It’s a Friday night in February, and far from the stretches of bars on Main Street and South University Avenue, the streets of downtown Ann Arbor are cold and desolate. But walk down East Washington Street and follow the muted bass beats to a small door on the backside of what looks like a big, brick warehouse. High school students spill out from the entrance and just inside the door are dozens more, soaking up the warm bliss of live music. This is The Neutral Zone.
On any given weekend, this is the scene you’ll encounter at the Zone. But stop in on a Monday and it’s clear that this local hangout is home to a veritable mother lode of youth programs. Located just off campus on East Washington and South Fifth, The Neutral Zone is, as avowed in its mission statement, “a diverse, youth-driven teen center dedicated to promoting personal growth through artistic expression, community leadership and the exchange of ideas.”
Founded in 1998 by a group of ambitious teens tired of being banned from the 21-and-up scene, the Zone provides a rare place where minors can meet after school and on weekends away from parental controls. Youth programs at the Zone cover five basic areas: music, literary arts, visual arts, education and leadership. They include workshops in those areas as well as college prep and drop-in tutoring. It’s also home to youth leadership groups that discuss everything from lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer issues to the situation in Darfur.
On weekends, the Zone’s performance venue, The B-Side, hosts concerts and special events organized by the Zone’s music programs. These programs encompass every side of the music industry, including a record label called Youth Owned Records (YOR), a professional recording studio and The B-Side venue itself.
Continuing in its founders footsteps, the Zone remains in the hands of those who use it: the teens. While adult workers and volunteers lend their skills and experience, the Zone’s youth members call the final shots. The teens are the ones who book and promote concerts at The B-Side and sign bands to YOR (making it one of the only entirely youth-owned labels in the country).
“There’s a really strong feeling of ownership for them because basically it’s their space to do what they want — even though, you know, we’re here sweeping and mopping it,” YOR’s music coordinator Chris Bathgate explained.
The “we” he referred to consists of the 20-some full- and part-time staff as well as a volunteer core of more than 70 students and community members. And it’s not too shabby a group.
“We get in like really, really funky individuals … a lot of the people who work in these fields are also leaders in their fields outside of The Neutral Zone,” said Nathaniel Mullen, a Zone volunteer and University alum.
A good number of those volunteers are Wolverines. Bathgate, an accomplished indie/folk musician, is a University alum with an Master of Fine Arts from the School of Art & Design. Although he wasn’t directly involved with the Zone until later, he was aware of it as a student and knew people who had worked there.
The connection between the University and the Zone is due in part to sheer proximity, but also to a similar vision. “There’s a lot of opportunity for University students to be involved here, and University students also have … experiences that they could give to teens,” Mullen said.
The Neutral Zone provides students an opportunity to practice their skills in the real world and share ideas and interests with like-minded peers.
“There’s sort of a long-standing tradition of people in the local scene sort of fluctuating in and out and supporting this place. And you know that isn’t limited to music; it’s the same for visual art and it’s the same especially with the writing workshops,” Bathgate noted.
Bathgate’s role now?
“I’m just there to support their interests, their needs and basically to use the knowledge that I have to enable them to do everything that they want to do to the best of my ability,” he said.
Bathgate’s view is also an overarching theme among Neutral Zone workers. High schoolers and industry professionals interact as equals. University volunteers act less as teachers and more as mentors.
“They’re leading programs — they’re working with teens to, I guess, bring them to the next level. And that’s on all sides; leadership, emotionally and artistically,” Bathgate said.
Mullen first fell into the Zone in the summer between his sophomore and junior years at the University. Searching for something “productive” to do with his summer, he walked by the building and noticed the art in the windows.
“That was definitely something I figured I could contribute to, so I walked in, talked to some people and wound up volunteering,” Mullen said.
It was such a success that he is now completing his Americorp service learning at the Zone. “It worked — it just clicked really well,”
Volunteers like Mullen help the Zone remain an integral part of the Ann Arbor community, especially for local teens. The Zone offers them a fun and safe alternative on Friday and Saturday nights. It’s the only consistent all-ages venue that’s geared toward providing young musicians and artists a venue for their art.
Bathgate mentioned how frustrating it can be to be a music fan as a minor.
“They’re sensitive to (the local music scene)” he said. “Their finger’s on the pulse, but they don’t have access to it.”
Most music venues double as bars and clubs, hosting late-night shows to audiences 21 or older, preventing teens from seeing their favorite acts.
“It’s a total bummer. It’s a hard world when you want to be part of something and you don’t get that sort of jurisdiction,” Bathgate added.
Not only are teens often denied access as an audience, but also as performers. Charlie Held is the drummer for the YOR-signed band Echoes. His favorite part about the Zone is the opportunity it provides for students like him to play shows.
Promoters at The B-Side venue book a wide variety of acts, including local high school and middle school bands, college bands and even the occasional national act to attract a broad audience.
“We also really want to connect more with the U of M campus. We try to cater to their tastes. We’d like to see the phrase ‘all ages’ expanded,” Bathgate said.
Take it from Mullen. “It’s all about coming in and being willing to help,” he said. As he describes it, “The Zone is hot!”