#AAG2017 Recap Part I: Boston, 2017

If post-internet culture has taught us anything (and as I’ve joked about on here before), the best way to gain interested readers is to wait until the subject at hand is far enough in their rear-view mirror so that their fatigue over it has dissipated. That is the complete fabrication I’m going to lean on as to why I’m posting about the 2017 American Association of Geographers Meeting more than six weeks after it ended. But, like AAG meetings prior, I had a great time, learned a lot, and met many great people whose contributions I’d like to share here.

The simple truth (which many of you who know me may have already guessed) was that I came back to Knoxville and had my hands full with some very time-sensitive academic proceedings. After a brief sojourn in Florida (which will have its own entry in Part III… yes there will be three parts to this) to attend the wedding of friends whom I introduced to one another back in the halcyon days of 2014, I flew back to Knoxville despite the best efforts of Allegiant Airlines to keep us in the St. Petersburg airport indefinitely. As soon as I was physically and mentally able, I launched straight into preparation for my dissertation defense, slated to happen the following Monday morning. I’m grateful to say that I passed, and with great assistance and motivation from my committee, completed my revisions in time to complete my formatting work with the UTK Thesis Office by the drop-deadline of that Wednesday. So, I write here for the first time as Dr. Tyler Sonnichsen, and I couldn’t be more honored.

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Dr. Van Riemsdijk, Dr. Bell, Dr. Alderman, sleep-deprived almost-Dr. Sonnichsen, and Dr. Gay.  Those of you who know Dr. Alderman would not be surprised to know he made fun of me for wanting to take this group photo.

Of course, once I met the graduation deadline with my manuscript approval and form submission, I had a plethora of piñatas other items to cover which I had relegated to the back-burner after getting back from AAG, and that bled into end-of-semester duties, finals week, [insert excuse here], [insert excuse here], and commencement.

But, I’m currently in the zone of the job market, completing my teaching portfolio, and helping my own students as they round out their spring semesters and begin their summers. That’s all to say I am finally here and writing about the amazing, somewhat truncated, and extremely soggy conference week in my native city…

Boston

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This gorgeous photo above is from The Fiscal Times. It vaguely resembles the amazing panoramic view we had from the second level of the Hynes Convention Center, which I regret not photographing while walking by. Given the nature of this conference, I was either late for a session nearby or interrupted for a chat with someone I had not seen in some time. I love this picture, but there’s something not right about  it… something a bit… off…

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THAT’S more like it! Here’s a better visual representation of Boston in 2017. Luxury condos practically sprouting from the ground like beanstalks in the South End, the construction towers blocking once-nice views of the city. The silhouette you see there is my father, who came up for the day on Saturday to meet me and see an old friend, whose living room we see pictured here. For as long as I can remember, Boston has been maligned as one of the country’s most expensive cities, and for a complex list of predictable reasons.

Many of the Baby Boomers who moved out to the suburbs in the 1980s during the so-called ‘Massachusetts Miracle’ are taking advantage of the downsizing and accessibility that comes with moving back into the core of a very small city. My parents, though they are not in the class of urban returners, have completely engaged with Uber and Lyft whenever visiting friends in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, or wherever they go. It’s pretty gratifying, actually. I cannot even attempt to quantify how much suffering we prevented and money we saved by taking a Lyft into the North End for lunch. It also did not help that we chose to do so on (1) a Saturday, and (2) a game day for the Boston Bruins nearby at TD Banknorth Garden (in which of course they were soundly defeated by my beloved Washington Capitals). We did discuss going to see the game, but again, we were in Boston, and even the nosebleed seats were out of our price range.

In all of my visits to the city, I had never been to the South End, which considering how it was mainly an industrial neighborhood centered around the old Boston Herald office, is not surprising. More recently, though, the city has overseen the neighborhood’s redevelopment into a block of luxury condos and all the predictable accouterments: Whole Foods, yoga studios, and high-security parking garages. The neighborhood’s title (Ink Block) and building names (e.g. Sepia) recall the area’s pre-gentrification history.

