The Ben Irving Postcard Project: Belding, MI (1938)

In my half-decade of tracing Ben Irving’s path(s) through pre-War America through his postcards, I always look forward for opportunities to visit smaller towns left behind by post-War economic “progress.” Sometimes, that “progress” comes at a profound expense, usually as self-inflicted by local decision-makers as externally imposed by state and federal powers. Belding, a small city of roughly 5,000 in Ionia County, is a crystal-clear case study.

From what I can tell, Irving spent October 1938 in Michigan, bouncing around the lower peninsula while headquartered at the Detroiter Hotel. He spent much of the second week in the Southwestern corner of the Mitten, including stops in Benton Harbor, Muskegon, Ludington, Battle Creek (read about that here), and as one would imagine, the then-thriving metropolises of Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo. I’m actually well overdue for entries about his postcards from both Muskegon and Kalamazoo, but those will come in time.

Anyway, here is the original 1938 postcard image scan he mailed of downtown Belding (All Rights Reserved):

One of the first things I noticed driving into Belding was how sparse it felt. There were a few cool-looking blocks around the downtown area, and I saw plenty of cute neighborhoods on the periphery, but it just felt unspooled. I ate lunch at a café overlooking the river and went to get coffee and do some work at Third Wave Coffee, a great indie spot built into the street level of the 1913 Belding Brothers building at Main and Bridge. The owner and operator, Pete, told me a story (soon echoed by an equally helpful librarian) about an old woman who was struck and killed by a falling brick on Main St. sometime in the 1960’s. I found an article confirming that this happened in February 1966, as reported in the Petoskey News-Review (via UPI) on February 10th of that year:

Clipping from the Petoskey News-Review 2/10/66: KILLED BY BRICK. A Belding woman was killed and a 18-year-old girl critically injured Wednesday when a piece of decorative brick and mortar fell from a two-story building they were passing.

The article gave no other identifying information as to who the two women were, but it does confirm that the incident occurred on Wednesday February 9, 1966. The chances were fair that Belding’s powers-that-were had been looking for an excuse to move on some development contract. Stories like these were all too common in post-War, deindustrialized Michigan. As you can tell from the postcard (and if you’ve spent time in any Michigan city that was less aggressive with the wrecking ball), that crowning lip was a common adornment atop commercial buildings. They were too shallow to provide additional shade or shelter from the elements, but they did look nice.

Unfortunately, as these buildings crumbled, the slight jutting adornments became a severe liability. Detroit, for example, seriously cracked down on owners of derelict buildings that were raining bricks on passersby. Some of these owners decided it made more sense to just tear the buildings down than deal with other potential lawsuits and fines, especially since it felt like everyone they knew personally had vanished to the suburbs.

In Belding, the town’s elders decided that the best course of action was to just rip out the entire two blocks of Main Street depicted and turn it into a mall. Gaze upon its majesty.

Belding, MI. Main Street and Bridge, looking West.

I would bite my tongue if anybody I spoke to in Belding, given their half-century of hindsight, expressed any kind of enthusiasm for the mall. I’m sure that COVID had an influence on just how dead that whole area felt across the street, but it appeared that the Chemical Bank building on the right (on the site of what was once the Hotel Belding) had been vacant since well before the pandemic.

Keep in mind that my progress from that postcard image to the repeat-photo I took above was hardly a straight line. Pete identified Main Street, but because most of the pre-War buildings had been torn out before either of us were born, we had no visible reference points to confirm exactly where the photo was taken. I walked over to the Belding Library, named for, just like everything else Gilded-Age in that town, silk magnate Alvah Belding, who spent the last 56 years of his life in Connecticut until his death in late 1925.

I’ve written before how much I love librarians and how they’re some of the best public service workers in the world. The ones at the Belding library were case in point. I walked in and showed the postcard to one librarian behind the reference desk, and within two minutes, she reached into a nearby file cabinet and produced the following photograph, which we quickly realized was the reverse vantage point of the postcard image!

Image on the left property of SonicGeography.com / Image on the right property of the Belding Public Library.

