The Ben Irving Postcard Project: Lakeland, FL

I love Florida, but I also have no doubt in my mind that it is our weirdest state. It leans on its Spanish history in some corners, yet nothing is built to last. It came of age as an ostensible Garden of Eden (some still think the actual Garden of Eden was there*), yet it’s been meticulously plowing under its natural beauty in favor of strip malls, parking lots, and surface highways that necessitate signs warning motorists of the upcoming intersection. I spent a lot of time in the Miami area growing up, and I am just old enough to remember the Rascal House’s last burst of glory before it got swallowed by development. You can refer to David Sax’s Save the Deli (2010) if you’d like to learn more about just how bad things got before they finally cut the cord and closed the place. I’m also looking forward to checking out Andy Sweet’s photo book about the “golden era” of Jewish Miami, which was quickly fading by the time I was old enough to pay attention to my surroundings down there.

Anyway, I will leave Miami for what will ideally be a separate entry once I’m able to visit. Today’s post is about (depending on how you look at the map or believe what the University system dictates) Central or Southern Florida, a region I greatly increased my familiarity with as an adult. As a kid, the Central Region meant Disney World, Universal Studios, and Disney World. Never mind the five-plus major Universities that dotted the sprawling Orlando landscape (Or-landscape?) which have fostered one of the South’s most under-the-radar booming cities for the past two decades? These days, driving through Orlando feels like driving through Atlanta, in that the whole thing appears to be under construction and if you drive through it, you will be white-knuckling past jersey barriers for almost the entire thing. I’ve also written about Tampa here, since it was the setting of one of my favorite AAG meetings.

The focus of this week’s entry is one of Florida’s unheralded smaller cities, Lakeland. During the Florida land-boom that crashed in 1926, Lakeland was a major railway stop between Orlando and Tampa. Today, it’s conveniently located off of I-4, and had I not had a handful of postcards from Ben Irving, I probably would not have paid it much mind.

Let’s go to the tape:

The Hotel Lakeland Terrace, 1939

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“Hotel Lakeland Terrace” postcard (Mailed February 1939) with the Terrace Hotel in the background, taken May 2020.

Here, we have a look at the Terrace Hotel, overlooking Mirror Lake. As the postcard suggests, the lake is filled with all kinds of waterfowl. If you get there in the Springtime, you’ll get a chance to see plenty of mama ducks and mama geese with their offspring:

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According to their official pamphlet (which includes the image from the 1939 Postcard I’m holding up in the photo above), the Lakeland Terrace opened in 1924 under the aegis of Florida Collier Coast Hotels, who had opened nearly identical hotels in Miami, West Palm Beach, and Tampa.

In the days before air conditioning, most hotels opened for The Season and closed by summer. But, the early ‘twenties were boom times in the Sunshine State. Trainloads of tourists poured into cities like Lakeland, beckoned by the siren call of warm weather and the chance to make a quick fortune speculating on cheap land.

Mysteriously, their official literature jumps to when the Lakeland Terrace re-opened in 1998 under the ownership of FCA, Corp. and a Lakelander named Rob Scharar. I don’t know if it’s intentional, but details about the hotel’s inevitable downturn in the 1970s and 1980s are relatively hard to come by. Even the hotel’s Wikipedia page is, as of this writing, languishing as a skeletal draft – very odd for such a historic building.

According to Lonnie Brown’s column on the Opinion Page of the July 12, 1987 edition of the Lakeland Ledger, the city had just re-dedicated the wall around Mirror Lake. Apparently, it had been featured in the January 1930 edition of National Geographic, which I’m going to try to dig up after finishing this sentence. Thankfully, the National Geographic Society are great archivists, and the full run of their print editions are available publicly.

il_1588xn.1236213434_brv2-1The January 1930 edition featured “Twenty-Four Pages of Illustrations in Full Color” for their Florida – the Fountain of Youth feature by John Oliver la Gorce. Given my interest in Florida’s 20th century, this issue would be something of a grail for me. “Flipping” through the digital version online unveils a time capsule of the state, post-land-boom. A full-page ad announces that the Atlantic Coast Railway runs 17 trains per day (25 total in Lakeland by the turn of the century, according to the city’s website) into Florida, only “23 1/3 Hours from New York” (where I imagine the bulk of Nat Geo’s depression-era readers lived). La Gorce’s feature is full of pithy observations about the state, including a great statement about the “real Florida” and the “tourist Florida,” as well as a differentiation between the North and the South: “North Florida… is as different from south Florida as lower Alabama from Cuba.” As one would expect of a major publication from 1930, the writer gave a lot of credit to everyone from Ponce de León to Henry Flagler, the Standard Oil industrialist who he praised as a nearly-divine visionary. The photo of Mirror Lake finally appears on p. 41, comparing it to the entrance to a Venetian palace. It even suggests Lakeland feels like “a fairy city on an iridescent sea,” a statement that Lonnie Brown bore in mind while reflecting on how far things had fallen over the previous five decades:

