A Short History of Punk Rock (with notes on Blues and Americana)



*** I have been reading in punk rock and music history for some time, for leisure, and I had the opportunity to draft a National Endowment for the Humanities grant for my friend Kerry Gallagher Semrad in Fall 2016. I re-purposed it a bit to feature it below.***

The subcultures of music in the United States in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries offer the means of circulation and communication that bind communities of listeners together that can be tens, hundreds, and even thousands of miles away. Musical subcultures embrace and reflect existing, individual notions of contemporary politics, social relations, and racial and ethnic identities that bridge the gap between local and international music communities. Music subcultures also gather individuals into political and cultural collectivities that transcend geography.[i] Music and its subcultures have been the basis for a number of social and cultural movements in the United States over the course of the twentieth century until today, exerting a powerful influence over regions and localities, thus the phrase “all politics are local.”[ii] So is all local music as well. During the 1970s and 1980s in urban areas, small cities, and small towns, underground music like glam rock, glitter rock, punk rock, and Americana music flourished against the tidal waves of major label music that shaped and controlled the domestic market for music at venues and on the airwaves. And in observing the actual foundation and constitution of the broad term “music industry,” it’s quite clear that the 100,000s of small, original bands keep the domestic music industry financially afloat from venues, to record stores, and music equipment stores that sell a variety of musical equipment, subsidizing instrument manufacturers profits and keeping them in business.[iii]

Traditional American music and independent underground music have been the most highly-exploited genres of music in American history with respect to the origins of the commercial music publishing industry. Even though traditional American music has historically had more coverage than the punk/experimental underground, its early progenitors’ history is a product of the recent past by music historians.[iv] Early rhythm and blues and other folk music artists during the 1920s through the 1950s often gave away the rights to their music to either folklorists, ethnographers, or the hundreds of small and regional record companies that existed throughout the Northeast, mid-Atlantic, South, American Southwest, and California. It was a rare occasion when these artists could draw a living from the sales of their recordings and live performances, much of it going into the pocket of their producers, sponsors, or record labels. And this commercial exploitation continued into the 1960s and 1970s for soul, R & B, funk, folk, country, and other traditional American musical artists. This is one of the reasons that in the last ten to twenty years, many of the oldest living blues artists, for example, continue to tour well into their late 70s and early 80s; they had never originally profited equitably from their original recordings, with only the club circuit and its brutally late hours (at their age) to provide them with a living from live performances. Long ago, Richard Wright noted the way the infamous bluesman Lead Belly had been taken advantage of in this system, when he termed it “one of the most amazing swindles in Amazing history.”[v] During the 1970s and 1980s there was was a reliable itinerary of great rhythm and blues, bluegrass, country, and folk recording artists from Chicago, Kansas City, Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Dallas/Ft. Worth, St. Louis, and other Midwestern and Great Plains cities with vibrant scenes because of music markets located on Highway 77, Highway 34, and then I-70 and I-80 as a destination stop between Chicago, Denver, and the West Coast. It was nothing less than a political economy of the traditional American music touring scene during that era, which was reliable and robust for these traditional American recording artists who were engaged in economically recouping past treatment by record labels on this migratory club circuit.

The origins of commercially-unviable rock and roll in the United States during the late 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s is comparable to the exploitation and difficulty experienced by recording artists in the traditional American music scene. In this decidedly Transatlantic phenomenon, glam and glitter rock, often termed proto-punk rock, evolved into an entirely new musical idiom in terms of composition, aesthetics, tempo, and sound, even dress and costuming. These new genres arose from the basic premise that in the lower echelons of the rock and roll scene, no small venue or small club in any locality in England, France, Canada, and the United States would book a band that played a full set solely composed of their original musical compositions.[vi] The “commercial record label system” controlled the industry from the airwaves and stadiums, to the mid-sized performance venues and small clubs. Small clubs across the Atlantic World booked only commercial bands (who played original music on commercial record labels) or cover bands. Bands that played their own original music who were not part of the commercial record label system or were an unsigned band had to seek other avenues for performing their music.

In the creative search for music venues, which were usually illegally-zoned storefronts like The Masque in Los Angeles, basement venues in houses like the first Runaways show in L.A., art galleries like the Hard Art Gallery in Washington DC where the Bad Brains began, housing project courtyards (again, the Bad Brains), and union halls like Fairmont Hall in San Diego, the music itself evolved into a sort of “anti-commercial rock” aesthetic with a sound that deconstructed if not overtly and hostilely attacked commercial rock and roll music. It was also a reaction to the political and cultural inertness of 1960s rock and roll and its perceived lame and suburban underpinnings during a time of massive social upheaval. In the 1970s, the LA “Laurel Canyon scene” was a continuation of the politically-inert, easy-listening soft rock of the 1960s.[vii] During the 1970s and 1980s, glam, glitter, punk, hardcore, and post-punk music signaled a unique sound of the post-industrial, post-Fordist Era.[viii] With historic urban economic restructuring, two major recessions in 1973 and 1979, working class militancy, high unemployment particularly for young adults, and Vietnam war demobilization, young people in the Transatlantic World developed their own youth subcultures to find larger meaning in a future of diminished expectations, increased bureaucratization, consumerism, and alienation. In many ways, this youth cohort created a parallel, non-commodified youth culture that signaled this age cohort’s “great refusal,” differing dramatically from the Baby Boom generation’s media-saturated cultural rebellion during the 1960s and early 1970s.[ix]

