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Originally published September 21, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 21, 2007 at 2:12 AM

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Redmond's Firehouse ignited teen spirit

By day it was a YMCA day-care center, complete with cutouts of the alphabet on the walls. By night it was filled with hundreds of teens...

Seattle Times Eastside bureau

Old Firehouse birthday

Food and concerts: From 2:30-7 p.m. today, the Old Firehouse will host a free community birthday celebration with games and food.

An 8 p.m. concert will feature The Dead Science, Mt. Alps, DJ Orcateers and APOC. Cost for the concert is $6. Doors open at 7:45.

On Saturday from 3-7 p.m., all adult Old Firehouse alumni are invited for refreshments. Oral histories will be taped for future generations.

An 8 p.m. concert will feature These Arms Are Snakes, Akimbo, Kane Hodder and Mikaela's Fiend. The cost is $6. Doors open at 7:45 p.m.

Firehouse activities: The Old Firehouse serves ages 13 to 19 and offers a game room, darkroom, silkscreen studio, kitchen, counseling services and media lab. Hours are from 3-9 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday and from 3-11 p.m. Saturday. On Friday, shows usually start at 8 p.m. Free "teen feeds" are there at 6 p.m. Wednesdays.

Location and contact: The Old Firehouse is at 16510 N.E. 79th St. in Redmond. The phone number is 425-556-2370

By day it was a YMCA day-care center, complete with cutouts of the alphabet on the walls.

By night it was filled with hundreds of teens sporting Doc Martens and swilling soda pop.

While Seattle's rock talent attracted international attention, the YMCA facility in Redmond was living a double life.

A teen-dance ordinance had cut minors off from the music scene, so they made their own, turning a decommissioned firehouse in Redmond into the area's only permanent all-ages rock venue.

When the Old Firehouse Teen Center celebrates its 15th birthday today and Saturday, the party will be like a class reunion.

Now the longest-running all-ages music venue north of San Francisco, the Firehouse helped launch the careers of bands such as Modest Mouse, The Blood Brothers, Pretty Girls Make Graves and Minus the Bear.

Backed by Mayor Rosemarie Ives and funded by the city of Redmond, the Firehouse was a MySpace for those who had none. Rock concerts there drew teens from all over the Puget Sound region.

Today, Bellevue, Kirkland and Seattle all have teen programs modeled on Redmond's, and the Redmond staff has helped communities around the country start their own.

The center's concept — teen-directed and city-sponsored — was as edgy as its music.

"Punk rockers and politicians weren't, at the time, close relatives. They were estranged," said Wendy Colton, an early staff member. "That was sort of a new paradigm."

The Firehouse made it de rigueur, demonstrating that teen-directed programming can work and taxpayers will support it. It even showed that supervising mosh pits can make them safe.

But founder Kate Becker — who went on to start Seattle's Vera Project, a center run by and for youth — is just as proud that teen bands can still "pack the Old Firehouse with no one in Seattle ever having heard their name. That," she said, "is something the Vera Project can't ever replace."

A few things haven't changed at the venue.

Young people still find refuge in rock music and the place that lets them play it, a dingy red-and-gray building that feels like a clubhouse and smells like teen spirit.

Like any rebellious adolescent, the Firehouse has put some people off.

Even Mitzi Michaud, who was director of the YMCA child-care program that shared the space with the teens, had her moments.

Surveying a pierced and spiky-haired crowd at her first show, she thought, "Man, these kids are kind of scary."

But when the YMCA program moved out of the facility she had managed, Michaud stayed on to work there with Becker. Before long, she realized even the most intimidating teens are "just kids, like everyone else. They just express themselves differently."

In 1993, Michaud and Becker prepared for what would be the largest Firehouse show, though it was not held there. They taped tarps over the pristine floors of the new Bellevue YMCA so that they wouldn't be scuffed when the band Fugazi played.

About 1,100 attended the event, which is "legendary," Becker said.

Firehouse regulars Jessica Locke, 16, and Jordan Overton, 15, are too young to have seen the Fugazi show. They can't even recall which band drew them to the Firehouse in the first place.

"Music is just a way to get people here," Overton said, shrugging. "It's not why people stay."

Both have used the Firehouse's counseling services and made friends and art projects. But they've hardly touched the $331,000 recording studio paid for by grants in 2003, though it's popular among teen musicians.

"That's not where our passions are," Overton said, "and the Firehouse is adapting to our passions."

That has been key to the Firehouse's longevity, Becker, the founder, said.

"Having young people involved in it keeps it relevant," she said. "A lot of people struggle with that."

When Ives, who backed the idea of the Firehouse, dreamed up an idea for a teen commission in Redmond, she thought it was a great notion until she ran it past some teens.

"They gave me a Bronx cheer," she said. "They didn't want any part of it."

Instead, Redmond asked kids to join existing city commissions, sharing power with young people rather than doling it out to them.

There's still some resistance to that approach, Becker said, but things are changing. When she speaks around the nation about the need to collaborate with teens on their programming, people no longer look at her like she's crazy.

Some are even putting money on the idea.

Becker recently led a $1.5 million capital campaign to build a new Vera Project space at Seattle Center, which has drawn a spate of established donors, including the Paul G. Allen Foundation; the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; King County and the city of Seattle, which kicked in $350,000.

"That said to me that maybe people are not quite as threatened anymore."

Amy Roe: 206-464-3347 or aroe@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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