UT Geographer Dr. Henri Grissino-Mayer discusses TN Wildfires with CNN

It’s always cool to see someone in your department speaking with the national press, especially at such a teachable moment for local policy-makers and an educational moment for those of us who didn’t realize quite how prone regions like this have always been to wildfires.

I can’t re-blog the CNN Post, so I’ll link the original post (with the video) here, and I’ll post the article text below. All the best wishes to those affected by the wildfires in Gatlinburg and the surrounding area.

‘Gatlinburg was made to burn,’ professor says

Gatlinburg, Tennessee (CNN)

The devastating wildfires that struck this week in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, could not have been stopped, experts say. Sudden winds reaching near-hurricane force caught people off guard, separated them from loved ones and forced thousands down tiny, winding mountain roads in pure panic. At least 11 people were killed and more are missing, some 700 structures have been lost and more than 17,000 acres have burned — most of them in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

“The conditions that we normally experience in this region are not conducive to wildfires,” park spokeswoman Dana Soehn said. “We are a temperate rain forest.”
When not in a drought, the National Park Service has a very difficult time even doing a controlled burn because of the humidity in the air. Soehn says natural fires are very rare in the park.
But according to a local fire ecologist in the area, wildfires in the region weren’t always a rarity.
“If you look for it, you can find evidence of past wildfires in and around Gatlinburg,” said biogeographer Henri Grissino-Mayer of the University of Tennessee. “You can’t really prevent forest fires.”

‘Gatlinburg was made to burn’

Grissino-Mayer has studied wildfires for over 30 years and, more specifically, those in the Southeast for 20.

“Gatlinburg was made to burn,” he said.
He says he’s been predicting a fire in the area for 15 years. Residents need to know that they are living in a very fire-prone region because of its proximity to a national forest, he explained.

“This area in the Southeast especially is what we call the wildland-urban interface,” an area where large uninhabited lands neighbor urban development. That region, especially Gatlinburg, “is a very dangerous place.”
Being next to this big, uninhabited forest is the reason people build here, Grissino-Mayer says.
“This is the Southeast at its best,” he said.
And people want to have that rustic feel, he says, so they build beautiful wood homes on a hillside in the forest. Looking over the Great Smoky Mountains outside Pigeon Forge, Grissino-Mayer points out older trees that have been charred by wildfire in the past four years.

Next to one charred stump, a log cabin is being built. Then he notices a fence that was recently installed alongside the charred remains of the old one. He says people will buy this cabin without realizing that the one before it burned in a wildfire.
“This is fuel,” he said, pointing to the woods. “Everywhere around us is fuel, everything: trees, grass, shrubs, weeds. Everything. … All of this is fuel, and then guess what: All of this fuel butts up to a house made of fuel.”

History in the trees

Tourism in the area really kicked off with the foundation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, according to the Gatlinburg Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Many displaced mountain families moved into town to develop new enterprises or take jobs in new hotels and restaurants.”
Tourism increased after World War II, about the same time wildfires started to diminish.
Grissino-Mayer is one of the world’s leading experts on tree rings. Looking at tree rings across the Great Smoky Mountains, he and his team have found a long history of wildfires. A slice of a tree has a series of rings, each one representing a year in the growth period of the tree. In the year of a wildfire, the fire leaves a scar along that ring. By looking at the scars, you can count the number of years between wildfires.

Grissino-Mayer runs his finger along one slice of a tree. From the early 1800s to early 1900s, he says, there was a “low-intensity fire” about every seven years. These aren’t the kind of fires we are used to seeing today: They didn’t roar. Instead, they crept along the understory, the area beneath the tree canopy, near the ground. Fires were smaller because there wasn’t enough fuel on the ground to make them any bigger.
That is, until the 1930s and ’40s. He points to an area near the edge of the slice that has almost no imperfections. This clean area represents almost a century without wildfires.

“We now have, after the last fire, 80 years of fuels built up,” Grissino-Mayer said. “And that means when fires return, it will be much more intense. We call that the Smokey Bear effect.”

Smokey Bear: More harm than good?

“Smokey the Bear is probably one of the best educational tools a federal agency has ever come up with,” Grissino-Mayer said.

The US Forest Service’s ad campaign has informed the public that we need to be aware of wildfires and to be better stewards of our forests. However, he said, “Smokey has done his job too well.”
It is now the public perception that wildfires are bad. Actually, he said, they’re beneficial. Forests need fires to recycle nutrients and clear the understory. Many species even require fire to thrive, he says, such as yellow pines, which must have a fire to regenerate. Dana Soehn agrees — when you talk about fire in relation to the ecosystem, there can be a mixed message when using Smokey the Bear.

