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Proletariat’s Denise Ramos: “It Just Didn’t Make Sense for Me to Keep Dealing with This”

Photo by Matt Marrand

A typically packed Rock Box crowd stuffs the Proletariat, circa 2005

Since opening in September 2002, the Proletariat has been both neighborhood bar for the Richmond/Montrose crowd and the place for Pitchfork readers across the Houston area to see the bands they’ve been reading about: TV on the Radio, Broken Social Scene, Art Brut, MuteMath, the Thermals, Ted Leo, Gravenhurst, Wolf Eyes, Hella and many more. Moreover, every like-minded Houston band worth its salt – Spain Colored Orange and Fatal Flying Guilloteens to Jana Hunter and Hearts of Animals - has made the Pro’s stage a second home, and its DJ nights (particularly Thursday’s Rock Box throwdowns) draw packed houses of thirsty, beautiful, possibly undernourished young Houstonians nearly every time.

Now the club’s rich, colorful history is just that. After months, even years, of thinking it over, owner Denise Ramos announced earlier this week the red and gray building, scheduled for demolition sometime next year as part of Metro’s University light-rail line construction, will go dark February 3. For the purposes of today’s interview, “I feel like I want to spend more time focusing on why I decided to close down, rather than going into the whole history of it all,” Ramos told the Press this morning. “Maybe one day we can get back to that.”

Houston Press: Was there some sort of tipping point that made you decide to go ahead and close up?

Denise Ramos: Definitely. Basically, what a lot of people don’t know is I’ve been dealing with the light rail issue for about two years now. This has been a long process, and – you see, about two years ago, I was going to buy the building, and my plan was to put in an elevator, and I was going to use the upstairs as my art studio. There’s a really great balcony up there, and I was going to build that out and prepare for the smoking ban, because I thought it was a matter of time before it hit Houston.

The thing is, I started going to all these meetings Metro had put together, and in one of the meetings they had the proposed design for the rail, and I noticed that our building was nowhere in the design. I just thought, instead of spending all of this time and money buying the building and building it out, I really needed to hold off until I knew a little bit more. The thought of doing all that stuff and thinking we may possibly be demolished didn’t make sense for me to do anything other than do more research.

HP: Did you talk to Metro about this?

DR: Well. When my landlord, she started getting pretty involved as well, and she was seeing the same thing I was seeing. Right in front of where our building is, that’s where they [plan to] have the station. She had asked one of the people at the meeting, and the lady started saying there’s a big possibility that there will be a complete taking of the building. That’s just how things started going. So six months go by, and I hear that in fact the rail is going to go down Richmond. Originally it was supposed to go down Westpark.

HP: I know this has been a big issue for a while. It’s definitely going to go down Richmond now?

DR: Yeah. That’s how Metro wants it, period.

HP: Okay.

DR: So basically I thought, you know, I was able to rent the space the space right next to Proletariat that used to be a little karate place. They moved out, and I quickly took over the space. I was thinking, my dad and I started talking about spending a little bit of money and building it out so we could turn it into a kitchen. We could start selling food at the Proletariat. It wasn’t going to take that much money to do it, and whatever happened with the light rail I would still be OK with it.

My friend Katie came up with this really great menu. We had spent the last New Year’s Eve in Mexico City, and I was really inspired by the simplicity of their cuisine. I thought it would work perfectly in that space. She came up with this really clever name, it’s hilarious. It was going to be called the Proletar-Eats. How funny is that? Basically what we were going to do was knock down a portion of the wall and have kind of like a taco stand. If you didn’t want to eat at the Proletariat, which I understand, you could just sit out in front of the building.

I got really excited about the idea and thought, ‘That would be a nice little thing to focus on for a while.’ Then I got word that Metro was going to start building in June of ’08 and I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ I’m very fiscally conservative, and so here I am, I decided I need to hold off on that now.

As far as the Proletariat is concerned, there’s so much we needed to do for the space itself. We were getting so much grief for our sound equipment, and believe me, I’ve been dying to get new sound equipment in there. I was dying to do a little makeover to the back room. It’s pretty torn up back there.

HP: So this isn’t just worrying about the street being shut down and people not being able to get to it because of all the construction. The building itself would be gone.

DR: Exactly. The thing is, is that parking is not an issue for us. We don’t have a parking lot. So for people to walk across the street, that’s what they’ve been doing already. I wasn’t too worried about the construction of it all. It was more about that there’s nothing I can do to upgrade it because what’s the point? They’re going to demolish the whole thing.

HP: This is what they call eminent domain, right?

DR: Yeah. Metro has eminent domain.

HP: Is there any sort of compensation for you or the owner of the building?