As harrowing and impressive as this new development is, nothing about this trip changed my longstanding general opinion of Boston: it’s cold, rainy, indifferent, expensive, an absolute nightmare to get around, and one of my favorite places on the planet. I’ve said it before: no matter how long its been since I’ve lived there, I just can’t scrub it from my veins. Folks who lob indiscriminate hatred towards the city, both questionable (usually regarding sports or weather) and understandable (usually race-related) simply lack this “insight.” Or, maybe they just sincerely hate it. But, every person’s experience of urban place is different. Speaking of experiencing urban places, on to…

The Conference

As I alluded above, this year’s AAG was somewhat abbreviated for me. I arrived on Tuesday night, having traveled with a new friend from the UTK Anthropology department on her way up to present a poster.  Somehow, I had not anticipated how bleak the weather would be; even in the transit station (mostly indoors) it was freezing, and after my friend and I parted ways after emerging in the Back Bay, I walked through hypothermia-inducing drizzle and wind for what felt like a mile (it was three blocks) to locate the Copley Marriott.

The core of this year’s conference was held in and around the Hynes Convention Center, the Copley Marriott, and the Sheraton Boston, all of which were connected through a tunnel-and-mall system. Considering how miserable the weather was for approximately half of the conference week, it was convenient not to need to go outside to attend any official part of AAG. Here is a visual of the 3-block span.

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Though made somewhat necessary by the nasty weather, this was a quintessential case study of the postmodernist urban design that Angelenos like Michael Dear wrote about as they started seeing it crystallize around Los Angeles thirty years ago. It took deceptively long to get from a session in the Marriott to a session in Hynes or the Sheraton, as I had to do several times. Also, there was an island of walled-off construction in the Prudential Center mall at the receiving end of the Huntington Avenue footbridge, which did not ruin anything but was slightly cumbersome. The mall included one of everything, notably, consistently-slammed Dunkin’ Donuts and Sweetgreen franchises, both of which would play prominently into my conference week. The Cultural Geography Specialty Group decided to hold their annual breakfast at the Dunkin on Thursday Morning, despite a rapidly accumulating hell-crowd of Geographers and mall employees trying to get their wake-up wraps and Dunkaccinos. That being said, Dunkin’ Donuts is a New England institution and this one was particularly overcrowded – both dynamics as Bostonian as anything. Ironically, we could not have been a more authentic cultural experience in the most inauthentic of settings.

As for Sweetgreen, I finally found an excuse to get lunch there on Friday with a good friend and former colleague. I had not eaten at Sweetgreen since going to one of the original locations in DC. The burgeoning chain had actually been founded by a group of Georgetown kids shortly after I moved there, and every time I’ve seen one of these locally sprouted chains show up in a (somewhat) far-flung city I tend to get excited for the founders. I had the same reaction seeing a Jeni’s Ice Cream stand in Atlanta. Entrepreneurship is worth the pain and struggle when you’ve got something fantastic you’re selling.

Wednesday

Wednesday morning presented me with my only free stretch in which I could go looking for a few specific landmarks (to be detailed in Part II), so I said hello to some colleagues in the morning and quickly slipped out in the general direction of Downtown Crossing and Cambridge. I made it back in time to catch a paper presentation by Sarah Gelbard, who had reached out to me a couple months prior because our abstracts were the only two out of the (virtually) millions at AAG to feature the term “punk.” Sarah’s paper on ownership of punk venues in Ottawa was part of one of Simon Springer’s anarchist geography sessions. That session turned out to be a prototypical AAG moment where I met numerous people in person finally with whom I’d been corresponding for some time. Sarah’s paper opened with a controversy that erupted last year around a performance by The Queers in Ottawa (which I caught wind of through social media channels)  and expanded into a discussion of scene identity and spatial dynamics in Canada’s capital city. Stay tuned for more appearances from her in this recap.

Wednesday evening gave me the opportunity to spend quality time with some old CSULB friends. Because Long Beach State is a two-year program, nobody with whom I studied there (2011-2013) is still actively enrolled, so every year at AAG I get to meet a handful of excited new grad students. Many of the faculty, some of whom I’ve been fortunate to keep in contact, have remained, obviously, and I couldn’t imagine a more fun and eclectic mix of people to get reintroduced to every couple of years.

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Crashing the UCLA party with the Long Beach cohort. Boyston Street.