In the United States, the basis of the future American and English punk rock scenes began in Detroit in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with powerful and anarchic rock and roll bands like The MC5, The Stooges, Sonic’s Rendezvous Band, Death, and Destroy All Monsters among others. The Detroit proto-punk sound played a critical role in the Transatlantic hard, rock and roll subculture because The MC5 and The Stooges attracted major label interest and released their albums in the commercial music industry, even if they were at the lowest echelon of the commercial record label system, slogging through the club circuit with few large concert performances. Both bands were commercial failures for their record companies and proved resistant to the middlebrow image-making of the commercial record label system. They engaged in rude and wild stage performances; had a dangerous sound that eschewed virtuosity; and embraced a decidedly nihilistic and radical political message aimed at the emergent neoliberal order. However, both bands emerged as legendary inspiration through the commercial distribution and tour support they received, and spread their proto-punk rock sound around the globe in record stores, the music press, word-of-mouth grassroots mythology, and live performances.[x] Both of these bands played the East and West Coasts in the U.S. and also England. Every significant, future punk and hardcore band in the Transatlantic World drew their influences from the MC5, The Stooges, or both. Even more, Iggy Pop from The Stooges peripatetic life on the East Coast, West Coast, and Europe drew in young musicians and music fans who worshipped his nihilistic attitude and punk rock swagger. They became young acolytes of punk rock after meeting this legend.[xi]

Hard rock and roll and punk bands influenced by the Detroit sound were The New York Dolls, The Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, The Voidoids, and others from New York City; The Dead Boys and Rocket from the Tombs from Cleveland; The Runaways, The Cramps, The Germs, X, The Weirdos, Black Flag and others from Los Angeles; The Zeroes from San Diego; The Dead Kennedys, The Avengers, and others from San Francisco; the Bad Brains, Black Market Baby, The Slickee Boys and others in Washington DC; and The Damned, The Sex Pistols, The Clash, Generation X, The Buzzcocks and others in England. How this happened without the support of the commercial record label system, corporate music industry supply chains, commercial radio programming, and first-tier music magazine journalism exposure is yet one of the great, barely written about phenomena in the history of music and also for this youth cohort.[xii]

There have been critics of punk rock, hardcore, and post-punk from the standpoint of race, class, and ethnicity, however, we must not forget there was no underground or parallel rock and roll scene in the Transatlantic World before this time. The kids and young adults, together, created it all by themselves.[xiii] All throughout the Transatlantic World, youth music subculture, independent punk record and clothing stores, new punk venues, independent record labels, and fanzines arose as modes of dissemination and communication for the punk rock and underground subculture outside of the dominant control of the commercial record label system and its industry and distribution supply chains.[xiv] An apt explanation for this subcultural movement in youth music has been offered by political philosophers Agnes Heller and Ferenc Feher during the 1970s and 1980s when they noted, “Modern cultural movements appeared in waves, and this happened for the simple reason that each new generation had to ‘come of age’ in the sense of creating a new ‘imaginary institution’ before it could take over the torch from the former generation.”[xv] Young punk rockers in the United States and Europe (particularly England) engaged in modes of cooperation, communication, and praxis in a “do-it-yourself” music culture completely outside the dominant modes of communication, distribution, venues, and control of the commercial record label system to create a non-commodified form of hard and fast rock and roll that challenged the aesthetics and system of corporatized music. The simultaneous and parallel phenomena to the dominant music industry emerged as a global “magmatic social imaginary signification” of the punk subculture that brought the yearnings of thought, and that thought put into praxis, in the service of creating an independent social geography for this new form of music.[xvi] Punk rockers formed bands because they were alienated by the arena rock of the commercial record label system, pre-packaged music consumerism, and its emphasis on virtuosity and celebrity. They created or found alternative venues where they could play their music because they were blacklisted or exiled from the club circuit. They paid to record and press their vinyl records and sold them in alternative and non-corporate retail outlets, by mail order, or at their own shows. And this youth cohort formed their own alternative, music journalism in the form of handmade fanzines to disseminate their scenes to other like-minded youth and young adults

Music journalists and historians since the 1980s have written hundreds of books about the largest and most popular performing artists in the traditional American music, punk rock, and indie underground music scene. And much is known about acts like Lead Belly, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Diana Ross, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin among other commercial hit makers. However, much less is known about the talented performing artists that were influences upon the most commercially-viable musicians and bands as they were coming up through local music scenes in their pre-stardom days.[xvii] In this regard, focusing upon local music scenes and the contemporaries of eventual “star” underground bands also highlights the politics of public memory in American music history.[xviii]

There has been much good work recently, often self-published, about local music scenes. Some may think it falls under the rubric of “nostalgia,” but longtime local scenesters appear to be motivated in capturing particular moments of vibrant local scenes that eventually launched successful performing artists and bands. The local memory presented within these books reveal cross-sectional layers of local music talent. Many of the commercially-published books about traditional American music, and the punk rock and indie underground favor the most commercially-viable bands and performing artists (because they are commercial brands), to the detriment of the local memory that still resides in the oral traditions and memories of local music scenesters. The rise and popularity of the Seattle band Nirvana is a case in point for the punk and indie music scene. Beginning in the mid-1990s to the present day, music journalists and others have written dozens of books on the band, and about its lead singer, Kurt Cobain. Their album Nevermind was released by DGC Records in 1991, and in subsequent retellings of the band’s origins, the year zero for punk rock and its variants (“grunge” for Nirvana) became 1991.[xix]

Recent books and documentary films of local underground music scenes are beginning to move the corporate “year zero” back where it rightly belongs in the late 1960s in Detroit and its hard, proto-punk rock and roll.[xx] The history of the rise of hard rock and roll is only about 50 years old, and until recently, music critics were beginning about half way through the genre’s life course. Much the same could be said about works on Bob Dylan or The Beatles or The Rolling Stones or The Doors. In traditional American music, the history of its influences date to the 1920s and 1930s with the ethnographic recordings and popular books of John and Alan Lomax and others, and the first traditional American music records by purveyors of the genre like Moses Asch (Folkways Records, now at the Smithsonian Institution).[xxi] The majority of books, film documentaries, and radio programming on pop music, traditional American music, and the punk rock and indie underground serve as mnemonic erasures of fuller, dynamic, and vibrant local music scenes, where the popular memory of music scenes is submerged under the corporately-controlled public memory within all genres of music and book publishing about music in the United States. The fuller account of the rise of the American music underground is still relatively young, and recent books and documentaries will continue to restore those scenes, with their thousands of participants, back to the historical record and public memory.


