Wednesday, April 24, 2013

What price urbanity?

Preston Lauterbach's 2011 book, The Chitlin' Circuit and the Road to Rock 'n' Roll (W.W. Norton) is an interesting history of the origins of rock, with an interesting argument: Rock originated in black communities across the South, in the music we used to call "rhythm and blues," and country-western had very little to do with it. The honor of being the first rock song, conventionally accorded to "Rock Around the Clock" by Bill Haley and the Comets, in his view should go to "Good Rockin' Tonight," recorded in 1949 by Roy Brown. I'm OK with that: "Good Rockin' Tonight" is a better song and, despite being recorded six years earlier, has a more contemporary sound than "Rock Around the Clock."

Most of the book is spent on the argument, and the personalities and lineages that moved black popular music from the 1920s to the 1950s. Quite clearly, though, rock's origins have to do with the places they inhabited: the vibrant, somewhat scary districts in many southern cities known as "Bronzevilles." Bronzevilles were cauldrons of innovation and entrepreneurship, partly because they put creative people in close proximity to one another while attracting others from outlying areas, and partly because rigid segregation of the races meant even the most talented blacks had no other place to go. By the 1970s, bronzevilles had fallen victim to both urban renewal (which "cleaned up" the ghettos by knocking them all down) and desegregation (which allowed those with talent and education to go elsewhere).

Lauterbach's descriptions show the positive and negative aspects of what the New Urbanists call "urbanity," which is what makes cities exciting places to be. The book needs a CD soundtrack to accompany it, but even without one you can imagine what a thrill it would have been to be there when B.B. King or James Brown or Johnny Ace made their debut. It would be cool to live within walking distance of such happening places. The New Bo area in Cedar Rapids is sort of happening, and even so is three miles away from my house.

Some of the descriptions, however, are positively harrowing. Sometimes the excitement must have been too much, and the resourcefulness that fueled the area's businesses worked around the law rather than with it. Lauterbach quotes Errol Grandy, a piano player in the Sunset Ballroom on Indiana Avenue in Indianapolis:

"Every time I was there I wished for a bulletproof vest," Avenue pianist Errol Grandy recalled. "I didn't have one, but I wished for one." A former [numbers racket] player and Sunset regular named Joe Hester concurred. "Everybody carried a gun in there," Hester said. "I had my little .32," he added, a revolver that fit just as neatly in the palm of the hand as into the inside pocket of a man's coat. Denver [Ferguson, owner]provided a security force, as Hester recalled. "Brawny motherfuckers, grab you by the shoulders and deposit you on the street, say, 'Get out!' (p. 61)

An extended description of the West Dallas Avenue strip by a reporter for the Houston Informer (pp. 96-97) is longer but well worth reading, the lyric of shocked innocence. "The loser goes to the hospital," he says describing a dice game gone horribly wrong, "The winner goes to jail. What a street!" Bandleader Walter Barnes, all of his band except one, and more than 200 others died in a fire at Indianapolis's rickety Rhythm Club (pp. 66-72). Singer Jimmy Liggins was shot on stage in Memphis (p. 194). Prostitution was rampant; violent deaths were common.

The story of the cities on the chitlin' circuit are instructive, though the institutionalized racism that bred them is I hope in our past. There's probably a porous boundary between excitement and danger, and at the same time another porous boundary between interesting urbanity and soulless schlock. Too much regulation, governmental or societal, kills innovation and makes for a dull, lifeless world. Too little regulation is scary, and justifiably so. I'd rather not be bored, but I'd rather be bored than knifed to death.

There's also something to be said for small, cautious steps in change. Urban renewal succeeded by destroying what it set out to save. From across five decades comes the prophetic voice of Jane Jacobs:

But look what we have built with the first several billions [of dollars of urban renewal spending]: Low-income projects that become worse centers of delinquency, vandalism and general social hopelessness than the slums they were supposed to replace. Middle-income housing projects which are truly marvels of dullness and regimentation, sealed against any buoyancy or vitality of city life. Luxury housing projects that mitigate their inanity, or try to, with a vapid vulgarity. Cultural centers that are unable to support a good bookstore. Civic centers that are avoided by everyone but bums, who have fewer choices of loitering place than others. Commercial centers that are lackluster imitations of standardized suburban chain-store shopping. Promenades that go from no place to nowhere and have no promenaders. Expressways that eviscerate great cities. This is not the rebuilding of cities. This is the sacking of cities. (Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities [New York: Random House, 1961), p. 4)

(Cabrini Green housing project, Chicago; swiped from

The smart people that pushed urban renewal and suburban sprawl don't look so smart today. The New Urbanism is timely, has chosen its enemies well, and at least from what I've read seems to have learned the lessons from prior design and policy failures.

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