The Year of Parliament: How Changes to Tempe Neighborhoods Spawned an Underground, All Ages DIY Venue On the Outskirts of the City

Parliament resides in an unassuming office complex in an industrial part of Tempe. There is no signage, no markers, and no way of telling that anything out of the ordinary might occur inside. A littering of cigarette butts and makeshift ashtrays signals to passersby that a raucous event preceded the night before, but even these subtle clues are easily missed.

“You have to want to find this place,” as Robbie Pfeffer describes it.

Pfeffer, 24, and Gage Olesen, 20 are two of the founding members of Parliament, an eclectic and unconventional space in Tempe, a suburb of Phoenix’s metropolis and home to Arizona State University’s main campus.

A lone religious prayer candle, skinny and emblazoned with Jesus’ face, burns outside the front door the day I schedule to interview Pfeffer and Olesen. I interpret this as a sign that the two are inside, gutting the space of renovations made over the past year. I knock on the door and wait patiently before realizing that the pair has yet to arrive.

The surrounding businesses include an air conditioning repair, car paint services, and welding shop among others. Like Parliament, these storefronts are unmarked and unpublicized. The complex is uninhabited after regular business hours and is located miles away from Tempe’s popular night districts such as Mill Avenue or Tempe Marketplace. It is dark, uninviting, and perfectly suited for Parliament’s needs.

“[We’ve] made it so you can come here one night and it’s a punk show with people jumping on the speakers and you come here the next night and it’s an art opening and the same speakers are now holding cheese plates,” Pfeffer explains.

“What I wanted was by all industrial terms completely insane . . . I want it to be in this price range, and I want it to be in this very specific area of the city and I want to be able to do an incredibly short lease . . . and I want to be able to make as much loud music as I want at night.”

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Greg Olesen (left) and Robbie Pfeffer (right) photographed inside Parliament / Megan McLeod

It is unthinkable the way the space transforms from one event to the next. An elaborate, original theatre show, complete with stage props and an original music score follows monthly jazz nights, with photo shoots and band practices in between.

The walls are adorned with artwork on wood lattices drilled into the walls and illuminated by mounted adjustable lights. Curtains of fabric billow down from the ceiling and frame a large, elevated stage where conventional wisdom would place cubicle dividers, water coolers, and the stale air of an employee break room.

“It was kind of like a free for all . . . I always felt comfortable there and I always knew that if I put on a show, like a good solid group of people would be there, and they’d take it seriously,” says Chris Czaja, 21, a studio art major at ASU with a concentration in drawing.

Czaja helped to curate events for The Paper Knife, a multimedia collective whose members regularly hosted jazz nights and art openings at the location.

“It definitely filled a lot of gaps that I think it’s just kind of a shame that it’s gone, you know, because that was like a guaranteed spot that if you had an idea, you could make it happen,” Czaia says.

For the past year, the venue has served as a rare and strange refuge for young artists and students in Tempe, who have increasingly limited options for unabashed self-expression. Downtown neighborhoods that commonly serve as the site for house parties or informal gatherings are now being threatened by an assortment of changes, the impacts of which can be gleaned from Parliament’s well-attended events.

Now, after a year of operation, Parliament is closing doors. I was eager to get inside one more time to interview two of its founding members about the impetus behind its creation, the decision to end, and what it revealed about the obscure community that patronized it.

For Pfeffer and Olesen, Parliament was not their first experience building a venue.

Pfeffer has earned a local reputation for himself as both musician and promoter. In 2011, he was given access to a long-standing empty building at 11th St and Mill Avenue close to ASU’s Tempe campus that he and Olesen turned into a coffee shop and all-ages venue called The Fix.

It was an unorthodox arrangement. The owners covered expenses, but were unconcerned as to whether the business generated income and were more focused on Monster Impound and Recovery, their towing service notorious for shady and illegitimate practices. Despite this, managing The Fix gave Pfeffer and Olsen an intimate knowledge of the city’s permitting process, the routine fire inspections, and the red tape that comes with opening a business—experiences that would guide them in the formation of Parliament.

In 2012 and 2013, the pair also helped to organize an event in downtown Phoenix for “FMLY Fest,” a L.A.-based collective that facilitates independent music festivals and workshops under the FMLY name in cities across the country.

Pfeffer did not fill out a single sheet of paperwork or talk to any city official for the Phoenix event, where 60 bands performed at dozens of storefronts and street corners, spanning multiple city blocks and spilling into streets and residential areas.

It’s unlikely that an event of similar size could occur in Tempe without being subjected to city approval and permitting. Having been through it for The Fix, Pfeffer says obtaining the permits is “a brutal process” and that there is “no consideration for scale.”

In order to avoid these requirements, Parliament has had to operate underground and in the shadows of the college town.