During a 1987 walk through downtown, with empty stores and an old hotel that is in such disrepair it has been shut down by the city, it is hard to imagine Lakeland as a “fairy city on an iridescent sea” with Venetian overtones.

Brown goes on to praise the refurbishing of the sea wall around the lake, citing how it makes Lakeland appear to be a city invested in its downtown. He continued writing for the paper through the end of 2010, when he retired. LkldNow, an independent local news site, had a bit of history about the building that preceded the Lakeland Terrace on the site. According to the Lakeland Library,

“The Tremont House was built by Lakeland founder Abraham Munn in 1885 at the corner of East Main Street and Massachusetts Avenue, the present site of the Lakeland Terrace Hotel. It was considered to be one of the most elegant hotels in Central Florida at the time of its construction. So elegant was it that it was reputed to have the first bathtubs in all of Lakeland. The Tremont was moved from the corner of Main and Massachusetts to an adjacent lot in 1911 and enlarged. By the 1930’s, however, the Tremont had been eclipsed by the larger and more elegant Terrace, Thelma and New Florida Hotels. It was torn down in 1936.”

I will report back if I find any more details about the downfall of the Lakeland Terrace Hotel; it’s unclear whether the city was crafty with digital scrubbing or if Lakeland was just small enough to fly under the radar with archived news.

Munn Park

Speaking of Abraham Munn, his name remains on the city’s downtown park, which is the subject of my second postcard, which Irving mailed on January 23, 1936.

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Going to Munn Park today with this postcard image in mind is confusing, because the park has been redone numerous times over the years. Save for a thin layer of tall trees which line the park and a pair of patches of greenery, a lot of the vegetation advertised above is no longer there. In fact, as you’ll see a few photos down, most of Munn park is overlaid with bricks and fairly nondescript. The only evident fountain was clearly different from the one in the postcard; had it been the same one, the railroad tracks in the background might have been visible. Something about the fountain yelled “relocated,” but we only had a hunch.

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Thankfully, my partner and I bumped into Julie Townsend, who works for Downtown Lakeland. Julie quickly pointed out where the postcard image pointed, which was the Southwest corner, where Tennessee Avenue met Main Street.

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Again, notice how barren much of Munn Park is. According to Julie, the city wrapped a weird, post-modernist design into their 80’s-era refurbishment of the park, which proved (like a lot of risks city planners were taking back then) less than popular. I can’t recall when she said they took it apart and bricked it over with these cement hexagons, but it definitely had that “unfinished” feel to it. The fountain depicted in the back left corner had long since gone away, and the statue was no longer. I waged a guess that it was a removed Confederate monument, which turned out to be true.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I did some research and found out the statue of the unknown Confederate soldier, funded by the Daughters of the Confederacy in 1910, was just removed from Munn Park last year. Unfortunately, rather than grinding the statue into a fine powder and putting it to good use in one of Lakeland’s numerous construction projects, they’ve simply relocated it to a Memorial Park closeby. Of course, neo-Confederate groups and other people who sport those “I stand for the Flag / I kneel for the Cross” decals are trying to sue the city to put the statue back in Munn Park, and the battle is getting messy in the courts. Hopefully it gets thrown out so we can all go back to living in the 21st century.

The Hotel Thelma

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This was another interesting case study. This postcard was mailed in February of 1939, but stood for another few decades at least, based upon this 1950 photograph I found on Florida Memory (below), which reads: “Built in 1913 at a cost of $125,000 by twin brothers A.B. and D.B. Kibler (phosphate entrepeneurs). Six years later the hotel originally named “The Kibler” was bought by H.B. Carter and renamed. For many years it was a popular place for civic club meetings. It stood on the northeast corner of Kentucky Avenue and Lemon Street.”

