Can We Rebuild The Backwater?

by D.F. Savage

I was planning to write an article discussing Detroit and Ruin Porn as described on Coilhouse, the delicate and facinating balance between the photojournalistic responsibility to show the nitty-gritty and the paternalistic impulse to put devastation in a dramatic spotlight, do nothing, and fail to notice when the subjects of your pity manage to pull themselves out of the muck and the mire. I was going to say something about how we ought to be able to bring awareness to ruin as well as revitalization anywhere it exists, and be able to see and showcase the beauty of abandoned buildings and rusted out trains, and we should know to keep those separate. But, really, Coilhouse already covered a lot, and my thoughts on the subject can be easily written as concisely as they just were.

Which makes this a very short post.

So, instead of ending it here, I’d like to talk about another bug that just bit me, and get some of my Coilhouse fanboying out of the way.

I live in a pretty small town. Like, really small. In some ways, there’s a lot more going on here than you might expect. We have the Blackfriars, the world’s only reproduction of Shakespeare’s indoor theatre. We’ve got a women’s liberal arts college with a couple of unique programs. There’s some pretty cool movie theatres, art galleries, and restaurants. In many other ways, nothing happens here. If you don’t have access to a car, which my friends and I currently don’t, there isn’t a thing to do once all of downtown closes around 5. If you’re a broke college student, which we are, most of our restaurants and organic food stores are out of your price range. The downtown association and the Staunton Music Guild have events sometimes, which are awesome, but infrequent. I have a serious love/hate relationship with my town, and lately, as college drags on longer and longer and I try to organize social events and groups in town, it’s leaning more toward hate.

And then, I was bumming around Coilhouse, as I tend to when there isn’t anything going on in my tiny town. I went and reread their mission statement, and this quote grabbed me with some damned sharp claws:

“Alternative subcultures. They were a crucial aspect of industrial civilization in the two previous centuries. They were where industrial civilization went to dream. A sort of unconscious R&D, exploring alternative social strategies … but they became extinct.”

“Extinct?”

“We started picking them before they could ripen. A certain crucial growing period was lost, as marketing evolved and the mechanisms of recommodification became quicker, more rapacious. Authentic subcultures required backwaters, and time, and there are no more backwaters…”

-William Gibson, All Tomorrow’s Parties

Previously, I had read this, understood it, and accepted it. Now, I am instead struck by the diasporic longing for the underground culture of old. I miss a homeland I never had.

And I also see a potential for them, like Detroit, to flourish once again. The universality of social networking and internet instaculture may seem to have globalized us right out of backwaterhood, but there are still tiny, isolated towns everywhere. Surely there are other Stauntons, with peculiarly rich cultures and a dirth of things to do, with a mass of youth waiting to rise up. Well, I say, stop waiting.

We were on our way to building on underground social scene with Kronos, part art gallery, part concert venue, in a interesting little red brick space down on the Wharf. The art was mostly weird avante garde stuff made by townie kids out of whatever they could get their hands on and the bands were mostly local punk rockers. The guy who ran it was socially chill and politically radical, and let our local BDSM club meet there for free on off days. It was glorious.

And short lived. Kronos was shut down July 2009. It is a testament that some places remain off the grid still that I can’t find a news article to link you on this. I’ll summarize: the number of kids coming out to shows apparently violated the building’s fire safety code. Kronos tried to find another location, and were again shut down for code violations. This time something about the number of toilets. They kept looking for locations and kept protesting at city hall, but eventually, owner Kevin Postupack had to give up the fight for financial reasons.

Then Mary Catharine Richardson opened Spectrum Studios, and we all rejoiced. It was a converted warehouse with more space and a great atmosphere, another art gallery-cum-concert venue, with plans for nifty events like a zombie-themed dance party. Well, the cops busted the dance party. And now Spectrum, too, is gone. Including almost all mention of it on the internet. No one has attempted to fill the vacuum.

The problem, I have found, is that the people who care about making a venue available don’t have the money. The people who have the money have seen it proven that it’s not worth their time. The places that are left available for concerts or other events are all expensive and/or 21+. So what are we to do? Honestly, I don’t have the answer. If there isn’t a place to go, and you can’t make the place yourself, what do you do? Well, at the least, talk to the kids in your own tiny town. Get together and talk, and not on the internet. Snag a corner at the pizza place down the street or the local bookstore and hang out, get your best friend’s band to do a house show, put together an impromptu poetry slam at the park, do whatever you can. Chill with your friends, share your ideas, let it happen as it happens.

The immediacy the internet has brought to culture is not always a bad thing, nor is it the definitive death of the subculture. As we get used to the newness of it, we’ll find a balance. You don’t have to choose between plugging in and going out. You can have your cake and eat it, too! And it’s my vote that you bake a really awesome one, with a secret recipe and help from your friends.

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