New Orleans is the coolest city in North America. I’m not saying that as a geographer (I haven’t been to every city in North America); I’m saying it as someone who appreciates incredibly cool cities. Maybe it’s because New Orleans occupies (putting the geographer hat back on here) an invaluable space in the last 500 years of circulation of people and culture. As I’ve outlined in innumerable musical geography lectures, jazz could not have emerged from anywhere other than New Orleans. The same could be said for Mardi Gras Indians, second lines, and countless other Crescent City institutions.
One valuable perspective that my friend David shared with me was that the city is not necessarily the Southernmost US city, but the Northernmost Caribbean city. I’ve been thinking about that for most of the past two weeks. No city should belong exclusively to the United States, especially not this one.
What I’ve always appreciated about New Orleans has been how, more than any other city in North America, it has been beaten down AGAIN and AGAIN, and despite every excuse to throw in the towel, it has risen AGAIN and AGAIN. These “hits” on New Orleans throughout history have been rarely so definable as the post-Katrina flooding and disaster in 2005, the kick-them-while-they’re-down timing of Hurricane Rita a few years after, and the adjacent atrocity that BP committed in the Gulf on which they are still working to influence the narrative^.
AAG paid greater due respect to their host city than I’ve witnessed in my six years as a member. Two of the three special focuses, as clearly laid out in their GeoGram, were black geographies and natural hazards/disasters. To avoid inclusive discussion of either of those in New Orleans (in 2018) would have been irresponsible and tone-deaf. I’m grateful for all the work Derek Alderman has done during his tenure as AAG President, but helping direct attention to those topics was particularly conscientious of him.
All of the Black Geographies sessions that I attended were crowded and included a pointed diversity of speakers. One session on Friday morning featured a paper on black girlhood followed with papers on cruising culture in Los Angeles and the legacy of the Mardi Gras Indians, featuring details on Chief Monk Boudreaux. I was disappointed to discover I would be leaving town before he and his loyal band performed at the French Quarter Festival. That being said, the storms that passed through on Saturday the 14th made it impossible for the thousands of festival goers to see him, too, since they cancelled that day’s events due to an encroaching hell-storm.
As far as conference cities go, New Orleans was simultaneously great and terrible. It was great because New Orleans is great. AAG did not need to fight to lure their membership there from around the world, and more attendance equals more revenue, more funding, and more material. It was terrible, because… New Orleans is great. The ability to walk to anything in the French Quarter (Café du Monde being one weakness of mine) or fire up a Jazzy Pass and hop on a streetcar to Camellia Café, Metairie Cemetery, City Park, Hi-Ho Lounge, Sidney’s Saloon, Jacques-Imo’s, Live Oak Café, Domino Sound Record Shack, or several dozen other places I’m forgetting often makes it hard to “conference” effectively.
Another bizarre, immensely entertaining facet to AAG’s anchoring itself on Canal Street was the confluence of humanity that surrounded us. Wrestlemania (an increasingly ‘New Orleans’ institution, apparently) took place at the Superdome on April 8th, and many WWE fans stuck around to take in the city over the following week, creating a mix of stuffy academics and folks in Macho Man t-shirts that was a sight to behold. I make no assumption that geographers and wrestling fans don’t have a righteous overlap (I love Macho Man, may he rest in peace), but I appreciated the juxtaposition and the ability to take photos with the words “Welcome Wrestling Fans!” projected in the concourse after registering and picking up my badge. My Lyft driver on Saturday told me how she drove wrestling legend Justin Credible from the airport a few days prior.
We didn’t really experience such a mixture of humanity in Boston, but the conference center/shopping mall that housed AAG 2017 was fairly guarded and privatized. Quantum-leaping between three different hotels on Canal St. reminded me more of San Francisco in 2016. The AAG put us in at least two hotels in the Tenderloin. From what I understood, the Tenderloin was still a “place you didn’t go” less than a decade ago (Rancid even had a song about it). In 2016, however, Diane Feinstein’s scheme was showing visible dividends. It felt accessible and safe enough, despite the pimps and prostitutes who dotted the conference hotel’s block as soon as the sun went down (some didn’t even wait until then). Canal Street, as the artery on the fringe of NOLA’s booming tourism epicenter (only, on speed… and without an ‘off’ switch), made it difficult to find reprieve. Our hotel, the Astor Crowne Plaza, sat on the corner of Bourbon Street, and it’s telling when your hotel provides you with earplugs rather than a Gideon bible.
