‘It’s such a bummer.’ In Cambridge, musicians are forced out of EMF practice space
CAMBRIDGE — Standing amid a jumble of guitars, amps, cords, and turntables, Kenny Gray tried to articulate the melancholy of the day.
Like the roughly 200 other musicians who use the EMF building on Brookline Street as a creative space, Gray, a 27-year-old Somerville resident, was supposed to have all of his equipment from his audio production studio out on Thursday. He paused from considering the logistics of his move and pointed to a wall where someone had scrawled a message that seemed to sum up the mood inside EMF Thursday:
“The ghosts of the art you killed will forever haunt these halls.”
“We were all here for the same reason,” Gray said of the ongoing artistic exodus. “To make stuff.”
The EMF artists were granted a reprieve from eviction earlier this year, but talks between the building’s owner, John DiGiovanni, and Cambridge officials about the city potentially managing the building as a creative space came to nothing. That meant the musicians were supposed to be out by Thursday.
The clash between EMF’s musicians and DiGiovanni over the future of the building has been pitched. Some have criticized DiGiovanni, a well-known Harvard Square property manager, for draining Central Square of an economic and cultural life force. DiGiovanni has said that he has gone out of his way to accommodate EMF’s musicians, the building needs significant upgrades, and there is no way to renovate it in a piecemeal fashion.
Anna Rae, a bassist and singer in the band Hemway, which uses EMF for rehearsal space, is among DiGiovanni’s vocal critics.
“His behavior in the community has been detrimental to the community economically and culturally,” she said Thursday.
Cambridge Mayor Marc McGovern called the EMF evictions “a terrible situation.”
“It’s not something that anyone wanted to see happen,” he said this week.
Citing safety concerns, the city considered managing the building but decided against it, McGovern said.
“The long and the short of it is the city manager felt that there was going to be too much work to get it to code and get it to the point where it’s up to the standards the city would require for a city facility,” he said.
The city has broached the possibility of finding other spaces in Cambridge for the displaced EMF artists, but that idea hasn’t gained much traction, McGovern said.
“We need to be really much more aggressive and aware of acquiring property when it becomes available,” McGovern said. “When the city acquires a property, we can decide what it’s used for.”
The City Council is still considering creating an overlay zoning district in Central Square that would reward developers who build and maintain artistic spaces. But even establishing such a zoning district wouldn’t solve all the problems of creating affordable creative space in the city, McGovern said.
Incentives, he pointed out, are not guarantees.
“This idea that for-profit businesses are going to solve the community’s problems out of the goodness of their heart is not something that has proven to be viable,” he said.
At EMF on Thursday, Jonathan Taft, head engineer for the recording studio New Alliance Audio, said those who have relied on the building to create their art feel underappreciated. “There’s a little bit of bitterness, for sure,” he said.
He thought the building’s problems were fixable. New Alliance was its first musical tenant, moving in more than a decade ago. Wednesday, remnants of years of work were scattered about. Windows and a painted door were ready to be moved into storage; a stand-up piano would have to be left behind. Taft said the short-term plan was for equipment to be put in storage in Jamaica Plain while the studio examines its longer-term options.
“Affordable anything within the Boston-Cambridge area is no longer tangible,” said Taft, who lives in Jamaica Plain.
Ethan Dussault, a New Alliance engineer who lives in Allston, broached the possibility of moving the studio out of Greater Boston, or even out of New England.
“If local governments are going to continue to overlook our contribution to society, maybe it’s time to a look at a city that won’t overlook us,” he said.
DiGiovanni said in an e-mail Thursday that his property company has offered to help tenants move their equipment and has provided three times the amount of time required to terminate the tenancy-at-will leases. The vast majority of the tenants “have been reasonable and have found new space to practice their music,” he said. Leases for the musicians expired Thursday. If tenants refuse to move out, the company is prepared to go to court to evict them, DiGiovanni said.
DiGiovanni, who bought the property for $4 million in 2016, declined on Thursday to offer a timeline for the building’s redevelopment and offered little in the way of details about plans for the property. “We are currently in the process of completing plans for a rehabilitation of the building,” he said.
EMF — short for Electrical Motor Frequency — once was used to store and sell electrical supplies.
Gray, the proprietor of the audio production studio, had a busy day on Thursday. By early afternoon, he had already made some runs to shuttle equipment out of EMF in a Volvo station wagon, and he was banking on a buddy driving down from New Hampshire with a truck to move the bulk of his things.
Still, he counted himself among the lucky ones: He had found studio space in a basement in Somerville’s Union Square for his equipment. For many, finding viable artistic space in the area is difficult, he said.
“It’s really sad,” he said. “It’s such a bummer.”