[I wrote this a few months ago upon hearing about my former colleague’s passing. Due to travel and teaching commitments, I unfortunately never completed it. In the interest of getting this out of my drafts folder, I’ve decided to publish it and give you all some reading material for this Monday morning. This may become a paper about the US Mayors’ Conference and “the selling of” cities on day. We’ll see. – Tyler]
I received some very sad news recently from some colleagues from my DC life. John, our longtime Managing Director at the PR firm where I worked passed away from cancer at age 70. As tragic as the news was to hear, it was nice for us to share some memories of perhaps the best person I ever have been so fortunate to work under. I went through old files to see if I had any mementos of John, with no luck. However, it did lead me down a rabbit hole of memories from my twenties, some stories which would find a good home on this site now. I don’t think I’ve shared this story anywhere online, either, so here we go.
A good way to get a photo op with Mayor Steve Benjamin was to show up in the same suit. I had no idea that Columbia, SC would eventually become one of my favorite southern cities, and this photo would become a running joke between me and friends I would make there. Strange.
The best assignment I had for that job sent me to Oklahoma City in 2010 for the US Conference of Mayors. Twice a year (once in DC and once in a roving location), leaders of towns and cities from across the country meet to trade tips on civic programs, navigating political minefields, image curation, and other tacit knowledge. Despite the number of big-name politicians in attendance (some of whom are currently countenancing Presidential campaign rumors), I don’t remember the meeting getting much national media coverage outside of our radio campaigns. Since few of these mayors are real celebrities, it didn’t get the slathered attention of an election-year Democratic or Republican National Convention. That being said, CNN was on hand, going live with then-LA-mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who deflected rumors that his city was considering bankruptcy. What was going on in LA in 2010 that would have generated such rumors is beyond my immediate knowledge.
As one might expect, the host mayor is keen to show their city off to visiting dignitaries quite enthusiastically. Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett was that host, and show the city off he did. In 2010, he was in the midst of a banner era in his mayoral tenure. He appeared on Ellen in 2008 on the success of his anti-obesity campaign, giving Ellen Degeneres her own holiday in the city. The next year, the Thunder rocketed into playoff contention, bringing the city and state onto the national basketball stage and facing the Lakers in a contentious playoff series. What Cornett had going for his spectacle, though, was something intangible that his fellow Mayors would have killed for: the cool.
Most Mayors, especially for non-Major cities, are very down to earth. Their governance does not span an insurmountable area, so it’s easier for them to be on the street, interacting with their constituents and actually functioning like the citizens they need to impress. Though there are plenty of opportunities to get involved with corruption, the instances seem fewer and farther between; they are still beholden to their neighbors. It also follows that Mayors are predominantly Democrats, people of color, and in some cases LGBT.
Cornett was none of those things, but coming from within Red-State political hegemony didn’t prevent him from charming everyone by propping up his city’s greatest counter-cultural export: The Flaming Lips. His committee arranged for the band to play a private concert for the conference attendees and their families. All of the conference contractors got passes, too. As a music nerd who came of age when the Lips were at their creative and critical peak (1999’s The Soft Bulletin and 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots mobilize something of a consensus here), imagine my excitement when I read that they were in the program for the third night.
I’ll get to the concert shortly. On the first night, the coordinating committee set up a private tent near the Sonic headquarters in Bricktown, the finely redeveloped, expertly walk-able downtown area. The party’s location came at the hands of some meticulous planning. It gave them an excuse to show off the relatively flashy downtown district (which, according to members of Red City Radio, the city paid for with a 1-cent sales tax hike).
On the river-walk next to the Sonic headquarters. I don’t remember what this band sounded like, but judging by the cargo shorts, I’d say Jimmy Buffett got covered at some point.
On the second night, the conference piled everyone onto chartered buses and, with an roving wall of police escorts, led us out to a big warehouse in the city’s hinterland. Before we got a taste of Cool Oklahoma, we were to indulge in every Cowboy stereotype imaginable. A country string band played on a stage built on the opposite end from the entrance. A electronic Buckin’ Bronco ride sat immediately to the right, and a set of lanes for tossing Horseshoes sat between bales of imported hay to our left. In all fairness, “played Horseshoe against my boss in Oklahoma” is a claim few DC yuppies ever got to make. The well-orchestrated hoedown was fun, between the two-stepping lessons, barbecue, and open bars that surrounded us. I vaguely remember having a wonderful conversation with Mitch Ward, a retired actor and then the mayor of Manhattan Beach, CA, while standing in line at one of them.
The setup inside the steel arch warehouse.
Hanging with the Clydesdales
My boss takes his turn throwing the horseshoe. I have no idea how to keep score, but I still managed to let him win.
On the third night, everyone headed over to the Ford Center (then in its final year with that name; it’s now named Chesapeake Energy Arena). We waited in the concourse, where they set up snack and drink tables, along with (from what I recall) showcases of local students’ artwork. I snapped a photo of a big mural they had painted that said, in airbrush-novelty font, “Rock and Roll with the Flaming Lips.” At the time, it seemed somewhat tacky and off-putting, but in retrospect they probably employed a local artist and some printers for a few days in order to make it, so who was I to hurl judgment? It was eye-catching.
After an incongruously formal dinner program, a succession of mayors took the stage to make a succession of presentations. By this point, many of us were excited for the musical program to begin, so it started to feel as if it was dragging. Granted, it was entertaining to see public officials let loose and make speeches at varying levels of intoxication. Once the dinner program ended and the staff cleared the tables up front, Cornett got back onstage to introduce the band. The Oklahoma City Philharmonic filed into their seats. My coworkers and I migrated towards the stage, hearing a commotion coming from the bleachers a couple stories above our heads. We looked up to our left to see the 300 level filling up with hundreds of people who had just been unleashed from the concourse.
