A Brief Look Back at the Oral History Association Weekend in the Twin Cities

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As predicted, I had a fantastic time in Minneapolis/St. Paul. Thanks to my friend and former colleague Liz for being a great host and accompanying me on a tour of Paisley Park, thanks to the Oral History Association for putting on a great little conference and bringing Staunton and Alice Lynd to speak, and thanks to the Twin Cities for just being so cool. I know I should have expected as much from the metropolis that somehow produced (among many, many others) Prince, Dillinger Fourand Mitch Hedberg.

It’s going to take me some time to go through all the photos, sift through all of the links to other great oral history projects in the pipeline, and write anything substantive about the conference and my time up there. But, I’m grateful I decided to go and present this year.  I learned valuable new interviewing techniques, as well as a diverse set of recently uncovered histories including that of the Anoka State Hospital, the cultural landscape of 20th Street in Saskatoon (short documentary here), Denver’s legendary Band Box Record label, the NoDak* press (documentary here), and an enticing program to help keep everything in order, the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer (OHMS).

The best decision I made all weekend, however, was joining a guided tour of the American Indian cultural corridor on Franklin Avenue. Just in time for Indigenous People’s Day on October 9th, we walked through North America’s strongest urban concentration of native american (in this case, Ojibwe and Dakota/Lakota) life. Our guides, Alan Gross and Tom LaBlanc, did not mince words when it came to the States’ and cops’ perpetually horrid treatment of indigenous Americans, which was as refreshingly honest as it was cringe-inducing.

Also, bonus respect is due to Adrienne Cain’s meticulous use of Prince GIFs in the OHA twitter account and inspiring me to do the same above (but I’ll probably tone it down in the coming entries, though…maybe).

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this somewhat brief update, and if you’re from the OHA, feel free to pass this along via email, social media, or even word of mouth. Here are some extra pictures from around Minneapolis, St. Paul, and their outskirts this weekend. I can’t wait for my next excuse to go back. Next time, I’ll actually remember to bring some of the Ben Irving postcards, too.

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* I’ve never been to North Dakota (outside of passing through it on a train trip in 2013), but I picked up this shortened term for it in 2011 from a MPLS friend who grew up there, and it stuck with me. NoDak/SoDak. You’re welcome.

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California Excursion Part IV: Extra Words on Long Beach

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I wrote this about three weeks ago and somehow forgot to publish it. It began as an extra chunk to Part III of my LA writings, but I separated it into its own entry because, like I write below, Long Beach deserves to be so much more than just a footnote to LA. Enjoy! More updates this week on my Fall and Spring teaching schedule. – Ty

It’s difficult for me to write about Los Angeles without abbreviating it as LA/LB, because for most of this decade, Long Beach has felt like my Western home rather than the juggernaut dwarfing it from up the 405 and 710. Despite one legendary Long Beach poet’s references to “so much drama in the LBC,” the city’s actually a subdued counterpart to Los Angeles. If Long Beach were located anywhere outside of LA’s orbit, it would be considered a major city and maybe even have its own NBA team (seeing as how Anaheim has an MLB team and an NHL team with about 200,000 fewer people). All that being said, anyone who’s spent a significant amount of time in Long Beach is reticent to consider it as part of Los Angeles. “Greater Los Angeles,” perhaps, mostly because the red blotch in so many atlases I grew up reading enveloped both cities and the Metro Blue Line does connect the two efficiently (or, as efficiently as possible… you try to get from Downtown Long Beach to Downtown Los Angeles in under an hour for the grand total of $1.50).

So, whenever I told anyone where I was the other week, I said “LA/LB,” because I was spending quality time in both cities and taking advantage of what they respectively had to offer. Los Angeles has taco trucks and delicious street dog stands on every corner, Amoeba Records, the Hollywood Bowl, not to mention Western epicenters of North American comedy, film and theater. Long Beach has a better bus system, fewer taco trucks (that are still delicious), Fingerprints Records and Cafe, the biggest port in North America, and the single most beautiful urban place to see a sunset (I lived off of 4th Street for a year and it never got an iota less wonderful).

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Long Beach has gone a long way over the past two generations to establish its identity. Before World War II, it was viewed by outsiders (and many insiders) as a weekend getaway for Los Angeles’ swelling petite bourgeoisie. At least until the city erected a massive breakwater (which may very well come down soon depending on the results of an Army Corps of Engineers study), it resembled other blown-out mid-Century party harbors like Ocean City, Coney Island, and (shudder) Atlantic City. Of course, this depiction of the city belied the growing indigenous population (not to mention the actual indigenous population of Gabrielino Indians). The Long Beach items from the Ben Irving postcard collection, particularly this one above, shows off how the city prided itself back during Wartime. Irving sent this one home to my grandmother in Brooklyn on August 16, 1940. You can just see the Pike off in the back left of this image, Long Beach’s response to the Santa Monica pier, which had been devised around the turn of the century as a way to disguise sewage dumping but quickly turned into a fishing and amusement pier (more detailed history here).