[i] George Lipstiz, Dangerous Crossroads: Popular Music, Postmodernism, and the Poetics of Place (London: Verso Books, 1994); Josh Kun, Audiotopia: Music, Race, and America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005);  See also Lipsitz, Time Passages: Collective Memory and Popular Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990); for the new basis of political economy that underscored the rise of popular music in the post-WW2 period, see Ernest Mandel, Late Capitalism, trans. by Joris de Bres (London: Verso Books, 1999), 474-561.

[ii] Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (London: Verso Books, 1996); John Szwed, Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World (New York: Viking, 2010); Suzanne Smith, Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999).

[iii] On the connection between cultural movements and politics after 1970, see Agnes Heller and Ferenc Feher, The Postmodern Political Condition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 132-145.

[iv] See Szwed, Alan Lomax; George Lipsitz, Footsteps in the Dark: The Hidden Histories of Popular Music (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007). Lipsitz notes how the mass media in documentary and music journalism often obscures the social movement political basis of ethnic music subcultures like jazz, rap, or the hard techno underground in Black metropolises like Detroit, and also the musical nationalisms of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and ethnic Mexicans on the East and West Coast.

[v] Wright quoted in Szwed, 72.

[vi]  See John Savage, England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992); Legs McNeil, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk (New York: Grove Press, 1996);   Dewar Macleod, Kids of the Black Hole: Punk Rock in Postsuburban California (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010); Cynthia Connelly, Sharon Cheslow, and Leslie Clague, ed., Banned in DC: Photos and Anecdotes from the DC Punk Underground, 1979-1985 (Sun Dog Propaganda, 1988); Mark Andersen and Mark Jenkins, Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation’s Capital (New York: Akashic Books, 2003); Lucien Perkins, Alec MacKaye, and Henry Rollins, Hard Art: DC 1979 (New York: Akashic Books, 2013); Mark Spitz and Brendan Mullen, We’ve Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of LA Punk (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2001); Brendan Mullen, Don Bolles, and Adam Parfrey, Lexicon Devil: The Fast Times and Short Life of Darby Crash of the Germs (Los Angeles: Feral House Press, 2002); Steven Blush, American Hardcore: A Tribal History, 2nd ed., (Port Townsend: Feral House Press, 2010); Scott Crawford, Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington DC, 1980-1990 (New Rose Films, 2015); Danny Garcia, Searching for Johnny: The Legend of Johnny Thunders (Chip Baker Films, 2014); Wes Orshoski, The Damned: Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead (Three Count Films, 2016); Mojo Magazine, Punk: The Whole Story (London: DK Books, 2006).

[vii] Macleod, Kids of the Black Hole; Keith Morris, My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor (New York: Da Capo Press, 2016); On the Circle Jerks Group Sex album (Frontier Records, 1980), Keith Morris sang on the song, “Beverly Hills,” “Beverly Hills, Century City, everything’s so nice and pretty, all the people look the same, don’t they know they’re so damn lame, three-piece suits, spandex pants, cowboy boots….” This summed up much of punk’s revolt against the legacy of the 60s, and the cultural scene of the 1970s.

[viii] Mike Davis, Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics and Economy in the History of the US Working Class (London: Verso Books, 1986); Thomas Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996); David Farber and Beth Bailey, ed., America in the Seventies (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004); David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernism: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 1991); Manuel Castells, The City and the Grassroots: A Cross-Cultural Theory of Urban Social Movements (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985); Frederic Jameson, “Postmodernism, Or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” New Left Review 146 (July-August 1984); Deyan Sudjic, 100 Mile City (London: Harvest Books, 1992); ; Macleod, Kids of the Black Hole; Spencer Olin and Robert Kling, ed., Postsuburban California: The Transformation of Orange County since World War II (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995); Edward Soja, Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory (London: Verso Books, 1989).

[ix] See Thomas Frank, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998); Macleod, Kids of the Black Hole; Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. by Donald Nicholson Smith (New York: Zone Books, 1995); Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011). When glam, punk, hardcore, or post-punk music did receive major and first-tier media coverage, it was usually sensationalist, negative, or cautionary. Every punk rocker remembers the alarmist Quincy episode.

[x] Brent Callwood, The Stooges: Head On, A Journey through the Michigan Underground (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2011); Brent Callwood, MC5: Sonically Speaking, A Revolution of Rock ‘n ‘Roll (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2010); Mark Covino and Jeff Howlett, A Band Called Death (Drafthouse Films, 2013).

