Arts Desk

Don’t Get Nostalgic: Mark Andersen on the 30th Anniversary of the Wilson Center

Would you believe a 30th anniversary concert organized by D.C.’s punk historian in the world’s most historically self-obsessed rock scene is not about nostalgia? That’s what Mark Andersen of Positive Force wants you to believe. In an interview with Arts Desk, he discussed the legacy of the Wilson Center, D.C.’s longtime punk institution, and the future of DIY spaces.

Washington City Paper: The Wilson Center has been around for 30 years but its use as a DIY space, a stage for punk shows, hasn’t been continuous throughout this period.  What’s the history?

Mark Andersen: The Wilson Center was first used for a punk show on April 4, 1981.  It was organized by H.R. of the Bad Brains, one of their last shows before they moved to New York.  Looking back, it was a historic show because bands that are looked to now as trailblazers played: Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Government Issue, Void, Scream, and others.  That kicked off a period of heavy use by the D.C. punk scene that lasted until 1985.

There was a break because those shows came to be afflicted with violence and were no longer welcome by the community. So the Wilson Center didn’t function as a punk space again until 1987, for Fugazi’s first show.

By 1992, there were so many community spaces that the Wilson Center wasn’t as central, though it continued to hold shows until 1996. Then, its primary use came to be an after-school program for the Latin American Youth Center. One of the decisions they made was to dismantle the grand old stage you see in all those old D.C. hardcore photos. At this point we all assumed punk history at the Wilson Center had ended.

As it happens, that wasn’t the case. By then, Fugazi had gone from a band that would draw maybe 300 people to a band that drew thousands. Any other band would have left behind this hole in the wall, but that’s not how Fugazi approached things. So they wanted to go back to the Wilson Center to do a lightly publicized 10th anniversary show. So I returned to talk to the staff, and they agreed to it pretty quickly. Fortunately we had a portable stage that we brought in. The show went well, and that could have been the end of things.

Then there was a shift in control of the Wilson Center to the Centro de Arte, run by Lilo Gonzalez. Lilo made it a crucial gathering point for the Latino community and particularly the nueva canción movement. He was someone who had a great deal of shared spirit with Positive Force. So we started to collaborate with him in 1998.

At the same time, there was a new generation of bands rising. A lot of the first bands to play there, early D.C. hardcore or Revolution Summer era, either weren’t around anymore or preferred to play clubs. At that point, Ryan and Wade Fletcher, the guys who ran the Brian Mackenzie Infoshop—named after someone who had a seizure and died at a Wilson Center show—became the main folks putting on shows at the Wilson Center. These were bands like Q and Not U, Kill the Man Who Questions, Strike Anywhere, Los Crudos, Make-Up, Most Secret Method, Bratmobile, The Suspects, The Goons, Crispus Attucks

Then something very significant happened in 1999: the new Columbia Heights Metro station opened. With all the high density development that was projected, property values were rising rapidly and so were rents, and it became clear that it was going to end.  Centro de Arte tried to preserve it as a community space but it didn’t work. Eventually it became the Capital City Public Charter School. It hasn’t turned into a Starbucks or whatever the old D.C. Space became, or the old Positive Force house in Arlington that was turned into a McMansion. So in comparison, the transformation of the Wilson Center into a school is not that tragic. But by 2001, it appeared to be over.

Then in 2007, we were planning a benefit for Neighbor’s Consejo with The Evens at St. Stephens, but they were having a big Thanksgiving basket assembly at the time. So Ian MacKaye happened to walk by the old Wilson Center and looked in the window, and saw that they had preserved the space as a multipurpose room with a stage. So he said to me, “Wouldn’t hurt to call!” So I contacted the principal of CCPCH. To our amazement, they were open to it, and with one week's notice, The Evens played.

So you can say the Wilson Center has functioned as a DIY space for 30 years. Will it be a place where shows are put on regularly? I doubt it, because it’s an elementary school now, so it isn’t as available. Plus Positive Force is based at St. Stephen’s church now, we have a wonderful relationship there, and we want to build that as our home base. On the other hand, you never know. Positive Force is closely allied with We Are Family, and we’re building a relationship with students and staff at CCPCS for our outreach work with seniors.

One thing I want to make clear is that we’re not intending for this show to be creating too much nostalgia, or fetishizing the Wilson Center space. That space was extraordinarily important at different junctures, but it’s less about the space than the spirit, and that spirit can find a home pretty much everywhere.

WCP: Let’s talk about the relationship between DIY spaces and development. Obviously these spaces can’t exist where rent is too high. At the same time there’s a tendency of punks and bohemian types to act as pioneers, and bring in new businesses to an area once there’s a demonstrated market. Are these spaces victims of gentrification or harbingers of it?

MA: Well I think the responsibility is on those of us entering that community. If you’re here to be part of it, to mix with what was there before, I don’t see a problem with that, and think you’ll be welcome. If you come in with an agenda of what the community should be, you’ll approach it less as people and more as a problem. For example in Columbia Heights: Would I like to see the power of the drug economy ebb? See young people finding a sense of belonging outside the gang world? Of course I would. So I’m not foolish enough to think we can stop change, nor do I have the tunnel vision that everything should be preserved. The legacies of segregation, and the Central American wars are still very relevant here.

WCP: What’s the state of DIY spaces today?  Has the fate of the Wilson Center reflected the historical availability of those spaces?

MA: Clearly the context is dramatically different than it was in the '80s and '90s. The cost of living is dramatically higher here in Columbia Heights and Adams Morgan. These were places that were once more hospitable to a bohemian lifestyle.

Also history has moved on. There was a certain moment when an energy gathered around this particular cultural expression. Rock music has its own narrative arc in terms of what people believe it might mean. Do people believe that art can have transformative power? I know that it can—I’ve lived that. But it’s also true that certain art forms have their heyday and then…fade. I have no idea what’s ahead, which is why I talk about punk rather than punk rock. Because, for me, punk is a spirit, an attitude towards life that is relevant in many places. So it should not be tied to any particular form of popular music. That DIY spirit will continue to find its place, because it’s needed. And what form it might take, I don’t have any idea.

WCP: Will DIY spaces continue to thrive in the future?

MA: I think a certain part of the rock audience is less interested in DIY spaces now than in the late '80s, early '90s. Much of the punk or rock audience here is used to the club circuit now, and the intersection of alcohol and music. It’s more entertainment than revolution. And this is how it often goes. However, the fact that the DIY spirit persists and continues to be expressed in so many contexts is hopeful.

One of the big ideas early on was independence. You’re trying to create a liberated zone where you can express yourself, and envision a world you believe is better than the status quo. And you need a certain amount of freedom to make things happen. But that ethic can be taken too far. If you’re not careful, what it leads to is a little outpost in the subterranean nooks and crannies of society—which may be important to you personally and the other folks who share that space with you. But it can cut you off from the broader community, or from trying to genuinely transform society. For Positive Force, our important organizing principle is interdependence. Rather than “I need freedom,” “we need each other.”

A full day of programs on the Wilson Center's 30th anniversary takes place today; at 5 p.m., Ian MacKaye will speak on "The Importance of Community Hall Spaces," followed by performances by the Max Levine Ensemble, Birds and Wires, War on Women and Fell Types starting at 7 pm.  Show admission $5 – $10 sliding scale; food and clothing donations for charities We Are Family and Hermano Pedro encouraged.  At Capital City Public Charter School, 3047 15th St. NW.

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