The Pike was, for generations, an amusement park that stuck out into Long Beach’s own chunk of the Pacific, nestled next to the port and to the sea of oil refineries. Today, The Pike is perhaps better known to young Long Beach as a restaurant and bar near 4th and Cherry where DJs spin tunes by Social Distortion (for whom the owner Chris Reece, in the hat, used to play drums), burlesque troupes perform, and Hot Rod lovers converge. The area where the Pike pier sat has become a weird simulacrum that’s still tourist-friendly but filled with a convention center, a P. F. Changs, and a walkway decorated with lights that make it feel like the ghost of the roller coaster from last century. When I lived there, I barely ever went down there, other than to occasionally catch special events at the movie theater.

Anyway, between the EmoGeo conference and quick trips back and forth to LA, I didn’t have the chance to re-frame any of the Ben Irving Long Beach postcards. That was no excuse to omit some personal/professional reflection on the city, though, because I miss it an awful lot these days.

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Bret, me, Abel. An impromptu reunion of The Casual Geographer at The Pike Bar in Long Beach in June. We took about 15 of these, most of them blurry.

 

California Excursion Part III: Revisiting Los Angeles

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OPENING SIDETRACK: THE HOLLYWOOD BOWL

As I plan to return to Los Angeles at least once a year for the foreseeable future, I’ve started to build a mental list of landmarks to see that I never had the chance while I was living out there. Believe it or not, I’d never been to the Hollywood Bowl until my visit a couple weeks ago. Also believe it or not, I had never seen The Specials either (I’ve been a ska fan for well over half my life now; Dick Hebdige would either be proud or pity me). Fortunately, the Hollywood Bowl’s Reggae Night on June 18th helped me check off both of those bucket list items. Here is a fuzzy photo that accurately reflects my thoughts on the matter:

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You can’t make out the details in that photo, but Lynval Golding, 65, was rocking out after loudly declaring that Black Lives Matter, a true testament to Rude Boys everywhere. My longtime friend Kat, my new friend James, and I saw them play a slew of classics, including “Gangsters,” “Monkey Man,” and the eternal crowd-pleaser “A Message to You Rudy” as the sun set over the Hollywood Hills. It was euphoric. Here are a couple of better pictures…

 

The Hollywood Bowl is a true marvel of landscape architecture and engineering; I wonder if it gets enough credit as such. We had to leave a couple of songs into Ziggy Marley’s headlining set in order to get me to LAX in time for my flight, but it was still a night I won’t forget anytime soon.

Now that I’ve gone off on my musical tangent, I’ll rewind to earlier in the week and get to the focus of this entry: the Ben Irving Postcard collection and depictions of wartime Los Angeles to now.


ACTUAL INTRO: REPHOTOGRAPHING LOS ANGELES

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On Tuesday night before heading down to Long Beach for the start of EmoGeo, I had the rare opportunity to talk about Irving on Modern Vaudeville, a weekly variety show held at the Lyric Hyperion Theater in Los Feliz. It was a rare opportunity because not only did it represent my professional and performing life intersecting, but I was also on a bill with a number of great comedians, including Scott Thompson (doing a new Buddy Cole monologue) and the always-delightful Sklar Brothers (don’t miss their Netflix special). Despite the broken A/C and my own lack of time to prepare and refine the 8-minute set, it was well-received and the crowd joined in to sing one of his songs, the first time it had probably been performed in over 70 years. Thanks to Christy Coffey and Ian Abramson for the opportunity.


THE HOTEL ALEXANDRIA / PERSHING SQUARE

One of the DTLA landmarks I featured in my presentation was the old Hotel Alexandria, located at 500 S. Spring Street. Though I was in the area for over a week, I did not get a chance to visit the site, which I’m pretty confident I’ve walked by dozens of times without knowing Irving had once stayed there. I Sweded an image via Google Street view, commenting on how a once-upper-grade hotel had turned an SRO by the time that Tom Waits or Charles Bukowski could have lived there in the 70’s. The message on the back of the postcard that he sent on August 15, 1940 read “Hotel Alexandria: Where you meet America’s most famous people.” It may have been a bit of a stretch then; now, you might luck out if one of them’s filming something in there, but probably not.

 

I hope to ground-truth this image the next time I’m in LA and take a proper photo that I didn’t need to hijack from Google’s server. That being said, another place I have clear memories of visiting is Pershing Square. My classmates at CSU Long Beach and I did a walk-through as part of Norman Carter’s encyclopedic tour of downtown LA in 2012, and then we revisited the block as the (Millennium) Biltmore Hotel was one of the venues for AAG 2013. Unsurprisingly, when Pershing Square became a watering hole for many of the city’s homeless, the Biltmore re-oriented their main entrance away from the park side. What’s funny about looking at an early-1940’s depiction of Pershing Square and the Biltmore Hotel versus seeing how it looks now (at least as it did in February) is how relatively little the Hotel façade has changed, but how drastically the park across the street has (post-)modernized. As much as I can’t blame the Google Street View car operator for driving in one of the middle lanes down Olive Street, I’m putting a re-photographing of this vantage point at the top of my priorities for the next time I’m in DTLA. Either way, I hope you find this interesting.

