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.

City of Angles: An AAG Recaptrospective

Do you ever have that feeling that you had a year stricken from your life in the course of a few days, every fiber of your being swallowed by a teeming current of hyperactivity? I remember visiting Washington, DC at 13 with my eighth grade class way back in the mid-90’s. Our bus pulled away from our middle school around 4 in the morning, and we arrived in the nation’s capital in the early afternoon, fitting in a series of afternoon visits to monuments, memorials, and ultimately our HBO-blessed hotel somewhere in the distant Virginia suburbs. I’ll never forget my friend Mike saying to me on the bus as we left the district on that first night, “Remember boarding the bus in Connecticut and leaving? Doesn’t that feel like yesterday?”


The view from the 30th Floor of the Westin Bonaventure. Depending on the smog level, you might be able to see your house from there.

Yes, it did feel like that one day had taken up two, and my first day at my first AAG meeting felt like it took up three. My wonderful compatriots and I piled ourselves, plenty of coffee, a box of promotional postcards, and presentation notes into the car around 6am and headed up the 710 into Los Angeles. Before my head hit the pillow that night, I had presented a chapter of my thesis research to acclaim, watched innumerable others impress with their own research, ate a (sponsored) breakfast with enthusiastic and outgoing Cultural Geographers, explored one of LA’s most impressive bars, reunited with the first Geography TA (and Professor) I’d ever had over a decade ago, reunited with an old professor who (I told her) was the reason I’m where I am today (she recommended the CSULB program and wonderfully wrote me a letter of reference), talked musical politics with a group of Texans, had a serious discussion with a Dentonian about Denton’s music scene, attended a GPOW reception at LA’s coolest bookstore, hung with some Penn State folks at LA’s hottest Jewish bar, ran into an old friend who relocated to B.C. that I hadn’t seen in 8 years, took a Kentucky friend for a ride on Angels Flight and for her first(!) Pupusas at Grand Central Market, and somehow managed not to collapse and need my cohort to cart me back to the car a la Weekend at Bernie’s 2.

So, Wednesday was quite a day. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday certainly weren’t slouches, either. I was fortunately to meet three of my favorite Geographers (Tim Cresswell, Dydia DeLyser, and Mona Domosh) in the span of 5 minutes on Friday afternoon. Dr. DeLyser’s presentation on her cultural archaeological investigation on the first neon light in Los Angeles, by the way, may have been the coolest thing I saw all week.


This kid stole my logo idea! Well, Lance’s idea, but still. I hope he won the competition. We need more musical geographers to rise through the ranks.

On that note, I’d like to welcome the new readers I’ve won from handing out my shiny new Sonic Geography business cards around the conference (all 3 of you). Seriously, though, despite the amount of sleep lost and missed work which I need to cut this short in order to resume, to borrow a line from one of my research subjects, I “couldn’t be more excited to be a part of the zeitgeist.” The fact that these were the only two photos I took all week further proves my claim.

Back to the grind… from the grind. Talk to you all soon.