Miami's Punk Houses Offer Refuge to Artists and Activists

Chris Escobar is frantically cutting onions in the kitchen of Miami's most eclectic punk house. It's a Thursday afternoon in Black Sheep House, where five members of the local activist group Food Not Bombs are cooking reclaimed food from grocery stores to serve to houseless folk in downtown.

The skinny, dark-haired activist-turned-show-promoter pauses momentarily to throw white rice in boiling water. "My favorite part about this house is that people who are coming here just for the music are getting exposed to radical politics," he says as he dumps in the grains.

Black Sheep House isn't exactly subtle in its agenda. Displayed prominently at the entrance is a sign stating that no homophobia or racism will be tolerated. The walls are painted the colors of the anarcho-communist flag (red and black). The living room is lined with literature about anticapitalism, prison abolition, and workers' rights. And yet, the house draws touring bands from around the country and, in turn, the punks who want to see them.

Black Sheep House beautifully toes the line between debauchery and intellectualism in a way that few places ever have. For the past three years, it remains one of the only places in Miami where people play chess and discuss Bookchin in the front room and catch beer-drenched punk shows in the back.

Full disclosure: I have known Chris through activism for a while and have visited Black Sheep House countless times over the years. I’ve received oral sex in the bathroom, started fistfights with jocks, traded a place to sleep for tattoos with traveling Canadians, and tabled zines about the environment. Some of my fondest memories in South Florida have been at this unassuming house on a quiet street in Little Haiti. (Black Sheep House has asked us not to use its specific address.)

My friend Ali, another Black Sheep regular, sums it up best: "Black Sheep House is like that awesome clubhouse you had as a kid, where no grown-ups were allowed, except now you are a grown-up." 
The origins of Black Sheep House can be traced back to the end of the Occupy movement in early 2012, when activists protested greedy corporations for causing social and financial inequality. In Miami, tents went up outside Government Center. When cops shut it down in January 2012, the city’s first Occupy house went up in Overtown on NW Seventh Street. It attracted a seedy crowd, and with a landlord who had an anything-goes mentality, protestors quickly defaced the building with red and black graffiti and tore the doors from their hinges. The apartment devolved into a de facto crack house. In just a few months, it got so bad that some of its residents abandoned the building to find a space where the ideals of the movement could be actualized. Then, they found the current property in Little Haiti.

That house had a rocky beginning too. At first, it lured the same crowd as before. And despite that tenant’s best efforts, the property succumbed to drugs. It seemed like everyone had given up and left.

The next tenant who moved in wasn’t associated with Occupy. When they moved out, the house was in terrible condition: There were holes in the walls and mold everywhere.

But Chris Escobar wasn’t deterred. In early 2013, he moved in with a few friends with no lofty intentions; he just wanted a roof over his head. Escobar spent weeks sprucing up the property. Minus the white picket fence, it looks like the kind of house children could grow up in — at least from the outside.

Then, one day, a friend asked Escobar a question that forever changed the house’s identity.

"My friend asked if they could book a show here. I told her yeah," Escobar recalls with a smirk. "The show went so well, I decided to book more."

This was the humble beginning of Black Sheep House. Escobar named it himself. Over time, more bands began booking shows with Escobar on the property. Their fans came out in droves to see them. Within a few short years, two of Miami’s more popular DIY venues shuttered. So, Escobar doubled down, determined to fill that void and continue the time-honored tradition of playing punk in the living room.

In fewer than three years, Black Sheep House has elevated the house show scene in Miami. Growing up in New Brunswick, a New Jersey city that draws bands from all over the world to play in its basements, I’m skeptical of house shows in other places. They’re rarely run properly, they always seem to be more of a party than a concert, and people post the venue’s address on the internet (as if they’re inviting the cops to break it up later). 
But that’s not Black Sheep House. It’s more than just a party house. It's a well-respected venue that draws in acts from all over the world. (I’ve seen both an Ecuadorian hardcore band and a grindcore band from my hometown play in the back room.)

"Bands tell me all the time — this is their favorite place to play,” Escobar says. “It's a dream come true for me."

There are several similar punk houses sprinkled throughout Miami, but none quite like Black Sheep. It has become a place where misfits of all kinds can unwind on a Friday and, most importantly, feel safe. It shows us that punk can be more than just beer and debauchery — that it can have a purpose. People might say that folks like Escobar are just young optimists with a head full of ideals, but if you take a closer look, the punks might be onto something here.

Observe the atmosphere at any Black Sheep show, and it's hard to disagree. Picture a house party from high school but without the cliques. Everyone seems to know each other (or at least pretends to). And no show ends without a crazy story.

Escobar, still chopping vegetables in the kitchen, recounts one of his favorites: "This one Friday, LockJaw was playing, and the cops were knocking at the door, so I walked up front and told them to fuck off. Before I could make it to the back door, they had already arrested the bassist," Chris jokes. "It's cool, though; he was out by Monday."