DR: Yes there is, but I just want to say that because of all the stuff, the back-and-forth issue and having to prolong all these things I need to do with the Pro, honestly I just started losing a little momentum.

HP: It sounds overwhelming.

DR: Yeah. I started feeling really stuck, kind of like my life was on hold. For me, on a personal level, I’m a really passionate person. I need to feel like I’m moving forward and growing, and I just wasn’t feeling that. The thing for me is this: It didn’t make sense for me to continue to ask my staff to give me the best of them when I knew I was losing momentum. Because the Proletariat’s been around for so long, in a lot of ways the Proletariat can run itself. But because we have a variety of different events throughout the week, there’s a lot I need to stay on top of.

And like I said, it just got to be too much. I’m tired of hearing people complain about the sound, and I can’t go and explain everything to everybody. I don’t know. People say, ‘Why don’t you just suck it up and stick it out and relocate?’ The thing I need people to understand is that I’d be basically dealing with the same issues, which is, when can I start planning for that exactly?

HP: Planning for what?

DR: For the whole process of relocating. There was talk of Metro giving us relocation money.

HP: But that’s not on the table at the moment, then?

DR: The thing is, it is on the table, and they say I will be given relocation money. But am I going to be fairly compensated, and like I said, when is this going to happen exactly?

HP: Have they given you guys a firm date yet?

DR: A little over a month ago it came out on the news. It said Metro has passed everything and basically they plan to start June of ’08.

HP: The Federal Transportation Authority recently put the brakes on a couple of the lines, but this is not one of them, right?

DR: Correct. Basically the feds were not willing to grant Metro the money they wanted because what I heard was Metro had changed the designs up a bit, which wasn’t the original agreement. That’s the thing with construction. They have to redesign and all of this stuff. Basically Metro is starting with the outside lines and working their way in. So if that process is being delayed, that delays everything else. But they absolutely are dead set on the University line. It’s one of the main veins, if you will.

HP: I reckon so, especially right in that area.

DR: Right. So it just didn’t make sense for me to keep dealing with this for, what, the next two, three years, you know?

HP: What are your thoughts on relocating? Do you not think that’s going to happen? Have you decided one way or the other?

DR: I’ve absolutely decided not to relocate. Because as I said, the uncertainty of it all. We know for sure they plan to demolish our building. That’s a given; we know that. But I just don’t know when that’s going to be.

HP: And you could relocate and turn around and have the same thing happen again.

DR: That I’m not really worried about. I don’t really foresee that happening. It’s more about trying to stay enthusiastic and passionate about something I’m feeling so stuck about. Where do you muster up the energy to keep the staff going?

HP: Or yourself.

DR: Sure. I have to do that for myself in order for it to spill over to the staff. I’m tired of looking at our furniture, of at times being under par with the sound. And Dom and Dunnock do their best with it, and I’m so grateful to them for doing that, but it is dreadful. There’s nothing we can do about it at this point, you know? It just doesn’t make sense financially.

HP: I’m sure you may have thought about this some since you decided to close, but what do you think the Pro has provided the local music scene? How would you like people to remember the club?

DR: [sighs] It’s kind of complicated, because over the past five years the thing is that when I started the Proletariat, I started off as being such a dictator because I didn’t know any better. I thought, ‘There’s a lot of interesting things I’m been inspired by and that I spend my time with,’ and I wanted to bring that to the people. About two years in, I started realizing that people wanted us to do more shows.

They wanted us to do more things at the Pro, and I really started listening to what it was that they wanted, because we named it the Proletariat for specific reasons. We wanted it to be for the people, and the fact that it started taking on this life of its own, meaning I started listening to what the community wanted – I just started throwing out crazy ideas after they started telling me they wanted more live shows, because at that point we were only doing live shows on Wednesdays. I didn’t take on more because I was afraid to be too overwhelmed. I was still learning.

So then when I started listening to the people and making these new changes for the weekend and stuff like that, I got inspired by that and started coming up with even crazier ideas. With karaoke on Friday, we could have gotten a lot of grief, much more so than we have about karaoke in a place like ours. I just thought, ‘I want to throw it out there and see what happens.’ Some of our patrons were kind of into karaoke, and I’m not a big fan of karaoke, I’ve never done karaoke, but it worked, and it became so unique – basically the soul of the Proletariat took over even the karaoke part of things.

I just think it’s really great that we could catch these really amazing acts like TV on the Radio and Broken Social Scene, all these bands that are just right on the cusp of having a major breakout, and get to share that with the people in Houston on such an intimate level. There’s a lot of luck to it. We always kind of lucked out. We could never have those people back in our space. The Proletariat was just basically this platform for people to have the opportunity to make a connection through their art and through their music.