“What I wanted was by all industrial terms completely insane,” says Pfeffer, referring to his search for Parliament’s location. “I want it to be in this price range, and I want it to be in this very specific area of the city and I want to be able to do an incredibly short lease . . . and I want to be able to make as much loud music as I want at night.”

Pfeffer hired a real estate agent, turning down some less-than-favorable options before finding Parliament’s current spot. The contract was negotiated only after signing the lease and included a provision stating that “excessive noise may emanate from the premises” after 7 p.m.

Like-minded friends and artists were brought into the fold to help pay the $1,400/month overhead and organize events for the space. Nothing was promised because no one had any idea how long the enterprise would last. Pfeffer and Olesen placed their own expectations for something to go awry at two months.

The fear was that the owner, other tenants, or law enforcement would catch wind of a makeshift venue operating without permits and where underage drinking was rampant, especially at a time when the Tempe Police Department was making a dedicated effort to curb such activities.

The demographic of Parliament’s audience is largely made up of minors, and although Tempe contains a large population of college-aged kids, most of the city provides a level of urban amenities and attractions on par with the suburbs, the exceptions being Mill Avenue and Tempe Marketplace. To be underage in Tempe is to be a subset of the population that cannot enjoy the vast majority of what is offered.

“Changes to the built environment are intertwined, inseparable from the reasons why hundreds of twenty-somethings began cramming themselves into a poorly ventilated office space”

Much of Parliament’s success can be attributed to kids who simply do not have another all-ages venue to experience live music or spontaneous arts in a way that does not make them feel marginalized.

“[The kids] are just excited to be somewhere where . . . they’re not going to be treated as second-class because they’re not . . . generating alcohol revenue,” Pfeffer explains.

However, Parliament is by no means a “dry” venue and encourages a BYOB mentality. This defining characteristic necessitates a special level of discretion and attention paid to how much information is given about its whereabouts.

“We were very strategic about wording and presentation about what we were doing,” says Pfeffer, “we tried really, really hard to never have links to the event’s address.”

There is no website, no Facebook page, no marketing or social media presence, and while events are promoted through Facebook event pages, an address is absent.

For all legal and practical purposes, Parliament is a private venue that only holds private events. It operates under the umbrella of Rubber Brother Records, Pfeffer and Olesen’s independent label that releases Arizona and national artists on cassette tapes.

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Robbie Pfeffer (right) and Greg Olesen (left) / Megan McLeod

In many ways, Parliament is a safe haven not just for minors, but for all students and young artists.

Tempe has bounced back from the recession of 2007-08 in an astonishing way, leading the Valley in economic recovery with the announcement of multiple corporate office centers and luxury high rises for State Farm, USA Basketball, and other big names. Downtown appeared forgotten for the less dense, more residential and suburban areas to the south of the city, only to be rediscovered post-recession, perhaps due to the resilience maintained by high-density urban areas in times of economic downturn.

The influx of interest targeting the downtown area is quickly changing the urban landscape. Neighborhoods far predating those in South Tempe that rent to college students are seeing property values soar; newer apartment homes and other developments bring increased attraction to areas with history dating back to the city’s beginnings.

Strip malls and shopping centers previously blighted by vacant storefronts and empty parking lots now boast familiar retailers targeting an ever-growing student body.

For Parliament, these changes to the built environment are intertwined, inseparable from the reasons why hundreds of twenty-somethings began cramming themselves into a poorly ventilated office space to experience freedom of expression and joyous inebriation.

The City of Tempe and ASU are dedicated to downtown Tempe’s urban Renaissance, but unfortunately, not all boats are lifted in the rising tide of their well-meaning efforts.

The Rise of Greek Life, the Fall of the House Party

Before Parliament, the community of artists, musicians, and attendees that filled the office space found solace in house parties commonly held in neighborhoods farther to the city’s east, in closer proximity to ASU’s main campus.

While some are attracted to better-known destinations or are entertained by the university’s sports games, Parliament’s class of well-meaning miscreants are alleviated by the ear-splitting noise of an inexpensive PA system.

Couches are pushed up against walls, TVs moved to safer areas, and the floors of kitchens, living rooms and patios transformed into makeshift art galleries, performance spaces, and music venues in an endless variety of creative endeavors. When no better-suited space exists, one will be made in a two-bedroom rental house that bears the scuffs, cracks, and marks of previous parties held by like-minded individuals.

The city’s highest concentration of bars, restaurants, and nightlife is not far from the neighborhoods’ perimeters. Growing entertainment around the Mill Avenue district, ASU Greek life, and residential areas teeming with college kids are all geographically condensed, often putting the separate areas at odds and straining city resources.

