Words by Paola Banchero.
Somewhere I read that Henry Rollins, the punk raconteur and Southern California fixture, had to move away from Santa Monica because he was getting too comfortable and he wanted to stay counter-cultural.
I’ve rolled that sentiment over a lot, especially as I’ve become older and more settled in my suburban-like home in a good neighborhood in Anchorage. Whenever I moon over a Pottery Barn catalog or get too smitten with a kitchen gadget or feel like I just ignored a person living on the streets while I zip around in my warm Honda, I think about Henry Rollins.
We have to work to feel a little unsettled because our lives are built to make us feel content, coddled, comfortable. We look for the easy way out — driving rather than taking the bus, avoiding eye contact rather than facing a stranger, buying the myth that a new purchase will change anything.
Like Rollins, I had been feeling like I needed to change things up. In adulthood, I had moved every few years, making my way through a series of cities in the Midwest and Southwest. Then suddenly, I realized I had been in Anchorage for 15 years, almost half of them in my suburbs-in-the-city home. I started working on a plan with my family: Leave Anchorage for a year and regain that little part of me that is punk — it’s more than you would guess from my nondescript outward appearance.
If city neighborhoods are like musical genres, I live in the soft rock part of town: for every song in its favor, a mediocre one will be along any minute. Spenard is the punk in town. Like punk rock, its heyday as a real rabble-rouser was 40 years ago. Now it has the look of Henry Rollins himself. Still gritty, but with a gentrified, jowly exterior. Like Rollins, Spenard’s soul is still mischievous. To me, punk is makeshift, improvised, questioning. It’s decidedly anti-materialistic and not quite without rules, but close. When you listen to real punk, you feel you need to do what matters and you need to do it now, and the hell with what everyone else thinks. That’s why I tend to spend a lot of free time in Spenard, and I knew during my year away from Anchorage, I would have to find my own punky Spenard in corners of the cities where I would be visiting.
Finding the inner Spenard of a community takes effort. First off, avoid the neighborhoods that shout Top 40 or arena rock. You can forget about neighborhoods dialed into the country station, too. Strangely, neighborhoods that sing the blues or thrum with hip-hop are closer to what you’re looking for to achieve Spenardian levels of satisfaction. Turn the corner, cross the street, go down a few blocks. Maybe you’ll wander into the experience too. It’s more than sensory. I mean, Spenard can smell like the diesel truck you get stuck behind one day and like bread baking at the Franz Bakery the next.
So out I went, searching for a way to recall, not replicate, the Spenard experience.
Where would I find the equivalent of the Chester Creek? Where would I find art? Where would I have an intimate experience rather than a flashy one? I started out by walking. It’s how I’ve gotten to know cities I’ve lived in previously. When you are on your feet, a city comes down to scale. You can see the patterns of litter hidden in the seams between fences and sidewalks. You can hear schoolchildren rushing in from the playground as the bell rings. You can glance into people’s living rooms, see what they are making for dinner.
All this thinking about why I wanted to step out of my life in Anchorage and rediscover my peripatetic youth made me take a deep plunge into the meaning of place.
No one was more helpful in this effort than Henri Lefebvre, a French thinker who wrote about how place is produced. Lefebvre critiqued everyday life, including how we construct place in our minds and who gets to decide how public space is used. Hint: It’s those with power. Certain activities are more socially appropriate or practically feasible to do in some spaces than in others. We tend to frown, for example, at people who carry out the routines associated with the bathroom in public, such as clipping fingernails. We tend to take for granted what given places are for, what activities are most appropriate, even permitted, within a place.
It took my pre-teen daughter and Disneyland to shake me into understanding. One of the places we visited these last few months was the Magic Kingdom. We were on Main Street, USA, a nostalgic ode to small-town America. She said how much she liked it and why couldn’t cities look like this. But to me, I could hear no music. There is no funk station in Disneyland, let alone a raucous punk vibe.
Many cities want to have the squeaky-clean texture of Main Street, USA, if not exactly the aesthetics. CBGC, the nightclub that birthed New York punk, is now a high-end fashion emporium. Other sites of counter-cultural movements have been papered over by corporate brands. What kinds of places had the music I was looking for, the music I missed of Spenard? Well, it had to be noisier. True public spaces are linked to civil society. They welcome freedom of expression in all its messiness.
My meanderings yielded the kinds of places where I feel like community is paramount, and best represented Spenard — where my perceived space melded with my lived space. Let me take you to those places.
First, I found it on the street, through graffiti and public art and sometimes discarded shopping carts. When I saw those, I knew I was getting closer to the punk part of my temporary home. On occasion, a person could remind me of Spenard. Something about their scuffed boots, slouchy clothes, tattooed arms, earnest disposition. But I also found it in public trail systems and parks. I know just a portion of the Chester Creek is technically in Spenard, but it’s among my favorite spots: where I can see swampy wildlife and people of all varieties. Trail systems and parks should unite us: the young and the old, the newcomers and the veterans, the animal lovers and the people lovers, the wealthy and the poor, the moose and the dog.
I found independent bookstores and libraries elemental in my search for Spenard-away-from-home. From a punk perspective, libraries are superior to bookstores: anyone can access them, they are often on bus routes, they foment collaboration and community. Rarely do you go to the library and come out with the exact material you were after and nothing more. Libraries are the ultimate place for a DIY way of learning, the way many punk icons did. And while Spenard doesn’t really have a library of its own, it has two independent bookstores that serve similar functions. Both Title Wave and The Writer’s Block, in different ways, urge people to read, to engage with each other, to discover what matters. They are both places that stake a claim to a Spenard where a subculture of readers and writers can exist.
There is no place more universal than an open-air market, whether it is selling vegetables or records. I gravitated toward markets for their nearly free appeal. You can buy or you can browse, so you can go there with little money and no one will judge. The local market is also among the most diverse places in any community. Farmers, middlemen, children, elders, home chefs, gastro-nerds, tourists and beggars are plentiful. You get to see the same faces, week after week, feel like you are part of a place’s landscape, culture and culinary heritage. So whether it was crate-digging on the beach or buying as many avocados as I could comfortably carry home, I exploited every open-air market I could find.
Finally, my wandering made me thirsty, and I found respite in cafés the kind Spenard has: the Kaladi Brothers location in the Northern Lights mall is my go-to coffee house and has been since I moved to Anchorage. Cafes were the sites of tertulias, social gatherings at coffee houses where people came to become informed, to discuss ideas and debate viewpoints. It’s a part of Iberian and Latin American culture, and it helped spark democratic ideals, like a caffeinated community council meeting or a breathing newspaper. I can think of half a dozen cafes just a few blocks from each other — all with different clienteles and approaches to the public square. And though I never hear punk rock in any of them, there is one that helps me recall Spenard. A sign on the wall declares that there are no owners, no employees, no customers — just people and friends. I can sip my coffee and close my eyes and hear Black Flag or the Ramones.
Being away from home for a year has unsettled me and my family. We’ve all felt at times discomfort and unease. Because we’re pushing beyond what we know — it’s all a makeshift experience and we barely know how to play our instruments — it’s the most punk thing we’ve ever done.