Housing prices drive punk music to the suburbs

Punk music is associated with gritty urban life – until that urban life becomes too expensive:

Shows like that are increasingly common in Santa Rosa, and it has a lot to do with the prohibitive cost-of-living in nearby San Francisco. “I had every intention of moving down to the city,” said Ian O’Connor, 23, who organized the gig. “But when the time came, it was too expensive.” Instead, in the last three years, he has booked dozens of all-ages gigs in Santa Rosa, mostly at unofficial venues: detached garages, living rooms, lobbies of sympathetic businesses. The scene thrives on the participation of people like him, area natives in their early 20s who, not so many years ago, would’ve likely moved an hour south to Oakland or San Francisco…

One hallmark of punk’s inception in the Bay Area and throughout the Pacific north-west was the notion of cities as places of possibility, so hollowed out by eroding tax bases and selective civic neglect that they seemed “deserted and forgotten”, as music journalist Jon Savage wrote of his 1978 trip to report on San Francisco punk bands such as Crime and the Dead Kennedys. “It was there to be remapped.”

But with the same cities stricken by intensifying affordability crises – premiums on space that make somewhere to live, let alone rehearse and perform, available to a dwindling few – they don’t beckon young punks like they used to. And though reports of music scenes’ deaths tend to overstate, news of shuttering venues (see eulogies for The Smell, The Know, and LoBot) deters some of the intrepid transplants needed for invigoration. Dissipating metropolitan allure, however, helps account for the strength of scenes in outlying towns…

According to Samantha Gladu – bassist in the feminist, wrestling-themed hardcore band Macho Boys and chief advisor to state senator Chip Shields – recent revelations about what a state investigation found to be cripplingly over-burdensome nightclub regulations have done little to calm the Portland punk scene’s nerves: “Rising rents and recent reporting on the city government’s apparent selective regulation for venues leave punks with the impression that not only can they not afford Portland, they aren’t part of some officials’ vision for Portland.”

Given that more urban features – including denser housing, more non-white and less wealthy residents, and urban issues – have moved to the suburbs, it isn’t too surprising that artistic ventures could move there as well. Yet, I imagine this is not easy for many artists or others who dislike the suburbs and celebrate cities. Can places that are still criticized for conformity, whiteness, and materialism nourish new artistic ventures? Can suburban communities tolerate people who go against convention or who seek space to spread out and explore? If given the resources, I imagine that most bands would want to be in the big city where there is more energy, similar artists, and venues.

However, this represents an opportunity for suburbs to pursue a more creative vision. Many suburbs hold and promote festivals and fairs committed to the arts, both as a way to generate revenue as well as a way to signal openness and engagement. It is something different to have permanent venues devoted to some ventures; could a middle to upper-class suburb give its blessing to a punk music music site? Or a collaborative of experimental artists? In other words, if cities and/or certain neighborhoods are too expensive, numerous suburbs could join the competition to attract musicians and artists and possibly transform their own communities.

DC punk music takes on gentrification

One writer explores how punk music in Washington D.C. has long since moved on from Ronald Reagan and is now attacking gentrification:

It’s a total Empire Strikes Back play: Satellite Room is one of the latest bars produced by Eric and Ian Hilton, entrepreneurs who are regarded by many as the face of gentrification along Washington’s hippest corridors. For example: In a recent cover story on dive bars for the Washington City Paper, Paul Vivari, owner of one such dive bar (Showtime), complained that the Hilton brothers named one of their properties, Marvin, after life-long D.C. resident Marvin Gaye. Specifically, Marvin is a Belgian restaurant that refers to the year that Gaye spent in Belgium—a swagger-jacking move if ever there was one. (To be fair, Marvin is also one of the most diverse bars in all of Washington.)…

A pseudonymous punk going by the name Jack on Fire put out a song called “Burn Down the Brixton” just days after the Post‘s story. In this song, “The Brixton” refers to another one of the Hiltons’ properties, a multi-story bar and restaurant in D.C.’s historic U Street corridor that’s packed to the rafters most nights. The song couldn’t be more topical:

Burn down the Brixton!
Send it to its doom!
Then we’ll have a milkshake at the Satellite Room