All that being said, I had a great time both out in the city and at the conference. I arrived on a soggy Saturday to give myself a couple of days to see some friends before the conference kicked into high gear on Tuesday. A large population of my colleagues had the same idea, though I had the advantage of staying near the horse track not far from Mid-City and avoiding the French Quarter until I checked in on Monday.
On Sunday, I headed to Uptown to grab lunch, find some old haunts, and buy some records. I wandered through Oak Street to catch up with the Live Oak Café, where my friend Ted and I once befriended the in-house pianist, Charles Farmer, and tipped him into playing “Jersey Girl” by Tom Waits*. My friend Sean in Knoxville had also given me instructions to find an old friend of his named Rosie at the Avenue Café on St. Charles. Only if he had delivered that directive to me in a Tom Waits voice under a streetlamp could it have been more quintessentially New Orleans. I needed to finish and refine my presentation before conference madness set in, so I ordered some tea and set up shop there for the afternoon. When Rosie came back from her break, I introduced myself and we had a great conversation about New Orleans, our buddy Sean, and life in general. Another thing I’ve always appreciated about the city has been its supernatural ability to bring people together from walks of life you wouldn’t even expect.
Monday, which happened to be my birthday, was when the aforementioned conference madness really began to spark. I knew that anytime I wandered to the anchor hotel (the Marriott, in this case) I ran the risk of getting “AAG’d” which was a verb I (doubt that I) invented to characterize the possibility of getting roped into interaction after activity after interaction that dislodges any best laid plans. The registration desk opened at 4pm, so those of us who were in town converged on our hotels and got our bearings. My best friend in Atlanta happened to be there for a few days for a separate conference, so he came by and took me out to lunch, which was wonderful. We had a whirlwind catch-up session over po’boys, beignets, and coffee, which was fortunate because our respective schedules prevented us from meeting up again before he returned to Atlanta. As much as I laud the city for bringing people together, it can also easily do that to you, too.
My friends Laura and Dave had pinned “starter dollars” on my shirt, as is the local tradition. I did not make a ton of money by the end of the night, though I did get a torrent of pleasant birthday wishes from strangers. Walking down Bourbon Street with the dollars on me a target, though, so some colleagues/friends and I quickly slipped off the block and wound up getting drinks at Brennan’s. Hearkening back to a fantastic photo that Erik Johanson took in Tampa on my birthday in 2014, I snapped this:
Another thing I appreciate about the AAG, now having been to my sixth meeting, is the ease of starting ‘traditions.’ They don’t always need to include the same people; they just have to go through the same (or similar) motions. In San Francisco, my Berlin-based friend Lucas Elsner and I took a sojourn to the Haight to shop at Amoeba. This year, we gathered some others (four people from four different countries) for an afternoon in the Bywater neighborhood. The six of us treated ourselves to lunch at Elizabeth’s and then spent more time than most normal people would at Euclid Records, nearby. I wish I had taken more pictures. I can see this tradition continuing and growing. Geographers on vinyl.
[As a cheap plug to those of you in Knoxville, Nathan McKinney and I will be playing some cuts from some of the records pictured at our next DJ night, May 3rd at Last Days of Autumn Brewing. There is no real academic outreach element here; it’s just going to be a fun night of music, craft beer, and maybe some dancing if the crowd is into that.]
THE ACTUAL CONFERENCE
I meant it when I said New Orleans was simultaneously a great and terrible setting for AAG. The fact that I’ve been working on my retrospective post(s) for hours and I’ve written so little about the actual academic, business, and networking contents of the week. Much of the time I did spend conferencing tended to blur together, composed of well-organized paper sessions, fascinating plenary talks, and poster sessions that I tried my best to swing through in between. Of course, I found myself “AAG’d” at least 3 or 4 times per day, so I missed a bunch of sessions I had saved on the AAG app.