 

Here are some photos I found that I took in 2013, including one which is actually not far from this vantage point, on the park side of the street. It seriously looks like Fritz Lang and Salvador Dali got together and directed this park. Seeing these photos again after a few years makes me even more excited to go back to Pershing and see what changes (if any) the city has made, and if any tent cities have figured out how to appear.


THE HOLLYWOOD PLAZA HOTEL

When I did have opportunities to ground-truth sites depicted on the postcards, it often times didn’t work out due to the encapsulating site not existing anymore. This happened to me in two separate manner in Savannah last month (which I completely ran out of time to write about here, but I plan to soon). Earlier in the week, I found myself in Hollywood to see what kind of deals Amoeba had to offer,  and I wandered over to Vine Avenue to see what had become of the once-luxurious Hollywood Plaza Hotel. All I had was a postcard (mailed June 9, 1941) that depicted the lobby lounge, rather than anything on the exterior of the building:

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What I found at the site was a strange combination of nostalgia and blatant disregard: the large neon sign remained on the roof of the block (as designated an LA Historic-Cultural Monument), but it appeared that little of the actual building had been preserved or made accessible. The second level was actually beautifully adorned on the outside (and possibly on the inside, but I wouldn’t know), but the chocolate-centric cafe on the street level outside hung an imposing banner. A historic placard about the Hotel hung on the light post nearby. I walked inside the main office entrance, greeted by a security guard with (I gathered) pretty strict bosses. I wanted to make up a story about someone I had an appointment with, but I didn’t have time to spin anything. Also, my brain was fried from the Hollywood heat and traffic I had navigated to get there.

The conclusion here is that I have no idea if that Lounge still exists in any architectural form. The historical information I’ve found indicates that the hotel had gone derelict by the late 1960’s and was converted into a senior living facility. Also, in 1937 (a few years before Irving passed through there), Clara Bow opened up the troubled “It” Club off of the Hotel’s Lounge. It closed within a year, so I guess Irving never got to experience that piece of Hollywood Babylon. A real shame.

 


LANGER’S DELI AND WESTLAKE/MACARTHUR PARK

For every LA landmark within the touristic purview that I feature here, I like to feature one that has, for whatever reason(s), straddled or slipped off of it. On Saturday, after EmoGeo had wrapped up, I had the opportunity to take my Mom (who was in LA to visit family) to one of Jewish Los Angeles’ legendary eateries, Langer’s Deli. Somehow, I had never heard of Langer’s prior to this trip. I had been through MacArthur Park a couple of times, but had somehow never noticed this prominent deli at the corner of 7th and Alvarado Street. For similarly dubious reasons, my brother-in-law (who grew up in Los Angeles and lives there now with my recently-relocated sister and recently-born niece) had never mentioned the Deli to us, despite it being the best one in the city (high praise indeed).

It just so happened that one of the Postcards that my great-grandfather had mailed home from California featured Westlake Park, as it was known when he posted it in 1940.

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A bit of admittedly overdue background: During his life as a salesman, he visited California twice, once in 1940 and once in 1941. From what I could tell, Irving was pretty amazed at what he found out there. Obviously, pre-War Los Angeles and Long Beach were much different cities. Many of the nodal cities like Pasadena, Inglewood, and Carson which eventually bled together into modern Greater Los Angeles were still somewhat isolated yet well-connected by… you guessed it…

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via Museum of the City.

Ironically, as the neighborhood around Langer’s Deli languished after the GM-led dismemberment of the Pacific Electric system by the early 1960s, it was the emergence of the Westlake/MacArthur Park Metro station that pumped new life into the block. Today, CiclaVia runs through there and gentrification bites at the area’s ankles. You can read more about it here at the restaurant’s official history.

What my Mom and I didn’t know as we drove down to MacArthur Park the other weekend was that we were about to stumble into a new moment in Langer’s history: its 70th anniversary celebration. The line of eager new customers and longtime regulars wound around a barrier by the entrance. Fortunately, much of the line was underneath an awning, with portable air conditioning units blasting sweet, sweet cool air on them, young women on Langer’s staff handing out “I ♥ Langer’s” pins and free bottles of water.

We headed across the street into MacArthur Park, passing by a large strip of Mexican street vendors and a series of encampments spread throughout the periphery. MacArthur Park, like Pershing Square, has clearly become a magnet for much of the region’s homeless population. However, the city has not taken as much of a scalpel to MacArthur Park, letting it serve its municipal function even if many people who planners find undesirable are populating it. The easily recognizable Elks Club Lodge building sat at the far corner of the park, which made it a cinch to locate the original vantage point depicted in the Irving postcard above. Below are a couple of results:

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That’s better. The highly recognizable old Elks Lodge (now the Parkview Hotel) made this one very straightforward.

