Hardcore Urban Renewal: The Punk Origins of the City Creative

The Metropole Bookshelf is an opportunity for authors of forthcoming or recently published books to let the UHA community know about their new work in the field.

By Michael Carriere and David Schalliol

The roots of The City Creative: The Rise of Urban Placemaking in Contemporary America (The University of Chicago Press, 2021) are not in an undergraduate course or a graduate seminar. They are not in any essential books or articles on urban history, or even in any broad placemaking tradition or specific placemaking project. They are in the American hardcore punk scene of the late 1980s through mid 1990s.

This may be a surprising origin for a book that traces the development of mainstream creative placemaking, an approach to urban planning that emphasizes place-based redevelopment to connect residents and drive investment, and then offers an alternative model for such work. But in this essay, we will discuss our own experiences with the hardcore punk scene and conclude with a short reflection on how these experiences led us to the book—and how they have led us to our next project, a history of independent record label Touch and Go Records.

Michael Carriere:

I started going to hardcore punk shows on a regular basis in the summer of 1989, when I was fourteen years old. Within driving distance of my suburban Philadelphia home was City Gardens, a legendary club in Trenton, New Jersey, that had hosted the likes of Black Flag, the Dead Kennedys, X, and the Ramones throughout the 1980s. The club’s history—and indeed physical condition—mirrored the broader changes affecting Trenton. By the late 1980s the club looked like an abandoned bomb shelter, an aesthetic that allowed for the building to fit into the landscape of disinvestment that marked the surrounding neighborhood. There were no gardens, just a gravel parking lot, a well-worn soccer field, and a host of nearby shuttered buildings.

New Jersey-based band Turning Point, performing December 9, 1990 at Club Revival in Philadelphia. Photograph by Justin Moulder.

Yet once the music started, the space was transformed. The line between audience member and performer was blurred as the act of attending a concert became a participatory experience. Young concertgoers would slam dance, stage dive, and sing along to every song. As the crowd started to move as almost a cohesive unit, a sense of community, however temporary, was born. The music brought this ugly space—this monument to a deindustrializing Trenton—to life, transforming it into a safe haven for hundreds of people who felt out of place nearly everywhere else. Commenting on a similar dynamic in Washington, DC, Kenny Inouye, bass player for the hardcore punk act Marginal Man, recalls that the spaces his band played in the late 1980s would not have existed without “that desolation, that decay, and that crime” that marked the nation’s capital at that moment.

Mechanics National Bank Building in 2007, former home of Club Revival in Philadelphia. Photograph by Pete Radocaj.

These transformative experiences at City Gardens made me seek out similar places. As the 1990s commenced, I began seeing similar shows at a host of venues throughout the city of Philadelphia. Some, like the Revival (22 S. 3rd Street), were examples of innovative adaptive reuse. The Revival began its existence in 1837 as Mechanics National Bank, transforming into a traditional nightclub in the early 1980s. Here, the neoclassical architecture of the structure provided a sense of cultural legitimacy to the underground acts that performed in the venue. Others, like Stalag 13 (3858 Lancaster Avenue), a punk squat in West Philadelphia, were not so architecturally noteworthy; they also often smelled like cheap beer and piss.

Shows were also held in religious spaces, as promoters like the Cabbage Collective, Robbie Redcheeks, and Sean Agnew began doing hardcore punk shows in the Calvary Church (801 S. 48th Street) and the First Unitarian Church (2125 Chestnut Street). On the one hand, this was a strategy of practicality: no other spaces in the city wanted to deal with this culture (there is a dissertation to be written on the relationship between religious institutions and the American punk scene). But there was something transformative about seeing such acts perform in such a space. This was our reclamation of the space as we carried out our own set of rituals. I can’t speak for other show goers, but it was spiritual for me. And it made me see the possibility of the city, one unobserved by so many.  

Michael Carriere singing in Bleed during a show at Stalag 13, January 8, 1998. The flyer for the show is below. Photograph by Paul Havelin.  

An often-overlooked component of such places was the amount of activity that took place outside of the venue. Here, people sold fanzines they had created, handed out flyers for shows they were doing, or hawked their band’s records or demo tapes. This was all do-it-yourself (DIY); there were no major labels or publishing houses backing these grassroots endeavors. The message coming out of the hardcore punk scene when it came to cultural production was “You can do this. And you can do it now.” I started playing in bands at the age of 15. By 18, I was singing for a band that would go on to put out four records and tour the United States three times.

Flyer for the above show at Stalag 13, January 8, 1998. Photograph by Paul Havelin.