It had somehow eluded me that so many of the volunteers we had met in the course of the three activity-filled days, the local welcoming committee and the cogs who made it possible for Cornett’s machine to operate through the conference, were paid with free passes to this show. “Huh,” I thought, “That’s actually kind of brilliant.” I felt guilty being on the floor while the volunteers were sequestered up in the nosebleeds, but at least they all had a clear sight line down to the stage for what would be a 20-minute set. Also, the band (Coyne and Drozd, at least) came down to hang out and take photos with conference attendees for a long while after their set, so it would have been chaos if they’d allowed all of the volunteers onto the floor, too. There were already enough indie dorks telling Wayne Coyne about how long they had been fans, how cool it was that the band did this gig, and other niceties. The best part was that Coyne and a couple of his band mates were so nice to everyone, no matter how monopolizing particular fans attempted to be.
Just a couple of similarly dressed guys with ambiguously pronounced last names.
My boss and I got to chat with Steve Drozd, and we both took photos with him and his baton. He had just conducted an orchestra for the first time, and the excitement that he radiated was hilarious. My favorite moment of that whole week came when he looked at my name tag and asked me how to pronounce my last name. “Sonic-sun,” I replied, “How do you pronounce your last name?” “Draw-zid” he replied, answering a question I’d had wandering in my head ever since I first read his name in the pages of SPIN a decade earlier. Drozd’s prior decade, given his recovery from a somewhat well-documented heroin addiction, represents one of indie rock’s great redemption stories.
I witnessed an even greater fan-moment nearby a minute later. My friend/coworker Rebecca got Coyne to pose for a picture where they were both running a hand through their big, curly manes. There was nothing of deeper significance to this, but it was satisfying how Rebecca saved the rock star from a trio of bro’s who were monopolizing his time, prattling on about their cultural capital as Lips fans.
Whenever I’ve recounted this weekend to friends, I often pinpoint a few specific moments of epiphany, and Mick Cornett featured in all of them. After the concert ended, they arranged for a private after-party on the roof of a highly-regarded Italian restaurant in Bricktown whose roof patio overlooked Flaming Lips Alley. Later in the night, I wound up chatting with Cornett’s son (around my age), and Mick came over to join us. Within a few minutes, Cornett was proudly telling me how he pushed to help both name that alley after the Flaming Lips as well as help name “Do You Realize!?” Oklahoma’s State Rock song, both in the face of adversity from some real squares.
This made perfect sense. I wouldn’t be surprised if his kids left for college in the late 90’s and reported back to him about this band from OKC that everyone loved. Additionally, The Flaming Lips are nothing if not prolific collaborators. Wayne Coyne has been vocal about his dedication to Oklahoma City, too, fighting to make the it less of a flyover and more of a destination. Conference attendees walked away with a free copy of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots on CD, left in our hotel rooms by the local welcoming committee. The committee also left us limited edition copies of No Fences. I never imagined that I would own a Garth Brooks CD, but here we are. It’s good; I understand why it sold over 10 million copies.
Anyway, here is the video I discovered in the course of my archival search that sent me down this detour of memory lane. Wayne Coyne thanks Mayor Cornett, has the crowd congratulate Steven Drozd on his orchestra conducting debut, and introduces the Yo La Tengo cover. Enjoy everything coming together in a strange way.
The scene on the National Mall around 9 AM, two hours before the Victory Parade began. 06.12.18
Lars Eller (in white hat and jersey) with his wife and daughter, talk to coordinators outside of Capital One Arena before getting on a shuttle bus to the parade. 06.12.18
Alex Ovechkin waits on the front of the shuttle bus outside of the Capital One Arena while Philip Pritchard (white hair) carries the Stanley Cup on board. 06.12.18
Fans and photographers horde around the shuttle bus bringing Ovechkin, Backstrom, and others to the parade route. 06.12.18
A young Caps fan (in chair) gets interviewed for a local video project along the parade route before the party begins. 06.12.18
The East High School Marching Band in the Capitals Victory Parade, 06.12.18
Phillip Grubauer (1), Tom Wilson (center, with DC flag draped over his shoulder) and Devante Smith-Pelly (behind Wilson, with WWE belt) ride by the African-American Museum at Constitution and 14th NW. 06.12.18
Slapshot, the Caps’ lovable Eagle mascot, rides by the crowd at 15th and Constitution NW on a dune buggy. You know, like eagles do. 06.12.18
A statue for the city’s homeless, lying on G St. NW near the Gallery Place Metro entrance.
If you only know me through this website, my social media, or a professional organization like the AAG, then you might associate me with musical geography, ethnography, and possibly pedagogy. I’ve used sports extensively in my class curricula, but I think this is the first time that I’ve ever published anything about my personal and geographical relationship with sports. If you know me in person (especially over the past week), you know how big of a hockey fan I am and that I’m a huge fan of the Washington Capitals. I mean, who wouldn’t be? Just look at them.
via the Bellefontaine Examiner
I spent the last two weeks thinking about what I would write here in case they did, in fact, pull off the impossible and win their organization’s first Stanley Cup. However, I refused to write a single word until it actually happened, even in an unpublished draft. Whenever the Caps came up in conversation and anybody suggested things were looking pretty good, I bit my tongue, sealed my lips, and knocked on whatever wood was within arm’s reach. I even refused to mention the Cup directly on my friend’s sports podcast (much to his chagrin, I’m sure). I’m rarely superstitious, but if I wrote a mammoth spiel about the Capitals, what they’ve meant to me for the past 13 years, the geography lessons we can learn from their role in DC, and then they had somehow managed to blow their lead and lose? I would never live it down. I’m sure (some of) you understand. Now that the Caps are the Stanley Cup Champions (that still gives me chills to write), I can share some thoughts here. Let me set the stage:
Thursday, June 7. 8:15 PM. The Old City, Knoxville, TN.