This year, my friend Anna, whose final semester of undergrad overlapped with my first semester of grad school, began her Master’s there. She introduced me to several new members of their department; I was proud to see such expansive involvement from the CSU grad students, considering how few of us even made it to AAG in 2013 (when it was in Los Angeles). Seeing the level of dedication the new group had, considering how far they traveled in order to get there, spoke loudly of the growth of that program since I left. In fact, several of them were not even presenting papers or posters and were there primarily on their own dime. I had already been impressed with the handful of Long Beach geographers I had met by Thursday morning, but I ran into Anna, Dr. Paul Laris (longtime department head), and a new congregation of them on Boylston Street on my way back from Cambridge on Friday Night. We wound up talking about music, eating tator tots, and closing out the Bukowski Tavern (perhaps the most appropriately named bar I’ve ever visited).

Thursday(s) with Noam

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via The AAG.

Predictably, the biggest-ticket event of AAG 2017 was the conversation with and presentation of the Atlas Award to Noam Chomsky. The crowd was unlike anything I had seen at an AAG meeting previously, even if other Atlas Award winners like Julian Bond (Tampa 2014) deserved just as big of a crowd (and had a ballroom equipped for as many attendees). AAG Executive Director Doug Richardson, who first interviewed Chomsky for an anarchist newspaper in 1976, hosted. A few key moments within the interview stood out.

My friend got to the ballroom fairly early and saved me a seat near the front. From there, we got to watch at least a dozen attendees stand and take photos of Richardson as he prepared his notes. He would, toward the end of the talk, address his resemblance to Chomsky, but he did nothing to stop these adoring fans from taking his photograph, clearly thinking he was Chomsky. Anyone could Google Chomsky and find his age (he is 88 this year), which would mean Richardson would have been an incredibly well-preserved 88. Also, it seemed strange that the guest of honor would have just been sitting on the stage by himself before the main event.

Second, throughout the interview, Chomsky and Richardson discussed the neoliberal model, which came to irrevocably harm cities like Detroit, which was near and dear to Richardson, a Michigan native. Richardson mentioned offhandedly that he supported the idea of the AAG holding an annual meeting in Detroit, which I happily applauded, which trickled out into a smattering of other applause from isolated points within the crowd. I was happy to see someone on the AAG Executive board voicing support for holding the meeting in a city that (1) has deeply suffered for the past few decades and (2) is relatively cheap. I know it is a topic of contention; I got into heated conversations about how AAG Tampa may have been my favorite so far with people who hated it that year.

The third noteworthy moment actually occurred after I had to leave, but I heard about it via twitter from a pair of reliable sources. They set up mics on stands in the rows next to the stage for audience Q & A. Despite how many men rushed to line up, the hosts gave special privilege to one of the few women in line and told her to move to the front. A nice gesture that proved both self-awareness from Chomsky and Richardson, as well as a general acknowledgment of gray-haired white men in the Academy. And I say that as a graying white male: no panel discussion or paper session ever lost out from a multiplicity of perspectives and voices.

Friday, I’m In Too Many Sessions at Once

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Ruth Trumble, a good friend and former colleague, opens up the slow violence paper session on Friday Morning, April 7.

One remarkable dynamic within academia is the forging of great friendships with people whose research you never get to see on display. Ruth Trumble (Wisconsin), who is doing great work on “slow violence” over the past two decades in the Balkans, is one example. From what I recall, the last time I saw Ruth actually present was at the 2014 UTK Geography Research Symposium (before it was even called GeoSym) while completing her MA at Tennessee. I was glad to finally change that this year.

After Ruth’s paper, I got to walk directly across the hall to see my adviser Derek Alderman receive the Ethnic Geography Specialty Group teaching award. c80yrkiwsaqzn6vEven more rewarding was getting there in time to watch my friend and also-former-colleague Matt Cook delivering a sentimental speech about his work and friendship with Derek. I was grateful to be able to represent his current body of advisees as we all had a chance to say a few words about what Alderman has done for us. I shared my anecdote about how Derek went out of his way to meet with me at AAG 2013 when he had such limited time to do so, and why that (more than anything) was why I chose to get my PhD at Tennessee.  I would need to go back to 2013 on these entries to see whether I mentioned this, but I committed to UT without ever having even visited Knoxville. I have no idea how often grad students make decisions in that order, but I’m pretty pleased I did. My example can also serve as a reminder to answer emails from students quickly, especially prospective ones, and make time for them.

