The Lord's Music? 

All-ages church venue cites religious freedom in its fight with noise-hating neighbors.

All Justin Lewis wanted was to book shows for a clean, well-lighted East Bay venue where hipsters could safely gather, enjoy challenging underground rock, consume fresh-baked goods, and sink each other's aircraft carriers.

"It's a comfortable place to see art," Lewis says of the Ramp, the year-old DIY occasional venue crammed into the basement of the Seventh-Day Adventist church at 2236 Parker Street in Berkeley. "There's no attitude. It's like being in your living room, watching your favorite bands ... you've got homemade chocolate-chip cookies, homemade pizza, scenester indie rockers playing Battleship? Come on. That's great. People smiling. People hanging out, wanting to show art, show movies. All good."

Alas, not all good.

Berkeley has shut down the Ramp, demanding new permits, zoning law capitulations, public hearings. Cops are sick of responding to neighbors' complaints. Neighbors are sick of complaining, period. And church pastor Ron Pickell finds himself torn between a East Bay youth culture he longs to serve and a pissed-off community he longs to soothe.

"Right now, I'm trying to address the concerns of the neighbors," he says, sighing. "I don't know if enough can be done to satisfy them. Because really, they just want to shut us down."

In fact, they did.

The Ramp first emerged in the summer of 2002, quickly establishing itself as an outpost for quaint atmosphere -- two hundred kids per show, max -- and quirky once-or-twice-a-month musical extravaganzas -- Bay Area noisemaker mainstays (Hella, Deerhoof), hip-hop mind-expanders (Anticon weirdo Why?), indie folk troubadours (Damien Jurado). Goaded on by his hipster sons, Pickell first conceived the shows as an outreach program to revive a flagging church.

Meanwhile Lewis, a young, scruffy mesh-back-hat-wearing high school economics and US history teacher in Millbrae, attended one of the Ramp's first soirees and fell in love: "I happened to roll there with my wife and some friends, and when the show was over, I said, 'This is the greatest spot I've ever seen a show in the Bay Area in at least ten years. '"

Lewis has booked for the venue ever since, envisioning the Ramp as a safe haven for the primarily under-21 Berkeley crowd, a compliment to 924 Gilman and the like.

"If I worked for the city of Berkeley," he says, "I would be so excited that a private organization was doing something on their own to have kids be in one safe place for those three hours on Saturday night, instead of the city having to front the bill on something that would probably cost five times more. It's just sad."

"Here's how I would respond to that," says Gregory Daniel, a code enforcement supervisor for the city of Berkeley. "We've had fifteen calls for service because of these rock concerts. Fifteen. Okay? So. That's my response. How are you saving the city money? We're spending resources responding to complaints about the rock concerts."

Berkeley police officer Steve Rego counts himself among those spent resources. He's visited the Ramp several times. How come? "Loud music. People hanging out in the parking lot drinking alcohol. There's been some fights. Typical disturbances regarding that. We've had complaints, and that place is in violation of their use permit, and the city wants them to comply with their use permit."

Boom. On September 10, code-cop Daniel sent Pastor Pickell an official Notice of Violation ordering the Ramp to "immediately discontinue all concert activity." Which it did, axing the show it had scheduled for that weekend.

But Pickell immediately launched a counterattack, hiring a lawyer and crafting a thought-provoking but somewhat wobbly defense based on the separation of church and state. "There's no bait and switch," he insists -- the Ramp isn't a front to transform Anticon fans into Seventh-Day Adventists -- but he sees the Ramp's plight as Berkeley's attempt to lord over the Lord.

"The city's wanting to use the argument that we don't have a right to put on a program like this," he says. "What do we have a right to put on? Do we have the right to put on a church? ... We have music, and it makes noise. Is that okay just because it's religious music? Who's the city to tell us that? Are they the ones who are deciding what's religious and what's not?"