Speaking of the AAG app, kudos to the organization and whatever contractor they hired to build it. I’m assuming ESRI had a hand, considering how they posted at least 2 seconds of an ad every time the app opened, but these programs don’t grow on trees. This was the first AAG that I, an obnoxious analog loyalist, did not leave with (1) a printed program or (2) a water bottle. I did not get the program because I may have just forgotten whether I had ordered one, and I didn’t get a water bottle because nobody did! The AAG forewent those party favors this year. I never heard why, but the rumblings of geographers who had too many water bottles probably became loud enough on twitter or in the conference hallways. I had enough to pack when preparing to head home, so I didn’t miss having the veritable phone book and bottle clinking around this year.
I spent much of Day One, similarly to my first day in Boston last year, wandering around the city doing some independent research and repeat photography, which I will detail extensively in Part II of my retrospective (coming later this week).
Day Two (Wednesday) I caught the cultural geographies Plenary Talk by Paul Kingsbury, which was just as solid as any other cultural geographies keynote I’ve seen, but may be the most entertaining one yet. Kingsbury’s work, already gaining a lot of steam through the preeminence of science fiction-themed reality television and paranormal preoccupations, focuses on the people and community built around these investigations. Although I went in expecting something different, the result was strangely comforting, particularly in an era when UFO enthusiasts and paranormal investigators are more often painted as wackos or transformed into memes before being understood as humans. I look forward to seeing whatever else he produces from this line of work, especially if he does somehow inadvertently prove we’re not alone.
After Kingsbury’s talk ended, I picked up a rental car and left for Lafayette. A friend invited me out there for the evening, and since I had never been to the city and was eminently curious about it, I took him up on his offer. At the advice of various Cajun friends, I wound up outside the Best Stop Supermarket in suburban Scott, sharing delicious boudin with a stray kitten. I also tasted my first pork cracklin, and quickly looked up where (if anywhere) I could get Cajun food in Eastern Tennessee.
Somewhat inspired by a 1984 Marjorie Esman article on the rediscovery and leveraging of Cajun identity in Lafayette, I walked around downtown with a critical eye, noticing the “Shop Leauxcal” signs in many storefront windows, spotting street signs that had been modified to say “Rue….” rather than the English name, and of course patronizing Lagniappe Records. Not that I didn’t support the leauxcal economy plenty at Lagniappe, but I’m grateful that my ignorance of various obscure Zydeco legends prevented me from shelling out big bucks on their rare 7-inch records that sat in a box behind the register. In a way, it felt reassuring seeing such an intensely local form of music retaining its geographic allure despite an international community of music collectors willing to drive Cajun music prices to those extremes.
I got back to New Orleans around 1 AM, where I raced to the Circle Bar to find a few international friends in an effort to continue another AAG tradition: seeking out a punk show in a dive bar. The French Oi! band Rixe happened to be playing a late show, so I told my good friends Sarah Gelbard and Lucas Elsner (both of whom went on the Friday vinyl excursion) that I would meet them there. Unfortunately, Rixe were thundering through their final song as I parked and ran in, but the group of us had a great time catching up outside. We actually outlasted everyone else who had congregated on the sidewalk. The opening band drove back to Hattiesburg, and even Rixe had taken all of their merch and gone by the time we realized we had outlasted everyone short of the bar staff who were trying to clean up and close inside. Although I didn’t get to experience the show with my friends, I got the rewarding conversation and exhaustion afterwards. So, in other words, I felt at home again. Extra respect to Sarah for her impressive ability to talking her friends and colleagues, many of whom were not even into punk and had never been to a show, into what must have been a marginally terrifying experience for them. Although the building looks fairly large from across the circle (as seen in that photo I took of it in 2007, above), inside it was as intimate and divey as any bar where you would see a French Oi! band play on a Wednesday night. I remember how curious the place made me when I wandered by it in December 2007, so I loved being able to see inside it. It wasn’t quite the dream-come-true that I experienced outside of Segovia in 2015, but I appreciated the stop nonetheless.
