The Irving Postcards: Louisville, KY

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The United States Post Office, Court House, and Custom House in Louisville, KY (1936 Postcard Image, and December 2018). 

Last month, I spent a few days passing through the lower Midwest, including one of my favorite cities, Louisville. Not only is Louisville an overwhelmingly cool city with a great musical history (and according to Ethan Buckler a consistent threat of twisters), it’s also rich with history. Like its counterpart up the Ohio River Cincinnati, I imagine Louisville was a major crossroads during the antebellum era and reconstruction. It also gave us Muhammad Ali, quality baseball bats, and Elliott.

The two postcards I had on hand, like many items in the Ben Irving collection, were of newer landmarks the city was trying to show off in the WPA era. The Post Office and Memorial Auditorium both foreground Greco-Roman elements in their architecture. Only the Post Office postcard had any information about the building; it reads “Cost $3,000,000.00. Covers block on Broadway between 6th and 7th Streets.” Pretty straightforward. According to one inflation calculator, 3 Million dollars in 1930 would convert to $44,848,829.59 in today’s currency.

The more interesting building, for me, was the Memorial Auditorium. This postcard had absolutely no information on it, but according to the Auditorium’s official history, it opened in 1929 and was designed as a deliberate Greek Revival throwback by Thomas Hastings.

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Louisville Memorial Auditorium (1936 Postcard / December 2018 in Background)

Though it looked like there were some city offices inside the building (I saw a security guard wander out one of the side doors and leave shortly after I took the above picture), nobody appeared to be home, so I couldn’t go inside. I did wander around the building to get a more detailed look. My favorite part may be the bas reliefs, which you can see pretty clearly on the 1936 postcard image.

Thank you for reading. Coming soon: a failed attempt at an ambitious vista re-creation in West Virginia!

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Syndrome 81, Montreuil, July 2015

Happy New Year, everyone! Classes start in one week, and I have a mountain of items to catch up on after being out of town for so much of December. Two of these items include posts for this website, one of which is long overdue and another was inspired by a stops I made on the road in the Midwest last month. One of the most pressing, however, is putting the finishing touches on a project over three years in the making that I look forward to announcing soon.

I thought I would share this video I found of a SYNDROME 81 gig I attended in Paris in the summer of 2015. This was the night I met Fast Fab (the vocalist), who became a good friend and great informant for my dissertation. I wasn’t able to spot myself anywhere in here (probably hiding off to the side, snapping photos), but I had a good time.

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Syndrome 81 headline a gig in Montreuil, France, July 2015.

Fab later told me that the moniker Syndrome 81 is a joke (much like the name of his old band, Thrashington DC) that makes fun of how people think it’s completely insane (“syndrome”) for somebody born in 1981 to still be making music like this. I could probably ask myself the same question and rename half of this blog “Syndrome 83.” Regardless, Syndrome 81 have released a solid brief catalog of music over the past few years to solid critical acclaim from blogs and zines that appreciate the classic style.

Anyway, 2019 – how about that? More posts and announcements very soon.

Nathan Jurberg

Happy Birthday to Nathan Jurberg on what would have been his 100th. I became aware of his existence during a trip to Florida on March 8th, 2000, four days after he died:

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I know next to nothing about Jurberg, other than that he was Jewish, was born on December 12, 1918 (cf. public data sites), and lived on the 4th floor of Jade Winds when he passed on. I assume that he migrated to Florida to spend his retirement like my great-grandparents, but I have no way to know that for certain (unless you knew him and can tell me more).

Who is this Street Musician? (San Francisco, 1999)

Go ahead and file this entry under the alternate title, “Yet Another Reason I’m a Music Obsessive.”

I suppose I have relatively little in my life to regret. None of the ‘big’ decisions I’ve made (where to move, what career to pursue, relationships to develop) can be changed, so whenever I do get a pang of regret, it’s usually something arguably small: a concert I didn’t attend (e.g. Dillinger Four in DC this October) or a record I didn’t buy (e.g. that Brainiac reissue in New Orleans). Though, to be fair, Dillinger Four haven’t played their final show (just wait for them to get drunk enough and find the right bar in Minneapolis) and according to an old colleague Oliver Wang, those records will eventually find their way back to you if you’re paying attention.

So, here’s an anecdote about something almost twenty years ago that I regret to this day. In April 1999, my family and I flew out to San Francisco on a trip with my sister’s youth jazz band. Being an aspiring filmmaker at that time in my life, I hauled my little camcorder around the city with me. My sister’s band had a gig at Ghirardelli Square one afternoon, and I decided to film my walk down (what I can only assume was) Beach Street beforehand. I stopped for a moment to film an old man with an acoustic guitar, singing a wonderful rendition of “Georgia on my Mind.”

