major part of his self-discovery and growth.
“I will never forget my time there — It is actually where I met my girlfriend, where I found myself and figured out who I was and what I wanted to do with my life.”
Keri Smith, a member of the punk community, also viewed the house as a fixture of her life and its loss as an end to a chapter.
“It was sad, and there is the aspect that I knew a lot of friends who lived there… I mean, it was the first place I practiced for my band at,” she said. “It’s an end of an era in the same way Wayward Council was for me.”
The Wayward Council was a non-profit volunteer community center and record store that served as a hub for shows during a span of 14 years until its closure in 2012. Like the Wayward Council, the 911 house also helped foster an environment for punk music. However, these places weren’t and aren’t the only ones to keep the movement going.
“It was one of the many meeting places for practicing,” Halal said.
Secret venues at undisclosed locations are popping around Gainesville to fill in the void of local punk music shows. To get in, you have to know someone who can give you the address. The lack of publicity allows the bands to grow at their own pace without pressure from mainstream crowds.
Smith, who bartends and performs in bands, explained that although official venues such as Loosey’s, Boca Fiesta and the Atlantic offer safe, structured environments for shows and musicians, there will always be the necessity for a do-it-yourself approach in the punk community.
“As far as DIY, there’s a time and a place for shows at these types of venues,” she said. “But any time you have people making this sort of music, there will be underground shows.”
All in all, Samantha Kirkland considers the house fire incident a reminder about helping your neighbor, regardless of who they are or what they represent.
“I think a lot of people connected their fears to this,” Kirkland said. “Before, people thought of punks as a bunch of kids partying, doing nothing–but it’s much more than that.”
Like Kirkland, Smith sees firsthand the genuineness of the people involved in the punk community.
“They’re kids working service industry jobs on the side and going to Target Copy to make posters for shows,” Smith explained. “People ask, ‘Why not put that time for activism or doing something for the community?’ It’s about them working towards something important to them.”
Smith especially wants people to understand one thing about punk: It is an inclusive environment.
“I love that it is a tight-knit, safe place for everyone,” she said. “There’s a lot of snobbery and pretension that needs to get cut out, but punk to me, in Gainesville, is creating a space for everyone.”
For more pictures of punk shows around Gainesville and more, visit Rose Vastola’s Flickr.