As the caption on the sticker reads, “MAIN STREET LOOKING EAST,” and the postcard image was clearly taken around the same time period, and the orientation of the buildings helped me confirm that the picture was taken of the same block, looking West. She also produced what may be an original print of the earliest surviving photo of the Belding Hotel, possibly taken not too long after 1893, when the hotel was rebuilt following a fire.

Reproduced image courtesy of the Belding Library.

One detail to note is the Victorian-style house which stood to the right of the hotel on Bridge Street, also completed in 1893. Naturally, it was also flattened. As the chief history librarian (who returned from lunch and joined in our conversation) confirmed, the Belding Hotel once stood on the corner currently occupied by that Chemical Bank building, and nothing else but a grassy expanse and a sliver of the parking lot.

So, to review: If you’re ever in such a position to make the decision, don’t do to your downtown what Belding, MI did, kids. It doesn’t feel like it even paid off for them in the short run.

I genuinely hate WordPress’ new design interface, but this image-slide feature is changing my life.

A quick photographic lagniappe: the original chandelier from the Belding Hotel, now located and working within the foyer at the Belding Library at 302 E. Main Street.

Chandelier hanging in the Belding Library, Belding, MI (October 2020).

Thanks for reading, everybody. I hope your Octobers are going well so far, and are sufficiently spooky. Stay tuned for a bunch of inevitable “REDUX” posts of old Ben Irving Postcard Project images, now that I can overlay them with the slider.

Even Better than the Real Thing: The October “NOT BY U2” Song Challenge!

October. And kingdoms rise, and kingdoms fall. But you go on and on…

Especially if, convinced that people are still demanding these song-a-day challenges, you keep on going and draw up an admittedly semi-obvious choice for October. But as Bono sang in 1981, “The trees are stripped bare, of all they wear [and] what do I care?”

This month’s challenge goes out to everyone’s favorite member of U2, Larry Mullen Jr, who was born in Dublin on Halloween 1961. Did Bono write “October” as a partial tribute to his bandmate? No, it was actually just a metaphor, if Niall Stokes’ book is to be trusted.

Anyway, download, re-post, like, and share this image, and have a great time. Apologies to any fans of U2’s more recent work, but and I don’t feel bad about the way I feel about “Songs of Innocence,” and they have billions of dollars.

My #Notfromthe80s Song Challenge Results

Another month, another set of 30 song challenges, some clearly better thought-out than others. I admit this one was perhaps my most challenging and definitely the easiest to mess up, given what a wide berth of songs (many of which are boiled into our collective pop subconscious) were prohibited. On several occasions, I caught myself being that guy – commenting the year of an 80’s song’s release under someone’s submission – but I don’t feel quite so bad, since I saw people jumping in to sound that buzzer before I even could. To me, that just means that these challenges have been building followings of people who feel an increasing sense of ownership, which is flattering as much as anything. Or, many people still have too much time on their hands. A little from Column A, a little from Column B.

Alright; to the tape!

  1. The Wailers – “Simmer Down” (1963)
  2. The Slackers – “Keep Him Away” (1998)
  3. The Donna’s – “Let’s Go Mano” (1997)
  4. The Steinways – “I Wanna Kiss You on the Lips” (2007)
  5. Blackalicious – “Sky is Falling” (2003)
  6. McLusky – “Lightsabre Cocksucking Blues” (2002)
  7. Deftones – “Tempest” (2012)
  8. Belle & Sebastian – “The Loneliness of a Middle Distance Runner” (2000)
  9. Chuck Ragan – “Do You Pray?” (2007)
  10. The Bouncing Souls – “Kate is Great” (1998)
  11. The Chats – “Smoko” (2016)
  12. The Afghan Whigs – “What Jail is Like” (1993)
  13. Kacey Musgraves – “Love is a Wild Thing” (2018)
  14. Yo La Tengo – “Sugarcube” (1997)
  15. Run Maggie Run – “Lion Tamer” (2015)
  16. The Leftovers – “Dance with Me” (2007)
  17. Supergrass – “Going Out” (1997)
  18. Massive Attack – “Safe from Harm” (1991)
  19. Airbag – “Prefiero la Playa” (2001)
  20. Sly & the Family Stone – “Hot Fun in the Summertime” (1969)
  21. Masked Intruder – “Crime Spree” (2014)
  22. The Kinks – “David Watts” (1967)
  23. Rancid – “Time Bomb” (1995)
  24. Mustard Plug – “Beer (Song)” (1997)
  25. The Buzzcocks – “Orgasm Addict” (1977)
  26. Dropkick Murphy’s – “Going Out in Style” (2010)
  27. Reel Big Fish – “I Want Your Girlfriend to be my Girlfriend” (1998)
  28. Big Star – “Thirteen” (1972)
  29. Roxy Music – “Do the Strand” (1973)
  30. Aesop Rock – “One Brick” (2001)

