Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
In D.C, developers and restaurateurs are now subject to the kind of disdain that punks once held for the former president. It's only partly deserved.
President Ronald Reagan was the most influential figure in the history of punk. You don't need me to tell you that, because you already heard it from Wasted Youth and The Dead Kennedys and Government Issue and The Ramones and Reagan Youth and The Minutemen and DOA and TSOL and every other band that wasn't playing pop in the 1980s.
Nobody gives President Barack Obama nearly as much grief. He's been the subject of fawning tributes from the likes of Nas and Young Jeezy. Even a public beef with Yeezy does him more good than harm. So is disgruntled institutional critique set to three chords gone for good?
As your self-appointed source for punk news, I am happy to tell you: No, sir, punk's not dead. It's just gone local.
In Washington, D.C., which boasts one of the most storied scenes you'll find anywhere, a standoff between local punks (and okay, mods too, if those still exist) and developers reached a pitch this week. The history of D.C. hardcore is a long volume of songs that support all-ages shows, renters' rights, and freedom from oppression by the elected and the aristocratic alike. Take your pick, but the song that kicked off D.C.'s current anti-gentrification wave in my mind is Fugazi's 2001 track "Cashout":
On the morning of the first eviction
They carried out the wishes of the landlord and his son
Furniture's out on the sidewalk, next to the family
That little piggie went to market,
So they're kicking out everyone
Talking about process
Forced removal of the people on the corner
Shelter and location
Everybody wants somewhere...
So it was with some irony that a new-ish D.C. bar called the Satellite Room named one of the hamburgers on its menu after Fugazi frontman Ian MacKaye. As The Washington Post's Maura Judkis reports, the Ian MacKaye is a "six-ounce beef patty with chicken liver mousse, pickled daikon and carrot, cilantro aioli and, for $1, an egg." Which is funny, and not just because MacKaye is a strict vegan.
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.)
So Satellite Room's knock on MacKaye is maybe in some sense an answer to the years of scorn that the singer has directed toward the forces of gentrification, whether as a member of Minor Threat or Fugazi or The Evens. (Or, it's a bar naming a burger after a local celebrity.) In any event, the punks aren't taking it sitting down.
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).
None of this is to say that punks have lost sight of the national picture. Katie Alice Greer (one of the members of the Gang playing in the video above) skewers the American character with her group Priests (a band that's earning national acclaim, and rightly so). But in D.C.—as in many cities whose local music scenes are less familiar to this writer—income inequality and high housing rates are starting to have a pronounced effect on where artists live and perform their music. And those are problems better addressed at the local level.
Except, weirdly enough, in the nation's capital. 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.
It would be an oversimplification to say that the music scene in D.C. or anywhere is purely reactionary—or purely anything. But cities do influence the way that artists live and make their work, which is one reason that the nation boasts such a diverse variety of regional scenes. Tracking the state of a city is one way to think about the shape of punk to come.