“You know, even if they don’t pull it off tonight, it’s really great to get to win it at home,” my friend Todd assured me. It was a nice gesture, but I remained a bundle of nerves, hesitating even to cross the street to watch the first period of Game 5 unfold between the Washington Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights. As far as I was concerned, the Caps could tool around and win the Cup at home some other year. It took the Chicago Blackhawks (my fourth-favorite NHL team) until their third championship this decade to win in front of their hometown faithful at the United Center. But this was a different dilemma; the Caps were my favorite NHL team and had been so (by a long shot) for almost thirteen years, ever since I realized how much I appreciated their hometown. This was their second time in the Stanley Cup Finals (their first since 1998, long before I became a fan), and the first time they were ever one win away from hoisting the hardware. I had been party to hockey fan-glory over the previous decade; I watched the Los Angeles Kings (my second-favorite team) run to two Cups in 2012* and 2014 and the Nashville Predators (my third-favorite) tear through the Western Conference in 2017 before getting stopped by the Pittsburgh Penguins (my 31st-favorite NHL team) in the Finals.
Over the past thirteen years, I watched the Capitals rebuild into an Eastern Conference powerhouse that seemed laughably unable to transcend a legacy of failure. Still, I stayed a proud fan, despite these pitfalls. In 2007, the team ditched an ugly color scheme in favor of their now-highly-recognizable red, white, and blue, complete with the iconic “Weagle.” They fired coach Glen Hanlon, hired Bruce Boudreau, and went on a tear in order to make the 2008 playoffs. For the next ten years, they would be a consistent contender with the weight of the world on their shoulders. Every year in the post-season, they would find a new, innovative way in which to crumble. If you’re reading this because another Caps blog brought you here, then I have no need to run through this still-somewhat-stinging history. But if you’re a hockey novice, then expect to be filled in as you read on why I’m sitting down and sharing this story of how I came to love (and repeatedly get burnt by) this team. Until now.
DC Life and a Brief History of my Fandom
Me in my Nicklas Backstrom shirt at Stonehenge in July 2009. I don’t love many photos of myself, but I love this one. The two most pertinent reasons are because (1) this was featured on On Frozen Blog (a successful Capitals fan site) that summer, and (2) I had seen Spinal Tap play “Stonehenge” at Wembley Arena the night before. That partially explains my expression.
Washington, DC: 2004-2006
I don’t remember the precise moment I decided to move to Washington, DC, but I can definitively say it came sometime over the weekend of October 15-17, 2004. I was down in the District visiting my sister at Georgetown University along with our folks, for Parents’ Weekend. It was her freshman year, and she was still getting acclimated to life there. Her most fiery sports fandom (Hoya basketball, a point of contention for me, a Syracuse fan) was just brewing. On that Sunday the 17th, though, the Boston Red Sox (who my family had been following for generations) began clawing back from a 3-0 deficit in the American League Championship Series, setting off a series of events that would rock the sports world and culminate, over the following two weeks, in the second-greatest moment of my life as a sports fan.
Over the course of that afternoon and evening, I took my first few Metro rides to visit some friends who were either spending the semester there or attending college there. The former were a group of Syracuse people (mostly with a public policy or political science focus) living in Woodley Park over their DC semester, rooting for the Red Sox (either out of love for the team, pure antipathy for the Yankees, a cocktail of the two). The latter, whose George Washington Campus apartment floor I slept on, was a friend I’d made in Madrid that Spring. She and her roommate were both from New York and were accordingly huge Yankees fans. I grinned as Mariano Rivera blew that save and sent the game into extra innings, my friend and her roommate yelling “Noooo!” at the TV. They were so salty that they insisted we all go to sleep before the inevitable David Ortiz game-winning home run in the 12th.
The following morning, before leaving to fly back to Syracuse, it all set in that (to draw somehow on the non-representational theory I had no idea existed yet), I just got such a good vibe from DC. The city was so quiet and peaceful for a Monday morning as I ambled through the streets of Georgetown toward my sister’s dorm. The “Mariano Rivera for Cy Young” poster drawn in Red Sox colors in a window I passed (right) was a nice, memorable touch. Within a year, I was going to live in this weird little federal city, and I couldn’t wait to discover what else it had to offer and make my own way. Unlike New York or Los Angeles, things seemed to just be more… accessible in DC, like the whole city was one big, friendly, idiosyncratic neighborhood. Many bands I had on heavy rotation at the time – Bad Brains, Minor Threat, The Dismemberment Plan, Jawbox, Q and Not U – were from there, so there had to be something in the water, right? My urban imaginary at such a young age was based on unfair assumptions, sure, but I’m still grateful I had it influencing me.
Ballston, Arlington VA, August 2005.
On August 22, 2005, my sister and I packed piles of our belongings into a borrowed minivan and hit the road for a traffic-laden drive down to DC. My erstwhile college roommate, Brian, was down there working an internship with the House and told me I could crash on his futon for a few weeks while looking for a job and a place of my own^. His apartment was a one-bedroom in a massive converted hotel next to the Ballston Commons Mall, which would become a crucial Caps location when they opened the Kettler Capitals Iceplex the following year. In the Summer of 2005, though, the whole block felt like it was going through some transition I could feel but not fully recognize. Recent college graduates were piling into these brutally overpriced rentals; Brian got the month-to-month at a “steal” for $1,100. When he and our friend Drew moved out that Fall, their hatbox went back on the market for $1,750 per month. Go back and reread that number. Remember this was in mid-2005. Ballston had a lot going on, but it was still fairly decentralized from where most of these yuppies worked, and on the days I slept in after Brian and Drew went to work, I have oddly specific memories of standing at the patio door, watching Arlington crushing the building across the way into history with a wrecking ball.
Urban geographers, sociologists, and economists have held DC in the same breath with redevelopment/gentrification for decades now, so I’m sure my story and reflections echo thousands of other accounts from that same era. But in that first crucial month I spent in the Washington Metropolitan Area (WMA; later rebranded as the DMV), I did not suspect that a godawful local hockey team would be the catalyst for me to embrace an alienating city as my beloved new home.