However, there have been times that Smokey is a good reminder of what things can cause a wildfire — like cigarette butts and campfires. Recently, Dolly Parton — who owns Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, near Gatlinburg — joined Smokey for a public service announcement that taught people how to prevent wildfires.

Could Gatlinburg fires have been prevented?

“I don’t think (the wildfire) could have been prevented,” Grissino-Mayer said.
Soehn and others working the incident also believe there was nothing that could have stopped the extreme winds that rapidly spread the flames.The fire had been slowly creeping through the understory for days, said Soehn. By Monday morning the fire had only grown to 35 acres and the National Park Service alerted the surrounding communities. By the afternoon, based on the forecast winds, fire breaks were bulldozed around neighborhoods thought to be in the path of the fire. By 5 p.m. the fire had reached the city limits. When the winds started topping out at 80 mph, fires started spotting — carrying embers very far away and igniting new fires. The wind even knocked down power lines, which, in turn, sparked new fires. Just one hour later, Soehn says, the Gatlinburg Fire Department was battling 20 different structure fires.

“These were very rare and unprecedented conditions that lead to the destruction,” she said. “The opinions that I have heard from the scientists around me this week say that this is completely unpredictable.”

Grissino-Mayer believes that education would’ve helped saved lives and structures.
“There could have been more of an awareness of the danger that wildfire poses to Gatlinburg,” he said. “There could have been more education, more efforts to inform people of what to do and what to look out for and to be more wary.”
Soehn says the park service is proactive when it comes to education.
“With the way the conditions and winds were in this situation I don’t think this would have helped,” she said.
Grissino-Mayer says Gatlinburg could have probably been evacuated sooner, even though he understands how fast the fire flared.
“It is too soon” to begin to evaluate how things were handled, Soehn says. “But anytime there is a situation like this there is going to be learning points that come out of it.”
After the incident is over there will be teams that evaluate and review response and recovery efforts, she said. Grissino-Mayer says people must be aware of the environment and the forest in which they live, and they must understand that fire always has been and always will be a part of these forests.

Call for Papers “Purple Reign: An interdisciplinary conference on the life and legacy of Prince”, Media City UK, University of Salford, Uk May 2017

I would love to participate in this, or at least be able to head over to the UK next May and be there for it. One of the organizers is actually at MTSU! If you have anything academic in your notebook or brain about Prince, then get in touch with these folks. The question is, will they cater their luncheon with starfish and coffee?

Dr Kirsty Fairclough

I’m very pleased to announce the following call for papers:

“Purple Reign: An interdisciplinary conference on the life and legacy of Prince”

A two-day international conference hosted by The School of Arts and Media, University of Salford, UK and the Department of Recording Industry, Middle Tennessee State University, USA 24th- – 26th May 2017 Media City UK, University of Salford, UK.

Convenors:

Dr Mike Alleyne, Dept of Recording Industry, College of Media & Entertainment, Middle Tennessee State University

Dr Kirsty Fairclough, School of Arts and Media, University of Salford, UK

Tim France, School of Arts and Media, University of Salford, UK

Proposals are invited for a two-day international conference on the life and legacy of Prince.

This conference aims to provide fresh perspectives on the creative and commercial dimensions of Prince’s career, re-examining the meanings of his work in the context of his unexpected death.

This conference seeks to address the issue…

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Ben Irving Lecture in Lenox, MA Today at 4pm

pechakuchaslide

Sorry for the last-minute announcement, but if anyone is interested and in Western Massachusetts (should you be so lucky), I’ll be presenting an hour long lecture on “Lyrics, Letters, and the Forgotten Lives of Ben Irving” today at 4pm at the Kimball Farms auditorium in Lenox. This is a special presentation of the work I’ve been doing to archive my great-grandfather’s musical and sales career(s) that sent him across all 48 American states and several Mexican ones (plus a few Canadian provinces) during the Jazz Age and Great Depression. I presented a truncated version of it at Pecha Kucha Night Knoxville last week. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to present this extended version in the Knoxville area sometime soon, but for now, I’m very excited to present this long version for the first time with the special bonus of having Irving’s daughter (my grandmother) in the audience.

I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving and are looking forward to the end of the semester!

San Francisco, ‘The Room,’ and Teaching Geography with Bad Movies

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MARK: You guys are too much. Hey, are you running Bay to Breakers this year?
JOHNNY: I am, sure.
PETER: Not doing it this year.
JOHNNY: Hehe, chicken, Peter, you’re just a little chicken. Cheep cheep cheeeeeep [unidentifiable high-pitched noises]
PETER: Who you calling a chicken? I just don’t like all the weirdos. There’s… too many weirdos there.