After taking these pictures, we headed back to Langer’s to get in line. After about 30 minutes, several free bottles of water, and giving a completely useless sound-byte to a KNX reporter, we got seated at the counter inside. My mom quickly charmed the owner Norm Langer, who had passed by to say hello and thank you to customers for the special occasion. Because he was almost as old as the establishment (his father Albert opened it in 1947), we asked him what he remembered about Westlake/MacArthur Park from his youth. He was convinced that there had never actually been water on the East side of where Wilshire Boulevard bisected the park; it had always been a field and the actual lake had always been confined to the other side of Wilshire. This seemed odd, but not unbelievable considering the liberties that Curt Teich postcard artists took when trying to sell cities with controversial water histories. That’s my theory, anyway; it’s possible that Norm was thinking about his childhood in the post-War era and not in the 1930s when the postcard was first published. This may require more digging.

I’ll finish this mammoth series of CA reflections soon with a bonus entry on Long Beach. For now, I’ll finish this post with a quick dedication to my Mom – she was really nice to put up with me and buy me lunch. She did, however, fill my ears with her rendition of the hit song of her teenage years “MacArthur Park” by Richard Harris, eventually giving up and playing it on her phone as we left Downtown LA. I’m not sure exactly how the park inspired Jimmy Webb to write the song, but I’ll link to this megapost about it and hopefully not regret that later. The song has an interesting history and and interesting cult, for sure. I can’t help but imagine a young Neil Hannon hearing it and having a light bulb appear over his head. Enjoy the majesty:

 

#AAG2017 Recap Part I: Boston, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Boston

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

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

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

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

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

The Conference

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

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

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

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

Wednesday

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

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

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

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

Thursday(s) with Noam

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via The AAG.

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

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

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

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

Friday, I’m In Too Many Sessions at Once

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

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

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

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

Paper Session: Qualitative Methods in Human Geography, A

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alternative AAG Excursions in Boston

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

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

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SAYYYY WHATEVER YOU WANT TOOOOO….

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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My Hometown and McMansion Hell

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Not my town, but it could easily have been.

I grew up in a small town that, over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, became a “small town.” If you grew up in one of these towns during that era, you probably know exactly what I mean. If not, allow me to explain.

My father grew up in this town when, nestled between the WWII and Vietnam eras, it was the quintessential New England community. People knew you based on your family name, you graduated with maybe 100 other kids, and you entertained yourself by going to the movies, hanging out at the nearest diner, or setting off fireworks inside an old TV in a local meadow (actually, that last part may have been drawn more from my adolescence…). Anyway, it retained a good deal of that character through the Vietnam era when my dad went to college and eventually met my mom. They were living in Boston when I was born, and then when my sister came along, we moved back to said small town where he had grown up and my grandparents still lived.

The year was 1986, and we moved into a house bigger than what we had lived in for the first few years of my life. It was by no means a mansion (it was completely modest compared to other houses in my town), but the street it sat on had not existed when my dad was a kid. The town had certainly grown, but the population (as of the 1990 census) was well under 10,000. Over the following decade, though, the population would balloon from roughly 8,500 to well over 18,000. It was no longer a genuine small town in the Mellencamp sense; it was transforming into a “small town”: a community that capitalized on widespread skepticism of all (or at least, most) things urban and clung to relevance as a bucolic simulacrum of its former self.

Even as a small child, I noticed various indicators of those gradually-forming quotation marks. No indicator shone more brightly than the new developments of these big, ugly, uniform houses that were popping up in the late ’80s and early ’90s. I don’t remember when I first learned the term “McMansion;” it may have been from a friend later in high school. Either way, it made me laugh.

None of this is meant to disparage the experience I had growing up where I did; a lot of the reasons it grew so quickly during the Bush I and Clinton eras were what made living there nice for most of us. The public schools were really good, it wasn’t hard to get (or commute) to New York or Boston, and the crime rate was so low that (1) most anything violent that did happen was an isolated incident and (2) the highest-profile petty crime was often committed by the cops.

I never disrespected people for working hard for years to buy those big conforming houses and put roofs over their families’ heads, but even as a teenager, I failed to understand why anyone would consider these clunky and gaudy fake mansions a signpost of success. I suppose that real estate developers at the time had some pretty good PR campaigns, and the baby boomers really devoured what they were selling: Gaze upon my really, really big house! Look at how successful I am! Are you not jealous of my amazing riches!?

Though I’m sure Syracuse had its share of these kind of developments, my exposure to them was somewhat limited as a University student. When I moved to Washington after college, my roommate at the time was playing in a band slated to open for Rusted Root (yep) at the 9:30 Club. He asked if I wanted to help him out as a guitar tech, and I jumped at the chance. The day of the gig, we drove out to one of the planned communities on the city’s periphery for a rehearsal with a drummer the band had hired for that gig. The drummer was an incredibly good dude and, unlike the vast majority of people who lived in these McMansions, actually worked in this town (rather than contributing to the choking of the DC-area roadways). His wife had their first baby on the way, so I understood the need for space, but at least three of the rooms in this house were empty, save for maybe a piece of furniture or two. The ceilings rose a couple stories off the ground, which I can only imagine made the heating bills astronomical six months out of the year.