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I glanced down at a small case of cassette tapes he had on the ground next to him, wondering if I had the cash in my wallet to buy one. I’d already spent most of my trip allowance (or conned my parents into spending their money) on CDs and I’m sure a small assortment of embarrassing souvenirs teenagers buy on trips to any big city.

Before I could act on that impulse, my Mom yelled for me to come join them over in the Square, since the show was about to start. I reached into my pocket and threw some change into the bin next to his tapes and left, already feeling pangs of regret for not buying a tape.

I have no idea what his name was, and no amount of video technology that’s been coded this century could focus and zoom in on the grainy video I shot of him that afternoon. Honestly, I’d have to go back to the tape in order to even see whether I’d even caught a glimpse of his merchandise case, but its doubtful. Not that having one of his tapes would necessarily answer these questions, but even at that age, I was incredibly curious about the stories behind his music. At any rate, I wish I’d been able to capture more than 15-20 seconds of him playing that one song.

So, I just figured it wouldn’t hurt to throw this out into the ether to my San Francisco friends or anybody who sees this that may have lived/worked around Ghirardelli Square at the time: does anybody know who this old man is? I would be amazed if he was still alive, considering how this was almost two decades ago and he already appeared to be well into his seventies. I wonder whether any of his tapes (I vaguely remember him having more than one different release) circulated locally, or whether any wound up in thrift stores after his patrons downsized? I recognize how unlikely it is that anything would come from this, but crazier things have happened on the internet. Come on, global village – redeem yourself!

 

Mic Nite at Relix Theater this Thursday

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I’m looking forward to represent UTK Geography at the UT Faculty Fall Mic Nite this Thursday! It will take place at Relix Variety Theater (1208 N. Central Street). Doors are at 5:30pm, and presentations begin at 6:30pm. It’s free to attend, but they’d like for you to RSVP here so they can stock the pizza and bar appropriately.

This will be my second time presenting in the Pecha Kucha format and my first time presenting on what I’m referring to as “symbolic gentrification,” so it should be interesting, at the very least. I feel like Mic Nite, since it’s interdisciplinary, will provide a good forum for unpacking such a broad subject. I’ll paste my abstract from the program here.

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Symbolic Gentrification and Learning from Pop Culture

Gentrification has been a concern of sociologists, geographers, and urban dwellers at large since the sociologist Ruth Glass coined the term to describe changes in 1960s London. Critical geographers have long assumed much of that mantel, particularly Neil Smith, whose “The New Urban Frontier” remains a cornerstone. However, understanding gentrification solely a process of city development leaves out much of the story.

My research argues that gentrification is not simply a process of what Smith calls “revanchist urbanism,” but is, at its core, a greater dynamic that weaves geography together with multiple other fields within the humanities. Specifically, my experience teaching American Popular Culture has inspired me to approach what I call “symbolic gentrification,” a critical understanding of the relationship between urban space, capital, and the arts.

The last time I presented in this format (20 slides, 20 seconds apiece) was for the Pecha Kucha Night Knoxville in November 2016. I presented on Ben Irving publicly for the first time; you can watch here. I’m such a fan of the timed-slides format that I’m employing it in one of my classes this semester for the first time.

Hope to see you Thursday!

A Brief Visit to Columbia, SC

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I was down in Columbia last weekend. I managed to forget my Ben Irving postcards, but I did check my database against whatever images I could find, and most of the sites included were torn down. This wasn’t the first time I had run into that issue, but it was pretty dispiriting. Downtown Columbia has a lot of great things going on, as both the state capital and a major college town. My favorite building (and beneficiary of benign neglect) is probably Tapp’s Arts Center at 1644 Main Street. According to the official history, it was built in 1940. Irving went to Columbia at least four times (1936, 1938, 1940, and 1941), so he saw the growth of that block as the department store went up.

