Mic Nite at Relix Theater this Thursday

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I’m looking forward to represent UTK Geography at the UT Faculty Fall Mic Nite this Thursday! It will take place at Relix Variety Theater (1208 N. Central Street). Doors are at 5:30pm, and presentations begin at 6:30pm. It’s free to attend, but they’d like for you to RSVP here so they can stock the pizza and bar appropriately.

This will be my second time presenting in the Pecha Kucha format and my first time presenting on what I’m referring to as “symbolic gentrification,” so it should be interesting, at the very least. I feel like Mic Nite, since it’s interdisciplinary, will provide a good forum for unpacking such a broad subject. I’ll paste my abstract from the program here.

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Symbolic Gentrification and Learning from Pop Culture

Gentrification has been a concern of sociologists, geographers, and urban dwellers at large since the sociologist Ruth Glass coined the term to describe changes in 1960s London. Critical geographers have long assumed much of that mantel, particularly Neil Smith, whose “The New Urban Frontier” remains a cornerstone. However, understanding gentrification solely a process of city development leaves out much of the story.

My research argues that gentrification is not simply a process of what Smith calls “revanchist urbanism,” but is, at its core, a greater dynamic that weaves geography together with multiple other fields within the humanities. Specifically, my experience teaching American Popular Culture has inspired me to approach what I call “symbolic gentrification,” a critical understanding of the relationship between urban space, capital, and the arts.

The last time I presented in this format (20 slides, 20 seconds apiece) was for the Pecha Kucha Night Knoxville in November 2016. I presented on Ben Irving publicly for the first time; you can watch here. I’m such a fan of the timed-slides format that I’m employing it in one of my classes this semester for the first time.

Hope to see you Thursday!

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Will Straw’s “The Urban Night” and 2016’s Fight for the Right to the City

Will Straw – Cities of the Night, Cultures of the Night from Winnipeg Arts Council on Vimeo.

Sorry the video doesn’t allow embedding; I’ve done similarly with a few videos I’ve posted over the years, so I’m not complaining. Go ahead and watch it on Vimeo.

Over the course of my dissertation research, I’ve realized that the day/night binary in the city is largely overlooked in urban geography. Particularly in cities like DC, the population balloons during the day, though the census reflects overnight residents who may or may not take part in much of the city’s nightlife. The “day” population and the “night” population, especially as they increasingly overlap in the age of revanchist urbanism, engage in a tacit conflict over “whose city” it is. This becomes increasingly complicated when quintessentially “night” activity occurs during the daytime. As Straw mentions in this 2010 talk, cities like Winnipeg and others in their corner are embracing traditionally nighttime activities (raves, dance parties, punk shows) and reorienting them to happen during the day, thereby supporting the arts while lightening nighttime disruptions. Punk scenes like that of Washington, DC have been doing this with little to no involvement from the city government for decades.

300px-st_stephens_church_exterior_1932DCist recently posted a 2016 retrospective blog, which included a heated debate between punks and irate young professionals.  The blog PoPville, started by Dan Silverman (aka the “Prince of Petworth”), a legendary neighborhood blogger/flâneur and the veritable face of gentrification in DC, posted an anonymous letter from an irate resident of the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood who was more than slightly annoyed at the noisy music coming from St. Stephen’s. Unsurprisingly, Silverman’s responsible decision to post the email resulted in a firestorm of animated responses. The perpetual verbal tug-o-war between “new” residents and historic participants in underground culture makes for a fascinating read, and I’d love to use this comment chain as an introductory anecdote in a class on Urban Geography of the 21st Century. As obnoxious as the debate gets at times (it is the internet, after all), I’ve seen few better encapsulations of where David Harvey’s “right to the city” sits in the public discourse in 2016.

In the interest of being a professional reporter of this cultural geography, I’ll withhold my own opinions (though you are free to guess based on who I am and what I research, and you can always ask). One comment from a user labeled “harDCore” posted this some ways along in the comment chain:

This may come as a surprise to the NIMBYs on here but DIY music festivals like this are actually a good thing for the community. The church doesn’t do it to make money, they aren’t a for profit company, they do it to help support and be a part of their community. Events based around music like this keep kids off the streets and has them doing something constructive and positive instead of just doing drugs and becoming criminals. The church isn’t selling booze so people aren’t drunkenly disorderly around the event either. There’s less as less places for youth to play music in this city as the property costs keep going up and developers take over (the Union Arts building being turned into a luxury hotel is a good recent example of this). We need local and community art and music in DC, don’t try to push it out. I suggest Googling things like Positive Force DC and getting a better understanding of what a punk concert or festival really means to the community.

And I suppose the armchair lawyers commenting here didn’t realize that the festival had permits for the event, which the police know about, and why they weren’t doing anything if the permits weren’t being violated.

In the end if you want to live in a sterile, art free environment maybe the suburbs are for you.

