Despite its location in the basement of a Presbyterian church tucked between the Mount Pleasant Historic District and Columbia Heights, the Wilson Center became a popular punk venue in the 1980s because bands could play loudly and without interference from adults or local authorities. The Wilson Center didn’t just operate as a concert venue, however; it, along with the church, served as a community center for the Latinx population immigrating to Washington, DC. As early as the mid-1960s, the church was a safe haven for Latinx people fleeing Central America, as war, economic strife, and political upheaval ensued throughout the mid-to-late-20th century.
The first documented punk concert took place in 1981, when Bad Brains, along with 12 other bands, all played a show together at the Wilson Center. From then on, the space turned into one of the more popular venues for local bands, seeing as punk bands were continually banned from clubs, bars, and other venues. However, this relationship hit a roadblock when increasing violence in slam dancing (a type of dance where people run into and hit one another while moving in a counterclockwise circle called a pit) and fighting led the Wilson Center’s administration and the local community to ban punk bands from continuing to use the space.
This stalemate ended in 1987, when Fugazi held their first show in the Wilson Center. From then on, bands once again filled the church basement with punk music and its loyal fans. The last punk concert held in the Wilson Center occurred in 2001, with multiple generations of punks dancing, singing, and screaming along to their favorite bands one last time. By that point, the building had already been converted to an elementary school, but had opened its doors to the punk scene as a final goodbye.
While punks no longer use the space as a concert venue, the legacy of the Wilson Center remains. The Wilson Center acted as a safe haven for both Latinx youth escaping violence in the city and punks trying to find spaces to express themselves and their ideas without disruption from authorities.
This site is a part of the Exploring DC's Go-Go and Punk Music Scenes Tour.