il_340x270-1480314154_8sc4Here are a couple of online resources I found about two of them: the Jefferson Hotel and the Hotel Wade Hampton. The namesake of the latter is indelible to antebellum South Carolina history, and I’m just learning about the Hampton family now. Their plantation Southeast of downtown Columbia, Millwood, was also featured on one of Irving’s postcards and remained a tourist attraction for over a century after Sherman’s raiders torched it in 1865. The columns depicted on the postcard and various easily-searchable photos from the 1940’s were all that survived of the estate (one of which toppled in 1930, leaving five standing). On the way out of town, I drove down to the site, which sits behind a private fence across from a Target Plaza on the outskirts of Columbia. As the sun was setting, I drove down Woodlawn Avenue slowly, trying to catch a glimpse of anything through the trees. No luck, unsurprisingly; the Millwood site was too far West of anywhere visible. It seemed like everything was still named after Wade Hampton, including the private road leading to the old site and the public park off of Woodlawn where a bunch of young African-Americans played basketball. The site owners still give tours monthly, though all that’s there to see are decapitated pillars slowly being reclaimed my nature. Meanwhile, up the road, Columbia’s downtown grows fast; the Old South vanishing as the New South booms. Though he may not have realized it at the time, Ben Irving’s Southern journeys afforded him a glimpse at a South, albeit paralyzed by Jim Crow laws, limping into modern America. Today, like many Southern cities, it’s at the forefront.

Thanks for reading! Here’s a photo of one of their giant Gamecock statues on Gervais Avenue. Some colleagues goaded me into climbing onto this thing during the 2016 SEDAAG meeting. I don’t want to talk about it.

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Did YOU Have to Explain ‘Blossom’ to Your Students Today?

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In case any of you were wondering, yes my PhD is hard at work, discussing the dated early-career arc of Joey Lawrence to a group of confused students in my Population Geography class. Let me backtrack and explain how it came to this.

The University of Tennessee opened a 1906 time capsule left entombed somewhere in the Estabrook Building, one of my favorites on campus (and slated for demolition). I watched it on their Facebook Live video feed with my Population Geography students before they took their final exam this morning. I also paid attention the livestream of comments, which were a heady mixture of demands they stop blabbing and open it already, self-deprecating “jokes” about Tennessee Football, and (after they opened it and found… desiccated nothing) righteous anger and Geraldo Rivera references.

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They historians on hand, including my colleague Bob Hutton (who would no doubt appreciate that last link), did a great job recovering from the disappointment. They had a comprehensive catalog of the items the 1906 crew left in the buried box, most of which had been preserved lovingly in the UT Archives behind them. They also took this opportunity to reiterate the value of well-maintained and funded archives, a sentiment upon which I’ve doubled down on multiple occasions.

Another curious byproduct of this experience was the seemingly inevitable reminscing about the Nickelodeon time capsule, which Mike O’Malley and Joey Lawrence buried in Orlando, on live television, on April 30, 1992. It was moved when Nickelodeon studios moved in 2005, but it is still slated to be opened on April 30, 2042 – fifty years to the day after it was buried.

The first epiphany I had was that 1992 was 26 years ago. 2042 is in 24 years. Society is more than halfway to the finish line of waiting to unearth this sealed box of early 90’s ephemera, most of which is readily available in thrift stores and vintage shops. Popular movies on VHS. An Orlando-distributed issue of TV Guide with Burt Reynolds on the cover. A hat embroidered with “WHOA! ’92” in honor of Joey Lawrence, then at the height of his teenybopper fame.

The latter item made me and an older student in my class (three years my junior) laugh out loud. When I saw the younger students looking on in confusion, I informed them that once upon a time, there was a show called Blossom that helped catapult their teenage cast to fame. I never watched the show, so I forgot that it starred Mayim Bialik , who is still incredibly famous as a star on The Big Bang Theory, perhaps the worst and most culturally caustic show ever produced (not a personal knock on Bialik by any means).

gi_153511_green20gak20lo20resIt’s impossible to predict these things, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the video camera they put into the capsule (after being unable to eject the tape) wound up being the most valuable thing upon unearthing in 2042. That, or the Barbie Doll in it’s original packaging. Or, maybe even the tube of Gak, a sticky slime compound cross-promoted with Nickelodeon shows whose name, somehow, functions as a stand-in for cocaine. You can’t make this stuff up.

So, in conclusion, time is like sands through the hourglass; I fear I may blink and it may be time for Mike O’Malley’s great-grandson to crack open that thing LIVE on YouComvrizoncasTube Mentalscreen Googlevision. There are more important lessons here, though, which can be applied to our experience from today. First, keep your archives funded and well-maintained by enthusiastic historians and lovers of material culture. Second, whenever your university gives you the opportunity, pull up a local Livestream to watch with your students. It may pull everyone on board, even temporarily, with campus civic life, and you never know what cultural revelation you may find, even if the capsule is empty.