I transcribed the above dialogue as accurately as possible from one scene from Tommy Wiseau’s self-produced 2003 film The Room.  In it, two of the film’s main characters, Mark (Greg Sestero) and Johnny (Wiseau) share a moment with their psychologist(?) friend Peter (Kyle Vogt) in Johnny’s living room. Wiseau, who also wrote the script and directed the film, seems to have little grasp on (1) how “guys” talk when they hang out or (2) editing. The script goes out of its way to mention the Bay to Breakers run, a San Francisco institution that began in 1912, throwing yet another local-ism onto a haphazard pile of ways through which Wiseau “places” his film.

The Room is, by some measures, up there with Vertigo (1958), The Rock (1996), and Homeward Bound 2: Lost in San Francisco (1996) as quintessential ‘San Francisco’ films, which is ironic for multiple reasons. Most obviously, outside of Hitchcock’s masterpiece, none of those films are regarded as AFI-level cases of cinematic genius. The Rock, for one, is a loud, stupid and incredibly fun Bay/Bruckheimer film that reinvented Alcatraz and gave us the greatest piece Elton John-related dialogue in cinema history. The Homeward Bound films were family-friendly crowd-pleasers that starred adorable, wisecracking pets. The Room, however, is its own beast. Despite being, by many measures, one of the worst (or at least surreally stupid) films ever made, it demonstrates how valuable poorly-made films can be in understanding representation of urban landscape.

Film and Urban Geography

Cities provide ample inspiration to artists of all media, and in turn become drawn, filmed, sang about, and ultimately interpreted based upon their art. This phenomenon has been well-documented among cultural geographers. In film, Chris Lukinbeal has published numerous pieces about the multi-faceted geographies of the film industry, both part and parcel of Los Angeles and how other landscapes are interpreted through cinema. Many geographers have expounded upon the relationship between music and place, and Lily Kong wrapped many early examples into her 1995 call for greater involvement of music in geography. Steve Hoelscher has dedicated much of his recent work to the Magnum photography archive and even examined the effect of photography on historical urban geopolitics. Creating a comprehensive catalog of literature here would be a herculean task.

Back to The Room. Like most who attempt to break down its threadbare plot, pointless characters, and insanely counter-intuitive production values, I struggle at explaining just how bad it is. Cult audiences equally celebrate its awfulness as the worst film ever made as they do flock at a chance to see it in a communal (often intoxicated) environment and engage in a culturally-circulated set of practices that go with the screening. Audience members scream along with silly lines of dialogue, shadow-cast questionably useful scenes with the main characters tossing footballs to one another, and even shower the screen with plastic spoons at various specific cues. Film scholars like Matt Foy have gone into great detail about these sub-cultural rituals, even in cases, succinctly (as possible) explaining what the movie is about:

In addition to Johnny, Lisa, and Mark, the key players include Denny (Philip Haldiman), a good-natured but awkward man-child who lives next to Johnny (Johnny pays his college tuition) and seems to lack basic social skills (early in the film, he joins Johnny and Lisa in bed pre-coitus to “watch them” but seems unaware of the sensitive nature of his request), and Claudette (Carolyn Minnott), Lisa’s mother who simultaneously praises Johnny while encouraging Lisa to exploit him financially because she cannot support herself. Other characters meander in and out without affecting the plot, mostly as foils to establish Johnny’s pristine character or Lisa’s manipulative heartlessness. The result is a film so earnest yet strange that it attracts audiences through morbid revulsion (Foy 2012, 5).

I’ve written previously (for a course on Global Soundtracks) about how The Room reinforces the importance of bad movies in the conversation on film music. Where great films with iconic and/or Oscar-winning scores have been teaching young filmmakers and cinema scholars the “do’s” of film music, bad films could be equally valuable in teaching the “don’ts.” This dynamic applies equally in understanding how films reflect and represent urban spaces, particularly in the United States, and even more particularly in San Francisco. Where Vertigo demonstrated how Hollywood films can work with, and flourish through, urban iconography, The Room provides a beacon of trying too hard to do so, and looking silly in the process.

Tommy Wiseau’s San Francisco

Though Los Angeles is well regarded as “the world’s most photographed city” (cf. Thom Anderson’s brilliant Los Angeles Plays Itself), San Francisco is definitely among the top runners-up in that category, as well as among the most mythologized and laid-bare in its iconography. The Golden Gate is probably North America’s most iconic and grandiose bridge outside of Brooklyn, Alcatraz is among her most storied and infamous small islands (and prisons), and the Painted Ladies row of houses has embedded itself into our national subconscious both through films featuring Robin Williams in drag and through sitcoms featuring Bob Saget working clean. Rice-a-Roni commercials carved such a hegemony in the 1980s and 1990s that cable car operators could not avoid mentioning it to over-zealous, jingle-singing tourists on their routes.