Though I have my issues (as many people do) with the algorithms that churn out the schedule, it worked out very well for me on Friday morning. Friday afternoon, however, was another story.

Paper Session: Qualitative Methods in Human Geography, A

Friday afternoon arrived, and it was time to meet a new group of co-presenters and present my methods chapter. At the same time (3:40 – 5:00 PM), the AAG scheduled both the cultural geographies Annual Lecture, as well as a paper session on music geographies which Severin Guillard and Joseph Palis (both of whom have made cameos on this site before) invited me to be discussant. I had to miss both, regrettably turning down the latter offer. It was all just bad luck from where I sat, but at least my paper session went incredibly well.

Andrew McCartan and Heather Maguire (Brock University) put two qualitative methodologies sessions together, the first of which included two papers on queer methodologies and drew a big crowd of LGBT geographers. Our chair Catherine Nash (Brock) opened the session with a quick announcement that she would be keeping us all well within time and “running a tight ship.” This made me smile; my two biggest pet peeves are (1) paper sessions diverting from the published schedule and (2) presenters going over their time (often because session chairs do not hold them to it). It follows that one usually leads to the other.

The session was tight in more ways that one; the room in the Marriott Hotel to which we were assigned was incredibly small. My event-production impulses kicked in as the first paper began and more people kept quietly entering. Rae Rosenberg and I were pinned behind a conference table next to the projection screen, so I had to (using mainly gestures and lip-reading) ask the fourth presenter, Jeff Rose, to transfer an empty chair next to the projector to the back of the room for the women sitting on the floor against the wall. Fortunately, he knew exactly what I meant. We may have had one or two spectators sitting on the floor, but we managed to get most of the presenters behind the tables and the available spots opened up. It’s always gratifying to watch geographers pull together as a group and suss out a potentially chaotic spatial situation; either way, there was no way this session could have surpassed the crunch of our Back to the Future panel in 2015.

The session opened with a video submission from Beyhan Farhadi, who chose to remain in Toronto, citing an alternative AAG gathering for Canadian/international geographers. Her presentation talked about virtual research methods, e-learners, and included an adorable video of her and her son (playing in the snow) imploring her students to sign up for her study. I was disappointed to not get the chance to meet her in person, but I was grateful for her statement, which echoed many concerns from AAG members who felt unwelcome in the United States given anti-Muslim/Arab/Persian/Levantine/et al. sentiments coming from many in power. One silver lining, I realized, may be a greater motivation for the AAG to finally go to Toronto one of these years (after 2022, at least, through which they announced the next 5 meeting locations). Add that to a list of cities where the AAG should go, but probably won’t.

Rae Rosenberg then presented work on homelessness among LGBT youth in Toronto, which focused mainly on reflexivity. Heather Maguire followed with covert research into anti-LGBT groups, which I found fascinating for multiple reasons. First, it subverted (or, at least professionally sidestepped) the IRB superstructure, and second, it was ruthlessly important to qualitatively understanding the antiquated thought processes of those who are still anti-gay in 2017. Both Rosenberg and Maguire called forth the concept of queerness-as-political position. Rosenberg also reminded me of how inherently politicized geography is. For example, prisoner-correspondence programs (a component of Rosenberg’s work) inherently chip away at the Prison-Industrial complex. Rose’s presentation, focusing on participant observation within a homesteader community in Utah (and its inherent contradictions), was also great and at times hilarious.

You could have probably guessed it was a good session because I did not pause to take any photos. I’m sure that some exist, though, and I’ll re-post them if I do find any.

Alternative AAG Excursions in Boston

Here is the exciting part where we leave the conference grounds and discover the true geography in the city. Mid-day on Thursday, Sarah Gelbard and I headed over to Newbury Street to grab pho, talk about our respective towns, and figure out where we stand in (a term that seems less funny every time I use it) punkademia.  Later that day while I was in a conference whirlwind, Sarah sent me a message with a link to an event for a show that night. I filed it away and I forgot to look at it until later on, when I happened to be at a pub in Allston to meet up with some local friends. I realized, through pure happenstance, that this show happened to be about a 5 minute walk away! I said my goodbyes and headed down to O’Brien’s Pub, where I found Sarah, UK-via-France anarcho-geographer Martin Locret-Collet, and their colleague Filipa Pajevic.

