In Michael Winterbottom’s 2002 film “24 Hour Party People,” then-television journalist and future Factory Records founder Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan) ventures out into the cool Manchester, England night one evening to take in a rock show. What he sees changes his life and those of millions of others forever.
“In the fall of 1976, the Sex Pistols play Manchester for the very first time,” he tells the camera. “There are only 42 people in the audience but every one of them is feeding on a power, an energy, a madness. Inspired, they will go out and perform wondrous deeds.” Wilson’s record label would help to define the “Manchester Scene” (think the Stone Roses and Charlatans UK, for non-Factory artists) which dominated alternative music from the mid-1990s until the early aughts. In attendence? Members of the Buzzcocks, Joy Division (later New Order), and Martin Hannett, “the only true genius in this story,” as Wilson opines. Hannett was the producer responsible for several of the landmark albums of the period. Sure the Pistols never sold that many albums and less than fifty people caught the show, but much like the Velvet Underground and the Ramones who sold few albums overall, everyone who bought one started a band. Punk sought, wittingly or unwittingly, to topple hierarchies.
Far be it for The Metropole to assert that #UHA2018 created a new cultural touchstone like punk or post-punk, but anyone who attended this year’s Urban History Association Conference, “Cities at a Crossroads,” in Columbia, S.C. came away prepared to spit historical hot fire to power. Encapsulated by the exemplary round table honoring Arnold Hirsch’s Making the Second Ghetto and the concluding plenary session commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Orangeburg Massacre, the conference ended with a passionate, compelling statement of purpose inspired by keynote speaker Dr. June Manning Thomas: historians will engage in the battle against structural inequality, be it based on race, class, gender or sexual orientation.
It seems appropriate on two counts to tell the story of the conference through the people who attended it and with a technology that, much like punk, has contributed to the transformation and reordering of culture: Twitter. So with that in mind The Metropole brings you scenes from UHA2018 derived from the hashtag: #UHA2018.
“The bells go off
The buzzer coughs
The traffic starts to buzz
The clothes are stiff
The fabrics itch
The fit’s a little rough”
— “Price Tag” Sleater Kinney
On the song “Price Tag” from its 2015 album “No Cities to Love,” the band Sleater-Kinney (part of the second wave of the riot girl movement and a descendant of the Sex Pistols) sings about the crushing monotony of a job based on the grinding nature of the American economy. “We love our bargains, we love the prices so low. With the good jobs gone. It’s gonna be raw.” On the title track, they joke acidly that “[t]here are no cities to love, It’s not the cities it’s the weather we love.” #UHA2018 rejected one of these premises (“no cities to love” obviously), endorsed another (neoliberalism has not been kind to cities), while enjoying yet another: the fine Columbia weather. All these factors contributed to a palpable, enthusiastic anticipation.
The opening reception held at the University of South Carolina President’s House enjoyed great weather.
An intrepid half-dozen folks braved a chilly Friday morning and rose early for 3.25 mile run led by Historic Columbia’s John Sherrer, who managed to detail numerous aspects of the city’s history while maintaining a brisk running pace.
Conference panels kicked off at 8 am on Friday, and participants never looked back.
Not that everything goes smoothly–after all, the struggles of academic conferences are real. Murphy’s law, one might suggest. Predictably, Murphy’s Law is not only a concept but also a NYC hardcore punk band.
There were Foulcaldian debates, or, perhaps more accurately, debates about using Foucault.
In regard to local history, the UHA and Historic Columbia offered numerous tours.
Breakfast and other necessary sustenance
To be honest, beyond straight-edge artists like Minor Threat and their successor Fugazi, a lot of punk bands drank excessively and/or used copious amount of hunger-suppressing drugs. Culinary delight did not really factor into the scene.
Indeed, continental breakfast was provided. Some however, such as Amanda Seligman, preferred protein.
Then again, one can have too much of a good thing.
Still, protein focused tweets aside, even with some free grub conference goers built up healthy appetites whether paneling, touring, or making the rounds–though they might not have satiated said hunger with the most nutritious options.
Remembering Arnold Hirsch and the Orangeburg Massacre of 1968
With stomachs full and hunger satiated, historians could return to the work at hand, perhaps exemplified by the late-afternoon round table on Arnold Hirsch and his classic work Making the Second Ghetto. “So understand me when I say, there’s no love for this USA,” Bad Brains lead singer H.R. howled in 1982, “this world is doomed with its own segregation, just a Nazi test.” The penultimate verse of the band’s song “The Big Takeover” serves as a useful framing device for a round table that tackled the thorny issues laid bare by Hirsch, those things he missed, and the influence that the work had on them along with its relevance to present-day white nationalism and racism. Princeton Professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor put together a panel equivalent to the Clash, the Stooges, and Bad Brains combined: Simon Balto, N.B. Connolly, Lilia Fernandez, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, and Rhonda Williams. Discussion of Hirsch’s work unfolded in typical #UHA2018 fashion: informed, impassioned, and, for many, inspiring. In his closing remarks, moderator Tom Sugrue described the panel and field as “on fire.”
The plenary session that followed, commemorating the 1968 Orangeburg Massacre and featuring Patricia A. Sullivan, June Manning Thomas, Heather Ann Thompson, and Henrie Monteith Treadwell, proved no less inspiring.
This sort of work demands a support system: colleagues, family, and of course friends. Friendship, both collegial and personal, we hope is a hallmark of the conference. After all, it was perhaps the only institution outside of Rastafarianism that Bad Brains embraced: “We, we got ourselves, gonna sing, gonna love it, gonna work it out to any length. We, we got ourselves, we gonna make it anyway.”
In a quirk of timing, the end of #UHA2018 coincided with Columbia’s Pride Parade.
Just to close the whole punk circle that opened our summary, when those 42 people walked out of that Sex Pistols show in Manchester, they wobbled out drunk on the promise of D.I.Y. agency–hierarchies toppled at least for a little while. The echos of their contribution to reforming music still inform the present day. In the same way, we hope UHA members barrelled home, fires burning in their wake, the knees of hegemonies knocking, new histories forming, new realities dawning. Or at the very least, a renewed attention to discovering, conveying and broadcasting urban history to each other, students, and the public.
Featured photo at top provided by Aaron Shkuda taken October 19, 2018.