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It is through these cinematic representations of his adopted hometown that Tommy Wiseau weaves his overbearing establishing shots. Where most filmmakers implement one or two establishing landscape shots of the city setting, Wiseau inserts at least twenty. The first two minutes of the film become a veritable catalog of cliche’d imagery of the Bay Area. The viewer sees, interspersed with the opening credits, a wide shot of the Golden Gate Bridge, a bucolic fishing dock on the North Bay, another wide shot of Alcatraz Island, a shot that tilts up from the Bay to a San Francisco skyline silhouetted through fog, a (slightly) tighter shot of a cruise boat passing under the Golden Gate Bridge, a shot that slowly pans across the Palace of Fine Arts (the site of a dramatic scene in The Rock), a shot that tilts down Nob Hill, a shot that tilts down with the Painted Ladies houses in the background of Alamo Square Park, a shot of a cable car (with our hero on it… a true man of the people) passing in front of the Grace Cathedral, and ultimately, the often-recycled exterior shot of Johnny’s condo.

To the Western viewer, any one of those shots might be sufficient in establishing where the movie takes place, but Tommy Wiseau doesn’t know the meaning of cinematic restraint. (Seriously, he may literally not know the meaning of the term). He removes any doubt whatsoever of where we are, and despite having an ‘insider’ knowledge of San Francisco, he runs lovingly into the arms of cinematic cliche and reinforces the most mainstream, ‘outsider’ perspectives of that city’s icons.

Taken as a whole, these are examples of how filmmakers (both talented and less so) conflate the “real” with the “reel.” The “real” here is the fully extant city of San Francisco, which is a living, functioning, and constantly changing city that millions of people pass through each day. The “reel” in this case is a socially accepted and publicly ascribed cinematic landscape that completely disregard’s the city’s hinterland and even most of its forward-facing public sphere. In real life, Tommy Wiseau grew a minor clothing empire, accumulating enough independent wealth to purchase a building not far from the tourist Mecca of the Marina District and Pier 39. In reel life, Johnny (no apparent last name) makes good money working some nondescript job in a bank and lives in a nondescript condominium.

Wiseau’s script (the incongruity of which could probably formulate its own MFA thesis) often conflates the real and reel. For example, in another selection from the inane dialogue bullpen, Mark tells Johnny about a girl he knew who had been abused to the point of winding up “in a hospital on Guerrero Street.” Wiseau, for reasons only known to him, either used this line as a cute way to work Guerrero Street into the script, or he just could not think of any other street than the ones he had previously lived on. In the real San Francisco, there has never been a hospital anywhere on Guerrero Street, but because of Wiseau, there is one in reel San Francisco.

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HA HA HA, What a connection, Tyler!

As with this apocryphal hospital and the superfluous conversation about Bay to Breakers, Wiseau takes special care to “place” his film in San Francisco, going out of the way with incorporating verbal/contextual representations of the city as much as he does with tired visual representations. Where the common mantra implores artists to “show, not tell,” Wiseau has managed, with his city, to show AND tell in a manner that is as overbearing as much as lacking in self-awareness. Granted, his motivation to do so renders these indiscretions marginally understandable.

The “Roof” and a Distorted Skyline

As the story (specifically, Sestero’s believable version) goes, the duo met in an acting class in the late 1990’s. Wiseau decided that he wanted to break into Hollywood, so he wrote The Room and decided to shoot it himself when he (for some reason) couldn’t find a major studio to produce it. They did all the principal filming in Los Angeles between a sound stage that played their condo, one that played a basketball court, and a couple of exterior shots in an alley near the lot where their camp set up. A number of the movie’s most popular scenes (e.g. the “WHAT KIND OF MONEY?” scene involving Denny’s near-deadly run-in with completely incongruous Armenian-American gangster Chris-R; the aforementioned Guerrero Street conversation; a stoned Mark nearly throwing Peter to his death when confronted about his affair with Lisa) took place on the condo’s roof.

This “roof” was actually played by a ground-level scene set built in front of a poorly-lit outdoor green-screen that, as Sestero explained, rendered these scenes with an otherworldly, unsettling glow. The San Francisco skyline digitally placed behind the actors, manipulated liberally, may constitute one of the film’s greatest “crimes against geography.” Though these rooftop scenes purported to “place” the film among the San Francisco skyline, they only confuse the viewer trying to obtain some sense of the condo’s location (real or reel). If this were a real location, either the building would have had to rotate or the buildings would have had to flip locations around them. Perceiving the reel location, however, accounts for the appropriate suspension of disbelief.