Thanks to everyone who participated on multiple platforms this month. Tune in tomorrow at 8am ET for your October Song Challenge. That’s right…this train is still chuggin’ along and only stops at zoo station!

Taking a Roll of 22-Year-Old Film Across America

In late July, I drove from Florida to Michigan. On the way through the Florida panhandle, I stopped through the one-stoplight town of Mayo, where I’ve paid a visit every five years since I wound up there during a filming trip in 2010. I stopped into a thrift store which used to be the town’s thriving pharmacy, striking up a conversation with Vi, the elderly woman who owns the building and runs the shop. I didn’t find any tapes, records, or books that I felt the need to own (save for a cool-looking yet too-water-damaged book on Sacco and Vanzetti), but I did find one of those old K-Mart one-time-use cameras. Vi asked me for one dollar, which I gladly paid for yet another analog experiment.

The camera itself was sealed inside a silver polypropylene bag inside a cardboard package, though one corner of the camera’s cardboard casing was beginning to disintegrate. The packaging suggested bringing it to my local K-Mart for the professionals there to develop once I took all 27 exposures, ideally by the latter part of 1999. As one might expect, I took this as a challenge. I made sure to keep the camera inside the poly bag to protect it from sunlight and (as much as possible) excessive heat in my car.

Over the course of my drive, I took most of the exposures, finishing the camera-roll when I was back in Central Michigan. The mechanism appeared to work fine, and I heard a definitive “CLICK” whenever I wound and then hit the shutter button. I tried to charge the flash to test the outside chance that it would work, but alas, whatever self-contained mechanism these disposable cameras use to generate a flash had withered over the two decades it spent sitting in the Dust Catcher).

Anyway, I contacted my colleagues in the CMU Photography department, who regretfully were unable to help me out, between workloads and COVID-related restrictions to darkroom use for people not registered in the program. I didn’t blame them, since I don’t recall being in a darkroom since around the time when my 35mm Disposable Camera was manufactured. However, they did direct me to Express Photo in Livonia, one of few (if any) labs in the state who still routinely develop consumer-grade 35mm film. I called them up, and they had me ship them the camera along with a very simple form to request processing and prints.

Within a few days, I got an envelope from them in my mailbox. I expected them to call me up and tell me that the film was too faded to be worth printing, but that was not the case. Here’s a sample of what turned out.

The Mayo Watertower, Mayo, FL. July 2020.
A table outside of a cafe in downtown Marianna, FL. July 2020. One example of a more washed-out image from the roll.
The worst Days Inn in America (which is truly saying something), outside of Birmingham, AL. July 2020.
Now they have food! Lansing, MI, August 2020.
Downtown Sanford, MI, three months after the flood. August 2020.

I scanned these photos using my extremely frustrating EPSON XP-400, which I wouldn’t recommend unless you are given one (which I was). I did not color-correct or contrast-correct any of the pictures. Of course, no LCD screen is capable of fully recreating the original, no matter how high-resolution, but hopefully these images give you a good impression of just how rich the film remained over twenty years in the can.

I imagine that, had the one-time-use camera not been sealed in its poly bag, the whole thing would have been dust. Not to knock on K-Mart, but I don’t associate them (or anybody in the one-time-use camera market) with enduring quality built to last decades in a high-humidity area. I’ve found similar blogs that shoot and develop film that had sat somewhere cool and dry for 10-15 years, but shooting a roll of consumer film manufactured in the late-90’s was on the whole next level. Thankfully, I’ve always had a healthy skepticism of expiration dates on consumer goods, especially those which were marketed during the run-n-gun, waste-waste-waste late-20th century.