It was on these tours that my fascination with American cities further developed. While hardcore punk may have been rooted in dissatisfaction with the suburb, it articulated this dissatisfaction in predominantly urban venues. Bowling alleys, college ballrooms, VFW halls, vacant storefronts, and even the basements of private homes in city after city were transformed into vibrant performance spaces. These utilitarian spaces were not as visually compelling as a church or a nineteenth-century bank, but they provided the space—cultural as well as physical—for outsiders to create in a space they could call their own. As they did this, they also illustrated the power of arts and culture to reshape the urban built environment, if only for a night.

But while some of these performance spaces did have an ephemeral quality to them—they were either temporary by design or by circumstance—other venues have persisted for decades. Berkeley-based 924 Gilman (founded in 1986) and New York City’s ABC no RIO (founded in 1980), for example, still foster generations of bands and fans alike. Such spaces continue to be supported by, and provide support for, networks of performers, independent record labels, zines, and record stores. This model of participatory reciprocity created an alternative to the passive nature of mainstream entertainment, while highlighting that one didn’t have to defer to large-scale cultural producers for arts and entertainment. Over time, this DIY approach to “placemaking,” as we learned while working on The City Creative, came to inform more than just hardcore punk venues. We saw a similar spirit in urban farms, housing cooperatives, and art studios, among other spaces, across the country. 

David Schalliol:

The hardcore scene was equally important to me as a teenager in the Midwest, growing up in the suburbs of Indianapolis, Indiana. But one of the big differences between Philadelphia and Indianapolis was that there weren’t any real all-ages venues in Indy. Minors were prohibited entry into clubs that served alcohol, and pretty much all of the clubs sold beer. So, when the bigger bands who played at Trenton’s City Gardens would come to Indianapolis, teenagers simply couldn’t see them. I still remember hanging out near one of those club’s loading docks listening to The Ramones through an open stage door. If you’d like to recreate the experience, listen to this audio file in the dark alley of your choice.

The parking lot entrance to the Sitcom. Photograph by Beth Barnett.

Without any real all-ages spaces, the scene was especially DIY. Kids made their own all-ages venues. Like in Philadelphia, shows were thrown in houses, church basements, fraternal order lodges, and cultural centers, but there was also an exceptional, independently-run, non-profit venue called the Sitcom Collective. In many ways, my participation in the Sitcom remains the model for how I think about meaningful engagement with community and place today.

David Schalliol playing with Lockstep at the Sitcom in 1995. Photograph by Rebecca Ellenberger.

Over the few years it existed, the Sitcom had three different spaces located in the same early 1900s commercial block on Indianapolis’s near north side, just a couple of miles south of where the Ramones played back in 1995. None of the spaces it occupied were proper venues—or even officially habitable. It wasn’t legal. The collective wasn’t a formal organization; it didn’t have any permits; and the building wasn’t up to code anyway. It was shut down by the fire marshal more than once, but in between periods of being shuttered, it demonstrated the potential of DIY efforts.

The legendary Riot Grrl band Bikini Kill playing the Sitcom. Photograph by Beth Barnett.

The Sitcom was organized democratically through regular consensus-based meetings, and the regular collective meeting time was shared on flyers with invitations for anyone to participate. While a few people were responsible for booking the majority of the shows, additional discussions between participants explored ideas about the space, its operations, and its future. The model also meant that the space was culturally varied. Since the Indianapolis underground music scene was relatively small, it was especially interconnected: hardcore, emo, riot grrl, shoegazer, industrial, art rock, and, occasionally, hip hop groups all shared the same cramped space.

The Swedish hardcore band Refused at the Sitcom in 1996. Photograph by David Schalliol.

With so many sub-genres and communities represented at the Sitcom, the overtly political hardcore scene’s machismo and so-far-left-wing-it’s-right-wing politics mixed with a broader range of perspectives. Without over-romanticizing it, it was a home base for all manner of activism, from that already happening at shows, to civil disobedience training, to organizing the vegetarian food security group Food Not Bombs. Local children were taken to the Indianapolis Children’s Museum. Fundraisers were held for animal rights and indigenous activist legal defense funds. In other words, the Sitcom showed that the DIY ethic wasn’t just for promoting one’s self, it was an explicit way to purposely connect with broader political communities.

Flyers for benefit shows at the Sitcom that supported Food Not Bombs, MOVE, and the Western Shoshone Defense Project.

