From There's Nothing To Do Here!, An Interview with Cynthia Connolly

Cynthia Connolly is a photographer who was closely associated with the Dischord record label (who produced Minor Threat, Fugazi, Rites of Spring, Nation of Ulysses, Youth Brigade and Autoclave, to name a few) and the 1980s and 90s punk scene in Washington, DC. She collaborated with Leslie Clague and Sharon Cheslow to produce a book that included 450 photos of the early era in “Banned in DC: Photos and Anecdotes from the DC Punk Underground (79-85).” Until recently, Connolly worked with Dischord and was based out of DC. During that time she took frequent trips into the mountains of Appalachia for rambling photo days, producing some of the stories and photographs reproduced here. Currently, Conolly is working out of an Alabama studio. Her website is located at http://www.southern.com/southern/band/CYNTH.

P.S. This interview took place during the first couple of months after I moved back to the mountains. Since then I have discovered a gazillion little community places that support local music and art. And more pop up each month. Connolly is right, you have to look for them and support them once you find them. And if they’re not there, create your own...

Now did you stay at the Homestead or did you just travel through there?
CC- I went there and I went to the hot springs, the little huts that have hot springs in them.

I walked around there but I never stayed. I’ve been down the Blue Ridge Parkway, down through some of those small towns and weird motels. They don’t allow skateboarding in the town where I live now, so on some days they close the parkway, and if there’s not ice I’ll take my longboard up there and ride down.
CC- Really? That’s really cool.

Yeah it’s nice to have something like that near. We’re pushing for a skatepark in town now, b/c there’s not much for the kids to do.
CC- You know in Galax, Va., there’s a skatepark, with a skate ramp.

And Galax is a really small town too, right?
CC- Yeah it’s really weird. I don’t understand, but I did a postcard on it. I was there really early in the morning. I stayed at a youth hostel on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and then got up and drove down to Galax to check, and see what it was. I kept hearing about that Fiddler’s convention thing they have in August. So I went down to check it out, and it was like 7:30 in the morning, and there was some kid skating on a ramp that was built on a lot, in the middle of the town. Isn’t that weird? It was like before he went to school or something. I guess he was taking advantage of what he had.

And that’s something, people just take for granted what they have. They’re kind of oblivious sometimes. Like in my area, yr starting to see Wal-Marts come in, local stores go out, and people don’t even notice. They’re like “well, it’s cheaper at Wal-Mart.” Is that same sort of thing going on it DC?
CC- You mean like the closing of the inner city and sprawl into the outer areas?

Yeah.
CC- No, it’s the opposite.

Really?
CC- Well that’s what punk rock was all about, was going into the city where there wasn’t anything but the vacant buildings, and there were clubs in the vacant buildings, and people didn’t care. That was in the late 70s and early 80s. Those clubs don’t exist anymore because, all of a sudden, people with money cared, and then all of a sudden you couldn’t have a club downtown.

That’s something else I wanted to ask about. I understand that there weren’t many places to play in the 80s.
CC- I don’t think there weren’t any places to play, there were always places for a band to play in DC, maybe it wasn’t like the most ideal place, but it made people go find places to play. I don’t think a lot of people were that affected, because a lot of people just did shows in their basement.

Oh, OK. Well I saw yr name somewhere connected with getting a place open.
CC- No, I didn’t have anything to do with getting a place to play, I booked bands at a space called dc space. But I didn’t open the place. It was opened by a guy who was all into the no-wave, new wave stuff of the late 70s. He brought, for example, Lori Anderson to DC in 1978, this guy named Bill Warrell and he opened with a bunch of his friends who were artists. In 1986, I started booking bands at that space. Because he got involved with a non-profit arts organization and bringing a lot of jazz artists to DC and they couldn’t really play in a space because it was too small, so he focused on that, and I ended up booking the bands.