Also, despite my professed love of retroactive archives of 20th century culture like Scene In-Between and Dirty Old Boston (thanks to one of my GEO 350: United States & Canada students for the latter), I’m usually squeamish about scanning analog media and posting them haphazardly on the internet, which is why I’m only sharing a handful of the pictures. They’re nothing terribly personal, at any rate. I hope this may influence somebody to take a chance on a similar roll of film and not let it just go to waste, especially not throwing it into a landfill.

Presenting the “Not from the 80’s” Song Challenge!

Happy almost-September, everyone. I had a whole bunch of folks guessing where I was going to go with the September song challenge, so I’ve decided to throw a curve-ball and raise the stakes. I give you:

THE “NOT FROM THE 80’s” SONG-A-DAY CHALLENGE.

Will this one be more difficult? Probably. For a lot of folks playing along, the 80’s was a unifying time of (some would say obnoxious) monoculture, and honestly, a few of these clues apply to more than one song released during that decade. It was a funny revelation coming over drinks from a former colleague who came of age in the 80’s just how overplayed so many currently-beloved songs were. I mentioned how I had rediscovered Tears for Fears, and she said, because she was a teenager in the 80’s and forced to hear “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” 11 times per day, she can’t listen to them anymore.

The only rule for this month is somewhat straightforward: Your song cannot be released between January 1, 1980 and December 31, 1989. Everything else is fair game. Granted, covers released in a later decade are technically cheating, but I can’t tell you how to live. Save it, share it, and don’t forget to hashtag it #NotFromthe80s. Have fun! Special thanks to Lisa LaDuca for her numerous assists with this one.

My #NotbyREM Song Challenge Results

I had a lot of fun writing this one, and it also influenced me to revisit REM’s early and mid-era catalog on vinyl, which is always enjoyable. I had overlooked the second side of Murmur for so long! Anyway, here are my song choices from this month’s challenge. The matrix, for reference:

NotByREMSongChallenge

  1. Worriers – “End of the World” (song of 2020)
  2. The Aquabats – “Pool Party” (it was a cool party)
  3. Cee-Lo Green – “The Art of Noise”
  4. Pinback – “How We Breathe”
  5. Herbie Hancock – “Chameleon”
  6. Common – “The Corner (feat. The Last Poets)”
  7. Jessie Ware – “Spotlight”
  8. Mrs. Magician – “There is No God”
  9. Def Leppard – “Stand Up (Kick Love Into Motion)”
  10. Frodus – “The Day Buildings Mysteriously Vanished”
  11. Prefab Sprout – “Moving the River”
  12. Dan Deacon – “Wham City”
  13. Andrew W.K. – “I Get Wet”
  14. Travis – “Flowers in the Window”
  15. Goldfinger – “Superman”
  16. Grandaddy – “El Caminos in the West”
  17. The Dead Milkmen – “Watching Scotty Die”
  18. Orange Juice – “Falling and Laughing”
  19. The Ramones – “Howling at the Moon (Sha-La-La)”
  20. Meat Loaf – “Everything Louder than Everything Else”
  21. Snapcase – “Bleeding Orange”
  22. LL Cool J – “I Can’t Live Without My Radio”
  23. Sick of It All – “Clobberin’ Time”
  24. Buzzcocks – “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays”
  25. Deftones – “Be Quiet and Drive (Far Away)”
  26. The Replacement – “A Little Mascara”
  27. Cock Sparrer – “Working”
  28. Sunny Day Real Estate – “In Circles”
  29. Husker Du – “I Apologize”
  30. Ruth – “Polaroid Romain Photo”

Because I can’t stop won’t stop (procrastinating), you’re all getting a challenge for September, too. I am going to try to keep grinding one out for every month the US is in “quarantine” due to COVID, so you can all look forward to another year or so of these!

[cue bitter sobbing]

Anyway, tune in tomorrow at 9AM Eastern for that, and don’t forget to tell a friend or two or however many the Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram algorithms allow to see your posts (probably around 2).

Calling All in Transit… It’s the “NOT BY R.E.M” Song Challenge!