The other moment that really stuck with me, however, was how long it took us to find the correct house. We had the address. The houses were almost completely indistinguishable from one another, and the addresses were all about 5-digits long for some reason (there weren’t 10,000 houses on the road that circled through there, so it’s still a mystery to me). I remembered the old wives tale of the London drunk who kept wandering into the wrong house during the London fog, since he could not tell his own house apart from all the others the working class had been shuffled into during the age of industry.

This was yet another contradiction of McMansions: why would one still feel special in a giant house if everyone around them has the exact same house or at least something very, very close to it? Thankfully, building codes prevented people from building cheap, inflated houses in neighborhoods nestled together with more modest homes, as seen in Kate Wagner’s TEDx talk, embedded below.

Kate Wagner began McMansion Hell as a blog last year as a way to make fun of these quintessentially American excesses. What she probably did not expect was to generate an articulation of this frustration that so many of us have been feeling for decades. Last year, an acquaintance of mine posted on social media that “if you buy a record solely because you think it will go up in value, you deserve to die cold, alone, and penniless.” Buying houses, at least to me, is a similar venture when you are not wealthy. Buy a house because you look forward to being able to come home to it for decades. Buy a house because you want to leave your mark and imbue it with character, “turning space into place,” as the saying goes. Don’t buy a house just because you want to show it off and then flip it for a marginal profit, especially one that wastes resources and looks stupid. Every day, my deep respect grows for architects, graphic designers, and other people with professional grades of  taken-for-granted knowledge, and this is a quintessential example of why more geographers, sociologists, and economists should listen to them.

 

Will Straw’s “The Urban Night” and 2016’s Fight for the Right to the City

Will Straw – Cities of the Night, Cultures of the Night from Winnipeg Arts Council on Vimeo.

Sorry the video doesn’t allow embedding; I’ve done similarly with a few videos I’ve posted over the years, so I’m not complaining. Go ahead and watch it on Vimeo.

Over the course of my dissertation research, I’ve realized that the day/night binary in the city is largely overlooked in urban geography. Particularly in cities like DC, the population balloons during the day, though the census reflects overnight residents who may or may not take part in much of the city’s nightlife. The “day” population and the “night” population, especially as they increasingly overlap in the age of revanchist urbanism, engage in a tacit conflict over “whose city” it is. This becomes increasingly complicated when quintessentially “night” activity occurs during the daytime. As Straw mentions in this 2010 talk, cities like Winnipeg and others in their corner are embracing traditionally nighttime activities (raves, dance parties, punk shows) and reorienting them to happen during the day, thereby supporting the arts while lightening nighttime disruptions. Punk scenes like that of Washington, DC have been doing this with little to no involvement from the city government for decades.

300px-st_stephens_church_exterior_1932DCist recently posted a 2016 retrospective blog, which included a heated debate between punks and irate young professionals.  The blog PoPville, started by Dan Silverman (aka the “Prince of Petworth”), a legendary neighborhood blogger/flâneur and the veritable face of gentrification in DC, posted an anonymous letter from an irate resident of the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood who was more than slightly annoyed at the noisy music coming from St. Stephen’s. Unsurprisingly, Silverman’s responsible decision to post the email resulted in a firestorm of animated responses. The perpetual verbal tug-o-war between “new” residents and historic participants in underground culture makes for a fascinating read, and I’d love to use this comment chain as an introductory anecdote in a class on Urban Geography of the 21st Century. As obnoxious as the debate gets at times (it is the internet, after all), I’ve seen few better encapsulations of where David Harvey’s “right to the city” sits in the public discourse in 2016.

In the interest of being a professional reporter of this cultural geography, I’ll withhold my own opinions (though you are free to guess based on who I am and what I research, and you can always ask). One comment from a user labeled “harDCore” posted this some ways along in the comment chain:

This may come as a surprise to the NIMBYs on here but DIY music festivals like this are actually a good thing for the community. The church doesn’t do it to make money, they aren’t a for profit company, they do it to help support and be a part of their community. Events based around music like this keep kids off the streets and has them doing something constructive and positive instead of just doing drugs and becoming criminals. The church isn’t selling booze so people aren’t drunkenly disorderly around the event either. There’s less as less places for youth to play music in this city as the property costs keep going up and developers take over (the Union Arts building being turned into a luxury hotel is a good recent example of this). We need local and community art and music in DC, don’t try to push it out. I suggest Googling things like Positive Force DC and getting a better understanding of what a punk concert or festival really means to the community.

And I suppose the armchair lawyers commenting here didn’t realize that the festival had permits for the event, which the police know about, and why they weren’t doing anything if the permits weren’t being violated.

In the end if you want to live in a sterile, art free environment maybe the suburbs are for you.

The attitudes of the so-called NIMBYs continue a long tradition of city property owners who celebrate the arts until said arts create a disruption. Straw’s talk touches upon this, citing the late-19th-century sentiment that lighting up the urban night would eliminate “iniquity,” but instead created new shades (literally) of it. Perhaps some believe that moneyed development is to the late 20th century what artificial light was to the late 19th? Money has unquestionably shifted the “undesirable” elements, but it has not eliminated them, and in some ways, drawn even more attention to them. I find it hard to believe that the irony of the DC Public Library’s well-publicized punk archive would be lost on people committed to their city’s growth but not its history. This also belies Mt. Pleasant’s recent history as a predominantly underclass (and radical) Latin-American enclave, which is an entire other history that could easily compose its own post.

