Skinny and bespectacled, he hardly looks like an anarchist mastermind, but he is—or was. “That's a demonized word,” Botek said. "I called myself that at one point, but views cut you off from people, and you can't siphon your beliefs into a soundbite." At age 26, Botek has traveled the country, rumbled with Nazis, and owned an anarchist collective in the heart of Toledo. Whether wearing a crimson “A” or not, he is still one of the most visible and radical political activists in the city.
Botek has started a plethora of free-thinking community projects in the Toledo area. He struck ground on his latest, a community garden, on May 1, 2013. When asked what powers his work ethic, Botek said “from my experiences and the people I meet, I see potential for a better way of life, and that drives me.”
the itnerior of Botek's anarchist collective, The Black Cherry
Flowers not fires
TCP caught up with Botek in what has informally been called the “Occupy Garden.” A robust green space in an abandoned lot near the corner of Collingwood and Delaware, it exists on the site of a now-demolished theater wherein, Botek has heard, someone was once murdered. You could call the property blighted if it didn't look so beautiful now. "The city barely took care of the space; they mowed the grass occasionally. We came in, mowed it, and made it look nice,” he said. With the help of some community volunteers, Botek has turned the lot into an organized community space. These days, anarchists are more likely to grow flowers than they are to start fires.
The Occupy Garden is rebellious; Botek does not own the land, but he's using it anyway, without permission. City administration is aware of the garden—Botek received some wood from the Forestry department for building flower beds—but has not asked him to leave. He guesses the land he occupies is too cheap or uninteresting to warrant a forced eviction. The neighbors aren’t complaining—they wave when he passes, and the auto repair shop next door hosts a rain-collection barrel for watering the garden.
"On a basic level our goal is to provide food for the community,” Botek said. “Everyone who contributes to the garden can benefit from it." The entire crop is communal. Makeshift benches ring the Garden’s fire pit. Botek is constructing an outdoor kitchen, made of cob and earth-packed tires. The materials may sound rickety, but they hold heat without using excess energy in the same way an adobe house does. He also plans to construct a greenhouse out of bottles and discarded glass.
Describing his greater goal, Botek said "we're trying to develop sustainable infrastructure." It's obvious that he’s trying to free people—or help people free themselves—from something. From capitalism, the government, technology, modernity? All these terms fall short. "I'm talking about people wasting time at the grocery store buying food they have no connection with. These meaningless tasks fill up our day. If we can provide something that is meaningful… if you know where the food is coming from and who is growing it, then you care—it’s a better way, in my opinion,” he said. And he's been searching for a better way since he was young.
Anarchists—born, not made
Botek grew up in Maumee with his mother and brother—his father has been absent his whole life. At Maumee High School he played the social outcast. His relationship with his mother, Pamela, was rocky. "My disdain for authority is derived from her,” he said.
When asked about Nick’s actions, Pamela said she is proud of her son. "He's an original, always surprising us. I'm glad that he's trying to move forward and make a change." Pamela says she raised her children to put others before themselves, and that Botek's activism is part of that.
Botek’s activism is more than a reaction to his family; he said what bothered him was larger than his immediate surroundings. “I grew up in a very unhealthy, disconnected and meaningless world,” Botek said. “So, I looked for change and people that were doing something revolutionary.”
Botek came into activism through Food Not Bombs, a national organization which provides food and sometimes clothes to people at no cost. "What I liked about it is it's not trying to preach to you, it's not trying to push anything on you, (the organization) just gives out food," Botek explained. From the moment he became involved, he was hooked on activism, and more specifically, groups who were "trying to agitate and create change."
Normal ways of helping people did not satisfy Botek. "It's not marketed as a charity, it's marketed as mutual aid—in that respect it's better than most charities, but I still quit because it felt like a charity. And I mean no disrespect to people in charities, but they aren't changing anything." He stopped participating in Food Not Bombs when he was distracted by the Neo-Nazi riot of 2005.
October 15, 2005
Nick Botek was on the North End on October 15, when a National Socialist rally sparked a four-hour riot. Botek went to protest dressed as Darth Vader, with a sign reading “abandon the dark side.” That was his first scrape with the police. "A cop car almost hit me. It ran up on a curb but I jumped out of the way. Some people started throwing rocks at the cop, so he threw it in reverse and floored it—into an ambulance. We were in the thick of it for a while, and people were just going berserk.”
In remembrance of that day, Botek helped found the October 15th Anarchist Collective. The group helped put on an anti-war art show at the University of Toledo. The group had no place to meet; they gathered at coffee shops around town at unpredictable intervals. The next logical step, Botek reasoned, was to establish a base of operations for the collective. In 2009, he founded The Black Cherry.
How do you sell coffee without capitalism? A sign at The Black Cherry explains.
1420 Cherry St., once the Buckeye Heating and Air Conditioning company, is now the Black Cherry, an epicenter of anarchist and underground activist activity in Northwest Ohio since Botek purchased the building in January 2009. He purchased the building with a trust fund—the remnants of an inheritance from his great-great grandfather, who founded the now-defunct Metropolitan Distributing Company.
