DC Punk, Documentary, and Place

One of the coolest uses of web video–and perhaps more precisely mobile video–is Yellow Arrow’s documentary project about the Washington, D.C., harDCore punk scene, Capital of Punk. The project features ten short videos that you can watch either on your computer, with the scene’s prominent locations highlighted on a Google map, or via video podcasts. The videos invite viewers to walk along the Washington streets to locations in Georgetown, Adams Morgan, and the U Street Corridor, highlighting the importance of place in the punk movement and, perhaps, music in general, as well as the lived experience of a city (based on del.icio.us links, I think this project has been around for a while, but I’m just now discovering it).

The videos feature interviews with prominent members of the D.C. punk scene, including Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye, Brendan Canty, Joe Lally, and Dante Ferrando, and included footage from Jem Cohen’s Fugazi documentary, Instrument, as well as photographs and other documents from the early moments of the harDCore scene, and there are some great anecdotes about concerts, innovative political protests, and friendships within the community. But what I found most compelling about the videos was their ability to provide microhistories of many of D.C.’s neighborhoods, including many neighborhoods that have changed radically due to the economic shifts associated with gentrification (at one point, MacKaye even acknowledges the punk scene’s, perhaps unintentional, complicity with gentrification, describing live music venues and art spaces as “transitional businesses”).

Because I spent last year, many of the locations were familiar, and I found myself wishing I could have taken this virtual tour when I was still living in D.C, and in fact made me feel incredibly nostalgic for a city where I’ve spent much of my life. But the videos did remind me of the ways in which the city is a walkable, pedestrian friendly place. I remember, for example walking past the old 9:30 Club, depicted in this concert footage of Embrace, on my way to the E Street Theater (coincidentally right around the corner from Ford’s Theater and, unfortunately, a Hard Rock Cafe). And, of course, I spent quite a bit of time exploring the Adams Morgan and U Street neighborhoods, both of which have changed considerably since they were centers for the city’s music scene.

My sense of nostalgia is probably not accidental in that the interviews themselves take on a nostalgic tone as MacKaye and others describe their memories of Washington in the 1970s and ’80s. This is not to suggest that the people who were being interviewed were stuck in the past or that they were uncritically looking at that era as a golden age without also recognizing its flaws, but there seems to be something inherently nostalgic about many of the punk documentaries I’ve encountered (including the very interesting Punk’s Not Dead, which I caught at Silverdocs last year). But what I found interesting about the documentary clips–and how they framed the past–was that they explored the conditions that made D.C.’s punk scene possible. MacKaye credits former mayor Marion Barry–and, yes, I’m well aware of Barry’s complicated tenure as mayor–for supporting the arts and providing opportunities for teenagers to develop their music and artistic skills as instrumental to the music scene, while MacKaye, Barry, and others describe the devastating riots that took place on U Street after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and the slow process of rebuilding that began when Barry commissioned the building of the Reeves Center, a major municipal building at 14th and U.

I’m probably the ultimate target audience for this kind of documentary project–I loved living in Washington, D.C., have a fondness for harDCore punk, and miss walking the city’s streets–but I would love to see more work like Capital of Punk that uses video podcasts to provide these tiny histories of specific places.

Cross-posted over at Newcritics.

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  1. newcritics - » D.C. Punk, Documentary, and Place Said,

    June 16, 2007 @ 2:39 pm

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