Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Revive the Hall

     This morning, before class, I was rereading Gareth S. Jones's article on working-class culture in late 19th century London.  Jones is, more or less, making a case for the centrality of the last third of the 19th century in the formation of working class cultural and political life in England, rather than the first third of the century, a la E.P. Thompson's deservedly widely read Making of the English Working Class.  Jones's article originally appeared in The Journal of Social History in the summer of 1974, and I recommend it for anyone interested in academic considerations of the intersection of class and politics, easily available now in pdf via JSTOR.  I first encountered the article in abridged form in an anthology, John Storey's Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader (1998) when in college thanks to one of the many unsung contingent faculty in the English department, Dan Traber.

E.P. Thompson
     (Dan's dissertation on Henry James is also available via pdf, for those so inclined, and although I have not yet read it, it occurs to me now that I should put it on my short list of things to do.  Last time I checked he was teaching at Texas A&M Galveston, hopefully continuing to bring great writing on culture, class, etc., to his students.)
     Anyway, back to Jones:  In his article the emergence in industrial England of socially segregated neighborhoods and a reduction in the length of the working day resulted in an alteration of popular leisure practices by the working class.  Formerly, laborers dined and socialize on their short breaks during long days, and after work in evenings, in pubs and halls near their employment; after residential segregation and shorter days laborers socialized more or less at "local" pubs and halls which were closer to their homes.  These public spaces were less segregated by trade, making the discussion of shared interests such as sports, culture, or politics the focus of conversation rather than topics specific to tailors, weavers, cobblers, or other trades, etc.  These public spaces were also much more accommodating to women and the development of a singing culture evolved into a music hall culture with local celebrities, a space which could easily be mobilized for class politics, and ultimately a civic culture among laboring people which, in Jones's melancholic words "was a culture of consolation."
    The music hall culture reminds me of other similar attempts by the working or striving, upwardly mobile middle classes in the 19th century American context to facilitate lyceums, agricultural fairs, granges, or mutual aid and fraternal society halls which offered a shared space for cultural production and political engagement.  Indeed, I fantasize often about recreating something along these lines in the small rural/exurban Texan town of my youth.  If anything, they could use some consolation as the economy pushes more and more of its children into universities and urban lives or alternatively into a slowly sinking, evaporation of a middle class into something lesser, in its economic security and material well being, but also so obviously in the decay of housing, public facilities, retail centers, etc.
     Once, a friend and I had a great conversation about rescuing the hurricane devastated three-screen movie theater from demolition, where we could show art house cinema, hold free public lectures, and other events, but just what the city needed, one more church, got there first.  In truth, we were all talk, with no commitment to a town that offers little more than cheap housing to working commuters.  Again, she and I discussed a similar plan for this wonderful building, and if my memory serves, our renovations definitely included skateboard ramps:


In the late 1980s or perhaps early 1990s I went to Scout meetings here as a child when this was the local LDS church.  I am not, and was not, LDS, but they sponsored the Scouts in town, and I occasionally had free rein of the building.  Built in 1924 this neo-classical structure looked more like a castle before the pastel paint job, has three floors, and it had, to my unexperienced and mostly unchurched eyes, a magnificent chapel, with old wooden seats in a semi circle, with what I suppose could be called stadium seating, each row a little above the next.  Along the corridors on the two, perhaps three floors were small rooms for classes, offices or counseling, and closets, and other storage spaces.   I recall ancient books, ancient musical instruments, and a decay that was genuinely frightening.  The LDS moved out in the early 1990s into a modern facility and the old church was vacant for most of my teenage years.  At some point it became a Spanish language church, probably Pentecostal, and now I have no idea what is happening within.  But like the movie theater it looms large in my mind as just one other potential civic space where people in just one small rural Texas town could come together for fun, for mutual aid, for political engagement, and perhaps, also, consolation.


  1. The church was "up dated" at some point & it looked awful. (Hubby & I looked into getting married there) But GOOD NEWS! It's being restored & will become a Karpeles Manuscript Museum: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Karpeles-Manuscript-Library-Museum/122640031206186

    1. Thanks! I had no idea, and I will definitely check on it when I am in town again.