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Quiet Riots

Police tell the Cobalt to turn down the volume


When it comes to punk and metal shows, there are few Vancouver venues as loud and proud as the Cobalt. Attached to a notorious Single Room Occupancy hotel, the hardcore bar is praised by fans as the last haven for underground and extreme music in Vancouver.

But after nine years of punk rock patronage, the Cobalt may have to shut its doors for being a little too noisy. Last month, three separate noise complaints brought Vancouver police to the bar’s doorstep within less than a week.

“We’ve been getting these weird complaints—after nine years of nothing,” bar manager Wendythirteen explained. She said Vancouver’s after-hours noise bylaws might put the Cobalt out of business.

Diane Shepard is a property use inspector for the City of Vancouver. She said bars with extended hours are subject to specific and testable noise requirements. “If we have complaints, we’ll go out and take readings. If they’re not in compliance, we’ll go from there.”

“The hoops they put you through are impossible,” Wendythirteen lamented about the city’s late night licensing restrictions.

To stay open past midnight, bars like the Cobalt must be equipped with metal detectors, security cameras, ID scanners and adequate soundproofing. Owners of the nearby Astoria Hotel bar recently spent $120,000 on a soundproofing upgrade, to comply with city standards.

Sound upgrades at the Cobalt will cost upwards of $50,000. Wendythirteen says she simply can’t pay for renovations. “I can’t afford it, nor am I willing to do it,” she said. “The slumlords won’t fix their shit—why should I put money into fixing their building?”

Both the Cobalt Motor Hotel and the Astoria Hotel are owned and operated by the Sahota family. Over the last twenty years, the Sahotas have earned an infamous reputation for abusing tenants, turning a blind eye to rampant crime, and allowing buildings like the Cobalt to fall into extreme disrepair.

Since February, more than 5,000 people have joined a Facebook group called Keep the Cobalt Alive. Hundreds of bands and concert-goers have shown their support for the venue by sharing their favourite pictures and anecdotes.

Wendythirteen said she’s impressed by all the local encouragement. “The response has been amazing.” On June 20, the bar plans to host a benefit show.

This isn’t the first time the Cobalt has faced the threat of closure. Back in 2004, Wendythirteen and her staff were chased out by building inspectors. “That was years ago, when the building was in bad shape and the floor used to be screwed up,” she said. The Astoria then served as a temporary home for Vancouver’s extreme music scene until 2006.

“We’ve moved back to the Astoria many times,” she added.

While the first police visit came amidst a rowdy set from California surf-punk outfit Agent Orange, the two subsequent complaints came as a shock. On a Tuesday night with a closed door and a small vocal amplifier, Wendythirteen said cops were the last thing she expected to see:

“They [police] knocked on my door and asked, you know, what’s going on, and when do you close,” she said. “I don’t know what these people expect.”

“And the third call was a response to a woman screaming in distress,” Wendythirteen continued, adding that the shouting likely came from the hotel upstairs.

Shepard said the City of Vancouver was not made aware of any recent noise violations at the Cobalt. “We don’t have any record of complaints coming to the city,” she said. “If police attended, I would imagine the yelling or fighting that caused the complaint was addressed at the scene.”

Wendythirteen suspects the string of complaints came from neighbours who are new to the busy corner of Prior and Main Street. “Someone must have moved in without realizing they moved in across from a bar.”

If noise continues to be an issue for the Cobalt, the venue may also have to roll back its hours. Thirteen said she doesn’t know what she’ll do if they’re forced to close at midnight. “How’s anyone supposed to make a living if nobody wants to come out until 10 or 11 at night?”

“I need them to be working with me here—not putting me out of business,” she said.

Published March 2009. Photo by Stephen Connor.

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