Anyway, I wish I didn’t have to say that there are no correct answers… but there are no correct answers; only correct attitudes. I look forward to following this issue as it continues to unfold, and maybe make it back to DC for Damaged City one of these years. For those of you who can make it (April 6-9…sadly overlapping with AAG in Boston), 2017’s event is going to be a doozy. They’ve got Marked Men!! And Siamese Twins (who I haven’t written about on this site, but every person needs to hear “Don’t Forgive Lightly” before they die).

While on the subject of gentrification, if you have access (or can obtain it) check out the lead article in the new edition of Southeastern Geographer. It’s an outstanding analysis of Knoxville’s place in that conversation, by my colleagues Scott Markley and Dr. Madhuri Sharma. Considering how much I’ve been picking through the complex geographic discussion of 21st century urbanism, this article is already proving inspirational for me. Congrats and great work to Scott and Madhuri.

San Francisco, ‘The Room,’ and Teaching Geography with Bad Movies

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MARK: You guys are too much. Hey, are you running Bay to Breakers this year?
JOHNNY: I am, sure.
PETER: Not doing it this year.
JOHNNY: Hehe, chicken, Peter, you’re just a little chicken. Cheep cheep cheeeeeep [unidentifiable high-pitched noises]
PETER: Who you calling a chicken? I just don’t like all the weirdos. There’s… too many weirdos there.

I transcribed the above dialogue as accurately as possible from one scene from Tommy Wiseau’s self-produced 2003 film The Room.  In it, two of the film’s main characters, Mark (Greg Sestero) and Johnny (Wiseau) share a moment with their psychologist(?) friend Peter (Kyle Vogt) in Johnny’s living room. Wiseau, who also wrote the script and directed the film, seems to have little grasp on (1) how “guys” talk when they hang out or (2) editing. The script goes out of its way to mention the Bay to Breakers run, a San Francisco institution that began in 1912, throwing yet another local-ism onto a haphazard pile of ways through which Wiseau “places” his film.

The Room is, by some measures, up there with Vertigo (1958), The Rock (1996), and Homeward Bound 2: Lost in San Francisco (1996) as quintessential ‘San Francisco’ films, which is ironic for multiple reasons. Most obviously, outside of Hitchcock’s masterpiece, none of those films are regarded as AFI-level cases of cinematic genius. The Rock, for one, is a loud, stupid and incredibly fun Bay/Bruckheimer film that reinvented Alcatraz and gave us the greatest piece Elton John-related dialogue in cinema history. The Homeward Bound films were family-friendly crowd-pleasers that starred adorable, wisecracking pets. The Room, however, is its own beast. Despite being, by many measures, one of the worst (or at least surreally stupid) films ever made, it demonstrates how valuable poorly-made films can be in understanding representation of urban landscape.

Film and Urban Geography

Cities provide ample inspiration to artists of all media, and in turn become drawn, filmed, sang about, and ultimately interpreted based upon their art. This phenomenon has been well-documented among cultural geographers. In film, Chris Lukinbeal has published numerous pieces about the multi-faceted geographies of the film industry, both part and parcel of Los Angeles and how other landscapes are interpreted through cinema. Many geographers have expounded upon the relationship between music and place, and Lily Kong wrapped many early examples into her 1995 call for greater involvement of music in geography. Steve Hoelscher has dedicated much of his recent work to the Magnum photography archive and even examined the effect of photography on historical urban geopolitics. Creating a comprehensive catalog of literature here would be a herculean task.

Back to The Room. Like most who attempt to break down its threadbare plot, pointless characters, and insanely counter-intuitive production values, I struggle at explaining just how bad it is. Cult audiences equally celebrate its awfulness as the worst film ever made as they do flock at a chance to see it in a communal (often intoxicated) environment and engage in a culturally-circulated set of practices that go with the screening. Audience members scream along with silly lines of dialogue, shadow-cast questionably useful scenes with the main characters tossing footballs to one another, and even shower the screen with plastic spoons at various specific cues. Film scholars like Matt Foy have gone into great detail about these sub-cultural rituals, even in cases, succinctly (as possible) explaining what the movie is about:

In addition to Johnny, Lisa, and Mark, the key players include Denny (Philip Haldiman), a good-natured but awkward man-child who lives next to Johnny (Johnny pays his college tuition) and seems to lack basic social skills (early in the film, he joins Johnny and Lisa in bed pre-coitus to “watch them” but seems unaware of the sensitive nature of his request), and Claudette (Carolyn Minnott), Lisa’s mother who simultaneously praises Johnny while encouraging Lisa to exploit him financially because she cannot support herself. Other characters meander in and out without affecting the plot, mostly as foils to establish Johnny’s pristine character or Lisa’s manipulative heartlessness. The result is a film so earnest yet strange that it attracts audiences through morbid revulsion (Foy 2012, 5).

