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LAVA: Radical City Music Hall.

April 22, 2015

LAVASpaceOnline01Text by Jared Whalen. Images by Michael Bucher.

Three floors of poster-cluttered walls, stacked bookshelves and various workshop areas make up LAVA, the Lancaster Avenue Autonomous space in West Philadelphia. The three-story building is a community center and activism hub, and has become home base for several activist groups as well as a shared space for community events.

Located at 4134 Lancaster Ave., LAVA currently houses six organizations and has been home to many more over the years. Launched in the early 2000s, the space was founded by groups such as Food Not Bombs, an international social activism group, and the former radio station Volta Radio. Since then, more than a dozen groups have operated from within its doors.

“The whole thing with LAVA is that they want to cross-pollinate so that activist groups support each other,” says Mahdi El, founder of Young Broadcasters of America, which operates out of LAVA. “It took a whole decade for that to happen. Groups used to not mingle. Everyone was in their corner, just doing their own work. But in the last three years, it’s been very healthy.”

Active LAVA groups include Human Rights Coalition, Food Not Bombs, Defenestrator newspaper, Young Broadcaster of America and the LAVA Library. All these groups are either dedicated to community engagement and empowerment or toward regional activism.

LAVASpaceOnline02Outside of housing organization offices, LAVA space acts as a public art and music venue, often hosting shows featuring local and touring bands. A frequent stage for punk and alternative bands, shows often combine an element of philanthropy and activism, such as nonperishable food donations and social issue awareness. Artists having performed at LAVA include Radiator Hospital, Reign Supreme and Boroughs (above).

The Human Rights Coalition is committed to empowering prisoners and bringing to light injustices in the prison and judicial system. The group is predominantly prisoners’ families, ex-prisoners and supporters. They host meetings and service projects out of LAVA space. HRC also holds letter writing nights where they go through prisoners’ letters, mostly from those in solitary confinement, that report abuse and inhumane treatment.

“We bring in volunteers and catalogue the abuse that people are reporting,” says Andy Switzer, an HRC member. “When we have resources we try to step in.”

Several groups actively engage the local community. These groups include Food Not Bombs, which holds regular free meals for the community protesting the United States’ military budget, and the LAVA Library, which offers a wide array of educational literature on activism and social issues.

Young Broadcasters of America actively works with youth to give them experience and exposure in the field of broadcasting.

“We mainly do broadcasting for children,” says El. “We actually train them and put them on TV. We work with a lot of after school programs, summer camps, that kind of stuff.”

LAVA space is heavily volunteer based, typically having 25 non-group members volunteering for various jobs and events.

“We constantly have parties here, and we constantly have workshops and we need volunteers,” says El. “There’s a lot of members from LAVA from over the years. People will float in ‘cause they’re back in from like, Oakland or Cali or Seattle.”

Fueled by its forward thinking environment, LAVA’s reputation has developed among activist and fringe circles.

“LAVA has a huge constituency across the country. That’s why I think bands come here a lot,” says El. “They heard about the LAVA over the years because there are these radical spaces, or liberated spaces. So people will hear on the West Coast, ‘When you go to Philly, go to LAVA.’”

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