October 10, 2005
Though I don’t remember the exact moment or day I decided to move to DC, October 10, 2005 was the night that I became a Washington Capitals fan. The New York Rangers were coming to visit the MCI Center (now Capital One Arena), and legions of Caps fans were preparing their wrath for legendary mullet vessel Jaromir Jagr, who had recently the Caps on somewhat acrimonious terms. He was quoted in the Washington Post saying he would just as soon forget the few years he spent playing in Washington. That night, every. single. time. he touched the puck, the MCI center rained boos on him. The formidable Rangers were the clear favorites to win the game, but the Caps prevailed, and I had a blast watching it unfold.
There was another much more personal dynamic at work, though. My friend group at the time consisted largely of transplanted New Yorkers, whose trademark Big Apple metro-centrism often got on my nerves. I lost track of the number of times Brian, Drew, and I wound up at bars and clubs with the type of people who bragged about their fancy internships but could not wait to get back to New York – you know, a “real city.” I also lost track of how many times I rolled my eyes. At the time, I knew little about DC’s troubled and segregated history, so I usually just kept my mouth shut when people would prattle on about how disappointed they were that “our Nation’s Capital wasn’t nicer.” I would sometimes start arguments with the water-is-wet statement that DC wasn’t the same city as New York, Boston, or even Philly, nor was it trying to be. It would usually fall on deaf ears, though. Every time I heard some transient bash their host city, I started to like DC even more. Call it the me-against-the-world defiance you accrue at age 22, but it was all taking hold pretty quickly. To this day, I still get sick to my stomach whenever I hear someone whine about any city, especially DC.
I remember sitting in the nosebleed seats at MCI that night as a flash point of all these urban-transplant emotions. Although I had grown up a huge Boston Bruins fan, Gary Bettman’s second lockout in 2004-2005 coincided with my coming-of-age. I still cared for the Bruins while I sat watching the Caps host the Rags (I was dumbfounded when Brian informed me that the Bruins had traded Joe Thornton to the Sharks), but my once-undying love had somehow withered into apathy. By the time the Bruins won a Stanley Cup in 2011, I felt nothing. In fact, my favorite non-riot-related moment of that whole series of events was watching Canucks fans cheer for the Vancouver native Milan Lucic when he lifted the trophy. I just thought it was sweet of them.
But I digress. My decision to immerse myself in DC Sports Fandom, especially given how my two favorite games were hockey and baseball, was a questionable one in 2005, because the Capitals and Nationals both suuuuuuuuuuuuuucked. On October 22nd, my close friend Jason came up from Virginia to visit his girlfriend at the time, who lived in the Maryland suburbs. I took them to watch the Caps face off against the Carolina Hurricanes, and the Caps got drubbed 4-0. Jason had never been to a hockey game before, but noted that every single time one of our guys had the puck, it looked like there were four of the other guys on them. It was an astute observation, and you could chalk that up to either the Hurricanes being a divisional powerhouse at the time or the Caps being especially listless.
Regardless, within a few months, no one could have steered me away from these teams. They hadn’t been handed down to me by my family; they were my teams. Cheering for my own teams may not have been the landmark that learning to drive or getting my own apartment may have been, but it did represent a break with my family’s New England roots. Within a season or two, though, my Dad followed suit and became a Caps fan. I must have been really convincing, because yes, the team did suck.
Of course, the Capitals had needed to suck in order to draft a certain somebody first overall in 2004 – a certain somebody who, thanks to the lockout, moved to DC right around the same time that I did: Alexander Ovechkin. You’ve probably heard of him.
Dainus Zubrus (L) and Alex Ovechkin (R) in 2005, Ovie’s rookie year. I include this photo also to show just how disgusting the Caps’ uniforms were for most of the 90’s and 00’s. The 2007 re-brand didn’t come soon enough. (Image via NoVa Caps).
The party line on my new favorite team in the sports media could often be distilled to “boy, this team is awful, but holy hell come and see this Ovechkin kid.” And this Ovechkin kid did produce. He ended the season with 52 goals, over 100 points, and an ungodly number of shots for a rookie literally anyone. Though he couldn’t “Lebron James” the Caps to a decent record that year, I can verify from watching him play (from both $10 nosebleed tickets and various bar televisions) that Ovie was truly the one-man highlight reel announcers kept labeling him.
As tempting as it can be, I won’t turn this into a diatribe praising Alex Ovechkin, as indispensable as he’s been both in the Caps’ successes and their visibility in popular culture. But before I move on, I will share my favorite Great Eight (Gr8) moment ever: April 24, 2009 against those Rangers in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. I was at a hotel in Rochester with some friends, one of whom came looking for me at the work computer in the lobby because I’d been gone for so long. Although my buddy Jake wasn’t a big hockey fan, I made him sit down and watch this pure magic:
I can still barely believe my eyes when I watch him deke Derek Morris out of his skates and then, as he’s falling down, make Henrik Lundqvist look like an idiot and slide the puck through him. It was even funnier in retrospect how the Rangers had acquired Morris at the trade deadline to help prevent this exact kind of thing from happening. Every Caps fan has their favorite Ovechkin moment, and that one’s mine. This one, from that February, is a close second, though.
The Letdown Years, an Introduction
Sometime in 2006, I wrote a blog post about how awesome the Washington Capitals were, even though their record made no indication of that. I can’t remember exactly what I wrote, but I’ll try to place myself in that mindset and recreate it here as I explain the extraordinary transformation of 2007-2008. I hit a career milestone… in that I got a job and started my first career in May 2007. Thanks in part to the boss’ recognition of my Syracuse credentials, I landed a position as an Assistant Account Executive at a small public relations firm in the National Press Building. I didn’t mind that I was “working for the clampdown,” as another one of my heroes, Joe Strummer, once put it. My coworkers were an interesting bunch, all around my age, and would all eventually get swept up into Caps fever despite the crushing playoff disappointments that awaited us for my whole tenure at the company. Believe it or not, my coworkers would all witness the 2010 Game 7 meltdown in person when my boss surprised them with tickets. I got over it, though, since I was on a plane to Germany while it happened.