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Standard Oil…phosphate entrepreneurs… it’s almost like the state’s lifeblood was underwritten by people whose wealth depended upon destroying its natural beauty. I know I just described almost every state, but especially this one.

Anyway, the Hotel Thelma was torn down in 1962, shortly after this photo (I imagine the final one in existence) was taken. Today, a restaurant called Fresco’s sits on the Northeast corner of Lemon and Kentucky Avenue, and Palace Pizza (visible in the background of both the postcard and the repeat photograph of the block) remains as the one anchor to the city’s past.

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For what it’s worth, Palace Pizza had some of the best pizza I’ve had in Florida, and they didn’t even pay me to post that. They had a big patio available with adequately spaced seating for COVID regulations, too. This meant a lot to my partner and I (in our masks) after one of the (mask-free) managers at Fresco’s stepped within 3 feet of me and practically breathed in my face to tell me that Hotel Thelma used to be there. Helpful, yes, but mindful, no, considering what a pandemic cesspool we’re in here.

According to the best website on the internet, Cinema Treasures, the Palace Theater was also opened in 1913:

Opened in 1913 as the Casino Theatre. Seating was located in orchestra and balcony levels. By 1926 it had been renamed Palace Theatre. By 1941 it was operated by Paramount Pictures Inc. through their subsidiary E.J. Sparks. The Palace Theatre was listed as (Closed) in 1943, but had reopened by 1950.

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The 100 Block of S. Kentucky Avenue, Lakeland, FL, guessing sometime in the 1940s. (Image from the Lakeland Public Library via CinemaTreasures.org).

Strangely, another account of a historic Lakeland Landmark that evaporates before talking about the building’s descent into under-use. One user actually found and linked this 1980 article from the Lakeland Ledger that mentioned how the Palace building had been stripped of its history and uniqueness. According to this listicle, the Palace Theater operated from 1925 – 1950, which contradicts the idea that it reopened after closing in 1950.

Based on my experiences seeking historical sites there, it feels like Lakeland, FL can work as both a cautionary tale about scrubbing your history and a reminder that reinvestment is not a quick fix. Julie Townsend told us that Lakeland was one of Florida’s early major cities because it was located on the rail line that connected Orlando and Tampa. Prior to Orlando’s reinvention as the theme park capital of the planet, old-timers talked about the three cities in the same breath. Today, it’s a fun smaller city with pretty decent pizza, a wonderful lake perimeter walk, a couple of fantastic little record shops, an antique mall on par with the greatest ones I know from Michigan, Frank Lloyd Wright contributions (by the way!) at Florida Southern College, and zero threat of the traffic and headache that one can find around every corner in Tampa or Orlando. When it comes to civic life and urban planning, there’s nothing to be ashamed of a few shameful decades if you’re willing to learn from them.


Liner Notes

* I’m serious. Consult Gloria Jahoda’s book The Other Florida (1967) if this piques your interest.

Sonic Geography BONUS (Blur Megamix)

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A mix so good that the algorithm flagged me at least twice while I was broadcasting the records on Instagram Live! My favorite band of all time (depending on the day you ask me), and certainly the band I traveled the farthest (and spent the most money, but that’s beside the point) to see.

This mix includes a few of my favorite deep cuts, a handful of hits (and variations on hits), and interesting b-sides (for being the best British guitar pop band since the Kinks, Blur had a relatively weak b-side catalog). I’d like to think it shows off a solid handful of the band’s eclectic catalog of strengths. Either way, it’s a fun way to spend an hour. I’m kind of amazed I forgot to play “End of a Century,” though.

  1. “I Know” (B-Side to the “She’s So High” 12″)
  2. “Hanging Over” (B-Side to the ‘For Tomorrow’ 12″)
  3. “Moroccan People’s Revolutionary Bowls Club” (from Think Tank)
  4. “On Your Own” (7″ clear single)
  5. “Girls and Boys” (Pet Shop Boys Remix) (12″ Single)
  6. “Music is my Radar” (12″ Single)
  7. “There’s No Other Way (Rock Mix)” (12″ RBK dance single)
  8. “Stereotypes” (7″ pink single)
  9. “Trailerpark” (from 13)
  10. “You’re So Great” (stealth Graham single from Blur)
  11. “Freakin’ Out” (actual Graham single, off the eponymous 7″)
  12. “Trouble in the Message Centre” (from Parklife)
  13. “Under the Westway” (from ‘The Puritan’ 7″)
  14. “Chemical World” (from Modern Life is Rubbish)
  15. “Look Inside America” (b-side from the ‘M.O.R.’ jukebox single)
  16. “On the Way to the Club” (from Think Tank)
  17. “Ong Ong” (from The Magic Whip)
  18. “Yuko and Hiro” (from The Great Escape)

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Sonic Geography Ep. 5 (Disques Français de France)

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Paris, December 2019

Happy Wednesday, everyone, or as they say to the Brits and Americans who consistently flood Paris, Happy Wednesday! This week, we’ll be grabbing our cans of spray paint, hopping on nos vélos, and setting off on a journey of découverte.

