Hardcore Urban Renewal: The Punk Origins Of The City CreativeHistorians in the News
tags: music, cultural history, urban renewal, Punk Rock
The Metropole Bookshelf is an opportunity for authors of forthcoming or recently published books to let the UHA community know about their new work in the field.
By Michael Carriere and David Schalliol
The roots of The City Creative: The Rise of Urban Placemaking in Contemporary America (The University of Chicago Press, 2021) are not in an undergraduate course or a graduate seminar. They are not in any essential books or articles on urban history, or even in any broad placemaking tradition or specific placemaking project. They are in the American hardcore punk scene of the late 1980s through mid 1990s.
This may be a surprising origin for a book that traces the development of mainstream creative placemaking, an approach to urban planning that emphasizes place-based redevelopment to connect residents and drive investment, and then offers an alternative model for such work. But in this essay, we will discuss our own experiences with the hardcore punk scene and conclude with a short reflection on how these experiences led us to the book—and how they have led us to our next project, a history of independent record label Touch and Go Records.
I started going to hardcore punk shows on a regular basis in the summer of 1989, when I was fourteen years old. Within driving distance of my suburban Philadelphia home was City Gardens, a legendary club in Trenton, New Jersey, that had hosted the likes of Black Flag, the Dead Kennedys, X, and the Ramones throughout the 1980s. The club’s history—and indeed physical condition—mirrored the broader changes affecting Trenton. By the late 1980s the club looked like an abandoned bomb shelter, an aesthetic that allowed for the building to fit into the landscape of disinvestment that marked the surrounding neighborhood. There were no gardens, just a gravel parking lot, a well-worn soccer field, and a host of nearby shuttered buildings.
Yet once the music started, the space was transformed. The line between audience member and performer was blurred as the act of attending a concert became a participatory experience. Young concertgoers would slam dance, stage dive, and sing along to every song. As the crowd started to move as almost a cohesive unit, a sense of community, however temporary, was born. The music brought this ugly space—this monument to a deindustrializing Trenton—to life, transforming it into a safe haven for hundreds of people who felt out of place nearly everywhere else. Commenting on a similar dynamic in Washington, DC, Kenny Inouye, bass player for the hardcore punk act Marginal Man, recalls that the spaces his band played in the late 1980s would not have existed without “that desolation, that decay, and that crime” that marked the nation’s capital at that moment.
These transformative experiences at City Gardens made me seek out similar places. As the 1990s commenced, I began seeing similar shows at a host of venues throughout the city of Philadelphia. Some, like the Revival (22 S. 3rd Street), were examples of innovative adaptive reuse. The Revival began its existence in 1837 as Mechanics National Bank, transforming into a traditional nightclub in the early 1980s. Here, the neoclassical architecture of the structure provided a sense of cultural legitimacy to the underground acts that performed in the venue. Others, like Stalag 13 (3858 Lancaster Avenue), a punk squat in West Philadelphia, were not so architecturally noteworthy; they also often smelled like cheap beer and piss.