Here’s some more context for the non-hockey fans (if you’re still reading). At the beginning of the 2007 season, a second shining star appeared in the Caps’ sky: a fresh-faced kid from Sweden named Nicklas Backstrom. If you saw the Cup ceremony from Thursday night, then you saw Ovechkin pass the Stanley Cup to him after receiving it from Gary Bettman (as if there was ever any doubt). I recently found a team yearbook from 2009, and Ovie and Backs were the only two Caps whose tenure with the organization stretched to the previous decade. It became clear that the franchise had no choice but to rebuild itself around these two flashy kids, and over Thanksgiving 2007 Caps GM George McPhee and owner (AOL impresario) Ted Leonsis fired coach Glen Hanlon. They called Bruce Boudreau up from their AHL farm team the Hershey Bears to fill the seat.
Boudreau would become an increasingly divisive figure (see: his inability to close in the post-season), but as soon as he joined as head coach, the Caps caught on fire. They turned their season around and went on a historic run to nudge their way into the 2008 playoffs. Suddenly, the city was waking up to them. Also, Alex Ovechkin scored 65 goals that season, won all four major individual NHL awards, and received the Key to the City from Mayor Adrian Fenty. Here is some shaky footage of that ceremony I found on YouTube. If you watch it with a fine-toothed comb, you may see me in the crowd in my business-casual attire. I worked a block away from DC City Hall, so I sneaked over there on my lunch break. I’ll never forget seeing Marion Barry, still working for the city, sitting on the ground next to the entrance in his baby blue suit.
It felt gratifying to see my adopted city embrace its hockey team that year. The Caps pushed the Philadelphia Flyers (my 30th-favorite NHL team) to a Game 7 Overtime, which exceeded expectations anybody had of them. Their faces started appearing more frequently in the commuter Express paper, which I read every morning on the Orange line to Metro Center. My coworkers started asking me about the team, as I was the only bona fide hockey fan at the firm. The fact that the Redskins had descended into some kind of Rube Goldberg script at that point (the Albert Haynesworth signing**, coupled with the controversy over their name, certainly didn’t help things) also helped push the Caps further into the city’s consciousness. I’ll admit how cool it felt to see people on message boards and (in the then-new term) IRL asking me when the next Caps game was, dejected at whatever stunt Dan Snyder had just pulled. Friends who had cast dispersion on the Caps and the NHL at large were started to systematically delete those posts from their blogs and MySpace. The zeitgeist was real***.
Of course, Ted Leonsis had made his millions from the internet, so he was no fool. By the 2008-2009 season, the Caps were suddenly a “favorite” of many gamblers, and ticket prices responded. Gone were the days of schlubs like me plopping down a $10 bill at the MCI box office and heading up to the rafters. Mid-level tickets cost ungodly amounts of money, and so the lower echelons of DC’s middle class began getting squeezed out of direct participation with the team. The Washington City Paper and other alternative outlets took exception to this capitalist blow-back on the long-suffering yet loyal fans. The Nats, also crawling into competitive stature, built an “office park of a stadium” (h/t Will Stilwell aka Loud Goat) on the Southwest Waterfront, displacing pre-War communities of color and charging $8 for a beer. Unlike with the Caps and Wizards, scraping-by fans barely had that window of “suck” through which to climb into the stands for a reasonable price, at least not since they moved out of the crumbling RFK stadium. I did always respect DC United for sticking around there, considering how paltry their crowds looked in that cavernous bowl.
On Moonlighting as a Hockey Reporter
In late 2008, my coworker Forest, who had been covering Georgetown Men’s Basketball for his friend Wendell’s low-budget sports blog, mentioned they were looking for a hockey guy. Though I didn’t have much sports journalism experience, I jumped at the chance. Caps press credentials were becoming increasingly difficult to obtain, but Wendell had gotten in right before the gate closed. Whenever the Caps played a home game, I would walk over to the (renamed) Verizon Center, flash my badge, and join the press junket for their pre-game meal in the bowels of the arena. Though I was on the bottom of the totem pole, both home and visiting hockey journos were incredibly welcoming. I got to sit up in “the halo” to watch the games and take notes, mingling with personalities like video guy/backup backup goalie Brett Leonhardt and web guy Mike Vogel. In one of my prouder moments, I informed Vogel of his more-than-passing resemblance to Robyn Hitchcock, to which Leonhardt and a scrum of journalists gasped and laughed when a then-beardless Vogel pulled up a photo of the singer. I also met Australian hockey super-fan Sasky Stewart, who had sent internship applications to every NHL franchise that winter, but was in DC because you-know-who were the only one to give her the time of day. She was the first person I thought of a month ago when Nathan Walker assisted on Alex Chaisson’s goal in Game 6 against the Pens, the first playoff point ever earned by an Australian player in the NHL.
Generally, I spent most of that season trying to do my job and not make waves. I was so timid that I doubt I even took any pictures. I don’t know if any of the post-game videos exist on the Caps’ website, but you can occasionally spot me in the background of the locker room, in well over my head but having a great time. I’m still in awe of how cool everyone was, and as much as I may have deserved it, nobody ever big-timed me. Also, I have distinct memories of Karl Alzner and Tomas Fleischmann being cool as hell to me whenever I passed them on the concourse. Remember what I said about DC being accessible? Here it was. I also gorged on free popcorn in the press box.