[xi] Macleod, Kids of the Black Hole; Mullen, et. al., Lexicon Devil; Spitz and Mullen, We’ve Got the Neutron Bomb;  Savage, England’s Dreaming. The critical mass of scene histories notes how Iggy Pop was also the main conduit for the spread of the use of heroin in the glitter and punk scenes of Los Angeles, New York (via CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City), and London (via Johnny Thunders), and New York; The great irony here, of course, is the recent nomination of The MC5 and the Bad Brains to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, bands that continually fought and struggled with their record labels, who now profit from the renewed interest in these bands; When one reads most of the books about the rise of punk rock in Los Angeles, the underlying narrative is quite clear: ex-hippies turned hipsters taking advantage of teenage and young adult punk musicians and their bands through band management, indie record labels, and club bookings. The exception to the LA scene was Lisa Fancher’s Frontier Records, which still is a fair custodian of its back catalog for the bands that have published music with the label. In Washington DC, Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson’s Dischord Records serves similarly as the custodian of the label’s recording artists, and has engaged in a massive remastering initiative of its entire back catalog.

[xii] The relative lack of scholarly works on the origins of glam (glitter in LA), punk, and hardcore music, from an ethnographic or ethnohistorical point of view can be seen as similar to the questions raised by Eric Wolf and Marshall Sahlins in their pioneering works on indigenous peoples around the globe. See Eric Wolf, Europe and the People Without History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982); Marshall Sahlins, How“Natives” Think: About Captain Cook, For Example (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).

[xiii] Many music critics note that Malcolm McClaren, Kim Fowley, and Rodney Bingenheimer and others were from the upper or upper middle classes. However influential they thought they were in their small punk empires, there were thousands of bands that formed without backers or rich sponsors. The “posh” argument minimizes the real activity of thousands of punk rockers in the underground scene. In Washington DC, Ian MacKaye and Henry Rollins worked at a Hagen Daz ice cream store in Georgetown and the local movie theater to save money to put out records and pursue music. See Crawford, Salad Days. This could be the “two jobs” trope often found in Southern Plains country music lyrics.

[xiv] David Park, Conglomerate Rock: The Music Industry’s Quest to Divide Music and Conquer Wallets (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007). Park notes that in 2005, all independent record labels had only 28% of domestic market share in sales annually; Universal Music Group held 26% DMSA; Sony BMG 22% DMSA; EMI 13% DMSA; and Warner 11% DMSA. The DMSA for all independents has stayed consistent since 2005 to 34.4% DMSA in 2015. A few of the significant new fanzines were Slash (Los Angeles); Flipside Magazine (Los Angeles); Maximum Rock and Roll (Berkeley, CA), and The Big Takeover Magazine (New York City); New York University has a new, punk rock and underground fanzine collection that researchers can utilize to understand the modes of music journalism at the local level from the 1970s to the present. The writer of this narrative has donated a substantial portion of his fanzine collection to the NYU library archives.

[xv] Heller and Feher, The Postmodern Political Condition, 136.

[xvi] Cornelius Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society, trans. by Kathleen Blamey (1974; Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987), 340-373. Castoriadis explains “To say that social imaginary significations are instituted, or to say that the institution of society is the institution of a world of social imaginary significations, also means that these significations are presentified and figured in and through the actuality of the individuals, acts, and objects that they ‘inform.’ The institution of society is what it is to the extent that it ‘materializes’ a magma of the social imaginary significations, in reference to which individuals and objects alone can be grasped and even simply exist. Nor can this magma be spoken of in isolation from the individuals and the objects that it brings into being. What we have here are not significations that would be ‘freely detachable’ from any material support, purely ideal poles; rather, it is in and through the being and the being-thus of this ‘support’ that these significations exist and are such as they are,” 356. Heller and Feher’s formulation is drawn from their participation in the discourse on autonomy with Castoriadis, Juergen Habermas, Richard Rorty, Charles Taylor and others during the late 1970s and 1980s. See also Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. by Donald Nicholson Smith (1974; London: Wiley-Blackwell, 1992).

[xvii] The writer of this narrative took his first guitar lessons from his high school band teacher in Coronado, CA, Bob Demmon. Demmon was the leader of the Boulder, CO surf-rock band The Astronauts. During the heyday of their popularity on tour in the early 1960s, the opening band on their first tours was The Beach Boys, who went on to great fame in the music industry.

[xviii] The historical, philosophical, and sociological literature on memory is vast. See Maurice Halbwachs, On Collective Memory, trans. and ed. by Lewis Coser (1941; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992); Kerwin Klein, “On the Emergence of Memory in Historical Discourse.” Representations, 69, 4 (Winter 2000); Wulf Kansteiner, “Finding Meaning in Memory: A Methodological Critique of Collective Memory Studies.” History and Theory, 41, no. 2 (May 2002); Norman Klein, The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory (London: Verso Books, 1997);  Warren Susman, Culture as History: The Transformation of American Society in the Twentieth Century (New York: Pantheon, 1984); Michael Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (New York: Vintage, 1991); David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001); Henri Lefebvre, Introduction to Modernity: Twelve Preludes, September 1959 – May 1961, trans. by John Moore (1962; London: Verso, 1995); Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (1983; London: Verso, 1991); see this writer’s book, Matthew F. Bokovoy, The San Diego World’s Fairs and Southwestern Memory, 1880-1940 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005).

[xix] Macleod brings up this point in Kids of the Black Hole, which is testament to his training at The New School for Social Research and CUNY Graduate Center, and his courses with the remarkable Eric Hobsbawm.

[xx] See Jim Jarmusch’s new documentary on The Stooges, Gimme Danger (Low Mind Films, 2016); see also the unreleased documentary on The MC5 by David Thomas, MC5: A True Testimonial (2004) that frequently gets posted on YouTube for a few weeks before it is taken off the web (due to litigation from Wayne Kramer with the film’s producers and director).

[xxi] Conversation with Michael Asch, August 12, 2012: Victoria BC, Canada. Michael Asch is Moses Asch’s son and professor of anthropology at University of Victoria.

