About Gilman Street
In 1986, during the last months of my miserable high school career, out in the bleakest, blandest, suburban town where I lived, I tuned my radio into KPFA, a radical leftist radio station out of Berkeley, California. I discovered a weeknight show blasting angry, cathartic punk rock music, penetrating even into the dense cultural wasteland that was my California suburban housing development.
My hatred of Ronald Reagan and his nuclear-weaponized policies had condensed, sharpened and coiled, to the point where I needed something like punk rock to express and expel all my rage about what was wrong in his religious right wing world.
And so I kept tuning in, one night a week, and eventually got brave and went to a punk show in San Francisco, and then another and another. I cut my hair short and my clothes went from hippy to rippy. Sandals to high tops. Peace sign to fuck you.
The people who ran the radio show were looking for a place to build a community center for punks of all ages to see bands and hang out, and they asked listeners to get involved. A place was found in Berkeley on an industrial road near the freeway and on weekends I would ride my bike to BART, the regional train system, take the train to Berkeley and then ride down to the empty warehouse on Gilman Street where dozens of punks were gathering.
We built a stage - and though I hadn’t much experience using tools, I hammered quite a few nails into that stage and have always felt a lot of pride knowing I helped to build it. We set up committees - one for people who wanted to start a store for refreshments, records and t-shirts, one for people who wanted to set up the admin and membership system, one for the people interested in the sound system, the security and so on.
I joined the Mind Fuck Committee. We were the absurdists who vowed to create strange happenings and surprise events. It was all very fun to plan and laugh about what we might do, but in the end it wasn’t needed because the people who came to the shows created their own mind fuck events and absurdist situations.
I graduated from high school and immediately moved to Berkeley, spending my weekends at Gilman Street, going to shows, volunteering at the door or in the shop or doing security outside. I even ended up starting a band with a couple of friends - The Yeastie Girlz, an in-your-face feminist a cappella-rap trio singing about periods, yeast infections and more. Our big hit was a song about cunnilingus - ‘I know you’re really proud because you think you’re well hung, but I think it’s time you learned how to use your tongue’ and so on. I was having a blast.
By this time I was enrolled as a student of photography at San Francisco State University. I had already been taking pictures through high school and before, but now I was learning how to use a flash and was developing my eye as a documentary photographer, heavily influenced by Diane Arbus and Mary Ellen Mark. So I started bringing my camera to shows and membership meetings, documenting our punk world that we built and nurtured.
I was less interested in photographing the bands, and much more excited about the characters who made the place so much fun. This was the like-minded community of misfits that I never found in my suburban high school and it was amazing to finally have a place where I felt good being me.
Cammie Toloui, 2020