My press credential had run its course by the 2009 playoffs – the first time the Caps entered as a favorite. This was not a level of pressure they could withstand, apparently. They pulled off an amazing come-from-behind victory over the Rangers in round one, only to crumble in Game 7 against the Penguins (after pushing them to seven games, too). I’ll never forget watching the Caps, with the eyes of the hockey world on them, get blown out on home ice by the eventual Cup winners. I sat, dejectedly, in a nondescript bar on U Street, waiting for my friend Jana to come meet me. She got delayed, so I waited to order a drink in case she needed me to meet her elsewhere. As it became increasingly obvious the Penguins were going to embarrass the Caps in one of the most over-hyped games in either team’s history, a woman walked over to me. “If you don’t buy anything, you’re going to have to leave.” Her words hit me especially hard in that moment. U Street, which I had been watching rapidly and steadily gentrifying over the four years prior, was now where I could go to get kicked out of a bar for sitting and quietly watching television. As Cr*sby picked Alex Ovechkin’s pocket at center ice and skated it in for a breakaway goal, I gave up and walked out. I couldn’t stop thinking about this moment last month in that magical moment in Game 6, when Ovechkin picked Cr*sby’s pocket at the blue line, dished it up to Kuzy, and they finally, finally twisted the dagger on that team I hate so much.
The 2009-2010 season was another animal. The Caps reached 121 points in the standings and ran away with the Presidents’ Trophy. They also went up 3-1 against the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the playoffs (inspiring some Quebecois ire) before losing three straight to Jaroslav Halak. Hockey is perhaps the most “team sport” of the team sports, but never before had I seen a decent goaltender catch fire and buckle the best team in hockey. It was tantamount to Stephen Curry defeating Georgetown single-handed in the 2008 tournament. Basketball is a team sport, too, most of the time. At any rate, the Caps front office rewarded fans’ grief with the biggest ticket price spike in their history.
2010 was also the year I decided, for reasons unrelated, that I was ready to leave DC. I had known since the day I’d finished undergrad that I would attend grad school for Geography some day. Unlike the moments in which I decided to move to DC and wherein I became a lifelong fan of the Washington Capitals, I cannot narrow down to a single weekend the moment I felt officially ready to leave. But it was unquestionably in the Fall of 2010 that I realized that “some day” was coming. That season, I remember going to a game on February 6, 2011 – a Caps/Pens match-up on a Sunday matinee (just like old times). My decision to go was an impulsive, last-minute choice. I obviously couldn’t waltz into the box office with a Hamilton anymore. I had to hand a wad of cash to a scalper in order to get a nosebleed seat, but the game was a decent time. The Caps won 3-0 in the absence of some of the Pens’ superstars, and I left with a slight suspicion that this would be my last time in the “phone booth” for a while. I haven’t been back inside there since.
In fact, I’ve only seen the Caps play in person once since then: March 30, 2014 in Nashville, as an early birthday present. The Caps lost in the shootout, but they got a point out of it. They missed the playoffs that season, and I still don’t get how it was possible for a team with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom to do that. In retrospect, though, it may have been Ovechkin’s -35 rating, Backstrom’s -20, Adam Oates’ sub-par coaching, or how nobody else had a career year. Thanks, Hockey-Reference.com. My favorite memory from that game was hanging out with some wonderfully gracious Preds fans, which moved their team way up within my ranking of favorite NHL teams. Seeing Preds gear on students all over campus has been nice these past few years teaching at UTK.
Nashville’s run through the Western Conference in the 2017 playoffs was also incredible to watch after the Caps took their annual, underwhelming exit against the Pens in Round Two. Seeing how brilliantly the Predators got the Nashville and greater Tennessee community involved was nothing short of inspiring. I can’t wait to see that team win their first Cup; they did more for hockey in the South by making the Finals than the Stars or Hurricanes did by winning.
Via NHL.com. P.K. Subban’s well-documented swagger on display as he greets fans.
Though I couldn’t make it to Nashville to experience the Stanley Cup fever firsthand, I loved the attention the team and their fans were getting. Also, based on photo sets I was seeing online, I had never witnessed such a diverse fan-base as the Preds’. The crowd partying outside of Capital One exhibited a diverse fan-base in DC as well. Race is never simple to discuss, but considering how far the discussion has advanced in the NFL, I’m glad to see the NHL engaging so constructively. For the least racially diverse major sport in North America, the NHL has done well proving that Hockey is for Everyone. Like NASCAR, an increasing number of the sport’s rising stars are coming from minority backgrounds, and Nashvegas made that increasingly visible last year.
On a more molecular level, though, there had to be some college grads moving to the fast-growing Nashville for their first jobs, and the Preds have given them something to rally around as the Caps did for me. Like the Caps did for DC at large, maybe the Preds also provide a solid communal mooring for people afraid of their city losing so much of its character to development. There’s always room for discussion here.
Thursday, June 7. 10:39 PM. The Old City, Knoxville, TN.
I sat along at a table at the Urban Bar, wringing my hands and slowly draining my beer (when I remembered it was sitting in front of me). Todd and I had watched the scoreless first period of Game 5 before he left for his bar shift. I decided to bike over to a bar in Market Square to see if I would run into anybody I knew. My other hockey-fan friends were either out of town or home for the night. I’d seen nobody familiar and a panoply of annoying strangers in Market Square, so I came back down to Urban Bar for the third period. Also, the Knights outscored the Caps 3-2 in the wild second period, so I figured it wouldn’t hurt to reset my location (again, I’m rarely this superstitious). It’s always an adventure navigating the bar scene in Tennessee when you want to watch a hockey team who isn’t the Predators, even if it is the Cup Finals.
via the Urban Bar’s website.
Plus, Urban Bar was where I’d been watching when Evgeni Kuznetsov ended Game Six against the Penguins. When it happened (watch this video at least 15 times), I was sitting with Todd and our friends John and Alexis, and I yelled so loudly that the whole bar turned and looked at me. I may have also said something cruel about Pittsburgh, which I quickly redacted because I love that city as much as I hate its hockey team. I also enthusiastically yelled “they’re showing it again!” every time the NHL network replayed it into the night. In that moment, it did seem like anything was possible. Even if the Caps didn’t make it past the Lightning in the Eastern Conference Finals, we’d always have this moment of watching S*dney Cr*sby skate away sadly as the Caps celebrated in the background.