“That’s Meeee”: Forays into the Real San Francisco

Once the principal filming in Los Angeles had wrapped, a skeleton crew including Wiseau and Sestero (who also line-produced the movie, because why not) went up to the Bay to shoot these scenes that would reinforce the viewers’ imagined geography of The Room. These included all of the establishing shots from the beginning of the film as well as those used for scene transitions, many of which were filmed at varying levels of legality. Three of these scenes included dialogue between Johnny and Mark, two of which are both deeply carved into the “best worst movie” canon.

One of these three only features cursory, dubbed dialogue of the two running together around Golden Gate park, ultimately tossing a football and tackling one another homo-erotically. The two others include one confusing scene (“anyway, how’s your sex life?”) filmed in a cafe and another filmed in a Flower shop. Before I discuss the Flower Shop scene, please take a 6-minute break to listen to this amazing excerpt of Greg Sestero reading his account of how the scene came to be, and then watch it here:

I’ve gone on record saying that one could probably write a whole peer-reviewed academic paper about everything that’s wrong with this scene (my favorite assessment being Roadtrippers’ dubbing it a “black hole of human interaction” on their page of The Room locations). That being said, the Flower Shop scene provides one of few moments throughout the movie where the reel and real converge.

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While the scene exists primarily to reinforce Wiseau’s narrative that Johnny is a perfect person (he is the florist’s favorite customer, after all), the location coheres both inside the shop and outside at the establishing shot on the corner of 16th and Dehon Street. While the Flower Shop scene may be one of the most terribly crafted scenes in one of the most terribly crafted narrative movies, it is the most geographically honest moment in The Room. The exterior shot was real, the interior of the shop was the real interior, the owners were the real proprietors, and that old pug on the counter (“Hi, doggie!”) was an authentic fixture of the shop as well. Only the skeleton crew’s makeup artist (seen looking at cards near the register) and Wiseau are pure fabrications of the reel.

Concluding Thoughts

Despite the film’s shocking $6 Million budget, The Room‘s stripped-down construction of place is a great tool for teaching these fundamental aspects of cinematic geography. Whereas other movies like Homeward Bound: Lost in San Francisco (much of which was filmed in Vancouver, a city known for playing everywhere but itself in Hollywood films) provide a cursory glance at the discrepancy between the reel and the real, Wiseau’s inept production hits you over the head with this contrast. The establishing iconic landscape shots, while themselves intended as a manifestation of Wiseau’s love of San Francisco, are so overdone, cult screening audiences often take to call-and-response screaming of “WHERE ARE WE? / SAN FRANCISCO!” and “GO! GO! GO!” as the camera slowly and clumsily pans across the Golden Gate Bridge.

None of this, of course, fazes Wiseau.  As Sestero wrote in his book’s introduction:

The magic of The Room derives from one thing: no one interprets the world the way Tommy Wiseau does. He is the key to The Room’s mystery as well as the engine of its success. Tommy had always predicted his film would become a classic, embraced worldwide – a notion that could not have seemed less likely. Yet he was right. The Room became every bit the blockbuster that Tommy had envisioned, though not, of course, in the way he envisioned… Tommy continues to believe that his is the greatest film of all time” (2013, xv).

Similarly, this relationship between this great terrible movie and San Francisco only reinforces my enjoyment of The Room. Throughout my last two years living in Washington, DC, my friends and I would attend monthly midnight screenings at E Street Cinema, often dragging unsuspecting friends into the fold. The first time I went to see it, I invited a friend who had just been through a rough time in her life. Within months, she was organizing outings to the screening, even celebrating her following birthday at a screening. In July 2010, Wiseau and Sestero visited a screening there. Two of my friends, both wondering what the hell was going on, wound up sitting next to each other. They exchanged numbers, and six years later, are newly married. It does take a certain kind of appreciation of the surreal and the absurd to enjoy this movie, and the people I grew to enjoy it alongside became some of my best friends from my life in DC. Now, as I begin a career teaching cultural geography, I’ve found surprisingly relevant ways through which this great horrible movie has informed my research. Though Stefan Popescu (2013) may be correct that “the best worst movie” craze may not be sustainable, but as a singularly charming flagship of that movement to the media scholar, The Room is Tommy Wiseau’s demented gift that keeps on giving.