HP: Local bands, especially, seem to have adopted and taken to the place. What do you think it was that allowed them to do that?

DR: Well, from day one, basically in our original business plan, Wednesday was always meant to be set up as what we called “commune music.” It was just all about having three bands for three bucks every Wednesday, and our whole point was to give all these bands the opportunity of not having to worry about having a draw. Some of these bands had never even played live before. So we just allowed whoever wanted to play to play there. Three bands for three bucks.

For years it was like that, and that’s what it was meant for. And I think they felt no pressure. They felt great that they could make that happen for themselves through us. And they got the opportunity to learn how to promote. They were so adorable – they would totally do these DiY flyers. They just got to have fun, and that was the whole point of Commune Music.

HP: When this place closes, what happens to that scene that sort of came together around the Proletariat? Where do you think they might wind up?

DR: That’s a really hard question. I don’t foresee another Proletariat coming about anytime soon, because having a live venue in Houston is a very risky business.

HP: I would say so.

DR: It is. And places like ours don’t make a lot of money, but that’s always been OK because that was never the intention. My goal was never to make money. That’s the part that I feel the worst about. Do you know what I mean? I try not to hold onto those feelings because I feel like at least I stepped up for five years for everybody. Where do I see them going? Rudyard’s, they totally have everything together over there and I really admire them for that.

I hope a lot of them do go to Walter’s, because I understand and appreciate all the effort that Pam puts into this. People can say what they will about her and the space, but I have a deep appreciation for what she’s doing, because I’ve lived it. And I’ve been over to Brad’s space.

HP: The Pearl?

DR: The Pearl. I’ve been there twice now, and I haven’t been there in a while, so I don’t know how things are coming along with that, but I know that it still – it used to be Mary Jane’s and they used to have a stage in there, and I don’t know what he plans on doing with that space. I haven’t talked to him about that, but if they do plan on doing live events there, I certainly hope they go over there because here’s a person trying to step in and participate in this scene.

I feel bad because I’m a musician as well, and I can’t wait to get back out there, and I think about where I’m gonna play. There’s probably no more than a couple of places that cater to us.

HP: What about your own plans for post-Proletariat? What are you looking forward to?

DR: I feel so grateful for the opportunity that I’ve had, I really do. I think this is one of the best jobs a person could have. I started this place when I was about 28 and I’m 34 now, and I can’t imagine a cooler job. I got to find out so much about the business and people, and learn from their life experiences, and I got to learn so much about myself. I feel like I achieved a lot of my personal and professional goals with the space. That’s what I’m walking away with. Let me just say this: I feel really lucky that I get to step away from all of this before the bad outweighs the good.

As for me, there’s so much. There’s so many goals I have to achieve. These two great friends of mine, architects, built this amazing space for me in my backyard. It’s huge: art studio, music studio, workout rroom. I’m about to implode if I don’t get back to making art, especially music. I want to focus on getting representation from a local art gallery, and I’ve been writing a lot of music. That’s one of my goals for ’08. A big group of friends of mine are going to Tokyo in April. I definitely, definitely want to open a new business, but I need to take a few years to reflect on my experiences at the Pro. Rest, rest is good. I need to rest for a bit.

I really need to say thank you to the people who enjoyed what the Pro had to offer. I appreciate the fact they had a connection with us. We’ve had amazing DJs and bands and parties over the years. I want the people to know that we owe all those great shows to the hard work of Shawna Forney, Dunnock, DJ Witnes and all the other outside promoters. It takes a lot of work to make all those things happen. Big thanks to Dom our sound guy. I have to absolutely thank the staff. I have to tell you out of all my experiences, by far and hands down, I’m going to miss working with them the most.

I think I can speak for the rest of the staff when I say the thing we looked forward to on any given night was getting everybody out by 2:15 and closing out the rest of the night with each other. This is an all-male staff; they’re like my family now. They’ve always done right by me. They kept me laughing the whole time and protected our space, and I appreciate that. When I had the staff meeting next Sunday to let them know, they completely understood where I was coming from.

I offered to extend it until February 3 to try to make as much money as they could and have proper closure. They’re still willing to ride this out to the very end. I think that’s a very rare situation. Most importantly, my brother Michael Ramos, he helped me run the show. I wouldn’t have wanted to do it without him. He’s just made this experience so much better for the both of us.

That’s it; like I said, there’s just so much. As far as how I feel about the whole thing, whether I’m sad, I haven’t quite dealt with the emotions of all that. I’m just trying to stay focused for my staff. I owe that to them. I’m trying to stay focused and move forward. But I’ve had a blast. Truly. – Chris Gray

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