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The Astro Café has enormous windows. About two years ago, when the Lake Street coffee shop was called Café Fusion, this may have seemed humorous to the group of ravers that treated it as a refuge. Through these glass panels, one could get an unobstructed peek into the site of many an underground party, glimpsing the crew of phat-panted kids slouched over by the weight of their backpacks, the old Atari video-game consoles, the
prattling ravers of all ages colorfully strewn over couches and chairs, the fresh-faced DJs attempting to master the open turntables in the back of the room. The camaraderie among this strange genus of youth resembled a sort of nonalcoholic (alcohol not being the vice of choice) interpretation of a future Cheers sitcom.
But spying on this scene would only be a preview to what often blew up into an after-hours party in the grimy basement (closed to the regular public) that carried on until after sunup. Although the windows seemed to put on an innocent face--See? We aren't hiding anything--Fusion had more to it than just extra-foamy mochas. The café was a prime example of how a subculture can thrive in the least promising of places, and how these places can disappear and reappear, transformed--all without ever truly revealing themselves to the mainstream.
In the summer of 1999, the landlord of the yet-to-be Fusion space rented out a small studio to Paul Allen (a.k.a. DJ Easyrider of local 2-step outfit the Steppers Alliance) and his crew, the Jungle Vibe Collective (JVC). Helping to create the central idea behind Fusion, Becker appointed Allen to manage the café.
"They were all really nice kids," Becker remembers fondly of Allen and the JVC. But "really nice" didn't pay the bills. According to Becker, Allen mostly employed his friends and didn't demand enough from them. He had difficulty keeping the café open during normal business hours, and as a result Fusion suffered financially. "The parties made money. The shop did not," Becker states plainly.
But the attendees never cared about money. "The parties put at-home DJs out in front of a crowd who might not otherwise get the chance," remembers 20-year-old Jade Zavatkay, who could be found at Fusion nearly every Thursday spinning records.
Laura Presnail, a semi-regular Fusion attendee, also credits the café for helping to develop the scene. "[Fusion] supported the local-music scene on a daily basis, and many people played for their first audiences there. I remember one time a kid's entire family came to watch him spin. Fusion was the only place [some kids] could go at times."
Unfortunately, Allen and his friends-turned-co-workers couldn't keep the business afloat. "[Fusion] was open less and less," Becker recalls, "and it finally closed." During the months between May and September of 2001, anyone who peered through the windows into the café saw not much more than several tables inside--and not the fun kind that emit music.
"I think the café evolved into [something] much more than I expected," Allen reflects. "Kids who came in every day with a couple records under their arm became established DJs in the scene. I feel Fusion was, for a time, the center of the Twin Cities Underground."
Before he closed the shop, Allen attempted to obtain an entertainment license--even though he thought the café might be exempt from needing one because, as he puts it, "The entertainment purely consisted of prerecorded music, and we didn't even have a dance floor, per se." However, the city did not approve Allen's request before he resigned as manager of the café.
After Allen left, Kurt Bohman--a.k.a. DJ Simple, who'd often lent his sound system to Fusion parties--took over, opening the café's doors under its new name: Astro. Tension between the former and current manager ran high, as Allen and Bohman had different visions for the coffee shop. While the Astro, as run by Bohman, sticks to normal business hours, it is often empty--perhaps because Bohman has not succeeded in obtaining an entertainment license since Allen left.
"Why [Bohman] thinks [I] have anything to do with his inability to get one, I have no idea," Allen says of the license. "Astro is a completely different entity from Fusion, and if he's having trouble getting one, it's simply because the city doesn't want all-night techno parties going on there."
Many ravers postulate that if the venue had been located in a more reputable neighborhood, a number of Fusion's troubles would not have existed. According to Allen, the corner where the venue lies--at the intersection of East Lake Street and Bloomington Avenue South--fell on hard times in 2000. He says cops were scarce, and that a prominent gang controlled the block. "During one of the worst periods, I was told in no uncertain terms that if I called 911 too often, I'd be the target of the Police Department's Call Reduction Unit"--a program that targets areas that receive an excessive number of 911 calls. "So I had to defend myself, my business, and my customers from renegade street dealers and fucked-up crackheads--sometimes with baseball bats and chains--all while being the only business open on Lake Street past 10:00 p.m.!"