 

Pecha Kucha Night, Knoxville. November 17th.

pechakuchaslide

I’m excited to announce that I’ll be presenting at the next Pecha Kucha night in Knoxville, Volume 21. The event will be held on Thursday, November 17th (doors at 6:30, 7pm start) at the Mill & Mine (227 W. Depot Ave) for the first time after holding many volumes at the Relix Variety and Bijou Theaters. Incidentally, the new venue’s founder, Ashley Capps, will be another one of the presenters, along with the Cattywampus Puppet Council (who I am crossing my fingers the producers don’t make me follow).

My subject will be retracing the depression-era journey of my great-grandfather, Irving Hurwitz (pictured here, standing with the violin, at the premiere of WTIC radio in Hartford in 1925). That’s all I’m giving away here, for now.

Pecha Kucha comes from Japanese slang which means chit-chat. It consists of nine presenters, getting 20 slides apiece and 20 seconds per slide to present their ideas. These events have spread to about 900 cities around the world; often times they have a slide show of crowds at PK nights around the globe running during intermission, which I love.

See you there!

Study Abroad in Oslo and London (Summer 2017)

One of my first pieces of advice for anyone in college is, if the opportunity presents itself to study abroad, GO. Don’t even deliberate; just go. Travelling abroad freely is a rare opportunity that most people you meet (if you aren’t wealthy) may never have. To do it as part of a degree program, which may give you access to myriad places and experiences you’d never have otherwise, is an even rarer treat. Here is an opportunity to spend quality time in two major European cities and contribute to a vital program on immigration with Dr. Micheline van Riemsdijk. The last one was a big success, so if you’re looking for a summer program in geography or international relations, definitely contact Dr. van Riemsdijk. – Tyler

P.S. The hyperlink on Brixton is mine, but you could probably guess that.


Grensen Looking Toward Oslo Domkirke

Explore current and historical migration issues in Oslo and London, two global cities that house a large number of immigrants. We will spend extended time in both cities, studying their immigration histories and current migration issues through guided field trips and small field assignments. In Oslo, students will learn about the legacies of the Viking explorations and the more recent migrations of Somalis, Pakistanis, Poles, and Swedes into Oslo. In London, guided tours will explore migrant settlement in three historic neighborhoods: Brixton, Brick Lane, and Kilbury.

The course will be held online June 1-6, 2017, followed by a stay in Oslo and London from June 8 to July 2nd 2017. More information PDF here.

For more information, please  contact Dr. van Riemsdijk at vanriems [at] utk [dot] edu.

The Geography of DC in harDCore

Being able to teach an advanced course in Cultural Geography this semester has been great for many reasons, most of which stem from the ability to dig deeper (or, I guess in the case of this entry, drink deeper…get it? No? That’s fine) on both places and topics. One particular place has been my longtime hometown (and dissertation focus) of Washington, DC, and one topic has been how music both operates as a representation of the place it was made and reflects back upon the place to influence public imagination of that place (see Lily Kong “Popular music in geographical analyses.” Progress in human geography 19, 1995).

I’ve discussed DC’s perpetually-increasing role within the scholarship on musical geography before, but last week, I had the opportunity to present the geographies behind DC’s legendary underground music scene to my Cultural Geography course. It was a neat coincidence that Bad Brains, largely considered responsible for the “big bang of hardcore punk” (credit) in the Nation’s Capital, were nominated for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this week. It doesn’t require a background in pop culture studies (which I don’t have) to realize this is a big deal. This means that, even if/when the Bad Brains don’t win the induction this year (considering all of the dad-rock they’re up against), DC has finally cracked through the record industry’s hegemonic glass ceiling. Obviously, the scene has created some fissures in the glass over the years; the biggest of which were probably Dave Grohl’s rise to super-stardom and the signings of brilliant  yet completely unmarketable DC post-hardcore bands to major labels in the early 90’s. Also, the fact that Fugazi had four albums chart (albeit swimming in the top 200) with absolutely no help from conglomerated media was remarkable. But now, the baby-boomer “rock” establishment has finally peered around the corner and realized that maybe those bands really did change the world without any #1 hits or platinum records.

As part of my lesson plan, I presented a truncated version of the first decade of harDCore, which had many unfortunate but necessary omissions due to time constraints. For example, I did mention how the now-universal terms “straight edge” and “emo” originated in DC in 1981 and 1985 respectively, but I completely forgot to mention that even the term “hardcore” punk emerged in DC as a way for the then-teenage Georgetown punks to differentiate themselves from poseurs who only dressed the part. A more thorough retelling of the story is readily available in Mark Andersen and Mark Jenkins’ book Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation’s Capital (2001, Akashic) among various other titles in print and on video, which I make no pretenses to replicate. I don’t need to retell the whole story since it’s already been told so well from so many different readily-available vantage points.