That is a common complaint in Roanoke and Asheville anyway, is the lack of a community space for artists and bands. Can you address the importance of a place like that?
CC- Well, I see it as being important, but if you just focus on thinking about how it’s really important to have a community space, like another space and not somebody’s home or something, and it can’t be done, then I think people should just do it some other way and just book shows in their basement and stuff. So I think it’s important, but if it can’t happen in that respect, then something else should be done. And if it were to happen then it will happen. You can do a show in your basement, or out in the backyard of somebody’s house, or out in the middle of nowhere in a field in the summertime. Those things can happen, they don’t always have to be in some space, you know, where they serve alcohol or whatever. It doesn’t have to be that way. So I presume that it’s important, but it’s just pigeonholing it by saying you need a space. And that restricts on what you’re doing by saying all you need is a space. You know what I mean? If there’s a lot of people who want it, it’ll happen. If there’s not a lot of people who want it, it just won’t happen. That’s how I see it.

Okay, let me ask you about something else that you’re more involved lately, and that’s photography. Since you’ve been taking photos of places, have you seen any changes in those areas that you’ve photographed?
CC- Yeah. There was a building I photographed in California that I thought was really really cool, an old adobe stucco building that was an old café, so it was really small, called the Cactii Café. It was written all painted on the side, and it was all faded. It was probably built in the 30s, or maybe the 40s, when there was a surge of people from Los Angeles who went out to the desert, and they thought it was like the big heyday. And there were some areas where people went thinking it was going to be the next big resort place, and one of them was called 29 Palms, that ended up to be a military base, so the resort part of it pretty much dwindled and ended up focused in Palm Springs, which is pretty close. But there’s a building there that was pretty cool that was obviously built during that time period, which was supposed to be a resort and like a cool place to hang out. I took lots of photos of that, but I went back the next year and it was torn down. There was no indication that it had even existed. The desert had covered it up already, it was all tumbleweeds and debris and sand. You couldn’t even tell it was there, except for one little piece of cement and that was it. It was really weird.

You kind of touched on this in the last answer. Can you address the importance of photography as a way of documenting changes, especially in an area like Appalachia that’s seeing a lot of changes, in old buildings, and in areas that haven’t been developed turning into housing subdivisions?
CC- I don’t know, in the whole scheme of things, about the long-term effect of taking photographs. But I look at a lot of really old photographs and think that they’re really cool, because they document a certain area that’s really no longer in existence like it was in the photograph. For me, personally, it’s something that is important, but I think it’s just for me. I don’t know how important change is, and to document change, or how that’s going to play an important role.

Well, for yourself, on a personal level.
CC- Oh, okay. Well on a personal level I find it interesting to see how things change. I don’t know why, I find it interesting to see how a space changes, like if you take an open desert and all of a sudden there’s a town there I find it fascinating that it happens for whatever reason. Like, the bringing of water to a place like that, and then all of a sudden you can build houses there, and then with the advent of the invention of air conditioning, all these people ended up moving to the desert because they could. I find that kind of stuff really interesting. And I really think that places that are not sort of tainted by humans, development or anything are pretty amazing places, and I just think there’ll be less and less of it. I think there’s too many people that are more concerned about making a lot of money, and developing areas, than they are concerned about the greater picture of, you know, what it is and how it could be more important to just leave it as it is. I think taking photographs of it is important for me in that respect, although maybe someday they can be used for something, I have no idea (laughs).

That’s something that I’m concerned about, I don’t know if this will interest anybody else, but it interests me.
CC- The changes?

The changes in the culture, and environment here…and the economic base as well.
CC- Well, definitely I have noticed that, even in the neighborhood where I live, there are people who have moved here that are very controlling about what businesses move in, and why, and it’s like a long-term effect of why you wouldn’t want x, y and z businesses here. And they make it a really big deal to make sure that they think the right things are there to develop the neighborhood and the area the way they want to, which I sometimes find kind of annoying, because they have a more high-endy kind of taste than what I have. I find it fascinating to watch the development and see how it changes. One thing that was a good idea affects the entire neighborhood, something you wouldn’t imagine, but, ten years down, that one thing was the entire influence that made this whole neighborhood. Just things that I’ve started to see now.

