Building Time

Gillet Rosenblith

Posted on 21 Oct 2015

This week I’ve been thinking about time and the built environment. (In fact, given last week’s post, I think I might be doing a three-week series on time and materiality of sorts, but don’t hold me accountable to this. We’ll see next week whether or not this turns out to be true.) Talking with Lydia and others about representing go-go got me thinking about how go-go is/was written into the buildings and built environment of U Street in DC. I find this particularly interesting in large part because I have called DC home for most of my life. I’m familiar with the history and presence of go-go and attuned to the rapid-fire pace of gentrification occurring presently. The historically Black U Street area–home to many a go-go show/club/etc.–has become one of the most expensive and trendiest places to see and be seen and is inhabited by an ever-growing number of white yuppie/hipsters. I should know as I–a white, not-quite yuppie/hipster–moved back to DC and lived not too far from U Street in the time between undergrad and grad school. Once a thriving Black commercial district, the area became infamous across the country when Black Americans took to the streets following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4th, 1968. Despite all that occurred, the neighborhood remained an important cultural space for Black Washingtonians, if less financially secure. When Lydia brought up go-go and asked us to consider how to represent this music and this moment in time ethically my mind immediately went to the spaces in which go-go was performed and experienced. So many of the clubs were shut down by authorities in DC because of the purported (and sometimes real) violence that occurred within them. But these shutdowns felt a lot more like concern over congregations of Black folk of various socioeconomic classes and the radical implications that might have for the city and beyond than concern over “violence.” Decades after go-go was kicked out of the city (very incompletely–it might be more accurate to say that go-go-supporting institutions were kicked out of the city), many Black people themselves were being kicked out of the city, through tax liens and rising property taxes and cost of living, etc., paving the way for gentrification. Now, the neighborhood contains an architectural/historical mixture of buildings, some of which date to the hey-day of U Street and others of which are very modern and expensive-looking, signs of the changing demographics of the neighborhood.

I’m interested in thinking about and documenting/representing go-go and the time (and by time I mean historical moment) of go-go by thinking about how the extant buildings continue to hold the memory and the beat of go-go, versus how the destruction of buildings and clubs for commercial gain threaten to erase the presence of go-go from within the neighborhood. Is there a way to represent go-go through the materiality of the buildings? Through the changing infrastructure of the neighborhood? Are the sounds of go-go embedded in the walls? If so, can we represent their embeddedness and see whether the sounds and the presence of go-go increase or decrease in volume over time? What about the effects of people dancing on buildings? Or the work people did within the buildings to set up and take down shows? At Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello those who look closely can see the fingerprints of enslaved people who built his home embedded in some of the bricks. Essentially, I want to think about how we could find similar “fingerprints” and represent the presence of go-go music and go-go musicians, dancers, etc. within and through the built environment. In trying to represent go-go, can we then better understand how the time within the go-go rhythm influenced and shaped and was shaped by the historical times in which it was played and the historical trajectory of the U Street neighborhood?

So. That feels long-winded and all over the place. But as we consider to think about time and go-go, I want us to stay attentive to the way that the passage of time is written across space and through the built environment as well as to the ways that particular moments in time, or times, are held within and shape the spaces with which we interact. Hope that makes some sort of sense.

P.S. Here are some cool pictures of DC in the 1980s and 1990s by Michael Horsley