Ghosts of the San Diego Rialto



This was first published in Jim Miller and Kelly Mayhew, ed., Sunshine/Noir: Writing from San Diego and Tijuana (San Diego City Works Press, 2005). Other contributors were Mike Davis, Roberta Alexander, Marilyn Chin, and Mark Dery.

Downtown San Diego today has become the faux historical stage set for the city’s nouveau-riche and young members of Idiot Nation. Every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night, crowds of college students, underage revelers, urbane wannabes and White suburban gangsters cruise the streets of lower Broadway. They make their way west of 7th Street down south into the Gaslamp Quarter, the city’s answer to New Orleans’ Bourbon Street. Do not get me wrong, the crowds that frequent San Diego’s downtown share enthusiasm for an exciting evening on the town after a week committed entirely to work. However, one has to wonder if all the slickness, bright lights, and consumer dreariness of the bars and clubs will wear off one day. Unlike the street-level gravity that absorbs tourists who view the historic structures of New Orleans once they leave Bourbon Street, the Broadway Street and Gaslamp Quarter historic districts serve as mere decoration for the distraction offered by chain retailers, gawdy bistros, frat bars and sorority sister clubs, and MTV-like street life. For locals and tourists alike, there is simply little of historic interest beyond the consumer pageant that is now downtown San Diego.

With a mood reminiscent of a perpetual spring break, the new San Diego signals the revitalization of downtown after 50 years of unlimited suburban land development. With the completion of Petco Park, John Moore’s $453.4 million extortion scheme to deliver a spanking, new downtown baseball stadium to his Padres, hefty returns roll-in as the dreams of former mayor Pete Wilson and San Diego’s downtown, old money are realized. The coffers of the bars and clubs, restaurants, real estate developers, and city tax-base flourish as well. With the backdrop of history only 80 to 100 years old, Broadway and the Gaslamp district are commuter fun zones for the newly entitled: relatively empty and business-like during the day; choked full at happy hour and beyond to last call.

Will it last? Perhaps, but maybe the restaurant and entertainment zones of Hillcrest, Middletown, North Park, or Mission Hills will lure the revelers away. With more attention to history that is actually local, these areas will seal the fate of Broadway and the Gaslamp district in the near future. Downtown San Diego’s revitalization differs little from other efforts across the country: it is the site for global consumer and real estate capitalism. Over the years that I lived in San Diego (1976-1999), I’ve seen the center city transformed from a ghost town for homeless Vietnam veterans, the mentally-ill (50% of vets), and the working poor to a shining exemplar of urban gentrification. The old “sailor town” I knew as a teenager lives only in memory. Downtown had its theaters, libraries, art galleries, and symphony hall that shared an urban environment rife with funky street life, SRO hotels, check-cashing places, modest department stores, go-go bars, book stores, cafeterias, liquor stores, massage parlors, and porn movie houses. San Diego used to be a real city. The heart of this glorious San Diego Rialto used to be Horton Plaza until the suburban-type mall at that site was completed in 1987, defended and turned inward from the fabric of the city. In only twenty years, downtown has become an “upscale” leisure zone of luxury apartment blocks with little housing for the working poor.

San Diego joins other cities in urban gentrification to erase the diverse social networks of urban living, such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Albuquerque, San Antonio, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. Gentrification is the velvet glove of class warfare. Public policy formulated to redeem downtown San Diego has not been able to integrate the older constituents who depend upon center city with new economic and cultural enterprises. Should not this redevelopment benefit the broader public that calls downtown its home, since municipal bonds, public tax subsidies, and public policy shapes the new urban environment? With development in eastern San Diego County at capacity, downtown real estate becomes valuable once again. With real estate interests historically serving as the private government of the city, the public interest has been subsumed to private profit.

The diverse social networks of downtown San Diego are the casualty of progress, like every major American metropolis today. Through the efforts of the Centre City Development Corporation (CCDC), charged with public/private urban redevelopment since 1975, much of sailor town and its citizens have been cleansed through the exerted pressure of the private sector. By the 1980s and 1990s, the variety of businesses and people who had fully sustained downtown San Diego since 1900 were defined as “criminal” and a “nuisance” during the latest land grab. Similar to so many other American cities, the homeless, the working poor, and the Rialto economy held downtown San Diego “hostage.” It is without question that this older sailor town economy had at least anchored the tax-base of center city during its most trying times from the 1950s to the 1980s. All American cities depended upon the economy of the marginal during this era as federal housing policies pushed new development to cheaper suburban lands after WW2. However, San Diego’s new cheerleaders of progress, with their pet city councils, will never acknowledge the favor. Once the critical lifeblood of a vital, although poor, downtown, the current urban renaissance has been built upon the ashes of SRO hotels, homeless shelters, and working class economic and entertainment institutions. Perhaps it is built upon more. Recent investigations show that the city’s pension fund suffers a $1.15 billion deficit with possible accounting fraud. The city manager and council are under SEC and grand jury investigation. As of this writing, no city official can explain where all the money went. Of course, we can guess by all the recent downtown development. If historic preservation has been the organizing principle for downtown revitalization, private interests have piggy-backed on the city’s history to great profit to erase the vital social networks of San Diego.