O’Briens felt like the quintessential corner bar filled with good people and modestly priced (for Boston, anyway) drinks. Rather than go to one of the dozen delicious Korean or Middle Eastern spots within walking distance, I made the mistake of scarfing down bar hot dogs. Sometimes, convenience is a bad influence. Still, it was fun getting to know Martin and Filipa, and the show itself was ear-splitting fun (Sarah actually had earplugs, to her responsible credit). Local favorites Rebuilder and Charlotte’s Dollar Signs rounding out a bill headlined by Devon Kay and the Solutions. I say “apparently” because hints were dropping that another band were going to show up and play a surprise set. I did not remember who Devon Kay was, which made it all the more shocking when his main band, Direct Hit!, showed up to close out the show (and the bar).

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SAYYYY WHATEVER YOU WANT TOOOOO….

Sarah and I could barely believe this turn of events. Direct Hit! may not be a household name like NOFX, Rise Against, or Bowling for Soup, but they have toured with all of them (the latter, actually, were why DH! were in Boston that night in the first place), and they’re currently one of the biggest draws among independent pop-punk bands. This was all going through my mind as I sent jealousy-inducing texts to a select few friends that would have loved to have been there in my place.


This amazing turn of events kept a most bizarre streak alive of me catching great punk shows almost by accident during AAG:

  • 2014, Tampa. I discovered, upon picking up the local alternative weekly paper that the Dead Milkmen were playing at a local metal bar that Saturday night. Because it was so close to the event (and this place was tiny) tickets were extremely sold out, and my friends and I had to watch and listen from outside (it still counts, though!).
  • 2015, Chicago. A friend of mine living and working as a lawyer in Chicago invited me to the Beat Kitchen to check out Pile, a mercilessly creative/proggy metal band from Boston. Later in the week, I returned to the Beat Kitchen to see Joie de Vivre, a quintessential emo-revival group. I tried selling it to some colleagues as a “classic Chicago emo excursion,” but unfortunately Alt_AAG hadn’t coalesced by that point. Anyway, Joie de Vivre were great to see, if out of practice. While they were tuning up, I bumped into the drummer from Annabel, one of my favorite newer emo bands, who I hadn’t seen in a while. I had no idea he lived in Chicago. I’m just rambling now.
  • 2016, San Francisco. A British participant at Geo-Slam started chatting with me about the Ergs! after the session, and mentioned that California (a newer band featuring Adam Pfahler of Jawbreaker and Green Day’s touring guitarist Jason White) were playing a small gig around the corner with All Dogs (a Columbus/Philly group I knew in the slightest).  We had no idea, however, that Billie Joe Armstrong would be there, filling in on bass for California. Really. I also got to meet Gaz Coombes within 24 hours of this, but I’d been planning to see him play for months and he’s not a punk band, so I won’t count that here. I’m rambling again.

The Direct Hit! incident made this the second straight year in which I had been invited to such a show by an international colleague which ended with an amazing surprise (keep this in mind when wondering how I’ve developed such severe FOMO). I’m fully aware that by cataloging these here I’ll probably jinx myself out of such an occurrence in New Orleans next year. I suppose that’s just as well, since New Orleans isn’t really much of a party town, is it?

Ah, who am I fooling… there are already plans stirring for at least two different special events with me either at the helm or in a collaborative position. I’m very excited, but I’ll refrain from teasing the specifics here because (1) both just came from speculative conversations with colleagues and (2) I want to allow myself to not think about conferences for a few minutes. For now, I should probably take a break writing to get my presentation together for EmoGeo…. d’oh.

Thanks for being a blast as always, Boston, and thanks to all those who came to see my paper on Friday as well as to those who put this academic and professional mega-event on year after year.

Check back in this Wednesday for Part II of my AAG 2017 Recap, where I venture out into Boston for my latest adventures (if you could call them that) in Re-Photography.

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