"We're talking about the government intervening within religion," adds booker Lewis, "telling the church, 'This is what you can and cannot do, and we're gonna set the guidelines for you. '"

The code enforcer's not having it. "The zoning for that district does not allow for ongoing rock concerts," Daniel says. "Having rock concerts on the weekend does not constitute religious activity. If you're having choirs come in and sing on an intermittent basis, that's one thing. If you're having a revival, that's another thing. But you've been having ongoing rock concerts and the neighborhood finally got fed up with it. So we had no other recourse.

"We also encouraged him, if this is something you want to do, there's a process. You would have to apply for a use permit, it would require a public hearing, that's the route you need to go. You need to do some outreach with the people in your neighborhood, find out how they feel about it. I'm sorry, but there's no way you're gonna convince us this is religious activity."

Unfortunately, a public hearing is the very thing Pickell needs to avoid, because his neighbors are beyond fed up.


Daniel says "rock concerts" like it's a four-letter word -- much the same way Jan DeBlasi, who lives across the street from the Ramp, says "nightclub."

"Let me tell you about the nightclub," she says. "In my opinion, this is a nightclub. It's not just kids getting together to play music. They're charging money. This is a residential area; it's not zoned for a nightclub. I actually sympathize with kids not having as many venues as they need to have, but I actually think this is an inappropriate neighborhood for such a thing. The first night it happened, we thought, 'Well, okay, we can deal with this on a one-time sorta basis.' But I can tell you that there was underage drinking, there was marijuana smoking, there were way too many people for what might have been safe if there had been any kind of incident. And there was a tremendous amount of noise, and people hanging out after."

In casual conversation DeBlasi doesn't sound like a crotchety "If that baseball lands in my backyard it's mine" evil neighbor type. "We're not a NIMBY neighborhood," she insists. "We're very close to Telegraph." But she says she represents an entire neighborhood tired of the Ramp's drama, and insists Pickell -- she inadvertently refers to him as "Mr. Pickle" -- can't use the church as cover.

"The church is pretending that this is not a nightclub, and in reality it is a nightclub, and it's totally unsafe and totally illegal and totally doesn't mesh with the needs of the neighborhood," DeBlasi says. "Every time there's a Ramp, we go over in the morning, there's beer bottles, there's trash ... I have to say, if there was more cooperation it would be less obnoxious, but I still don't think the neighborhood wants this thing happening."

Pickell thus finds himself on the defensive from all angles, but he's battling hard. He insists the Ramp has never had a fight, nor inspired any underage drinking, attributing DeBlasi's evidence to a parking lot that attracts unsavory behavior not connected to the church at all: "Every day almost, very frequently, I can come and there'll be liquor bottles in our trash can, but we've had mattresses in our trash can -- it doesn't mean anything."

When the police do come, Pickell insists, they say things like "The crickets on this guy's porch are louder than the music that I hear here." And as for the dreaded "nightclub" tag, he says the Ramp doesn't charge admission but requests a donation: "At every event there are people who don't pay." Furthermore, all the cash goes to the bands -- Lewis and Pickell both insist they've made no money off this venture, and anyone who's run a DIY venue won't argue that.

Venues like the Ramp are great but hugely volatile enterprises, and for an East Bay culture starved for hangouts and musical outposts that don't require a trudge across the bay to SF, we root for them like we root for the Chicago Cubs. It's easy to share Lewis' heartbreak when he describes upcoming shows he's booked that now face grave peril: lauded indie rockers the Microphones were slated for November, for instance.

But the neighbors and cops have valid perspectives as well. It's a tough call, and while Pickell is weighing his options and hoping to mend a hugely fractured relationship with the folks next door and down the street, Lewis represents the bummed-out masses who just miss the Ramp, dammit.

"I'm gonna take this all the way to the end, until someone finally says, 'There is absolutely no chance ever that you're gonna do this,'" he says. "Then I'll be satisfied. I'm not gonna let this roll over. I love the Bay Area too much to let this thing die. It's too much of a good thing."

Hallelujah.

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