Around 10:39 PM on June 7th, the Caps still trailed by a goal, but I remained optimistic. After all, they led the series 3-1. Still, the garden variety of playoff failures over the years still swam around in my brain. The Caps had proven over the previous decade that they were capable of blowing this. Every time the NBCSN directors cut to a shot of the massive swarm of bouncing red at the corner of 7th and G Street, my heart swelled. Those were my people. DC Love and all that. If I hadn’t left, I would be in that swarm. Suddenly, what would have been unthinkable (ca. 2009-2017) happened: Devante Smith-Pelly, one of my favorite players, pulled acrobatics and tied the game. At 10:41, I sent a voice message text to my sister wherein I declared him to be “the greatest human being ever to live.” Again, rope in non-representational theory to explain why I would say something like that in the heat of the moment. It may also be because Devante Smith-Pelly is a golden god. JUST WATCH.
My single favorite tweet of the entire postseason came from J.P. of Japer’s Rink, who said after game 2 that “guess this is what 43 years of banked luck looks like.” The Caps had gotten a lot of lucky bounces and supernatural saves from Braden Holtby, but I’m a stern believer in the axiom that good luck is still something one still needs to work for. Nobody has ever won a championship, paid their rent, or bought a house with lucky bounces, indie cred, or exposure.
Within minutes, Lars Eller slid in behind Marc-Andre Fleury and banked the game-winning goal. The Caps were suddenly in the lead, and they would not surrender it. With two minutes remaining, Todd materialized to watch the clock run out and the Caps celebrate. Though they narrowly missed the Golden Knights’ empty net a couple times, the Caps protected their lead, and years of pain dissolved and floated away into the atmosphere above the DC Beltway.
I spent the next few hours, when I wasn’t excitedly texting with old friends and chatting on the phone with my father, high-fiving strangers and finding places to watch the post-game interviews at full volume. I biked home that night on pure adrenaline, excited to get on YouTube to relive moments from that night and plunge into the ninth circle of Capitals twitter. I eventually got to sleep, unaware that over the next few days, something truly remarkable would happen that brought so many of my thoughts and emotions about DC, cultural geography, and this team together in an elaborate, shambolic package.
As I write this, the Caps are probably either hung over or still partying in the streets of DC. After doing press in Las Vegas, Ovechkin brought the Stanley Cup to a nightclub, where he hung out in the DJ booth with Tiësto (because of course they are friends). The team flew home in the morning, and Ovie and Backstrom carried the Cup off the plane to a raucous ovation. On Saturday afternoon, the team went to the Nats game with the Cup and Ovechkin threw out the ceremonial first pitch (twice). Within a day, footage started to emerge of about six Caps partying on the Georgetown waterfront and jumping into a fountain with incredulous fans. They invaded the Georgetown high-society joint Cafe Milano, where they interrupted a dinner date between Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. No matter where your politics sit, DC is just so surreal and awesome sometimes.
Via WJLA. Six members of the Caps, decked out in Nationals gear from the game earlier, invade Cafe Milano. Ivanka Trump is appropriately star-struck, and (again, owing this observation to Loud Goat Stilwell) Ovechkin is WEARING TWO HATS.
So where does this intersect with DC’s (sub)cultural geography? In the brief period where I had some access to the Capitals In-Game Entertainment, I never worked up the nerve to campaign to get Minor Threat’s “Seeing Red” playing at games. But as history since 1980 has shown, harDCore has its subversive ways of leaking into the mainstream landscape. Earlier today, my old friend Matt, who runs a punk record shop and boutique in Adams-Morgan, posted pictures of himself with the Stanley Cup from last night. Apparently, he was on his way home from a show and decided he was going to swing by Georgetown and literally get his hands on some history. The door was locked when he got to the restaurant in question, but Backstrom and Oshie soon emerged with the Cup in their hands. Below is the result of the scrum of fans who, understandably, went nuts.
A variety of bloggers have tried making sense out of the team’s prolonged street-level celebration. One of my favorite posts anthologized Jakub Vrana’s snapchat stories from the night, which chronicled their adventures as they passed through Georgetown and Adams-Morgan, mingling with fans and pouring money into local businesses (i.e. pubs and tattoo shops). At this rate, I wouldn’t put it past the team to record their own version of “The Super Bowl Shuffle,” but with a version in a harDCore style on Side A and a version in a Go-Go style on Side B.
While their front office may have spent the last decade jacking up ticket prices and squeezing loyal fans out of direct participation, the Caps have spent the past 72 hours bringing the party right back to the streets of DC and in the arms (and selfies) of those fans. As obnoxious as some of their antics may be, they are sharing their reward with the supporters who lived and died with them over the years. This was the type of celebration I could have only fantasized about throughout the Letdown Years. I can only imagine what their victory parade is going to look like tomorrow.
Once again, congratulations to the Washington Capitals for pulling this off, and to all their lifelong fans who were suffering for much longer than I was. As I posted in #ALLCAPS on Thursday night and I think I made clear enough here, I love this f@#&ing team, and I love (and miss) this f#*@king city. Thank you for reading.
* For those who are fans of ironies to end all ironies, here’s an anecdote for you. Though the Caps were still my favorite, I became a de facto Kings fan in 2011 after moving to Long Beach to get my Master’s Degree at Cal State. I liked most of the players and most of my friends out there, including several geographers who’ve appeared on this site in some form, were Kings fans. One geographer, Emily, invited me to join her for the Kings’ Game 3 against the Phoenix Coyotes in the 2012 Western Conference Finals – a text that arrived like manna from heaven on May 12, within an hour of seeing the Caps lose their own Eastern Conference Semifinals Game 7 to the New York Rangers. I still remember how great it felt when I read her text, which I think I told her when we went to the Staples Center the following week. In case I didn’t though, I’ll make sure she sees this. ANYWAY, the Kings would make short work of the Coyotes and head to the Cup Finals against the New Jersey Devils, who they defeated in six games to win their first Championship. Though I’d managed to watch most of the Kings’ games with my Long Beach friends, I couldn’t be there to celebrate with them the night they won (June 11th) because I was in DC, forcing an apathetic friend to turn the game on so I could at least see it happen live. In retrospect, this irony isn’t really “an irony to end all ironies,” but I’m not going back to edit that.