Tempe has a well-deserved reputation for partying, not unexpected of a college town, especially when it boasts one of the largest universities in the country. In recent years, however, a number of high-profile incidents have forced the city and ASU to reexamine how it manages and contains the wild behavior.

“We got negative feedback from a few residents saying they didn’t like the police officers going around door to door, knocking on doors and . . . kind of giving them a heads up”

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Decorations and renovations inside Parliament are dismantled as the venue closes / Megan McLeod

In 2012, Jack Culolias, a member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, attended a fraternity function at now-defunct Cadillac Ranch in Tempe Marketplace. Despite being underage, Culolias became overly intoxicated after being served and was asked to leave. While it is unclear what happened next since Culolias left alone, he was not seen again for 16 days until his drowned body was spotted floating in the Salt River, which runs along the large entertainment complex.

Subsequent investigations would lead to the closure of Cadillac Ranch, found to be in violation of serving minors for the third time in two years. A tale of brutal hazing involving Culolias and other fraternity members became public in which they drank copious amounts of an unknown alcohol until they passed out or were forced to eat cat food if they did not comply.

The following year, a 17-year-old student-recruit from California and an 18-year-old student were severely burned at a separate fraternity’s party when a bottle of vodka was thrown into a bonfire, covering the girls’ legs and back with flaming liquid. The younger and more severely burned of the two walked down the street to wait for medical attention at the request of partygoers, who were concerned about getting in trouble for underage drinking.

The ASU chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon was banned, while other fraternities were suspended for numerous troubling incidents. A year later, fraternity behavior would result in yet another alcohol-related student death.

In March 2014, two friends led eighteen-year-old Naomi McClendon to an apartment after she became too drunk at a banned fraternity’s party. They then left her alone, thinking that she only needed to lie down. As captured in surveillance video, McClendon walked out onto the apartment patio, straddled the railing, and fell 10 stories to her death below.

Violent, alcohol-related incidents associated with Greek life and involving minors were taking place off campus, spilling into neighborhoods, arousing media attention and the concern of residents.

In 2011, ASU condemned houses along “Fraternity Row,” located on campus and where fraternities had been housed since the 1960s. Filled with asbestos and increasingly in need of repairs, chapters spent years working with ASU to tear down the buildings and provide more updated, suitable residences. When nothing came to fruition and the buildings continued to deteriorate, the Greek community moved off campus, into the neighborhoods and away from ASU’s restrictions.

In some cases, partial or entire apartment complexes became the unofficial headquarters for Greek life. Tempe Police Department experienced a substantial uptick in house party complaints that they were unequipped to handle.

Lt. Mike Pooley, Public Information Officer for Tempe PD, said it seemed like residents were making calls to the Mayor’s office and City Council almost daily about the issue. The city and Tempe PD worked together to create policy changes that would give them an upper hand on the situation.

The new policies mean that any person at a party could be cited for a noise complaint, not just the host, and the owner of the property and any sponsoring organizations could be liable as well, whether they are present or not.

“They changed the sound ordinance laws,” explains Olesen, “so before it was you could have loud music until 10 [p.m.] and it would be no problem and now it’s that as soon as there’s a complaint, you’re breaking the law, and they don’t have to talk to you to give you a fine now, they can just tape it to your door.”

Changes in city code relating to sound ordinances and “nuisance parties,” as they’re titled, were not the only measures taken.

In 2013, Tempe PD launched “Safe and Sober,” a program aimed at discouraging drunk driving and underage drinking through increased enforcement. Over a dozen police agencies partnered together during the first weeks of the fall semester to patrol a two-mile radius around ASU Tempe campus. It was reinstalled the following year, broadening its reach with officers going door-to-door in neighborhoods within the patrol area to educate residents on the program.

Nuisance party complaints were a major focus in Safe and Sober as Tempe PD dedicated more resources to answering and dealing with these calls. The neighborhoods continued to see an increased police presence, which to some residents seemed excessive, given how concentrated of an area the campaign took place in.

“We got negative feedback from a few residents saying they didn’t like the police officers going around door to door, knocking on doors and . . . kind of giving them a heads up on Safe and Sober,” says Lt. Pooley.

Responding to a noise complaint from a party now means that officers are likely to crack down on underage drinking. For the Parliament crowd, it’s a dangerous situation, because any gathering involving more than a few people is viewed through the lens of Safe and Sober, especially when loud music is being projected.

“That’s a different game than it was two years ago,” Pfeffer says, referring to house shows he helps to organize. “The citation is on the first offense. There is no longer a warning. There is no longer a time you can be loud until.”

At the end of each year’s program, Tempe PD releases the number of people stopped, arrests made, DUIs issued, and minors reported in possession or consumption of alcohol. In 2013, nearly 1,400 arrests were made in little over a week as part of Safe and Sober.

