Friday, March 4, 2016

The Alternative Lifestyle City and the Great Blight of Dullness

A while back, I was talking with someone who has been running an illegal food co-op for decades. In his discussion about the co-op, he said in passing that DC in 1967 was an "alternative lifestyle city." I asked him why he thought that. He said that downtown was filled with cooperatives, like a co-op bookstore, co-op plant stores, and even co-op headshops. This 1981 article describes DC's Magic Lantern Cinema and other DC co-ops in this area: "Five years ago, Washington DC's worker-run cooperative community was still strong — a network of food coops, "anti-profit" bookstores, record stores, print shops, plant stores, etc." You can see a list of the extensive number of co-operatives in DC here.

The co-operator said that the mindset of downtown was alternative. Around the Second World War, the area had been redlined (redlining is "arbitrarily denying or limiting financial services to specific neighborhoods, generally because its residents are people of color or are poor") because it was understood to be an African American area. Banks would not provide loans to residents or to businesses in the area. He said that "alternative," "working-class" whites then moved to this area, which had cheap rent. In this area neglected by banks and investment, people could try out a lot of new ideas very cheaply and the people in the area were relatively open to such experiments and such people.

As many people have discussed, downtown DC had a vibrant punk scene, such as at the Landsburgh in the center of today's Penn Quarter discussed by the fabulous Vassar sociology professor Leonard Nevarez. In the DC punk scene book Hard Art: DC 1979, the authors write, "In the land of the rejected, the field is flattened, open to much opportunity. Here flourish the weeds and nonstandard quality alike" (p. 63). But punk music and cooperatives were by no means the only part of this "alternative lifestyle city." (For another fascinating discussion, see Michelle Chatman's "At Eshu's Crossroad: Pan-African Identity in a Changing City"). Where did the "alternative lifestyle city" go?

In our perverse world, when investors abandon an area, rents may go down and diversities might increase, as well as opportunities for creativity and social life. And conversely, when investors become interested in an area and "revitalize" it, they often seek to erase what is there and create a blank slate. As discussed by Jane Jacobs, developers who seek to lure the wealthy into the cities often eradicate a whole range of diversities (age, income, race, etc.) and create, what she called, a "Great Blight of Dullness":
CityCenterDC. Photo by: Payton Chung, public, labelled for reuse.