This week’s mix is a curious bunch of vinyl I’ve acquired on a few trips overseas, with a few key exceptions of rare finds in the US. I tried to include a multitude of songs sung in French, though it was a challenge since so many punk and hardcore songs are recorded in English. French is a language best suited for hip-hop flow and chansons, where English tends to fit with punchier, more aggressive music. As a linguistics nerd, I enjoy this weird binary.

One of the threads that ran through a bunch of my interviews with French collaborators for Capitals of Punk was how France has always felt “late to the party” within pop music (especially rock and punk) among Western countries. This dynamic is what makes French pop music so interesting to me, especially that which is produced with no consideration of the all-powerful English-language tunes, or even that which is produced in direct resistance to the Anglo-American cultural dominance.

I hope you enjoy the variety of material you’re about to hear! I’m also excited to make an announcement on Your Sonic Sunday this coming weekend that is intimately related to this week’s Sonic Geography Mix. Sorry I missed this last Sunday. Sixteen straight Sundays to kick off 2020 wasn’t a bad run.

  1. Funeral Service (Riems) – “Pills”
  2. Schlitz (Paris) – “Destroy Babylon” (from Wondawful World 7″)
  3. Too Much (I have no clue) – “Silex Pistols” (from the Born Bad French Punxploitation LP)
  4. Kromozom 4 (Paris) – “La Tuture” (from 7″ split with Heimat-Los, which I found in Knoxville, of all places)
  5. Baton Rouge (Lyon) – “D’Année en Année”
  6. Sport (Lyon) – “Eric Tabarly” (LP bought at FEST 14)
  7. Maladroit (Paris) – “She Spent Valentine’s Day on her iPhone” (from 7″ split with Teenage Bubblegums)
  8. Kimmo (Paris) – “Clac Son”
  9. Frustration (Paris) – “Artists Suck!”
  10. Buried Option (Orléans) – “Mandrake Falls”
  11. Sunsick (Marseille) – “Holidays”
  12. Telephone (Paris) – “Regarde Moi”
  13. Berurier Noir (Paris) – “Hèlene et le Sang” (from Concerto Pour Détraques reissue LP)
  14. Computerstaat (Paris) – “Crypt” (some cold wave for your souls)
  15. Starshooter (Lyon) – “Betsy Party”
  16. Thrashington D.C. (Brest) – “Banned in B.M.O.”
  17. Metal Urbain (Paris) – “Panik” (Punk française starts here)
  18. Sherwood (Paris) – “Le Bourgeois”
  19. Watermane (Montpellier) – “Greetings from the Basements”
  20. Ferry “Rock” Berendse (Weird story/Indonesian born) – “Rock and Roll Mops” (off the Born Bad Record early French R&R comp)
  21. Amanda Woodward (Caen) – “Pleine de Grâce”
  22. Edith Piaf (Omnipresent) – “Mon Manège À Moi (Tu Me Fais Tourner La Tête)”

Sonic Geography Ep. 4 – Lovely Day For It (Australia Mix)

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Australia National University, June 2019

Sooner than later, I will post my third and final update from my Summer 2019 trip to Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand, thereby setting a new record for longest-delayed update from the road. I actually came close a few weeks ago, but I forgot. Maybe I was distracted. Maybe it’s quarantine. But, it’s coming.

For now, enjoy this vinyl mega-mix I did of Australian records that purchased in Australia (with a few exceptions, noted in parentheses).