Looking back from the 2020s, it’s easy to see that those connections were not always so direct. While many of the most active participants in the collective lived in the surrounding neighborhoods, many others—including myself —didn’t. And while the surrounding area was racially mixed, the audiences were predominantly white. In order to avoid being noticed by building inspectors, the fire marshal, and the police, the Sitcom was intentionally underground; as a result, it missed out on being more meaningfully involved with the surrounding community and the issues affecting it.

A 1996 anti-fur protest organized at the Sitcom. Photograph by David Schalliol.

A similar critique could be offered of the relationship between City Gardens’ home of Trenton and the white hardcore punk kids that descended on the city every Sunday. In the Midwest and East Coast, we were introduced to the realities of deindustrialization, but little effort was made to understand the history and culture of such communities. As adults, Michael and I took such dynamics and histories to heart while working on The City Creative. It is our hope that our book provides a thoughtful analysis of the intersections of such things as race, class, gentrification, and community-led redevelopment in a myriad of American cities.

There’s a lot more to say about the Sitcom and other such spaces, but in the context of how my experiences there led to The City Creative, it demonstrated how a group of kids could create a community space concerned with art, politics, place, each other, and the broader community. And as I reflect on the lasting effect of those few years in Indianapolis, it’s clear that the engaged DIY spirt of the Sitcom persists in my peers’ personal lives, careers, art, and activism today.

So as we began the research that would ultimately become The City Creative, we were already intimately aware of the transformative potential of do-it-yourself efforts. This understanding helped orient our thinking as we connected with hundreds of others around the country who were working on issues important to their communities, from hip-hop’s influence on urban agriculture in Milwaukee to how artist/activists created their own community center in Chicago. It is in these actions that we see the alternative model of creative placemaking we feature in the book that is anchored by locally-directed, redistributive, and productive place-based initiatives.

Fidel Verdin weeding in his Peace Park in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 2018. Photograph by David Schalliol.

All of this informs our next project: a cultural/urban history of the independent record label Touch and Go Records. Since 1981, Touch and Go Records has been putting out records integral to the evolution of underground music, and the place of such music in a broader American culture. From the chaotic, punishing hardcore punk of Negative Approach in the 1980s to the sleek, futuristic rock and roll of TV on the Radio in the early twenty-first century, the artists in the Touch and Go stable pushed bold sounds into mainstream music culture—at a time when such a mainstream had seemingly stagnated. This creation of alternative rock led to a rejuvenation of the American music scene, one whose repercussions are still being felt today.

Importantly, these processes often had profound spatial ramifications. As the record label set up headquarters in such “Rust-Belt” cities as East Lansing, Detroit, and Chicago, it both interacted with—and influenced—previously existing urban subcultures and the spaces that served those groups. These relationships contributed to a distinctly Midwestern aesthetic, one that shaped the image and form of the urban built environment.

  The opening ceremony of the La Casita community library in 2010. Photograph by David Schalliol.

The emerging performance spaces, art galleries, bars, restaurants, and record stores that clustered together in the cities Touch and Go called home attracted a new generation of urban dwellers. These young migrants from regional suburbs transformed neighborhoods that had suffered greatly from deindustrialization and population loss, catalyzing new communities while also displacing old ones. And as the record label began to work with artists from such cities as Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and New York, it exported these ideas and strategies to new places, linking these sites together and weaving together a truly national culture—creating another type of urban “placemaking.” 

Michael Carriere, photographed for This is Milwaukee. Photo by Kevin J. Miyazaki

Michael Carriere is a Professor at the Milwaukee School of Engineering University, where he teaches courses on American history, public policy, political science, environmental studies, and urban design. He has written for such publications as the Journal of Planning History, the Journal of Urban History, Cultural History, Reviews in American History, Punk Planet, Pitchfork.com, and Salon.com. He is the co-author, with David Schalliol, of The City Creative: The Rise of Urban Placemaking in Contemporary America (The University of Chicago Press). He holds a PhD in American history from the University of Chicago.

David Schalliol is an Associate Professor of Sociology at St. Olaf College who is interested in the relationship between people and place. He is the author of Isolated Building Studies (UTAKATADO) and co-author, with Michael Carriere, of The City Creative (The University of Chicago Press). His work has been supported by institutions including the Graham Foundation and the European Union and featured in publications including MAS Context, The New York Times, and Social Science Research. David exhibits his photographs widely, including in the Chicago Architecture Biennial, the Centre Régional de la Photographie Hauts-de-France, and the Museum of Contemporary Photography. David earned his BA from Kenyon College and his MA and PhD from the University of Chicago.

Featured image (at top): New York-based hardcore punk band Bold playing City Gardens July 9, 1989. Photograph by Ken Salerno.

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