Until the late twentieth century, the history of San Diego town development always catered to a variety of social classes, and people of vastly different cultural heritage and racial ancestry. Indeed, one might say that the founding of San Diego in 1769, like Los Angeles to the north, was christened with the mixed racial origins that are the hallmark of cultural fusion in the southwestern borderlands. San Diego has never had the equivalent of Carey McWilliams to document it diverse origins. But Harry Crosby reveals that the Serra Expedition of 1769 brought españoles, mestizos, color quebrados, mulatos, and indios to the frontier of northern New Spain to settle Alta California.* In the first fifty-two years of the new settlement, the mission, presidio, and pueblo community emerged as a racially-mixed society engaged in agriculture, cattle raising, and illicit trade with British, American, and French merchant vessels. During the Mexican era after 1822, Old Town San Diego became the center of commerce, politics, and trade, but remained a territorial outpost of southern North America. As the pueblo attended to its daily activities around the plaza, there were Indians, Mexicans, and Anglos engaged in a profitable hide and tallow trade with New England merchants. Richard Henry Dana and other Euro-American travelers in the early nineteenth century noted significant populations of Hawaiians (known as Kanakas), desiccated Anglo adventurers, and Christian and gentile Indians who worked on the ranches, ships, and wharfs engaged in trans-Pacific and Atlantic trade. With powerful creole sons and their wards closely bound together, town development relied, historically, on social networks of great diversity.

After the Mexican-American War, William Heath Davis, a hide and tallow merchant, and rancher Miguel Pedrorena developed a “new town” San Diego several miles south of the pueblo on San Diego Bay, believing the town would be a terminus for Southern cotton shipping. It failed with the Lost Cause. In 1867, Alonzo Horton, a wealthy San Francisco furniture merchant, bought Davis’ failed town site and the coastal plain south of Old Town, known as Horton’s Addition. He built a pier and warehouses that lined Fifth Street south to the bay and a luxury hotel at Third and D Streets (renamed Broadway in 1910). Again, San Diegans were promised a direct railroad link from the East, but the spasmodic economy of the post-bellum period halted these plans, it seemed, indefinitely. The boom of the 1880s rekindled hope for a railroad and civic greatness, but the land boom turned to bust with spurious fortunes lost. Nonetheless, New Town resembled the frontier outpost of westward expansion. It was a get-rich-quick environment. Chinese fishermen had left railroad work and the mines of the Sierra to dominate the local fishing industry and settled in an area known as “Stingaree Town,” the city vice district.

On the southwest corner of Fifth and K Streets stood the First and Last Chance Saloon, the starting point of the Stingaree district which extended westward to First Street and northward from K Street to Market. This lively area was filled with middle class fortune seekers and courthouse politicians, but also husksters and confidence men, painted ladies, retired gunfighters, scallywags and wharf ruffians, saloon kings and queens, and an ever-ready vigilante squad of rural Whites available to San Diego’s leading citizens. They caroused saloons and gambling parlors like the Railroad Coffeehouse and Wyatt Earp’s three gaming joints. The population dropped from a high of 40,000 to 16,000 people by 1890. Portuguese fishermen had arrived in Loma Portal and southern blacks found their way to the Stingaree’s outer reaches at Imperial Avenue in search of freedom. At the turn-of-the-twentieth century, San Diego maintained first-rate establishments, commercial districts, and buildings grouped around the area of Fifth and G Streets, but working class neighborhoods ringed the downtown with an economy of labor power, entertainment, and vice.

The first two decades of the twentieth century saw significant growth in San Diego County, with the downtown moving northward to the intersection of Fifth and Broadway Streets. San Diego held 39,578 people by 1910. The central business district became somewhat respectable with George Marston’s department store, real estate offices, particularly that of Ed Fletcher, and the completion of the luxurious U.S. Grant Hotel in 1910 on Horton Plaza. The Civic Improvement Committee, led by George Marston, hired urban planner John Nolen in 1907 to redesign commercial San Diego into an exemplar of Spanish colonial beauty. With Progressivism flourishing locally, city leaders announced in 1909 their intent to hold the Panama Exposition within Balboa Park. However, the Stingaree district had grown considerably. With business growth and anticipation of the world’s fair, the district attracted ever more numbers of the merchant marine, prostitutes, bunco men, hopheads, and the city demimonde to its vibrant establishments. The Stingaree sported parlors, opium dens, and saloons such as the Old Tub of Blood, Seven Buckets of Blood, the Green Light, the Bullpen, Yankee Doodle Hall, Pacific Squadron Hall, the Legal Tender Saloon, the Turf, and the high-class parlor house run by Mamie Goldstein. The wharf area at Fifth Street was a hangout for San Diego’s guano pirates, a rough lot who worked Baja’s islands on fertilizer ships often owned by esteemed San Diegans.

The Stingaree contained a majority of the radical movement in San Diego that led the infamous Free Speech Fight from 1909-1914, such as Wobblies, anarchists, socialists, and Marxists. The notorious soapbox orations of the local radical movement were located at Fifth and E Streets at Heller’s Corner. The Mexican Revolution spread to the border in January of 1911 when Ricardo Flores Magón and the Partido Liberal Mexicano (PLM), captured the border town of Mexicali, then took Tijuana. This alarming event created local anxiety until 1917, and led the San Diego City Council to ban street speaking in 49 square-blocks of downtown to silence radicalism. A local vigilance committee composed of leading citizens and their henchmen formed to battle labor militants in the Stingaree. They intimidated local social progressives and labor leaders with terroristic threats and physical harm.

