Even as Kostis was conjuring his posts on Pink Floyd at Pompeii and the Scorpions at Mytilene, another iconic locus of punk rock magic is reaching the end of its life. The Uptown Bar & Cafe in Minneapolis is apparently slated to close sometime this year. Its octogenarian owner, Frank Toonen, is looking to sell the bar to secure the financial future for his family (a noble cause, if there ever was one). The bar hosted virtually every major punk(ish) rock band to come out of Minneapolis (Soul Asylum, The Replacements, Hüsker Dü) and ranked as a local CBGBs or Max’s Kansas City. Ironically, the bar will be torn down for a three story retail space as the Uptown neighborhood continues a process of re-gentrification (for a nice history of the neighborhood).
To be honest, I’ve never been to the Uptown Bar & Cafe (nor Uptown, for that matter), but the story of the Uptown Bar & Cafe caught my eye in the context of our ongoing conversation about punk and place. Many of the most storied punk establishments established themselves in seemingly marginal urban spaces made available by white flight and the post-war growth of suburbs and now confront the reopening of the urban center to economic development which in many ways challenged both economic opportunities made available by the marginal status of various neighborhoods and urban locales as well as the gritty and explicitly anti-suburban ascetic that punk cultivated. The creative risks exploited by punk rockers as they returned to the urban center from the security of suburban “garage” demanded an authenticity of the punk experience that cannot be maintained when surrounded by boutique shopping spots and chain clothing retailers who seemingly revel in the make-believe character of the consumer experience.
The authenticity of the urban experience is not just a hallmark of punk music. Today, it is seen most visibly in hip-hop music where credibility is tied a performer’s ability to maintain their ties to economically and socially marginalized segments of urban areas. (As hip-hop has globalized, it has shown that the performance of authenticity has transferred from marginalized areas within the American city to marginalized areas of the globe. Take, for example, the Somali-Canadian rapper K’naan who mocks the urban posturing of North American rappers by contrasting their claims and experiences to his upbringing in Somalia).
Common’s song “The Corner” is a another great meditation on the space of performance in contemporary hip-hop. The song juxtaposes Common’s lyrics about his experiences on “the corner” with nostalgia tinged lyrics of the radical spoken-word poetry collective “The Last Poets” who note:
…The corner was our Rock of Gibraltar, our Stonehenge
Our Taj Mahal, our monument…
Of course, in hip-hop the corner invokes more than just an urban space associated with drug dealing, informal social gatherings, and, perhaps more properly, the performance of dozens between rappers that formed the basis for the combative aspects of modern hip-hop music. The corner invokes the crossroads which was an iconic symbol in American Blues music. Most famously, the crossroads was where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for musical talent.
Crossroads represent both central places where diverse paths cross, but also liminal sites where clearly-defined spheres of control and authority break-down or lapse entirely. It is not surprising, for example, that Oedipus met the Sphinx at a crossroads (see: S. I Johnston, “Crossroads,” ZPE 88 (1991)217-24) .
To return, then to punk and place, the impending loss of the Uptown Cafe & Bar (and other punk landmarks) stands out as the return of marginal spaces to the control of the center. In many cities in the US, this has manifested itself as reclaiming the marginalized zone of an urban core neglected in the post-war migration to the suburbs for the commercial, capitalist, gentrified space of the new suburban centers (i.e. let’s make the cities look like we imagined them when we built those surrogate cities: suburban shopping malls).
To bring my archaeological interests more fully into the conversation, I’ll just point out that for the last 7 years I’ve been working with the team of the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project to study a community situated at a crossroads along the coast of southeastern Cyprus. Peripheral to the main centers of power on the island, there is reason to think that the ancient community situated in what is now the coast zone of the village of Pyla (another liminal space!) served as a local crossroads community. David Pettegrew’s work at a similar site in the Eastern Corinthia commonly referred to as “Cromna” is another example of a crossroads community. These liminal spaces situated neither clearly within an urban core or in the romanticized space of the rural periphery defy categorization. The complexity and density of the artifact assemblages found in these areas press to the limit methods devised to document more dispersed kinds of activity in the countryside. At the same time, the absence of a built up center with known, monumental architecture, makes it challenging to justify large scale, systematic excavation.
The marginal status of crossroads places have made them a kind of improvisational space for archaeological fieldwork. In this way, they echo the marginal spaces of desiccated, post-war, urban core which became the places of punk performance, or the ill-defined and marginal space of the corner which became a zone dominated by ancient and modern sphinxes. Punk archaeology revels in the marginal, ambiguous, ambivalent and, in many ways, dangerous spaces that only become central through the ephemeral performance.