Ballad of the Sad Café
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.!"
Since then, things seem to have quieted down for the café. Beat officer Troy Schoenberger reports a reduction in the number of complaints since [Fusion] changed to Astro. Specifically, there were 68 calls made to the police in 2000 to report incidents at the address (which mostly included assaults, suspicious people, and a few narcotics violations) and 29 after the management switch in 2001. As far as former council member Jim Niland can tell, however, Fusion's initial shutdown was a result of financial duress. "The neighborhood just wants to see a good owner or operator in there to run a nice neighborhood coffee shop," he says.
That's certainly the route Astro appears to be taking. In fact, the only trace of the former underground playpen that remains can be seen in the foyer's stacks of party flyers, or in the musky (and according to Bohman, haunted) basement that used to house a gun store/shooting gallery. A pair of unmanned turntables lies in a lonely corner near a few ratty couches. When the busy decks and the notorious Fusion name disappeared, so did the raver crowd to which the hot spot catered.
"They walk in here now as if they've just stepped into their friend's parents' house," Bohman laughs. Since Bohman is a DJ who was central to the scene that walked out after the café's transition, this fact seems to disturb him. But he still has plans to develop the space with a herd of computers supplied with music programs to target "the producer crowd."
Since the all-around death of the underground rave and surge of sanctioned club events, the semi-secret hideaway that was Café Fusion might have been obsolete today in any case. Instead of making the trek from Suburbia to Minneapolis to get their hands on flyers, kids rely on the Internet (often MNvibe.com) for information. And when they can indulge in sensory gluttony and see the likes of their favorite DJs at a nice clean club like Astro instead of a basement like Fusion, it's no wonder the general raver massive seemed to just shrug their collective shoulders at Fusion's shutdown.
And if Astro's not popular enough with the ravers, it might instead cater to the new-age crowd. Bohman has brought his interest in astrology to Astro, and he never fails to greet every customer with his or her horoscope. If given a birth date and time, the eccentric Aries will type away on the computer adjacent to the cash register and--like Madame Cleo without the fake accent or 'do-rag--bestow his insights upon the customer. The café was never about coffee anyway.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.