Happy Birthday, Bill Berry!

On a related note, here is your Song Challenge for August, everybody.

There’s only one rule, and it’s pretty obvious. Download it, share it, hashtag it #NotbyREM, tell all your Gen-X friends (as well as those from other generations), call me a leper, and have a great time. Bonus points to anyone who still picks a song with Peter Buck on it, somehow.

NotByREMSongChallenge

My #NotByBillyJoel Song Challenge Results

At the outset, this one got even more traction than the Sonic Geography Song Challenge did when I released it via social media. I’m not sure what they says about the world of Sonic Geography, but I’m willing to accept the reality that Billy Joel’s music has more mass appeal than my research. Crazy, I know (I may be, too).

Anyway, here are the results from my own take on the challenge. In all honesty, I hadn’t queued up so many results in my head as I was writing it as I did with the other one in May.

For Reference:

NotByBillyJoelSongChallenge

  1. Pixies – “Tony’s Theme”
  2. The Spinto Band – “Brown Boxes”
  3. The Dismemberment Plan – “Girl O’Clock”
  4. The Afghan Whigs – “Uptown Again”
  5. The Housemartins – “Build”
  6. Descendents – “Weinerschnitzel”
  7. Bill Evans – “Lucky to be Me”
  8. F.Y.P. – “Die Young”
  9. Bob Dylan – “The Hurricane”
  10. Minor Threat – “Cashing In”
  11. The Clash – “Jimmy Jazz”
  12. Lifetime – “Airport Monday Morning”
  13. Minutemen – “History Lesson Part II”
  14. Jawbreaker – “Bad Scene, Everyone’s Fault”
  15. The Ergs – “Books About Miles Davis”
  16. Hunx & his Punx – “You Don’t Like Rock n’ Roll”
  17. Julia Jacklin – “Pressure to Party”
  18. The Jesus & Mary Chain – “Nine Million Rainy Days”
  19. Sick of it All – “My Life”
  20. Sunny Day Real Estate – “Pillars”
  21. The Bloodhound Gang – “Fire Water Burn”
  22. Replacements – “Love Lines”
  23. Misfits – “Bullitt”
  24. Minutemen – “Viet Nam”
  25. Pulp – “Sorted for E’s and Wizz”
  26. Throwing Muses – “Walking in the Dark”
  27. Chumbawamba – “Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire”
  28. Zwan – “Honestly”
  29. The Brian Jonestown Massacre
  30. De La Soul – “A Roller Skating Jam Named ‘Saturdays'”

Thanks for reading and/or playing. Tune back in tomorrow morning at 9am EST for the August Challenge!

Your Sonic Sunday: May 10th

Happy Sunday, everyone. This week, I’ve got a handful of food-for-thought type links, but first I’m excited to share an episode of a recent podcast appearance.

podcasting-wordpress-themesI sat down (digitally, trans-Atlantically) with Andrea Cetrulo of Theatrum Mundi, who recently started a podcast miniseries about art created in isolation, fitting in with our current collective situation. I had the opportunity to talk about Jeff Rosenstock, Mike Skinner (aka The Streets), The Mountain Goats, and (by virtue of Powder Burns being a great post-Katrina survival document) the Twilight Singers. I would embed the Soundcloud file, but WordPress doesn’t make it easy to do that, so LISTEN TO IT HERE.

In other content, here’s an article I enjoyed from WBUR (Boston’s Public Radio affiliate) asking serious questions about how long it will take the concert industry to recover from the COVID lock-downs. Hint: It’s a long, long time, and like other sane Americans, I’m okay with that.

In other other content, for those interested in the early history of disco music, a friend from Knoxville recently found out about how Don Fendley returned from New York and founded an unincorporated community called Disco, TN? I may be distorting the reality; the retrospective tribute and story are here.

In other other content, some friends of mine from Ohio staged a live reading of The Big Lebowski (1997) via Zoom recently. It’s nowhere near my favorite Coen Brothers film, but it’s certainly a fun new way to take in the movie.

I’m out of my element.

 

Sonic Geography BONUS (Blur Megamix)

0830180047_HDR_Film3_2

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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