The attitudes of the so-called NIMBYs continue a long tradition of city property owners who celebrate the arts until said arts create a disruption. Straw’s talk touches upon this, citing the late-19th-century sentiment that lighting up the urban night would eliminate “iniquity,” but instead created new shades (literally) of it. Perhaps some believe that moneyed development is to the late 20th century what artificial light was to the late 19th? Money has unquestionably shifted the “undesirable” elements, but it has not eliminated them, and in some ways, drawn even more attention to them. I find it hard to believe that the irony of the DC Public Library’s well-publicized punk archive would be lost on people committed to their city’s growth but not its history. This also belies Mt. Pleasant’s recent history as a predominantly underclass (and radical) Latin-American enclave, which is an entire other history that could easily compose its own post.

Anyway, I wish I didn’t have to say that there are no correct answers… but there are no correct answers; only correct attitudes. I look forward to following this issue as it continues to unfold, and maybe make it back to DC for Damaged City one of these years. For those of you who can make it (April 6-9…sadly overlapping with AAG in Boston), 2017’s event is going to be a doozy. They’ve got Marked Men!! And Siamese Twins (who I haven’t written about on this site, but every person needs to hear “Don’t Forgive Lightly” before they die).

While on the subject of gentrification, if you have access (or can obtain it) check out the lead article in the new edition of Southeastern Geographer. It’s an outstanding analysis of Knoxville’s place in that conversation, by my colleagues Scott Markley and Dr. Madhuri Sharma. Considering how much I’ve been picking through the complex geographic discussion of 21st century urbanism, this article is already proving inspirational for me. Congrats and great work to Scott and Madhuri.

The New Orleans – New York Times Blog Wars and the McDonaldization of the American City

Friday Reads: Us Savages in New Orleans have Done Been Discovered.

There’s still a contingent of politicians down here that are way too generous to their friends and to their own bank accounts. There’s plenty of institutional racism, sexism, and provincialism to go around. But I see this every where and at least New Orleans fills its cracks with good food, good music, and a lot of friendly people. Believe me, that makes up for a lot.  However, for some reason, we’re attracting a lot of folks who want to turn us into Brooklyn or what Brooklyn has become.”

I’ve noticed a lot of animosity in the blogosphere as of late regarding the New York Times’ treatment of New Orleans as some kind of sub-cultural/human curiosity sideshow (where kale is nowhere to be found; what an atrocity). Sky Dancing Blog has some choice words (and excellent, eclectic sourcing) regarding this surreal cultural condescension. Click the link above and get up to speed.

New Orleans is one city I’ve loved deeply since the first time I visited it in 1997, and perhaps my fascination with her, outside of the music and brain-splittingly good food, has been rooted in its purported lack of shine and grittiness. Also, the whole “no other place existing like it in the world” thing. To use a lazy epithet, what you see is what you get.

This leads us down a major philosophical conundrum when we think about the “livable city:” What happens when the continued urbanization of America (and the entire world, for that matter) produces not necessarily standards but ways of living that hollow out a city’s underlying character? Is this just capitalism running amok and bleeding into a concept not unlike the McDonaldization of the American city?

I’m no expert, considering how I’ve never lived in Brooklyn nor New Orleans (and would be hard-pressed to afford visiting either at the moment), but isn’t there something remarkable enough about a city that’s so notoriously blighted and corrupt yet lovable that you wouldn’t want to change it?

Here’s the rub: this debate has inevitably overgeneralized New Orleans and Brooklyn. Both sides (but mainly the outsider accounts, not to split hairs) treat the former as if it is not a massive unrefined agglomeration of moving/mutating parts, but one homogeneous entity. Perhaps this was the dream of urban re-developers at one point fifty years ago, but that pursuit was abandoned by all but the most die-hard (and loony) urban theorists decades ago.

For all the grief that gentrifiers get, you would imagine that somebody would clue them into Jane Jacobs’ (yet-to-be-disproven) theory of the necessary multiple uses of city blocks. The reason their new neighborhood is so great is exactly because you have new buildings next to the old, the scabs next to the sutures.

I am not claiming any ownership of either city; both New Orleans and Brooklyn represent seemingly divergent ends of the paradigm of urban culture in the United States, and both deserve praise for various facets of their existence, but to try to move one towards the other would be frightening. That being said, I think the most interesting aspect of this whole outrage has been this near-tribal trumpeting of ownership and provincialism (particularly considering how the writer of the blog I linked here admits to not being a NOLA native). Considering how much I’ve taken a shine to Knoxville (for all of its almost-cartoonish shortcomings), I am learning firsthand about what it’s like to adopt and defend an underdog of an American city.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this rant, if it even qualifies as one. If it doesn’t, I have one coming up soon about chili. Enjoy your week, everybody.

Me at Metairie Cemetery, 2008.

Me at Metairie Cemetery, 2008.