  1. The Gooch Palms (Melbourne) – “Living Room Bop” (purchased from the band at the Fort Sanders Yacht Club)
  2. Dr. Raju (Sydney) – “Don’t Wanna Know” (found at Toxic Toast Records in LBC)
  3. The Riptides (Brisbane) – “Riptide”
  4. The Hummingbirds (Sydney)- “Blush”
  5. Camp Cope (Melbourne) – “Footscray Station”
  6. Brain Children (Melbourne) – “Future Flights”
  7. Thigh Master (Brisbane) – “Company”
  8. The Eyes (???) – “Get it Strait” (b-side of ‘City Livin’ EP)
  9. The Triffids (Perth) – “Estuary Bed”
  10. Royal Headache (Sydney) – “High”
  11. Pinch Hitter (Sydney) – “Nine to Fine”
  12. Swirl (Sydney) – “People I Know”
  13. The Go-Betweens (Brisbane) – “Head Full of Steam” (I think I found this in Urbana, IL, a week after returning to the States)
  14. The Smith Street Band (Melbourne) – “Birthdays”
  15. Nova Scotia (Brisbane) – “Don’t Forget Your Lunchbox”
  16. Money for Rope (Melbourne) – “Hole Like You”
  17. The Newsletters (Melbourne) – “Don’t Let Me Walk Away”
  18. Hungry Lungs (Cairns) – “A Mile Away”
  19. AC/DC (Bon Scott RIP) – “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” (purchased somewhere in North America)

Sonic Sunday Clips 02.16.20

Happy Sunday. I don’t know why, but I almost missed it! It’s still technically Sunday here in Eastern Time. Here are a few things.


Ben Irving Updates
I haven’t been able to write much about any of these, but if you use Instagram, head on over to the Postcards From Irving page, give it a follow, and see the latest updates from Austin, Louisville, Tampa, Flint, and more.

Robert Forster and Peter Paphides on “G Stands for Go-Betweens Vol. 2”
I bookmarked this video ages ago, and just got around to watching it. I had the rare opportunity to see Forster play on his first US tour in 11 years, and I’ve gone on the record here (often) about how important the Go-Betweens are to me. Under most circumstances, the idea of two older men sitting at a table and talking for an hour would sound boring, but Robert Forster is someone I could listen to talk for hours on end. If you’re intrigued, check it out. Sadly, the box set is already sold out (of course).

Experimental Persian Music
The Unexplained Sounds Group is at it again! I don’t remember how this came across my desk, but it’s very cool.

UTK Mic Nite Talk on Symbolic Gentrification (Video)

 

For some reason, I was never notified that the video of my UTK Mic Nite talk last Fall was available online. Because it has been online, for almost a full year. Anyway, here it is, in all its glory. I hope you find it well worth your 7 minutes.

Ben Irving Postcards in Chicago (Part One)

From what I understand, Chicago developed its nickname “The Windy City” from it’s reputation of spurious, silver-tongued politicians ‘blowing wind’ for their constituents, so to speak. Of course, people still largely take the nickname literally, because Chicago is windy, and if you’re there at the right time of year, so, so icey. It’s like sticking your face in a freezer that Frigidaire recalled for being TOO COLD.

For this reason, on top of dozens of others I could list at a moment’s notice, I absolutely love Chicago. Like most of the Midwest, the unforgiving cold keeps the dilettantes away, which is fine. More rare vinyl, delicious Polish food and deep-dish cheesy-tomato pie (they call it “pizza,” which isn’t accurate, but I’ll allow it) for me. Until late last year, I had never been to Chicago during the cold season; I’d visited a few times during the summer, and once for a typically memorable AAG meeting in April 2015.

Until last week, however, I hadn’t gone to Chicago with any of the Ben Irving Postcards. At least, I hadn’t made any excursions to find the places they depicted. Before my train left Union Station to head back to Lansing, I had time to make two stops, which I had planned meticulously to lead me back to the Loop. The first was a stop-off in Uptown and the second was located downtown, tucked right inside the loop track on Wabash Ave.


The Sheridan Plaza Hotel (1942) and Apartments (2019)

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In a few recent cases, I’ve lucked into staging repeat postcard photos miraculously close to the anniversary of the date which Irving mailed them. This was not one of those cases. He mailed this one (above) on the evening of July 13, 1942, commenting that he was “sweating like [he] were in a shower.” That’s rich, considering how my right hand went numb to get this photo. Don’t ever say I don’t make sacrifices for my art.

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Like many of the hotels featured in the Ben Irving archive, the Sheridan transformed into private residences. It shut down as a hotel in 1974 after over 50 years of operation and became private residences by 1983. A decade ago, the Horizon Realty group bought the building for $10 Million and started refurbishing it back to “its Jazz Age luster,” as Chicago Magazine wrote. The Terra Cotta sculptures were cracking and falling off the building over the course of the prior ten years. I can’t find any direct sources on what happened to the residents when the bank foreclosed on it, but it probably wasn’t pretty. Oddly, the Jazz Age Chicago WP site never got around to elegizing the building.