The story that my dissertation does tell, however (in predictably greater detail than here), is how Washington, DC’s geography affected that music scene. In my lecture, I began in the mid-1970s and stopped at the end of the 1980s to (1) conclude that every key trend in underground and punk music either originated in DC or had some noteworthy filtering through that city, and (2) ask the question: WHAT IS IT ABOUT WASHINGTON, DC?

I encourage my students to pose some form of that question to themselves whenever approaching any topic. For example, our East TN History Center visit sought out answers to the question “what is it about Knoxville…?” So, it was only fitting to bring in that question template when breaking down the wonders of the DMV. Here we go:

1. DC is where The South meets The North

easternusmapWhen teaching the history of American popular music, it makes sense to begin with Stephen Foster, the first American Popular songwriter. Foster spent much of his adult life in Cincinnati, which was a similar gateway between the South and the North due to its location on the Ohio River. Foster was able to borrow Southern musical traditions and references from workers who came up the Mississippi River, which coalesced with the English, Scottish and Irish traditions of the North and generated South-fetishizing songs like “Oh, Susanna.”

While DC’s (to paraphrase JFK) blend of “the warmth of a Northern City with the efficiency of a Southern one” wasn’t the only reason that harDCore happened, but it was why so many progenitors of the people who built the scene moved there. Ian MacKaye’s mother Ginger’s family came from Georgia, bringing with them a long Southern-Gothic storytelling tradition that eked into “the archive” that made punk so available over the years and is making it possible for mainstream sources to pay tribute.

2. DC has the Federal Government

The thing responsible for the greatest misconception about DC (that it has no indigenous culture or local scene) is actually responsible for most of that indigenous culture and those local scenes. The Federal Government brings people from all over the United States and world together into one veritable melting pot. The punks who emerged from that melting pot are too numerous to mention here, but a couple in particular spring to mind.

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3 Generations of Inouyes.

Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI) came to DC to serve on the Hill even before Hawaii was officially recognized as a state. His son Kenny, born in Hawaii in 1962 and raised in DC, founded Marginal Man in 1982. Kenny remained one of the band’s core members throughout its existence, and even led the band to be one of few in that orbit to leave DC and tour. Here’s a video of them playing sometime in 1985.

Others came into the DC punk scene through more subversive paths. The photographer Cynthia Connolly, longtime Dischord employee, came to DC in 1981 when her mom got a job working for Reagan’s new government. Connolly even talked her mom into buying a house near Georgetown because that’s where she heard the punks hung out. She recalls as much in her notes at the end of the latest printing of her seminal photo-book Banned in DC, which gave much of the world their first visual glance into that volcanic scene.

3. DC is Small

Though the DC metropolitan area stretches well out into the Maryland and Virginia suburbs (even farther depending on where gentrification has pushed some people), and actual District is bounded within a pretty small physical territory. When punk was young, it had few places to exist and even fewer in the suburbs, so many of those had to be centralized. Tiny co-ops like the Hard Art Gallery and Madam’s Organ gave Bad Brains central locations to perform and teenagers from the more affluent side of DC could venture in if they could arrange a ride or were willing to brave the Metro. Unlike LA, which had dozens of nodal communities that were physically and ideologically distant from one another, DC’s social life existed upon a relatively small amount of acreage. This reason goes hand in hand with how…

4. DC is Diverse

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via greatergreaterwashington.org

…albeit segregated to no end. Natalie Hopkinson wrote in her great 2012 study on Go-Go music that DC was one of few segregated cities (at least formally, pre-Civil Rights era) to have infrastructure in place that afforded black citizens the luxury of living full professional and social lives without interacting with a single white person on a quotidian basis. Certain blue-collar domains within DC culture are also arguably quintessentially black provinces, such as the custodial culture on Capital Hill. I remember my friend Brian, who interned with Congress in 2005, being amazed that every single custodial worker that he saw while at work was black. This is hardly a coincidence; for generations, cleaning the chambers of lawmakers was among the more prestigious jobs to which many working-class African-Americans in DC could aspire.

All that being said, the growth of the Central American community in the DC area over the past thirty years has added another dimension to the town’s productive diversity. Though most of the suburbanites who commuted to Metro Center or Federal Center and spent little actual free time in the District wouldn’t have known it, the DC underground featured a vast array of blending “white” and “black”-coded cultures throughout the 1980’s. Trouble Funk, one of DC’s biggest Go-Go outfits, played several shows with harDCore bands like Government Issue and Minor Threat. The shows weren’t always successful, but at least they were f**kin’ trying.