The situation appeared threatening enough from 1914 to 1916 that William Tompkins, secretary of the Chamber of Commerce, asked Governor Hiram Johnson to mobilize the state militia, explaining that “here we are convinced that the situation is grave enough and respectfully urge that you take immediate and favorable action for our protection.” Edward Stahle, the new chamber secretary, pleaded with Johnson to protect lives and property in 1916 because of “the imperative necessity of guarding the Mexican border line from ocean to Imperial Valley – Mexicans becoming restless [and] are congregating and growing arrogant.” With an unlikely revolution at hand, the city council empowered Walter Bellon, the city health inspector, to raze the heart of the Stingaree through building and health surveys. To redeem the image of San Diego before millions of tourists traveled to the exposition, the City Health Department demolished 120 buildings and condemned 500 rooms in the Stingaree. Many lucrative and tax-generating businesses, though morally suspect, were forever destroyed. It did not stop working-class entertainments, prostitution, or vice, but merely moved it all “uptown,” or closer to the business district at Fifth and Broadway. Through fervent reform, San Diego Progressives laid the historical foundations for the city’s diverse social networks located along Broadway Street down south to the Gaslamp Quarter.

During the 1920s, San Diego grew significantly as a younger bumper crop of entrepreneurs and Midwestern retirees sought to live the Golden State lifestyle of health and repose. San Diego led the way in 1919 when the All-Year-Club of San Diego, founded by Oscar Cotton, sang the city’s song. And Broadway Street became the premier boulevard of the nouveau-riche. The new men of wealth, however, ceded the city to the Navy Department, remaking downtown San Diego into “sailor town.” But the money generated from the naval infrastructure brought John Nolen back to San Diego in 1925 to plan for downtown and general civic beautification. Writing from Nice, France in October of 1926, Nolen told Marston how southern France reminded him “again and again of Southern California, especially San Diego. That region is full of suggestion for the development of the waterfront, parks, boulevards, play space, public buildings.” From 1925 to 1937, Mayor John L. Bacon, the city council, and the park commission re-instituted piecemeal the 1908 Nolen Plan like the waterfront civic center, preservation of Presidio Hills Park, and a general plan to modernize Balboa Park. With prohibition keeping sailor town at bay until 1933, downtown remained in the hands of the nouveau-riche, with speakeasies, vaudeville theaters, and dance halls barely besmirched the area. But the inter-war years brought significant numbers of Italian and Mexican-Americans to San Diego to work in the local canning and fishing industries, and downtown catered to their daily needs.

Visiting chroniclers, however, painted San Diego as the backwater of the United States, where civilization dropped off the continent. Edmund Wilson, the besotted tastemaker of modern letters, brought his acerbic pen to bear on San Diego in 1932. West Coast cities lacked the emotions and moods necessary for great American cities. For Wilson, San Diego became “The Jumping-Off Place,” the literal dead-end of the American Dream. Walking the streets of downtown San Diego, he believed the city suffered from a cheap re-creation of high culture with its little business blocks, one-star hotels, and real estate offices. Wilson lamented the city had no cultural core, only enervated, status-conscious club women among dying retirees and pulmonary disease patients. With great glee, Wilson dubbed San Diego the “suicide capital” of the United States, where the little men and women “stuff up the cracks of their doors and quietly turn on the gas – drive their cars into dark alleys, get in the back seat and shoot themselves” among other ghastly deeds. Under their sunny dispositions, San Diegans were a morose lot. “Here our people, so long told to ‘go West’ to escape from ill-health and poverty, maladjustment and industrial oppression,” Wilson noted with sarcasm, “are discovering that, having gone West, their problems and diseases remain and that the ocean bars further flight.” Vividly painting the San Diego cultural landscape as pathological, Wilson believed San Diegans had “come to the end of their resources in the empty California sun.”

It was remarkable that a provisional bourgeois radical like Wilson missed the labor turmoil racking San Diego, especially from the local Communist Party, Trade Union Unity League, Unemployment Council, and Cannery Worker’s Union (UCAPAWA). After prohibition, downtown transformed into a hardcore sailor town. The WPA City Guide for San Diego noted that south of Broadway Street was “one of the play areas of the navy enlisted man,” a Trocadero of “hash houses and honky tonks, drinking parlors with jazz bands and tiny dance floors, trinket shops, shooting galleries, and the ever-present pawnshop.” These working class businesses revived the Stingaree district of the 1910s “to make ‘south of Broadway’ a distinct area.” With the coming of World War Two, the honky-tonk of downtown San Diego defined a city turned upside down by Southern Plains migration.

Wartime San Diego grew from 203,341 to 362,658 people from 1940 to 1944. The population explosion of war production created a pressure-cooker social environment in the city. Jim Thompson’s Now and On Earth, a wartime novel of socialist realism, captures the bleak landscape of downtown San Diego under racial violence, anti-communism, wartime housing shortages, and social dislocation. Now And On Earth is a story about a failed “hack writer” and aircraft industry clerk caught in a web of graft whose radical past puts him in double jeopardy. In the summer of 1940, Thompson and his family traveled from Pampa, Texas to San Diego in the Oklahoma Communist Party automobile, a gigantic four-door Plymouth donated by Woody Guthrie. Recently fired as director of the Oklahoma Federal Writer’s Project for his communist politics, he took a job at Ryan Aeronautical scrapping paint off the floor and moved to inventory clerk. He later worked as a timekeeper for Solar Aircraft. The Thompson’s lived in a small Spanish mission duplex in Middletown at 2130 2nd Avenue, a hilly neighborhood wedged between downtown San Diego and Balboa Park. It also had commanding views of San Diego Bay and the Pacific Ocean. Despite the natural beauty of the city, San Diego’s diversity and cultural fusion fascinated Thompson under the stress of wartime competition and scarcity.