EDIT: I did find this site, which gives a bit more detail into the building’s history and situation as an anchor of sorts in the Uptown district.

Because there isn’t much detailed information on the Hotel (at least, which I’ve been able to find in the limited time I have to write this), I have no idea what those pillar-like objects are on top of the postcard illustration. They don’t look like Terra Cotta designs. Either way, they’re gone today, along with those two gigantic apocryphal flags that the artist probably added, along with their inventive perspective on the building. It does appear that, even in 1942, most of the street-level spaces were commercial enterprises, with an awning leading guests into the hotel on the Wilson Avenue side. The sidewalk is also noticeably bigger (much bigger) in the artistic rendering than in modern reality, though that could also just be artistic license, too. Gone are the light posts and moved are the sidewalk trees (which, granted, were frequently fudged by illustrators to gussy up a street scene for tourist postcards). The second-story window awnings have also gone from a lime green to a navy blue – likely a combination of Horizon Realty’s branding and how it’s just a better color. If you’re looking for a place and can afford about $1,500 per month, they’ve got plenty of openings!

Moving on…


The Empire Room of the Palmer House Hotel (1950/2019)

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Postcard mailed August 1950. Image property of SonicGeography.

Given how vocal I’ve been about the privatization of so many places and spaces featured on antique postcards, it was a welcome relief how open the staff at the Palmer House Hotel keep their crown jewel: the Empire Room.

The Palmer House, being situated right inside the Loop, claims to be the oldest continuously operating hotel in North America. Apparently, the original iteration of the hotel opened on September 26, 1871… and then burned down along with most of the city less than two weeks later. Wow.

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I walked into the hotel lobby. Maybe it was just poor eye-timing mixed with pessimistic paranoia, but I felt like I got suspicious stares from the hosts in the fancy lobby restaurant. However, after asking a few questions to a concierge around the corner, he told me “oh, the Empire room! Yeah, if there’s nothing going on in there, then you should just be able to walk in, up the stairs on the opposite side of the lobby.”

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I felt a bit of anxiety walking up the steps, almost as if everyone in the lobby momentarily turned to glance at me. I opened the doors, and there it was.

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What a beautiful room. For a brief moment, I felt as if I’d been transported back to 1950, or at least the ending of The Shining.

Here are the postcard image, and 2019 photo juxtaposed:

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The ceiling design, chandeliers, even adornment above the curtains were immaculately maintained. I highly doubt those are the same curtains behind the stage, but they kept the color scheme and general aesthetic the same, too. The obvious changes were as straightforward as they were understandable: the dance floor carpeted over, a higher stage, and the bandstand replaced with a conference table. Also, the 2019 chairs looked comfier than the wartime ones. I have no idea how they got that tuba to levitate back then; I guess WWII was just a strange time.

I realize that the Palmer House postdate (1950) falls outside the time span I advertised on the Instagram (1932-1944), but there are going to be a small handful of outliers. Also, if literally one person cares, I’ll be amazed. Either way, I don’t know why Irving was in Chicago in 1950; all he indicated was that he was going to be there until that Thursday, having mailed the postcard on a Sunday. I had also completely forgotten that the USPS postmarked and shipped stuff on Sundays back then. In fact, this was a few short months after the USPS reduced their deliveries to one per day:

On April 17, 1950, “in the interest of economy,” Postmaster General Jesse M. Donaldson ordered postmasters to limit the number of deliveries in residential sections to one each day. The only change made in business districts in 1950 was that the number of Saturday deliveries would be one fewer than the standard number of weekday deliveries (USPS.com).

Have a great Thanksgiving, everybody! Check back here soon for more high-quality content (by my standards).

Geography Department Talk TOMORROW: Geography and Popular Culture (DOW 270)

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For anybody who is either around the Dow Science Complex on the Central Michigan campus tomorrow (Friday 11/1) or enjoys eating gratis lunch, I’ll be giving a talk at Noon! Join me and my colleagues in DOW 270 to learn about my research, the overlap between Geography and Pop Culture, and see me break down what I mean by Symbolic Gentrification. I look forward to seeing you.