Another byproduct of DC’s diversity and social structure was a prominent black middle class. Obviously, not all black harDCore musicians had been middle class kids, but it did contribute to a noticeably high proportion of musicians of color in the DC punk scene in bands like Void, Scream, Dag Nasty, Fire Party, Beefeater, and others. The standard-bearers of hardcore being African-American certainly didn’t hurt, either.

5. DC is a College Town

fugazi-basketball-hooporiginal

Two points.

This is another commonly overlooked facet of DC. It has five major universities (Georgetown, George Washington, American, Maryland, and George Mason), yet people rarely mention it in the same “college town” breath as Boston or Columbus. But taking a cue from the Federal Government, universities provided fertile locations for outsiders to mix ideas, bands to form, and musical tropes to circulate. Although tape trading and mail-order existed well before 1983, I wouldn’t be shocked if the first time a lot of Washingtonians heard Naked Raygun was on the tape decks in the dorm rooms of Midwestern transplants. By the end of the 80’s, Dischord bands (and those in that orbit) were actually inspiring people to attend college in DC, as the most recent comment on this YouTube video of Shudder to Think in 1989 would attest:

I was there.  BYOB, as I recall. Freshman year GWU. I chose my GW ’cause of  Dischord Records and no other reason, never even visited the campus before moving there. 1989: One of the best years for D.C. bands since the Minor Threat days. Seemed like Fugazi played live every damn week that year.

Even if it’s not the punks themselves who come to DC for school, a lot of their parents had come to DC for school and stuck around. Guy Picciotto, best remembered from Fugazi and Rites of Spring, is the progeny of a French-speaking Italian-Syrian who came to Washington for graduate school, fell for an American woman, and stayed put.

6. Nobody Cared about DC

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via townhall.com (I know, I know).

I should clarify that plenty of people cared about DC; it’s just that the American hegemonic mainstream looked down on it, and they had their reasons in the 1980’s. It was blighted- a well-documented “murder capital.” The crack epidemic was in full swing, and white people of any means had by and large jumped ship a full generation prior. DC had a notoriously troubled mayor in Marion Barry, who was caught smoking crack on video in 1980 and still won reelection eventually. It figures how far he stuck his neck out for DC’s 8th Ward and other underrepresented people in an underrepresented (still, to this day) District.

Of course, the same people had no idea about everything amazing that was happening. The public perception of DC’s landscape as something untouchable or beyond hope gave those who actually lived in the District freedom from certain expectations. The bands were playing for their friends and each other; they weren’t aiming for the pop charts or trying to please people outside of their means. This same phenomenon was occurring in Seattle, San Diego, and other cities that didn’t exist within most music writers’ vernacular. Even after REM scored their first top-40 hit in 1987 and people began buzzing “what is it about Athens, Georgia?” many similar culture hearths would have to wait a full generation to get their due.

Hopefully this has provided a satisfactory primer on the how and why of 1980’s Washington, DC. Music fans often say that the influential hardcore movement would not have happened without Reagan in office, but I tend to disagree. The geographic factors of the landscape that spawned harDCore were already in place by the time he assumed office in 1981. I could also list further reasons why DC became what it was in the 1980’s and, via legacy, still is today in the face of incalculable gentrification and subsequent landscape modification. Its toxic culture of pre-packaged tourism and nationalist symbolism, for one, motivated many progenitors of punk to take great care when representing their city abroad. DC’s proximity and easy access to other east coast cities like New York and Philadelphia also aided in the circulation of people and the music they carried with them. The reasons go on and are still accumulating.


Thanks for reading. If you’re looking for a documentary about this era of the underground in our Nation’s Capital, there are several. American Hardcore, which came out in 2006, takes a wider focus but of course addresses the phenomenon of DC. Salad Days, Scott Crawford’s documentary on DC hardcore, came out in 2014 and is readily available. It has a lot of great footage and interviews, including some with Crawford himself (which may be a no-no for some documentary buffs). The next one coming soon will be James Schneider’s film Punk the Capital, which traces DC punk back through rock and new wave in the area. I had the chance to meet Schneider in DC and saw some of the amazing archived footage that he’s weaving together. He actually shared one highlight on his YouTube page, which I’ll embed here. In the summer of 1985, Gray Matter climbed onto the roof of Food for Thought (a restaurant near Dupont Circle owned by Dante Ferrando’s father) to play their cover of “I Am the Walrus.” The cutaway shots show a curious crowd watching from the graffiti-tagged median as well as several abandoned storefronts, common at the time. It wasn’t a paradigm-shifting spectacle when they did it, but it was part of one in the movement that was ‘Revolution Summer.’ Either way, they beat U2 to it by a couple of years. Enjoy.