Urbana-Champaign Indymedia Center Mostly Open After City Overreacts

After a bit of a scare and quite a bit of wrangling, negotiating and meeting with Urbana city officials the Urbana-Champaign IMC remains mostly open after getting a notice of immediate closure last Thursday. However, the IMC’s all-ages performance venue, known as the “back room,” remains closed, as it was the target of most of the code violations.

On Wednesday night the IMC’s Steering Group drafted a statement that details what happened and what the IMC’s plans are. I’ll post it as soon as the edited and proofread version gets released.

But, in sum, although the IMC has been in constant communication with various Urbana city officials, has had fire inspections, and operated the peformance space in the open for over a year, the City claimed that nobody knew there were public performances going on.

In the aftermath of the fire disasters in Chicago and Rhode Island earlier this year the City of Urbana is understandably skittish about public gathering spaces being up to code. That is why the City decided to do a second inspection of the space after an initial inspection last Monday that yielded only a few violations in need of repair.

But in their apparent rush to deal with a situation they hadn’t been on top of for over a year, city officials overreacted by issuing closure order without even attempting to contact anybody at the IMC. Initial attempts by several IMC volunteers to talk to City officials about the closure last Thursday night and Friday morning met with resistance, and in the case of Urbana’s mayor, outright hositility and violence (he slammed around objects like a tea cup and threw a chair when the IMC’s treasurer came to meet with him Friday morning).

The list of repairs and modification necessary to bring the IMC’s performance space up to code is extensive and largely beyond the means of the IMC. Further complicating things is the fact that several of the violations deal with the whole building, including parts that the IMC doesn’t rent, making them the responsibility of the landlords (who are currently in Australia).

Rather than let this keep us down, however, the IMC is using this as further impetus in our drive to buy a building to permanently house the IMC.

Of course, many folks have wondered over the past week if the City’s action represent some kind of crackdown on the IMC and its independent voice of dissent. Frankly, that’s hard to say. Urbana is a small city — 34,000 people — and a fairly progressive one at that. The IMC has become an active space in an otherwise dying downtown, and there is significant support for the IMC on city council (one member is a founding member of the IMC). Which doesn’t mean that there aren’t people who dislike or hate the IMC — the mayor certainly falls into this category.

But if the City’s intent was to shut down the IMC, they did a shitty job of it. It appears that folks like the fire and building inspectors really thought they were doing their job, and later they personally expressed some regret that communication hadn’t been better. These City officials have also pledged their cooperation to help the IMC meet all relevant codes in a new space. Beyond the bad publicity of appearing to shut down a non-profit media center, they also risked bad publicity of appearing to suppress having active culture going on in the City’s downtown.

Now, I’m certainly not complacent, and I sure as hell don’t doubt that a pissed of mayor can make our lives difficult, but I also think it’s unproductive to try and find an enemy or fight where there isn’t one. If the IMC were just an all-ages peformance venue, we’d be screwed. But because the IMC also is a multi-faceted media and art center, producing a newspaper, radio program and video, and housing a library and art gallery, I think it has made itself valuable to a diverse bunch of people.

There has been a great deal of community support for our IMC, so we will see if there is enough support to help the IMC buy a permanent space and outfit it to be a real independent community center that will also stand as a permanent automomous zone in the middle of Illinois.






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