Those details again:

Friday, November 1,  12pm – 1pm
Central Michigan University 
Dow Science Complex Room 270

There will be lunch. And cookies, probably.

 

The Ben Irving Postcard Project: Battle Creek, MI

Between 1932 and 1944, Ben Irving mailed more than a thousand postcards and souvenir packets home to Brooklyn from all cities and towns all over North America. This is the story of his postcards from one of those towns. 

BATTLE CREEK, MI

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How’s that for a gripping introduction? I have an unimaginable amount of housekeeping to do on this site, but for starters, I figured I would keep the Ben Irving Postcard Project entries separated by city, rather than clustered together by trip. Living in Michigan now will enable me to do more day trips and work Irving Postcard recon into my excursions, which is exciting. Whether this will result in any type of publication while I’m here remains to be seen. The demands of the new semester at a new job have prevented me from doing much writing at all, but hopefully September will be a productive month of catching up on the multiple proposals and abstracts I have floating around out there.

Anyway, I suppose I should put my money where my mouth is and talk about Battle Creek. Prior to stopping there en route to Kalamazoo (separate entry coming soon), the only space it occupied in my brain was a reference point for small-town Michigan’s post-industrial downturn. My dad mentioned driving through there in 1981, and being overwhelmed even then at how empty it felt. 38 years later, I found myself looking for landmarks based off images sent out into the world at the town’s peak period in 1938.

The first of which was the Kellogg Auditorium. If I ever knew that the eponymous cereal company was headquartered in Battle Creek and essentially keeping that whole city afloat, I had forgotten. The Kellogg food company, who originally produced health food for the Battle Creek Sanitarium (one second; ordering some t-shirts for my new prog metal band), essentially traced the city’s twentieth century history with their own successes. One landmark prominently displayed in a postcard that Irving mailed on October 18, 1938 was the Kellogg Auditorium. The Battle Creek Enquirer posted a wonderful history here on their garbage fire of a website (USA Today‘s fault, not theirs).

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In order to recreate the image, I had to stand in the middle of McCamly St, next to the Battle Creek Central High School. For a handful of reasons, which become plainly obvious here, I had to move around to get any clear shots of the exterior. In addition to removing the parking lot and restructuring the McCamly side, the city (as far as I could tell) planted some trees, two of which had grown massive enough to obscure the building.

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Also, in what I might assume was part of the 1981 renovation, they added a vestibule onto the main entrance, with dummy doors designed to replicate the original 1933 doors. I tried my best to take a photo where both were visible:

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The building was locked and dormant, though it appeared to be still in prime condition to host special events in the main concert hall. Too bad I’m never anywhere near these place when they’re open to the public, or even available by special request. It would be great to see their immense house organ whenever I next pass through there, at any rate. Moving on…

The downtown strip across Battle Creek from Kellogg’s Auditorium felt dead on that Saturday afternoon. I saw a few food trucks setting up on McCamly Street off of Festival Market Square for some burger festival that evening. Maybe my timing was just off. Around 4pm, the only places that showed any signs of life at first on the Michigan Ave strip were a cricket bar and a Subway (which may have been due to the sandwich artist out front on his smoke break). A pair of young women with a nice camera were taking modeling photos next to a dormant construction site on the LEFT tower on this image below:

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The two towers at the center of this postcard, which Irving mailed from Battle Creek on October 8, 1938, made it incredibly easy to recreate the shot. Here’s my best attempt.

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In this shot, you can see the scaffolding hanging off of the tower at 25 W. Michigan, a landmark in the midst of a serious renovation. The one further back and to the right has already been renovated and transformed into Battle Creek Tower, a high rise of luxury condominiums (read their brochure here). Their website has a brief history:

Construction on the Battle Creek Tower began on August 20, 1930, and was open to the public on June 20, 1931. Originally home to the Central National Bank, it was complete with modern features and was the first high-rise to be built in downtown Battle Creek. To preserve the history and significance of the Tower, a copper box time capsule was sealed inside a building cornerstone during the dedication ceremony in 1931.

It goes on to talk about Roger Hinman’s purchase of the building in 2000 as well as how the building’s location in a so-called “renaissance zone” could provide tax benefits to residents. Well, isn’t that nice. I’m sure the 60-year-old homeless gentleman I met walking through Friendship park who has been sleeping under awnings and carrying paint cans at a facility a distant bus ride away to afford food would appreciate that.