[ . . . ]

They paved Black Broadway for a breeding ground
A nice patch of grass for some K Street cows

But the snappiest pushback against gentrification—and against development of any kind, really—is by Chain and the Gang. “Devitalize the City” is an anthem celebrating chaos in the face of market-driven homogenization in Washington (and elsewhere)…

While it makes sense from a certain perspective for D.C. musicians to target developers who appear to turn over properties and churn out bars by a formula, artists’ wrath may be better directed at a higher office. Only Congress has the power to lift the Height Act of 1910 that puts a cap on building height in Washington. That law restricts the supply of housing, office buildings, and taverns alike, meaning that when demand is as high as it is today there’s that much less room for dives, group houses, art galleries, and DIY venues—things that help a scene to thrive. To be sure, plenty of developers, homeowners, and local pols are satisfied with the status quo, but only Congress can change it.

Gentrification has raised concern in a number of American cities but not all of the movements against it have prompted songs. Any of these songs draw the attention of activists who use it for their cause?

It might also be worth exploring what exactly gentrification does for the careers of punk music. I suspect punk groups are not exactly welcome in swanky spots for young professionals in gentrifying neighborhoods. But, that suspicion is based on a single notion of gentrification where it is only white and wealthy people who quickly take over a neighborhood. The process is often slower and can include a wider range of people, perhaps leaving space for theaters and bars and other performing spots for punk artists.

Seeing the punk side of sociology at regional sociology meetings

I read a review of a new sociology book Punk Sociology and wondered where I have seen the punk spirit in my discipline. The first thought that came to mind: regional sociological association meetings. But, first, a quick definition of the punk spirit from the review:

David Beer’s eulogy to the spirit of punk, and his commendable entreaty to his fellow sociologists to imbibe of its energy, inventiveness and iconoclasm…

He revisits two of my heroes from student days. Howard Becker has never really gone out of fashion – class acts rarely do – and C. Wright Mills’ The Sociological Imagination is still on the reading list, I would guess, for every newbie sociologist…

Crossing boundaries, using varieties of “foreign” cultural and social resources and analytical strategies, refusing to accept the dominant orthodoxies and avoiding slavish adherence to methodological shibboleths and theoretical dogma…well, of course, and we should all brush our teeth three times a day. The heritage of punk – nowadays focusing on the DIY/communitarian ideas that inform contemporary social movements such as Occupy and feminist/LGBT activism – is emphasised here, although much can be traced back to the ideas and practices of the punks’ bête noire, the hippy, and beyond.

Last academic year, a colleague and I took a group of our sociology students to a regional sociological association meeting for the day. Several things caught the attention of our undergrads. They liked seeing all of the possible topics sociologists cover. The types of papers ranged from thought experiments to full studies and students felt like they could generally understand what was going on and might be able to do such research and/or presentations themselves at some point. And, I remember they thought it was a fascinating look at who sociologists are – from how they present themselves to how they dress to what they study (and for what reasons) to how they interact with others – outside the classroom or our department office. Some of the sociologists seemed like free spirits who enjoyed what they studied and cared about addressing social ills.

Looking back, their comments seem to match my own experiences with regional meetings versus what I’ve seen attending the American Sociological Association meetings each year. These are different crowds: the ASA meetings attract the big names from the big schools. People are well-dressed and looking to engage in both intellectual and networking activities. The price is high: the meetings this year in San Francisco require a $200 conference registration fee, conference hotels running around $260 a night, and plane tickets that are $350+ from the Midwest and further east. Even the paper submission process reflects the status of the meetings: people have to submit 15-20 page papers, rather than the abstracts regional conferences often ask for.

The regional meetings are something different. There is a wide range of participants, from community colleges to research schools with more attendees from smaller and lower-status schools. From what I’ve seen, there is a more cooperative spirit among presenters and attendees. The dress is more relaxed, the standards of the research can vary, and the tone is more conversational than aspirational.

This is not to say the punk spirit of sociology isn’t present in high-status sociologists and high-status schools. However, the ASA meetings have a more professional, corporate atmosphere rather than an iconoclastic and anti-dogmatic approach that can mark other settings.