Can you give an example of that?
CC- Well, there’s a strip here in Arlington, Va., that’s one road that goes from Rosslyn right over the bridge from DC, and there’s a road that goes out from there further into Virginia, and it’s called Wilson Boulevard. On that road, there was this woman who opened a bar, a little club place where bands could play called The Galaxy Hut, and she opened it, probably in 1989. Before that, the only thing on that whole strip were these vacuum-cleaner repair places and stationary stores, and vacant shops, florists, things like that. And with her one club, it basically generated a whole culture. These people went to that
place. And then she and her husband got divorced, and he started this other club down the street, and then other people moved their bar/clubs there, and there was this whole onslaught of club/bar things along with the places that were open during the day, like nicer restaurants. A lot of the restaurants were owned by people that were in the neighborhood. It’s like people in the neighborhood thought it was cool, so they opened their own restaurant. It turned out to be a pretty cool mix of stuff. There’s a mall now that opened on a vacant lot, that people fought. They didn’t want have a…it was kind of funny. There was this huge lot with all these houses, and I took photos of the houses before, and then when they were being torn down, and now I took photos of the building that’s there, and this is like a period of eight or ten years. This one woman, turns out, owns this whole block of houses, and on one side of the block was commercial and on the other side was residential. And she basically kicked everybody out, tore down all the houses…they were probably built between 1890 and 1920…tore down all the houses, and then, um, they were going to put in a Home Depot. And the neighborhood fought the Home Depot, because too much traffic would be coming off 395 into the neighborhood, via the two-lane road and would create huge problem. And they succeeded in fighting the Home Depot, and it never arrived. But instead they have this high-density housing on the residential side, and on the other side, the commercial side, they have a mall that’s like…I mean it’s like Disneyland or something, I can’t explain it. It’s totally demented. It’s all high end stuff, an Apple computer store, Crate n’ Barrel, William Sonoma, that kind of stuff, a container store. Then there’s supposed to be these chain restaurants opening in it, but I’ve heard rumors they’re not going to open it anymore because the square footage for the restaurants are just huge. They realize, now with the economy going down they can’t open the restaurants. I’m kinda hoping that some of these local people will get to move into these spaces and do some cool stuff with the remaining larger spaces, but I’m not sure. It’s kind of weird, that kind of stuff is kind of a drag because it’s commercial, that whole area … I think a lot of people moved to this area because it was interesting stores and restaurants that serve good food that were run by people you knew, you’d go in and say hi to them, you know who they are. I think that’s the reason why a lot of people moved to that area. Companies, chains and stuff started moving in because it’s brought in this certain type of person that would be interested in all this other stuff might be interested in Crate n’ Barrel as well. That to me is the beginning of the downfall that I’m afraid of. It’s very interesting, and that’s a neighborhood that controlled it for a very long time. I’m curious if they also approved the Crate n’ Barrel, its sounds like they might have, that sort of high-endy thing. Those stores are more high-endy than the rest of what’s around there. Across the street from there used to be a Sears, and part of that lot that I’m talking about used to be the parking lot for Sears. So we’re talking moving from Sears tearing that down to a Fresh Food Mart which is like a health food store, to a Crate n’ Barrel container store, so that’s the type of demographics we’re talking about.

Are you starting to see residential changes up there? I mean like down here, there’s areas, like the one I was telling you about. Up this one creek there were all these trailers, and it kind of had a reputation as this white-trashy type area. There was even a sign up that said something like “If you’re black, don’t let the sun set on you here,” but not that polite. And now you’re seeing high-end homes coming in, and the trailers are getting squeezed out. And I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but it is a change.
CC- Right. I wonder where those people are coming from because I always wondered…in San Francisco, where my friends live, they made it through the whole dot com thing, they didn’t get kicked out of their apartment. Now they say it’s back to normal again, and I wonder‘ where did all those people go that lived there?’ that made the rent escalate so high because there was such a demand for places to live. Where did they all leave to?

I think they’re all coming back here. And to Montana. We’re seeing a lot of people from Florida here too.
CC- When I was down there…I told you I learned to build straw-bale hay houses near Asheville. I went to a commune and learned how to build straw-bale hay houses four years ago. I think it was called Earth Haven, it was near Asheville somewhere. When I was there, all these people were talking about how all these people were moving from San Francisco to Asheville. There was some weird kind of…people were just moving from San Francisco to that area.

We’re also seeing people from New York come down. I think the reasoning is that housing down here is cheaper than in New York and San Francisco, when folks retire, they’re moving down this way because they can buy a much nicer home in a much nicer neighborhood here than they could for the same money in San Francisco or New York. And I know it’s cliché, but since Sept. 11 we’re also starting to see people from DC and New York, at least looking at houses, because they say it’s safer here.

