The Death of the Westcott Punk Scene
By Maria-Nicole Marino
Steam billowed through the open doors as a herd of 100 sweat-stained teens piled out onto the cool pavement around the Westcott Community Center about 15 years ago. The building spit out a crowd dressed predominantly in black. For some, ink and piercings covered the skin peeking out of baggy pants and band T-shirts.Others wore blazers speckled with sewn-on patches, paired with skinny ties. Just minutes before, they thrashed around a small rented room, lights off, walls and light fixtures trembling as the night’s headlining band concluded its set. When the mosh pit reached its greatest intensity, the audience was packed together too tightly for anyone to stumble more than a step. As the attendees—many in their teens— made their way outside, not a cigarette or beer was in sight. They sipped cans of soda, discussed political issues, and distributed socially-charged pamphlets. The bands stayed around to hang out with the fans - who were often their friends. They called themselves “straight-edge,” after their strict brand of sociological and punk ideology: sober and conscious.
From the mid-90s into the naughts, the straight-edge scene thrived in the “Westcott Nation,” producing nights much like that every weekend.This last great punk era in Syracuse was a time of self-expression, underground music magazines, alternative thinking, DIY apparel, veganism, and substance- free lifestyles. It was about more than the music. Straight-edge adherents searched for a greater meaning to life and strayed from society norms. They migrated to the area because they felt accepted for their outlandish appearances, which often made others stereotype them as rebels. The WCC was an age-friendly venue that gave them a parent-approved environment for live music outside of their homes and garages.Ondays when the 21-and-older venues, such as now defunct Planet 505, hosted matinee shows for the younger crowd, 200 to 300 teens would line the streets, popping in and out of local businesses. Westcott Street, plastered with fliers and band posters, was their sanctuary; a place where they belonged until the scene began fizzling out over a decade after it began. Although this was arguably the last great punk phase in Syracuse, it certainly wasn't the first.
By the time Elice Flanders became a punker in 1986, the scene was already though to be dead. “We called ourselves punks, but it was rather tongue-in-cheek,” she says. “It was already a joke.”Original punk dominated Syracuse since the genre débuted in the 70s and 80s with nationally headlining bands like The Ramones and Blondie. The late 80s and early 90s brought on a new generation of punchers who reinvented the area and tried to determine their values. This was the era of MTV: shaved, dyed, bleached, spiked hair; band tees from Down Under Leather on South Crouse Avenue; and tattoos.
Marshall Street was the scene’s hub. Everyone started each night at a graffiti- covered stone wall called The Beach. Bands played at Hungry Charlie’s (which preceded Chuck’s), Lost Horizon onThompson Road, and the Euclid Community Open House (the original name for the WCC). Death Shore Records and Modern Records, the predecessors of Harry’s and Halo Tattoo, spread the word about quality music and recommended which bands should come around.
The punks put on many shows right at home. Flanders recalls shows in attics, basements, and living rooms. “Back then, punk bands never thought they were going to be famous or successful. Nobody thought they were going to be a celebrity,” Flanders says. “They were just happy to travel and play. No one had any money, so if a band could connect the dots from one city to the next, they were thrilled. Band members crashed at our houses, we fed them breakfast, and sent them on their way.”
From Flanders' point of view, the straight-edge movement that took over in 1992 ended the true punk scene. It’s easy to say it was just another natural shift in music trends, but that’s not how the previous generation interpreted the new punk movement. “Straight-edge is what most of us feel killed what we loved about the Syracuse alternative punk scene,” she says. “Ours was a very, very accepting scene. It seems to me, and others, that the straight-edge scene, with its strict rules of conduct and almost militant method of enforcement, spoiledourscene.”
From the 90s and into the naughts, the WCC attracted straight-edge and hardcore bands almost immediately. There was a consistent group of fans who came to every show, regardless of whether it was hardcore, emo, punk, ska, rock, or metal. Since there was no stage, bands played on the same height as their audience, which fostered a personal and intimate experience. Despite the screaming, moshing, and unconventional fashion, the group was surprisingly well-behaved. Steve Susman, director of the center, says that even after the wildest shows the most damage inflicted on the white, cube-shaped room was wads of gum stuck to the airport-quality carpeting the center purchased for its resistance to everything, it turns out, except gum. “The neighborhood loved the concerts because it got the kids off the street, and we got barely any complaints from neighbors about the noise—just compliments from the cops because they never had to get called here,” Susman says. The community center had a great reputation as one of the longest- running venues in the country for small touring bands. It hosted some big names such as New Found Glory, Saves the Day, The Dillinger Escape Plan, and Mastodon during its 15 years.
But to say everyone was straight-edge at the time would be incorrect. There were plenty of people who respected the scene but felt the straight-edge crowd was too authoritarian, or just not for them. The Lost Horizon,The Half Penny, and WestcottTheater typically attracted this older, drinking crowd.
In the mid-2000s, the punk and straight- edge scene began to dwindle. The WCC stopped booking shows every weekend, and other venues like the Half Penny shut down. The punk oasis, once synonymous with the Westcott region, dried up, and people movedon with their lives. There is no concrete answer for why the scene died out. It was a mix of the elder generation aging out of the venues, successful bands leaving to tour around the country, and younger generations not taking to the music the same way. The Internet’s explosion also changed people's exposure to music. Now someone can find new music online; they don’t need to see live shows in search of new bands. Bands don’t have to work as hard to establish a fan base to get their names out there.
The Half Penny hosted its last punk show on January 1, 2011 before surrendering to the newly-opened apartment complex next door. It didn’t take kindly to loud music. When Christopher Holmes opened the bar in 2003, there were only 80 apartments in the area. Now there are almost 300, with more on the way. Holmes reluctantly remodeled the bar last year to accommodate a wider array of people and keep his business afloat.
Today, a new sign hangs above the entrance that reads “Holmes Pub.” Holmes has stopped hosting punk shows and reopened the bar for everyone outside of the punk scene. The worn, plywood floors are covered by polished hardwood, and new accessories and fixtures strategically conceal decade-old scuffs and dents from the old days. Exposed brick and mahogany-colored paint replace the once beige and white plastered walls, and speakers that once amplified the bar’s well- known punk music are nowhere in sight. “I don’t go a week without talking to someone about how they miss the Half Penny,” Holmes says. “There’s still a demand for this music, and I think it will come back, it just needs to find the right moment and place."