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This summer, D.C.’s most rigid subcultural ideology collided with its most stubborn institution. But for all of the agita caused by the brief standoff between the organizers of the Fort Reno concert series and the National Park Service, in the end it felt like a productive near-death experience: Once the dispute was settled, Fort Reno concerts felt more animated, and more consistently well-attended, than they had in years.
You could blame the shows’ frustratingly short schedule—just eight shows—for condensing audience interest. Or maybe praise the fairly strong lineup of local punk and indie-rock bands, including a handful of standard-bearers in interesting matchups. My guess: Threatening to cancel your music series is a fantastic way to market it. If Fort Reno had begun to calcify into a summer mainstay for diehards and young families in recent years, now everyone with even a faint interest in independent D.C. bands got a reminder of what the Tenleytown series had once been, what it stood for, and what it was up against.
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To recap: In June, the National Park Service demanded that Fort Reno pay for a U.S. Park Police officer to be on site during each concert, a modest cost that nevertheless would have doubled the series’ budget. After she failed to obtain an explanation, organizer Amanda MacKaye pulled the plug on the series—and got the outrage she was hoping for. D.C. media picked up the story, the hashtag #savefortreno proliferated, and politicians like Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton and Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen wrote stern letters to the Park Service. Within days, D.C. shadow Sen. Paul Strauss—a former Fort Reno volunteer—had brokered a meeting between MacKaye and authorities, and while she walked away with some clarity, a promise of friendly policing, and other minor concessions, the Park Service got exactly what it wanted: money. The shows went on. Everyone said phew.
Direct your angst where you will: at the philosophical stodginess of D.C. punk, in the name of which organizers risked the shows over a piddly amount of money; at the Fort Reno series itself, which until this year kept getting shorter and smaller, and which often resists simple things like actively raising money; at Congress and the Obama administration, whose debt-ceiling showdown led to the 2013 sequester, which carved $153 million out of the parks budget, causing the agency to tighten its belt all over the country. But mostly blame the Park Service itself, which once paid Fort Reno performers and now demands that organizers pay; which applies inconsistent standards to performance events on its land across the city; which ought to have no business managing urban parks; and which isn’t very good at it, anyway. If only Fort Reno could be a little bit less hidebound by the mores of D.C. punk, and a lot less encumbered by strictures of federal stewardship.