The Los Angeles DIY Music Scene: Misleading Perspectives and Transforming Structure
Mapping the urban environment is a difficult task. It carries with it the dangerous potential of overlooking entire populations, geographies, and trends in history. Popular maps of Los Angeles, for example, largely ignore the thriving DIY music scene, as they simply display the original intentions of the venue locale; what once were flower shops and churches are now meccas for inspired and creative youth, yet these elements are not seen on maps. In addition, maps and perspectives looking down on the city do not acknowledge this scene, as its venues are largely hidden within the structures that house them. In “Walking in the City,” Michel de Certeau examines how the urban body can reinvent a city by inhabiting a place as it was not originally prescribed. De Certeau shapes this argument by raising the questions of how the city is described and who reads and writes it into being. Using de Certeau’s analogy of reading and writing, the DIY music venues of Los Angeles transform the original writing of the city by occupying place in a way that city planners did not anticipate; the urban body effectively offers a new writing of the city, one where old churches, office buildings, and restaurants are used for aggressive, lively music. The DIY music scene of Los Angeles thus serves as a representation of the transformative nature of urban structures and illustrates how these transformations are oftentimes unseen or misrepresented on popularized maps.
De Certeau begins “Walking in the City” by highlighting the complicated power structure that comes with reading and writing the city as an urban text. He offers two differing perspectives in the viewing of the city, one from atop a skyscraper, looking down on the entire landscape, and the other from the street view, experienced by the “ordinary practitioner.” From the perspective of the skyscraper, the viewer is, as de Certeau explains, “lifted out of the city’s grasp” (92). Here, de Certeau showcases how being free from the pressures of the urban atmosphere allows for an individual reading of the city. He continues, “it allows one to read it, to be a solar Eye, looking down like a god” (92). Using this as justification, people from this perspective are able to see the city as it was imagined by the city planners, thus, the power at this level is primarily aligned with the planners themselves; the city planners wrote the city for these urban bodies to then read. However, de Certeau then shifts his focus to argue that this perspective is less meaningful than the one experienced by the urban body, which is what he discusses for the rest of his essay. He states, “the panorama-city is a ‘theoretical’ (that is, visual) simulacrum, in short a picture, whose condition of possibility is an oblivion and a misunderstanding of practices” (93). Because the city planners are so removed from the everyday aspects to actual city life, they are unable to predict the uses of the places they create. From the street level, then, the power is vested in the urban body—the pedestrian is de Certeau’s focus—as they are able to take what the city planner has written, and then use it in ways where they write their own city.
Los Angeles’s DIY music scene is a meaningful way to illustrate de Certeau’s analysis of the city through use of perspective and power alignment. From the rooftops of Downtown skyscrapers, all one can see is Los Angeles as envisioned by its city planners; one would see the winding freeways jutting into the grid of Downtown, mass structures of varying heights, and the multitude of small park centers. However, this perspective is illusionary, as one cannot witness what actually occurs within these freeway crossings, structures, and park centers. For example, when looking down at the famous all-ages, alcohol-and-drug-free venue The Smell, one would only see a helicopter landing strip atop a 12 story building; the viewer would never recognize that there is a cultural hub that rests beneath it, wracked with fire hazards and over crowdedness. Similarly, the art collective Pehrspace would be viewed as a strip mall surrounded by cheap restaurant chains and dry-cleaning places. This inaccurate reading of the city attests to de Certeau’s claim that the real reading and writing of the city rests in the urban dweller, or as he calls them, “the ordinary practitioners” (93). Rather than emphasize the skyscraper perspective, one whose power is much aligned with the city planners, de Certeau rightfully emphasizes that the only group who can accurately experience a city are these ordinary practitioners.
The reason that the DIY venues are misrepresented or entirely unseen from the perspective of popular maps is due to the fact that they inhabit place as it was not originally prescribed. Nearly all of the DIY venues do not appear to be suited for live music, and that is likely one of the reasons why they are so special; the misleading appearances of their outside facades deflect tourists and outsiders and encourage those on the inside to cherish their private, invisible habitats. 356 Mission, a relatively new venue, is located in a vast expanse of warehouses surrounding downtown Los Angeles. Originally an art collective that hosted book readings, zine festivals, and art exhibits, it recently started hosting a number of punk shows. As 356 Mission is extremely difficult to find among the stretch of warehouses, a certain sense of entitlement and community arises among those who successfully locate it and witness its beauty. These people are writing their own city, taking the city planner’s original intention to use this area for warehouses and dismissing it entirely. De Certeau addresses how the urban body carries the potential to transform structure and recreate meaning when he discusses the pedestrian in relation to the urban experience. Although Los Angeles is not a city of pedestrians, it is certainly a city of transformation, especially within this thriving scene. De Certeau writes of “yesterday’s buildings, already transformed into trash cans,” which highlights how the rapid turnover of structure can allow for the repurposing of place entirely (91). “Yesterday’s buildings,” as he writes, can be viewed as the warehouses, strip clubs, or houses that are now used as music venues for up and coming musicians based in Los Angeles; in turn, the venues can be viewed as the “trash cans,” which is an effective portrayal of their filth and poor reputation. The continuous evolution of these structures attests to the fact that power cannot be held exclusively by city planners and conventional mapping as both do not highlight the innovative and unconventional use of place.
If the music venues are represented at all on modern maps, it is done in a way where their vibrant histories are largely ignored. In “Walking in the City,” De Certeau discusses how place can be viewed in terms of its absences and of what once inhabited its current structure. He states, “demonstratives indicate the invisible identities of the visible: it is the very definition of a place, in fact, that it is composed by these series of displacements and effects among that fragmented strata that form it and that it plays on these moving layers” (108). Here, he highlights the notion that the history of location is just as important as the location itself, as without its history and the process of rehabilitation, there would likely be no present location at all. For example, Jewels Catch One, a famous Los Angeles club popularized in the ’80s for its loud dance music, has recently been rented by the founder of Church Off York, a company that focuses on attracting punk and noise music to downtown Los Angeles. Despite this change of venue, Google Maps still describes the structure as a “dance club,” not acknowledging the massive change that has occurred. Similarly, Non Plus Ultra, an exhibition gallery and concert space run from a group of twenty-somethings’ home, is described as an exhibition gallery, even though it oftentimes functions as a living space. By ignoring the dual functions of these venues and their extensive histories, maps do not accurately reflect the beauty and complexity of the current scene.
One can conclude that the DIY music scene in Los Angeles is either ignored on popularized maps or wildly misrepresented as a result of its repurposing of originally prescribed structure. Using de Certeau’s themes of reading and writing and the transformative nature of structure, it is evident that there is significant power in the writing of the DIY scene. The pioneers of this scene dismissed the original intentions of the city planners, and instead, offered a new writing of the city, one where lo-fi rock music can be found in the crevices of warehouses, distant 80s dance clubs, and the homes of inspired youth. It is increasingly important that mapping not ignore these transitions, as doing so would exclude an entire population of hard working individuals, passionate about creating access to the unique music of Los Angeles.
Certeau, Michel de. “Walking in the City.” The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans. Steven Rendall. Berkeley: U of California, 1984. Print.