A world away from South Beach's glam dance spots, kids -- teenagers mostly -- crouch in a parking lot in Allapattah, drinking beer out of paper bags and smoking cigarettes. Many wear clothes that could have come from a time capsule buried in London 25 years ago: Sneers flicker under Mohawks, a white cloth safety-pinned to the back of a fatigue jacket reads "Die hippie" in black marker scrawl. Some sport skinhead fashion: suspenders, rolled jeans, boots.
When the music starts thumping some of them cross an alley into the "all-ages" club that 21-year-old entrepreneur Richard Larralde is trying to turn into an incubator for young bands in Miami.
"It was in an alley so we said, 'Fuck it, let's call it The Alley,'" says Larralde, whose knack for the obvious hasn't hurt him so far. For instance, he picked up on the obvious fact that while there are thousands of kids too young and broke to make the Beach scene -- or any other club scene in Miami -- and too disaffected to hang out at the mall, there were no all-ages, all-the-time clubs for them to hang out in.
The Alley's growing success -- crowds vary from 30 to 300, depending on what band is playing, and whether it's a school night -- isn't due to its amenities. The club's matte black walls are adorned with graffiti; the only place to sit is on old bolted-to-the-floor barstools (leftovers from the spot's previous incarnation as a Dominican dance club), or the few lawn chairs scattered around. Entry fees vary but stay in the single digits. If you want beer or booze, you have to sneak it in.
Despite the Mad Max aesthetic (or maybe because of it), kids from all around Miami-Dade come to The Alley. Soundman Frank Valdez -- who at age twenty is among the senior members of Larralde's cadre -- says the patrons come from Kendall, Hialeah, and even Miami Beach. "There are some other places that do all-ages shows, like Kaffe Krystal, but that's not how they make their money. It's not their main thing, so they kick everyone out as soon as the show's over. We're open for everyone all the time."
Dice, a dreadlocked 21-year-old, commutes from Kendall to chill at The Alley. "It's just a good place to hang out -- it's cheap compared to other clubs, and in Kendall you have to go to house parties to hear good bands play."
Truth is, Dice qualifies as a freak in his neighborhood, and the Alley clientele generally flies a punk rock freak flag. Only Larralde looks different from the more dogmatic fashion slaves, eschewing punk's sartorial melodrama for more basic gear: jeans and a T-shirt one day, black tie and white button-down the next. Despite a low-key spiel ("We're just doing this for the music, we don't care if it ever makes any money," etc.), he knows he's on to something. He also acts the salesman at times, touting the neighborhood's security one afternoon, while fumbling with the series of padlocks and gates that armor The Alley after closing time. Larralde claims "there haven't ever been any real problems" with fighting at The Alley, although his employees say the boss was jumped in the parking lot by a few hardcore kids after kicking one of them out of the club. Security is provided by the same loosely knit group of Richard's friends who sell food, take tickets, book shows, and run the sound booth. They're volunteers. Zero money.
"Richard just decided to do all this and asked us for our help," says Willie. "At the beginning I thought it wouldn't become this big."
Valdez, 17-year-old Andy Diaz, 19-year-olds Willie and Montserrat, and Nick (who claims his last name is "The Hick," and says he's "between 18 and 21") are among "Richard's friends" who keep the club running. "Kids we don't even know help out [now]," Larralde says. "They sit around in the parking lot like they don't care about anything and they want to seem sort of pissed off, but at the end of the night half of those will help us clean up." Larralde's only payback is springing for frequent trips to Denny's.
Last March Richard, 21, borrowed money from his family, who owns the entire block, and rented the space that would become The Alley from his uncle. The defunct dance club wedged between warehouses at 1748 NW 35th St., basically a long narrow room, still had furniture and a bar. Larralde and Co. dusted things off, built a wooden stage, and had friends graffiti the walls. Presto: instant club, complete with grimy urban-decay aesthetic. Most of the time, the air conditioning even works.
A year later, the club has been picking up steam relentlessly. Punk stalwarts Against All Authority played the biggest show The Alley has seen in September, an event shut down by the police after complaints about the hundreds of kids stuffed into The Alley and its parking lot. "I shoved Richard outside to talk with the cops and locked the door and told the band to keep playing," Nick the Hick reflects wistfully. "They got in three or four more songs."
The music -- whether ska, punk, metal, or some hybrid -- is usually buzz-saw loud, occasionally inducing the epileptic Saint Vitus ritual apparently familiar to the people milling around the stage. Every so often, one of them explodes like a popcorn kernel, bouncing across the room, ping-ponging back to friends, perhaps to bum a smoke and mill around some more while Bum Ruckus or the Monjees keep frantic time onstage.
The dancing is incidental, because mostly what these people are looking for is a place of their own. Larralde gives them that, sometimes opening when there are no bands scheduled, just so kids can have a place to sit around. "People will call on, like, a Tuesday night, begging me to open up," he says incredulously.
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He stays open as long as he feels like hanging out himself. "We stay here. It doesn't matter if the bands are over or there are no bands. We play dance music late, and you can see all the punks get down."
Larralde lets almost any band play. Pretty much anyone willing to e-mail or call one of the many kids who handles booking at The Alley can get a show. It attracts high school garage bands (during a recent show none of the club's staff could name the band onstage), a lot of the current crop of pop-punksters (St. Pete-based Fat Aggression shook the stage with a set somewhere between Operation Ivy and Propagandhi recently), and a grab bag of random music that keeps things interesting. At its inception, The Alley stuck to angry guitar music -- punk, hardcore, metal -- leavened with a little ska, but Larralde's trying to expand, booking rock acts like Pygmy, the Stop Motion, and the Remedy Session.
Richard is excited about the music: "Bands here don't survive, not many of them. Maybe we can support some of them. We're growing a built-in audience. Punk kids show up at grindcore [metal] shows, it's crazy." He's also hoping to create a built-in audience for his record store two doors down from the club. Grand opening is next month -- interior decorating plans are still in the graffiti phase -- although Richard says it will probably open only in conjunction with shows at The Alley right now. He'll stock local bands and selections from indie labels nationwide.
Larralde cruises the parking lot, talking with bands, fans, and the friends who help him run The Alley. The scene -- Mohawked kids drinking 40-ouncers from paper bags, some guy in combat boots screaming obscenities into a megaphone -- makes him smile. "The same kids who come to the shows will buy the records. Where else are they going to go? There aren't many good places around here."