CC- Huh. That’s interesting. Are they buying stuff?

A little bit. I’ve heard more about people inquiring than I have about floods of New Yorkers coming in. So that might be a false trend.
CC- That’s too bad, because I feel like those kind of people, if they’re not moving for the fact that they really like the area, they’re not really going to contribute to the community.
(talk about Gila area of New Mexico and the San Francisco hot springs located there)
(most of the rest of questions about spaces again)


CC- I don’t know, I was able to let bands that used to not be able to play at that space play there. Before that it was all sort of jazz stuff, and it made it a wider spectrum of music. There’s still jazz that’s playing there.

What exactly did you do, just talk to the owner and talk to the bands?
CC- No, actually I knew the person that was booking. There was another person in between that was booking the bands, and she didn’t want to do it anymore. And she called…Ian [MacKaye] I think and asked him if he would want to book bands. I had just come back from living in San Francisco for a while, and I wanted to open up a coffeehouse and book bands there. And he was like ‘Cynthia wants to do this’ and she thought‘ maybe I’ll ask her’, so she asked me and I ended up doing it.

Another question I had was real general. What advice do you have for people that want to play a role in where their town or the region is going?
CC- That’s really a broad area you’re talking about. If you actually grew up there, I’d say just be involved with things you’re really interested in. People shouldn’t be scared to try and find out information, if you want to find out building permits and things like that. But I think culturally people should…A very simple thing always is to support local businesses and not support larger companies and corporations and going to your K-Mart or whatever. That’s something, to me, that’s very simple and something that would actually support the community itself, is to support your local businesses. That’s a really simple thing you can do. It may cost more, but that’s just the way it is. A place like K-Mart, that buys larger mass quantities of stuff. It’s a sacrifice you make when you have a friend that has a store. People need to be more involved with the community in some way….just, being on a level of being about to talk with people about stuff. I’ve driven through some of those counties, like when I told you I drove through Botetourt (boot-eh-tort) County.

Bought-a-taut.
CC- Is that how you say it?

Yeah. Bought-a-taut.
CC- Bought-a-taut?

Mm hm.
CC- Oh my god. (laughs) Oh my god.

Yeah I know it’s spelled funny. But that’s how it’s pronounced. The border’s about two miles away from where I grew up.

CC- That’s so cool. So that’s how it’s pronounced.

And there’s this other town, just a little south of Lexington. And you can tell who’s local and who’s not by who calls it bewnah vista and who calls it bweena-veesta (ed: That’s Buena Vista, Va.) Let’s see, there’s another one near there, Staunton (stanton). You pronounced that one right. What part of Botetourt did you pass through?
CC- Down through 81, and you cut up through to this town called Eagle Rock, and then through a bunch of really small roads to that place called Craig Springs. In a town like that, I would go in and like…this is what I would, I would open like a hangout place, like a café or something that wasn’t really alcohol oriented. It seems like people need somewhere to hang out. And there isn’t something like that.

And that’s what I was talking about with that. A lot of smaller towns around don’t have that. You have small ones but…I don’t know, some are exclusive or something.
CC- Yeah but to me that’s what change is all about. Although you’ve been talking about not being into all these developments and stuff. You’re just saying you feel uncomfortable in that kind of place, you think it’s important to have a community space, so that means that one thing you need to do is create it. You know what I mean?

What do you mean by create it though?

CC- Just find a space and make it happen. What you’re doing is like just showing an example of what change is.
(more talk about what exactly gentrification is, neither of us know the exact definition. I mention that the county I’m in now has seen the closure of 5 textile and industrial plants in the last 3 years, and that places catering to tourists have still done
pretty well)

CC- Sometimes I think that things sort of move in like the swinging of a pendulum. Something’s going to do that, in order to survive, and then when things get better, other things will pop up that are more oriented to people who live there who can afford to spend extra money. Basically, it sounds to me like people can’t even afford to go out.

This area has a very high poverty level.

CC- Right. So, who’s going to be going to the community space, unless it’s run by the government or something. Or a local thing. Or like a church. Something where the reason why it exists is not going to be for money. So it could be like a hangout place, but the main reason for it to exist is not to make money because obviously there’s not money to be made. Because nobody has any money.