THE ACTUAL ACTUAL CONFERENCE
Thursday was my first day completely full of conference activity, beginning with a session I chaired on the Geographies of Music. It featured talks from Max Buckholz on the Bay Area punk explosion of the 1990s (a project after my own heart), soundmapping the music of Donny Hathaway by Ranier LeLoup (Laval), gentrification in Brixton by Australian transplant Kate Carr, Erasmus Institute research on gig economies and spaces by Arno van der Hoeven (Rotterdam), and a discussion by Ola Johannson (Pittsburgh-Johnstown), who has appeared numerous times on this blog.
That afternoon, Helen Morgan-Parmett’s (UVM) Plenary Talk for the Media and Communication Geography specialty group became perhaps my favorite session of the entire meeting. My friend (and AAG social media guru) Emily Fekete introduced her, and the first thing that Helen commented was that she wasn’t a geographer. Ironically, whenever extra-disciplinary presenters mentioned this throughout the conference, I noticed that their audiences perked up a bit. Or maybe it was just me. Either way, I was disappointed that Helen didn’t have a bigger crowd for a discussion of generations of representation of New Orleans in film and television, one of the most gift-that-keeps-on-giving of locally focused topics covered at AAG.
The lecture taught me a ton about the history of film in New Orleans, including correcting many false assumptions that I’d had. One of which was that much of the city’s burgeoning role as a filming site was a post-Katrina phenomenon; in fact, the Film New Orleans tax credit initiatives went back to 2002. She also included a discussion of the quintessential “brilliant, but canceled” 1988 series Frank’s Place, which actually had to be rescued from complete eradication by forward-thinking pages at CBS, snatching the master tapes out of the garbage. Helen shared the beautiful, nostalgic credit sequence that made more money for Louis Armstrong’s estate per episode than any of the actors did. Still, it nearly brought a tear to my eye, as I’d watched scenes from the show before in undergrad, but had never seen this:
One of my favorite professors in undergrad, Richard Dubin, was one of the principal producers on the show, and this talk gave me a wonderful excuse to get back in touch with him. He told me he was still proud of that show, thirty years later, and I was glad to mention this connection to Helen while I was commending her for her talk. It got several gears turning in my head regarding writing I’ve been doing on symbolic gentrification in popular culture and reading I’ve been doing on Debord’s society of the spectacle (“places becoming filmed places”). It also bears mentioning that while searching for postcard image sites on Tuesday (again, more on that soon), my friends and I walked past a crowd that had accumulated by Lafayette Square where NCIS was filming a scene. The city as a compilation of inescapable representations, indeed.
On Friday, I woke up early to present my new paper on the uses of Punk and Underground Music in Teaching Geography, which seemed to go over well. Erik Hitters kicked off our session with a continuation of the research that he and van der Hoeven had been doing on Rotterdam, Adam Zendel (Toronto) talked about qualitative research on people on the fringes of the music industry (union workers, roadies, DIY musicians) and the toll that the lifestyle takes on them, Anne Smith (Montpellier) talked about music’s role in surf communities in Florida, I presented, and then my buddy Séverin Guillard brought it home with a discussion.
And just like that, our session ended, we congregated and chatted in the hallway for a few minutes, and then we all scattered. I got back together with Séverin, Sarah, and Lucas that afternoon for food and record shopping in the Bywater, but for the most part the conference pulled us in multiple directions later that day. Lauri Turnpeinin, another European geographer with deep interest in music who came on the vinyl excursion, and I caught up in the airport early the next morning (more on that in my very left-field Part III entry, later this week).
Later on Friday, I was incredibly fortunate to find a session on Repeat Photography happening in the Sheraton in an unenviable time slot (imagine what was happening down on the street, one block away from the casino and portals to the French Quarter Festival). I’ll write more about that very soon. I’m going to cut this off here for reasons of length and sanity. Come back for Part Two in a few days, where I’ll share some of the repeat photography mentioned here and alluded to throughout this entry. Thanks for reading this far.