Pfeffer says he expected similar, but higher, numbers would be announced for 2014, lamenting that the program would be hailed as a success.

“That’s not good policing,” Pfeffer says. “That’s not making the community safer. That’s just trying to justify funding.”

Lt. Pooley insists that negative feedback from residents about Safe and Sober have been taken into account and may change the way they operate future programs. The door-to-door campaign, Pooley says, was modeled from programs that have taken place at universities and cities across the country.

“What people don’t realize is this was an idea that actually came out of ASU . . . so, it wasn’t just Tempe Police Department, and it wasn’t just ASU Police Department, it was ASU faculty, it was ASU administration, it was ASU students and their student government,” Pooley says.

When initially contacted for this story, ASU’s police department recommended that questions regarding Safe and Sober be directed to Tempe PD.

“Kids think differently about concerts, about spaces, about what it is to have a community”

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Megan McLeod 

The Safe and Sober campaign, involving dozens of police agencies, stakeholders, and community partners, is like a wild goose chase against the nebulous issue of public safety and underage drinking, investing growing resources to achieve increased arrests and citations. The goals of the campaign appear puritanical in nature, filling neighborhoods with the perceived threat of a booze-laden boogey man.

Student life as a whole, and downtown neighborhoods in general, bear the brunt of the policies, when originally it was fraternity behavior raising public concern that prompted these changes.

It has meant that house shows are a dwindling option for the hundreds of people that funnel into the small, unassuming office space called Parliament to experience what the neighborhoods cannot provide under an umbrella of safety and certainty.

These are the events that precluded Parliament and begged its formation, pushing communities of artists and young students to the industrial outskirts of the city to discover what it means to have a space to call their own.

They are the types of spaces that are becoming increasingly more difficult to find within neighborhoods of a rapidly changing downtown, where residential code enforcement and reactionary behavior against pockets of Greek life have become a decided priority.

The End of an Era, The End of Parliament

It’s the first time in a few days that either Pfeffer or Olesen have been inside the office space. Most of the decorations inside have already been torn down and the gutting begun. Ironically, it doesn’t alter the appearance much, as Parliament has always retained a blank, amorphous quality.

We sit on the stage with a backdrop of fabric curtains as the pair discusses what ultimately led to Parliament’s closure.

Toward the end of their lease agreement, excessive noise complaints were made by a tenant next door. Up until this point, it was never a problem, but the unnamed, unmarked tenant began keeping business hours later into the evening, experiencing the full magnitude of what Parliament had to offer.

When it came time to renew the lease, the owner couldn’t allow the excessive noise clause to continue, ridding the venue of the one privilege they desperately sought. Although many events held at Parliament, such as the theatre performances or art shows, did not present a noise issue, it was agreed that they had reached an end of some sort. It was time to throw in the towel while they still had a good thing going.

After a year, Parliament called it quits and congratulated themselves on thriving longer than anyone imagined—Pfeffer and Olesen included.

“Kids think differently about concerts, about spaces, about what it is to have a community because of a place like [Parliament],” Pfeffer says when asked what sort of legacy he believes the venue will leave behind. “I think it’s been a really positive thing and will hopefully influence future spaces.”

It is important that cities and artistic communities provide not only underage kids, but people of all ages with the ability to exert creative freedom over a space in an uninhibited manner, free from the oversight that Parliament’s crowds wished to evade. For many, Parliament was the first experience in such a space.

Following the closure, Pfeffer and Olesen say that they plan to organize more in Downtown Phoenix and aren’t looking to revert back to doing house shows in the neighborhoods. But Olesen offers advice for anyone who does.

“How I think it’s safest for everyone to have house shows in ‘new Tempe’ is you start at seven [p.m.], you have two bands, you’re done by ten, and that’s it.”

“It’s not a show,” Pfeffer adds. “It’s a house show, and there’s got to be the distinction.”

When I found out that neither of two had been to the space for several days before our interview, I was curious about the lone religious candle, the kind tall and skinny, that I found burning outside the front door upon walking up.

I ask if they have any idea who left it, to which they laugh and say no. A single, proverbial candle gifted by an unknown patron may be one of the less unusual things to have occurred at Parliament.

“I think a lot of people felt comfortable here … and I think [there is] that kind of appreciation for the space and that kind of loyalty,” Pfeffer reflects.

He admits that it brings a level of gratification to think that the candle was left in a commemorative gesture, hinting at a memorial held for the death of a short-lived space that meant so much to a select few.

He then concedes: “Equal parts gratifying and terrifying. This place is a fire hazard.”

Daniel Mills is the founder and editor of Sprawlr. He can be contacted at info@sprawlr.org