I hate to sound pessimistic or contrarian here; I’m genuinely supportive of the local spirit that Battle Creek has, and support any sustainable efforts to regain some of the glory they seemed to encapsulate at (ironically) the Depression era. The key word, though, is sustainable. Heritage Tower, on the left and closer to my vantage point, according to the Battle Creek Enquirer, has been undergoing renovations for well over two years. They were initially eyeing a completion date in early 2019, but from what I saw it looked like they still had plenty of work to do.

One other noticeable landmark shift was the extinct Hotel Milner. In the 30’s, they charged the whopping rate of $1 per day (which is a little more than $15 per day adjusting for inflation – still an incredibly cheap rate). I was somewhat surprised to find a historical placard commemorating the hotel on the Parking Lot sign, considering how blatantly the building had been ripped out of the lot. The signage, placard, and the old building’s bone cage are more visible on this shot here. It just looks…off.

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Additionally, had I not had the Heritage and Battle Creek Towers for reference points, I would have had fun tracing that gorgeous, highly recognizable trim in the postcard image back to the building at 26 W. Michigan:

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So what did I learn about Battle Creek? A lot. As easy as it may be to be skeptical of language developers use to sell luxury high-rises to one of Michigan’s struggling small cities, Battle Creek does appear to be a canvas for young entrepreneurs to experiment, most of whom I imagine have been there for generations. Also, I found out that Sojourner Truth spent her twilight years living in Battle Creek, and the city finally gave her her due with a memorial at a major intersection.

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Did YOU know that Sojourner Truth spent the remainder of her life in Michigan after the decades she spent campaigning for the rights of women and minorities around the country? Did you know who Sojourner Truth was? Tend to that second question first. Did you know that New York didn’t abolish slavery until 1828? I didn’t! But now I do, mostly because my great-grandfather decided to send a couple of postcards from “the breakfast capital of the world” 81 years ago.

Tune back in soon for The Ben Irving Postcard Project Visits Kalamazoo!

 

Vinyl Excursions: Scarce Sounds in Canberra

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Australia National University, June 2019

Happy Saturday! I’m sorry to never have completed my entries on my trip down under, especially considering how fantastic Hobart and IAG were in general. I still hope to post about some highlights. In the meantime, I’m finally enjoying an hour or so of downtime out of my box-filled house, so I thought I would finish this post on one of the highlights of my first week in Australia – a meeting with author and archivist Ross Laird, known to the internet community as Scarce Sounds.

I’d been in touch with Ross off and on since I first began the Ben Irving project in earnest roughly five years ago. He came up in internet searches as an expert on the Okeh records catalog, so I emailed him to ask if he had any record of the Ben Irving Orchestra (or any proof that Ben recorded and released any music). He got back to me quickly and thoroughly, running through expansive evidence that there was no record of anyone by that name in Okeh’s catalog.

I got back in touch with him earlier this summer in the weeks leading up to my trip down under. It turned out that as a longtime employee of the Australian National Film and Sound Archive, he was based in Canberra and would be in town when I was there for the IASPM meeting. We met up in his old haunt on the Australia National Uni campus to chat a bit more about where our respective projects had brought us.

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Ross Laird and a bottle of Mount Majura 2009. Canberra, 6/28/19.

In an unanticipated bit of hospitality, he and his wife invited me to their home in the suburbs, where I’d be able to see one of the most unique and expansive record collections in the world. At least, I saw part of it. He mentioned that he had a shed full of shellac records (not so nimble and as prone to weathering as vinyl) and an additional office/storage room other than the one I saw. Here are some photos.

Thousands of records from his archive (including very rare ones) are for sale on his Discogs page, Scarce Sounds. As he explained to me, Ross doesn’t view himself as a collector as much an a curator. Pursuant to the name, most of his records are rare and don’t really exist within the public archive. He aims to change that for many great overlooked artists from the Global South, then sending the recordings afield to other music lovers. It’s a worthwhile pursuit and a point I hope I can reach one day.

 

He sampled a bunch of 78s and 45s for me, most of which were still shrouded in mystery (most, if any information that exists about them on the internet, he put there), but my single favorite song I heard all night was a bubblegum pop song by Rita Chao and Sakura, entitled “Bala Bala.” The song has a driving baritone sax lead, fantastic female duo vocals, about 4 different words in the whole song, and I loved it to death. Some good Samaritan put a piece of “Bala Bala” on a supercut they uploaded to YouTube about ten years ago.