Often prone to periodic drinking binges in the San Diego Rialto, Thompson described the alienation and the broken dreams of war workers found in places like Eddie’s Bar, the Bomber Café at 849 Broadway, and other downtown jazz clubs, dance halls, and juke joints. With the city filled with sailors at all hours, downtown was a 24/7 environment of cafes, restaurants, and entertainments. Many of the dance halls were fronts for prostitutes and drug dealers, who made their living from the meager wages of young servicemen. For Thompson, the difference between work in the war industry and the leisure found downtown had eroded, offering only new forms of degradation and exploitation. Portuguese and ethnic Mexicans stand as the only redeemable characters in the novel, generous and non-materialistic to a fault. In the end, Now And On Earth opposed the orthodoxies of Marxism to argue that ordinary people deserved social democracy in their own lifetime due to the human indignities caused by a country at war.

Downtown San Diego flourished as an economy for the marginal from 1945 to the 1980s, filled with locker clubs, burlesque theaters, beer bars, cocktail lounges, tattoo parlors, old men’s rooming houses, and pornography shops. The business district at Fifth and Broadway still existed, but shared downtown with the poor, addicted, and unemployed. After WW2, downtown’s underemployed Pacific veterans were often some of the first cases of methamphetamine addiction in the United States. Locker clubs, where enlisted men could change from uniforms to street clothes, could be found on West Broadway, like The Seven Seas, the Four-O, Salty’s, and the Harbor. With an array of entertainments, the locker clubs also took mail for sailors, cashed checks, and offered some social grounding when men came into port. With unlimited suburban land development, some of San Diego’s important businesses moved uptown. West Broadway went into economic decline when the Navy stopped docking ships at the Broadway pier in 1969. The area attracted low-income amusements, like the Green Goddess, Show Place Nudity Dance Hall, and a plethora of massage parlors for the enlisted man.

Working class and marginal institutions symbolized the economic decline of downtown by the 1970s as Vietnam War demobilization shocked the local economy. For mentally-ill or displaced veterans, the Rialto economy and SRO hotels offered a sense of community during an era of political skepticism and high unemployment. Neil Morgan, San Diego’s epic chronicler of social life, called the area “Back of Broadway.” With sensitive eyes, he believed that this Rialto economy, though not upscale nor respectable to some, had a rich history that connected San Diego’s past and present. He described SRO hotels like the Golden West, the Aztec Theater, downtown’s most popular burlesque club known as Bob Johnston’s Palace Buffet, and the cafeterias and other institutions that downtowners called home. Like the days of the Stingaree, these were important cash and tax-generating businesses for the city during times of municipal budget cuts. When downtown redevelopment began in 1981, the city condemned two businesses at 1111 East Broadway. They had anchored the boulevard since 1944: Bob Johnston’s The Sports Palace and the Hollywood Burlesque House. Now it is gone to clean-up Broadway for the Horton Plaza retail mall, with parking garages facing the fabric of the city.

Whenever I walk up and down Broadway Street today, from the ferry landing to Highway 5, much has changed from the sailor town of my childhood. During the 1980s and 1990s, high-rise construction reoriented Broadway Street towards business use once again. At the corner of Broadway and Kettner Streets sits the enormous Helmut Jahn building with a downtown trolley hub, right across the street from the Amtrack Station. Back in high school, the spot was a popular skateboarding spot because of the slick, marble sidewalk that lay in front of the beer and go-go bars there. It was also a part of West Broadway that maintained social networks of great diversity; you could sit there on a weekend night and see the spectrum of humanity come and go throughout the evening, rich, poor, and in-between. One of the first times I ever learned about the Vietnam War, from a veteran no less, was on that corner. The neighborhood around West Broadway was a literal camping ground for homeless veterans during the 1980s, after the Jarvis/Reagan revolution cut veterans benefits and sent many onto America’s streets. Now you see commuters coming and going, wealthy professionals from downtown condominiums  walking their dogs, fauxhemians crawling through the nighttime. Although downtown redevelopment has been a financial success, the old was thrown out with the new. There are very few establishments left downtown for a younger person like myself to connect the city’s past and present. Some come to mind, like the Chinese Historical Society at Third and J Streets and many historical structures on the National Historic Register like the Horton Grand Hotel. But downtown’s history is buried under the current consumer spectacle, barely noticeable. With little of historical interest to view anymore, I’ll head into Wahrenbach’s Books at Eight and Broadway, get something to read, and head down to the Hong Kong, an old beer bar. Mona, the Korean manager of the bar, greets me with “nice to see you again.” An old timer will strike-up a conversation with the words, “Let me tell you what is was like in the old days.” With few to tell their story, I put my book down and open my ears to this living history.



Harry Crosby, Gateway to Alta California: The Expeditions to San Diego, 1769, (San Diego: Sunbelt Publications, 2003).

Hiram Johnson Papers, Bancroft Library, University of California-Berkeley, California.

Elizabeth MacPhail, “When the Red Lights Went Out in San Diego: The Little Known Story of San Diego’s ‘Restricted’ District,” Journal of San Diego History, 20, no 2 (Spring 1974).

George Marston Papers, San Diego Historical Society Research Archives, California.

Neil Morgan, San Diego: The Unconventional City, (San Diego: Morgan House, 1972).

San Diego: A California City, (San Diego: San Diego Historical Society, 1937).

Abraham Shragge, “Boosters and Bluejackets: The Civic Culture of Militarism in San Diego, California, 1900-1945,” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, San Diego, 1998).

Jim Thompson, Now and On Earth, (1946; reprint, New York: Vintage, 1994).

Edmund Wilson, The American Earthquake: A Chronicle of the Roaring Twneties, the Great Depression, and the Dawn of the New Deal, (1958; reprint, New York: Da Capo Press, 1996).

     * This caste/race system noted Españoles were “pure-blooded Spanish”; mestizos were Indian and Spanish; color quebrados were “broken color,” Spanish-Indian with dark skin; mulatos were Indian and Spanish, with a trace of African ancestry; and indios were “pure-blooded Indians.”