I’ve written previously (for a course on Global Soundtracks) about how The Room reinforces the importance of bad movies in the conversation on film music. Where great films with iconic and/or Oscar-winning scores have been teaching young filmmakers and cinema scholars the “do’s” of film music, bad films could be equally valuable in teaching the “don’ts.” This dynamic applies equally in understanding how films reflect and represent urban spaces, particularly in the United States, and even more particularly in San Francisco. Where Vertigo demonstrated how Hollywood films can work with, and flourish through, urban iconography, The Room provides a beacon of trying too hard to do so, and looking silly in the process.

Tommy Wiseau’s San Francisco

Though Los Angeles is well regarded as “the world’s most photographed city” (cf. Thom Anderson’s brilliant Los Angeles Plays Itself), San Francisco is definitely among the top runners-up in that category, as well as among the most mythologized and laid-bare in its iconography. The Golden Gate is probably North America’s most iconic and grandiose bridge outside of Brooklyn, Alcatraz is among her most storied and infamous small islands (and prisons), and the Painted Ladies row of houses has embedded itself into our national subconscious both through films featuring Robin Williams in drag and through sitcoms featuring Bob Saget working clean. Rice-a-Roni commercials carved such a hegemony in the 1980s and 1990s that cable car operators could not avoid mentioning it to over-zealous, jingle-singing tourists on their routes.

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It is through these cinematic representations of his adopted hometown that Tommy Wiseau weaves his overbearing establishing shots. Where most filmmakers implement one or two establishing landscape shots of the city setting, Wiseau inserts at least twenty. The first two minutes of the film become a veritable catalog of cliche’d imagery of the Bay Area. The viewer sees, interspersed with the opening credits, a wide shot of the Golden Gate Bridge, a bucolic fishing dock on the North Bay, another wide shot of Alcatraz Island, a shot that tilts up from the Bay to a San Francisco skyline silhouetted through fog, a (slightly) tighter shot of a cruise boat passing under the Golden Gate Bridge, a shot that slowly pans across the Palace of Fine Arts (the site of a dramatic scene in The Rock), a shot that tilts down Nob Hill, a shot that tilts down with the Painted Ladies houses in the background of Alamo Square Park, a shot of a cable car (with our hero on it… a true man of the people) passing in front of the Grace Cathedral, and ultimately, the often-recycled exterior shot of Johnny’s condo.

To the Western viewer, any one of those shots might be sufficient in establishing where the movie takes place, but Tommy Wiseau doesn’t know the meaning of cinematic restraint. (Seriously, he may literally not know the meaning of the term). He removes any doubt whatsoever of where we are, and despite having an ‘insider’ knowledge of San Francisco, he runs lovingly into the arms of cinematic cliche and reinforces the most mainstream, ‘outsider’ perspectives of that city’s icons.

Taken as a whole, these are examples of how filmmakers (both talented and less so) conflate the “real” with the “reel.” The “real” here is the fully extant city of San Francisco, which is a living, functioning, and constantly changing city that millions of people pass through each day. The “reel” in this case is a socially accepted and publicly ascribed cinematic landscape that completely disregard’s the city’s hinterland and even most of its forward-facing public sphere. In real life, Tommy Wiseau grew a minor clothing empire, accumulating enough independent wealth to purchase a building not far from the tourist Mecca of the Marina District and Pier 39. In reel life, Johnny (no apparent last name) makes good money working some nondescript job in a bank and lives in a nondescript condominium.

Wiseau’s script (the incongruity of which could probably formulate its own MFA thesis) often conflates the real and reel. For example, in another selection from the inane dialogue bullpen, Mark tells Johnny about a girl he knew who had been abused to the point of winding up “in a hospital on Guerrero Street.” Wiseau, for reasons only known to him, either used this line as a cute way to work Guerrero Street into the script, or he just could not think of any other street than the ones he had previously lived on. In the real San Francisco, there has never been a hospital anywhere on Guerrero Street, but because of Wiseau, there is one in reel San Francisco.

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HA HA HA, What a connection, Tyler!

As with this apocryphal hospital and the superfluous conversation about Bay to Breakers, Wiseau takes special care to “place” his film in San Francisco, going out of the way with incorporating verbal/contextual representations of the city as much as he does with tired visual representations. Where the common mantra implores artists to “show, not tell,” Wiseau has managed, with his city, to show AND tell in a manner that is as overbearing as much as lacking in self-awareness. Granted, his motivation to do so renders these indiscretions marginally understandable.

The “Roof” and a Distorted Skyline

As the story (specifically, Sestero’s believable version) goes, the duo met in an acting class in the late 1990’s. Wiseau decided that he wanted to break into Hollywood, so he wrote The Room and decided to shoot it himself when he (for some reason) couldn’t find a major studio to produce it. They did all the principal filming in Los Angeles between a sound stage that played their condo, one that played a basketball court, and a couple of exterior shots in an alley near the lot where their camp set up. A number of the movie’s most popular scenes (e.g. the “WHAT KIND OF MONEY?” scene involving Denny’s near-deadly run-in with completely incongruous Armenian-American gangster Chris-R; the aforementioned Guerrero Street conversation; a stoned Mark nearly throwing Peter to his death when confronted about his affair with Lisa) took place on the condo’s roof.