Absolutely. It’s folks who have been here for a long time that are getting hurt by the closing of those industries.

CC- What are they going to do?

I don’t know. That’s part of what I’m covering for the local paper.
CC- A lot of times what I take photos of is…it’s like this mystery, like why did this occur? For example there’s this zine I read, and it’s all about ghost towns in the west. And he loves going to these ghost towns, he thinks they’re really cool. And he sits
around and wonders, what happened, and why did these people leave? Sometimes it’s more obvious, like they were mining towns, and they just ran out of gold or silver or whatever. And then they leave all the houses there. What you’re talking about is something similar in a way.

Hmm. One thing here is the tourism industry is coming in full-force now. Some towns are having a lot of trouble controlling it. The problem is a lot of these tourist businesses pop up, and the jobs they’re providing are service jobs, which pay much less than these industrial jobs did. And the problem becomes that some of these tourists coming in, and they see how beautiful the area is, and they start getting second homes there. That’s one part of our economy that’s booming, is real estate, so housing prices are going up. The people living there are getting paid less, but their rent or property taxes are going up.
CC- I don’t think anybody’s really figured that out. Like there’s that problem in California, I think it’s Santa Cruz. Where the firemen and teachers and all those people can’t live in Santa Cruz. It’s so far away for them to live on the salary they have, and they had to come up with some type of solution. So they had to build government housing.

When I was out there, the housing was so expensive that there’s a whole population of students at the university there, that squat in the woods because they can’t afford to live anywhere.
CC- That’s totally insane. But there is housing for some of the students paid for by the school.

Yeah, but even for that they have lotteries. It’s luck of the draw.
CC- That’s crazy. I don’t know. That’s a problem.

And you’re starting to see that in other western tourist towns, where the ski industry or what not is starting to have to provide housing for their employees, b/c they can’t afford to live there otherwise. That hasn’t happened here yet, but it’s a worry. I don’t know what the solution is. It was kind of similar in Big Sur, where you can’t build a new house without violating a zoning ordinance or having the neighbors go bonkers. And the economy there is completely tourism-based. But a lot of artists managed to live out there.
CC- How can they afford to live there? It’s sort of like this phase to me. For example Laguna Beach used to be an artist community, but now it’s all tourists and it’s all high-endy. Recently an old family friend emailed me and said I want you to meet this artist that lives in Laguna Beach, and that person must be ancient, because the only people that can afford to be
an artist in Laguna Beach are the people that bought houses there in the 30s and 40s. So they own the houses and don’t have to worry. So that’ll change.

It’s the same thing in Big Sur, but a little bit younger. It didn’t really blow up until the 60s. I don’t want to keep you much longer, but you had talked about driving through Highland County and hearing a crazy radio station and I do want to hear that story.
CC- I don’t know too much about it. It’s too bad. I have to find the tapes, but a friend of mine, Lely, she and I were driving around Virginia. We had to get up really early, like 4 or 5 in the morning, and we’d go out and take photos in Virginia all day. We’d get out before the sun rose, to get a full day, and we’d get out of DC and we’d just drive around. So one time we had a mapped drive and … I don’t know, I know we went to Lexington, and we cut back over some mountains. And we were in Highland County and at this point I was looking for the radio station that was part of Harrisonburg, but I was way south of there. I could have been going over 250, and we tuned in this crazy radio station, of some guy drunk, and he was dedicating his songs to people who had called in. I was kind of convinced that these people were not calling in, because that means he was getting 10 or 12 phone calls in 30 minutes or something. And I don’t remember him announcing the phone number. He was fully drunk, and playing all these amazing country songs.

That’s awesome.

CC- And then two years later, I actually found it again, and they were announcing deaths and births, and who graduated from high school, what awards they got. It was the most incredible radio station, and then I remember the woman announcing that this new CD was out, and then at 6 o’clock she was going to play the whole thing, so if you wanted to tape it, she was going to play it. Which was really amazing. And then I remember at 5 they switched into the ABC news, so which was obviously syndicated, which was so much the opposite of what the radio station seemed to be about. Then I lost it because I was driving out of Highland County. I remember the guy kept saying, “It’s Highland County,” over and over again cuz he was really drunk. There’s even a town called Bluegrass in Highland County.