When asked how he feels about buying the Cherry, Botek smiles uncomfortably. He looks as if something is twisting at his guts. "I don't regret it," he says, "I don't regret anything really. There were amazing times there, and it was a learning experience.” He speaks in the past tense—The Black Cherry is up for sale now.
The Black Cherry does not look like a place most sensible people would want to live. Graffiti coats the walls, cobwebs hang in the corners, and the upstairs walls are stripped. The Cherry looks like a lost set piece from The
Warriors or Mad Max.
He moved into The Black Cherry during the biting winter of 2009. The building was unheated, and they lived beneath layers of tarps—The Tarp Mahal was another name the building briefly went by—warmed by space heaters and reading by strings of Christmas lights while the air temperature reached below zero. He flushed the toilet with rainwater, and still went to work. "We were in charge of people at that job—we're supposed to be the responsible, moral leaders. Meanwhile—I just dropped twenty thousand dollars and I'm living in a blanket fort!"
Regardless, the space opened as a music venue on May 3, 2009, with a concert headlined by acoustic punk band Defiance, Ohio. The folk and punk music scene proved the space's first source of income—even with the admission cost only a suggested donation, early attendance paid for some renovations.
The venue’s various services included, at one point, an infoshop, a coffee shop, and a barber shop with a working barber chair. That program never took off but others did: The Cherry was a distribution point for free clothes and free bread from Country Grains in Sylvania.
A flophouse and a church
The Cherry has been described as both a flophouse and a church—he same way a mission might by sheltering people with nowhere else to go. "We had formerly homeless boarders, we had some people with drug problems and we tried to work through that. Some were trying harder to get their stuff together than others," Botek said with a laugh. "There were a lot of people who had problems we weren't prepared to deal with. We had one boarder who was schizophrenic. The underlying theme was 'we're going to try to understand these problems and find new ways to address them.' The whole point of the building was to find a new way to live." Musically, the venue took off almost immediately, hosting two, sometimes three, small weekly shows in the space.
"There wasn't a lot of long-term vision and strategy with the building. There were internal conflicts about which direction to take. When the money ran out, which was into the second year, the motivation died. We needed to get materials to keep fixing the building.” Eventually, the Cherry hosted fewer shows each week. "After that, my funds ran out, and the people living there didn't necessarily have steady incomes."
Botek admits he underestimated the maintenance costs of a 10,000 square foot building. "We looked at other spaces around the country and why they were failing. Most of them could not generate income from selling just coffee and books, so we thought if we made it a place where we could live we could charge rent." He said rent kept the Cherry alive, barely.
Botek wound up leaving Toledo for long stretches, usually for activist meetings. In 2010 he was arrested by a SWAT Team for occupying a foreclosed home in Stony Ridge, Ohio—a protest that was covered by CNN and Democracy Now. He often sought advice from other anarchist collectives, but when he returned, the Cherry was in further disrepair. That was when, he says, the Cherry's focus shifted to shows and away from activism, even if it was a lifeline for Toledo’s Occupy movement in 2011.
Botek himself moved out of the Cherry in February of 2012 to travel the country for four months. He visited Occupy the Farm, an occupied farmland in Albany, California. There he found activism that promised a kind of sustainability the Black Cherry was incapable of. "They planted an acre of land within a night, with three hundred people […] The idea of laying down roots and trying to establish some permanence and sustainability, that really inspired me." Upon his return, Botek moved into the Collingwood Arts Center, where he has lived since.
The Black Cherry, with its lone house piano, still hosts music events.
A new way to live
The Cherry is now vacant, and Botek's attention is fixed on the Occupy Garden. His initial plan was to move in with tents, but he opted for a less aggressive approach. Botek tends his garden with assistance from volunteers, some former Black Cherry residents, and some neighbors.
Now, on the two month ground-breaking anniversary of the garden, Botek feels good. His crops, mostly squash, potatoes and tomatoes (as well as a few rare ghost peppers) are growing, while the outdoor kitchen is under construction. His eventual goal is to create a sustainable demo home out of the same eco-friendly material as his kitchen, one which costs nothing and can exist separate of all utilities—a model of survival without government or corporate intervention. "We're using materials available to anybody. Anyone can replicate what we are doing.” He feels confident that one day he will have his free structure. "I want to show people there's another way to live." In the meantime, The Black Cherry is still open, purely as a music venue. "They haven't cut the power at the Cherry. Not yet."
Hardcore: upcoming mosh pits at The Black Cherry
The next show at The Black Cherry will be a punk showcase, featuring: Love Cuts, an all-girl punk band from Vancouver; We Must Dismantle All Of This, a crust and hardcore band from Illinois; This Is The Enemy, a grind hardcore band from Indiana; local Toledo pop punks, The Shame Game as well as fellow locals Don't Get Bored, and the debut performance by Tear Off/Clean Up. Donations at the door. Saturday, August 10 at 8pm. The Black Cherry, 1420 Cherry St. The black Cherry has no website or phone number… those things are not PUNK!