This “roof” was actually played by a ground-level scene set built in front of a poorly-lit outdoor green-screen that, as Sestero explained, rendered these scenes with an otherworldly, unsettling glow. The San Francisco skyline digitally placed behind the actors, manipulated liberally, may constitute one of the film’s greatest “crimes against geography.” Though these rooftop scenes purported to “place” the film among the San Francisco skyline, they only confuse the viewer trying to obtain some sense of the condo’s location (real or reel). If this were a real location, either the building would have had to rotate or the buildings would have had to flip locations around them. Perceiving the reel location, however, accounts for the appropriate suspension of disbelief.

“That’s Meeee”: Forays into the Real San Francisco

Once the principal filming in Los Angeles had wrapped, a skeleton crew including Wiseau and Sestero (who also line-produced the movie, because why not) went up to the Bay to shoot these scenes that would reinforce the viewers’ imagined geography of The Room. These included all of the establishing shots from the beginning of the film as well as those used for scene transitions, many of which were filmed at varying levels of legality. Three of these scenes included dialogue between Johnny and Mark, two of which are both deeply carved into the “best worst movie” canon.

One of these three only features cursory, dubbed dialogue of the two running together around Golden Gate park, ultimately tossing a football and tackling one another homo-erotically. The two others include one confusing scene (“anyway, how’s your sex life?”) filmed in a cafe and another filmed in a Flower shop. Before I discuss the Flower Shop scene, please take a 6-minute break to listen to this amazing excerpt of Greg Sestero reading his account of how the scene came to be, and then watch it here:

I’ve gone on record saying that one could probably write a whole peer-reviewed academic paper about everything that’s wrong with this scene (my favorite assessment being Roadtrippers’ dubbing it a “black hole of human interaction” on their page of The Room locations). That being said, the Flower Shop scene provides one of few moments throughout the movie where the reel and real converge.

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While the scene exists primarily to reinforce Wiseau’s narrative that Johnny is a perfect person (he is the florist’s favorite customer, after all), the location coheres both inside the shop and outside at the establishing shot on the corner of 16th and Dehon Street. While the Flower Shop scene may be one of the most terribly crafted scenes in one of the most terribly crafted narrative movies, it is the most geographically honest moment in The Room. The exterior shot was real, the interior of the shop was the real interior, the owners were the real proprietors, and that old pug on the counter (“Hi, doggie!”) was an authentic fixture of the shop as well. Only the skeleton crew’s makeup artist (seen looking at cards near the register) and Wiseau are pure fabrications of the reel.

Concluding Thoughts

Despite the film’s shocking $6 Million budget, The Room‘s stripped-down construction of place is a great tool for teaching these fundamental aspects of cinematic geography. Whereas other movies like Homeward Bound: Lost in San Francisco (much of which was filmed in Vancouver, a city known for playing everywhere but itself in Hollywood films) provide a cursory glance at the discrepancy between the reel and the real, Wiseau’s inept production hits you over the head with this contrast. The establishing iconic landscape shots, while themselves intended as a manifestation of Wiseau’s love of San Francisco, are so overdone, cult screening audiences often take to call-and-response screaming of “WHERE ARE WE? / SAN FRANCISCO!” and “GO! GO! GO!” as the camera slowly and clumsily pans across the Golden Gate Bridge.

None of this, of course, fazes Wiseau.  As Sestero wrote in his book’s introduction:

The magic of The Room derives from one thing: no one interprets the world the way Tommy Wiseau does. He is the key to The Room’s mystery as well as the engine of its success. Tommy had always predicted his film would become a classic, embraced worldwide – a notion that could not have seemed less likely. Yet he was right. The Room became every bit the blockbuster that Tommy had envisioned, though not, of course, in the way he envisioned… Tommy continues to believe that his is the greatest film of all time” (2013, xv).

Similarly, this relationship between this great terrible movie and San Francisco only reinforces my enjoyment of The Room. Throughout my last two years living in Washington, DC, my friends and I would attend monthly midnight screenings at E Street Cinema, often dragging unsuspecting friends into the fold. The first time I went to see it, I invited a friend who had just been through a rough time in her life. Within months, she was organizing outings to the screening, even celebrating her following birthday at a screening. In July 2010, Wiseau and Sestero visited a screening there. Two of my friends, both wondering what the hell was going on, wound up sitting next to each other. They exchanged numbers, and six years later, are newly married. It does take a certain kind of appreciation of the surreal and the absurd to enjoy this movie, and the people I grew to enjoy it alongside became some of my best friends from my life in DC. Now, as I begin a career teaching cultural geography, I’ve found surprisingly relevant ways through which this great horrible movie has informed my research. Though Stefan Popescu (2013) may be correct that “the best worst movie” craze may not be sustainable, but as a singularly charming flagship of that movement to the media scholar, The Room is Tommy Wiseau’s demented gift that keeps on giving.