Dustin Brown chats with fans before Game 3 of the 2012 Western Conference Finals. Taken with my grainy camera phone.
^The fact that someone in my position could move to anywhere in the DMV on pure speculation just because they felt like giving it a shot, anytime this century, may sound like the most unbelievable thing about this entire entry. Whenever I talk to a friend who’s moved to DC in the past decade, I tell them about the pretenses I moved there under, and they rarely believe me. How times have changed.
** A decade ago, I had no idea I would ever live and work in Knoxville, where Albert Haynesworth is still regarded as a UTK legend today (and shows up, in his gigantic tank of a Humvee, to parties in the Old City). A couple years ago, I was waiting on my order at a short-lived burger joint on the UT Cumberland Strip, and I noticed they had a framed Haynesworth Volunteers jersey on the wall. I took a picture, and sent it to my best friend from my DC life and a big Skins fan, Evan. He replied, “it’s like an image from some sh*tty dream!” That signing is still among the worst in NFL history.
*** Though I’m not as big of an NBA fan, I’d be remiss if I didn’t include my favorite Bullets Wizards story from this “zeitgeist 2008” moment. While the Caps were dashing into the playoffs with a head full of steam, so were the Wiz, albeit against Lebron James in his original run with the Cavaliers. The Cavs won the first two games in Cleveland, and someone on the Wizards (I believe DeShawn Stevenson) made some comments about King James’ play. LeBron, most likely goaded by someone in the sports press, replied that “DeShawn Stevenson telling me how to play basketball is like Soulja Boy telling Jay-Z how to rap.” What James hadn’t considered what that Soulja Boy, the king of the one-hit-wonder club hit, was either planning (or available) to come to Game 3 with a bunch of his friends from DC. The Wizards management arranged to have Soulja Boy and his whole crew sit behind the Cavs’ bench, and the Verizon Center blasted “Crank That” during every other stoppage in play. Though it hasn’t happened often in LeBron’s career, DC exposed a chink in his armor and got inside his head. The Wizards annihilated the Cavaliers that night. They lost the series, but this made for one of my favorite unheralded NBA stories.
New Orleans is the coolest city in North America. I’m not saying that as a geographer (I haven’t been to every city in North America); I’m saying it as someone who appreciates incredibly cool cities. Maybe it’s because New Orleans occupies (putting the geographer hat back on here) an invaluable space in the last 500 years of circulation of people and culture. As I’ve outlined in innumerable musical geography lectures, jazz could not have emerged from anywhere other than New Orleans. The same could be said for Mardi Gras Indians, second lines, and countless other Crescent City institutions.
One valuable perspective that my friend David shared with me was that the city is not necessarily the Southernmost US city, but the Northernmost Caribbean city. I’ve been thinking about that for most of the past two weeks. No city should belong exclusively to the United States, especially not this one.
What I’ve always appreciated about New Orleans has been how, more than any other city in North America, it has been beaten down AGAIN and AGAIN, and despite every excuse to throw in the towel, it has risen AGAIN and AGAIN. These “hits” on New Orleans throughout history have been rarely so definable as the post-Katrina flooding and disaster in 2005, the kick-them-while-they’re-down timing of Hurricane Rita a few years after, and the adjacent atrocity that BP committed in the Gulf on which they are still working to influence the narrative^.
AAG paid greater due respect to their host city than I’ve witnessed in my six years as a member. Two of the three special focuses, as clearly laid out in their GeoGram, were black geographies and natural hazards/disasters. To avoid inclusive discussion of either of those in New Orleans (in 2018) would have been irresponsible and tone-deaf. I’m grateful for all the work Derek Alderman has done during his tenure as AAG President, but helping direct attention to those topics was particularly conscientious of him.
Dr. Derek Alderman introduces the AAG Plenary Panel, 4/12/18. Laura Pulido and Craig Colten sit on the panel to his left. Photo by the author.
All of the Black Geographies sessions that I attended were crowded and included a pointed diversity of speakers. One session on Friday morning featured a paper on black girlhood followed with papers on cruising culture in Los Angeles and the legacy of the Mardi Gras Indians, featuring details on Chief Monk Boudreaux. I was disappointed to discover I would be leaving town before he and his loyal band performed at the French Quarter Festival. That being said, the storms that passed through on Saturday the 14th made it impossible for the thousands of festival goers to see him, too, since they cancelled that day’s events due to an encroaching hell-storm.
As far as conference cities go, New Orleans was simultaneously great and terrible. It was great because New Orleans is great. AAG did not need to fight to lure their membership there from around the world, and more attendance equals more revenue, more funding, and more material. It was terrible, because… New Orleans is great. The ability to walk to anything in the French Quarter (Café du Monde being one weakness of mine) or fire up a Jazzy Pass and hop on a streetcar to Camellia Café, Metairie Cemetery, City Park, Hi-Ho Lounge, Sidney’s Saloon, Jacques-Imo’s, Live Oak Café, Domino Sound Record Shack, or several dozen other places I’m forgetting often makes it hard to “conference” effectively.
Another bizarre, immensely entertaining facet to AAG’s anchoring itself on Canal Street was the confluence of humanity that surrounded us. Wrestlemania (an increasingly ‘New Orleans’ institution, apparently) took place at the Superdome on April 8th, and many WWE fans stuck around to take in the city over the following week, creating a mix of stuffy academics and folks in Macho Man t-shirts that was a sight to behold. I make no assumption that geographers and wrestling fans don’t have a righteous overlap (I love Macho Man, may he rest in peace), but I appreciated the juxtaposition and the ability to take photos with the words “Welcome Wrestling Fans!” projected in the concourse after registering and picking up my badge. My Lyft driver on Saturday told me how she drove wrestling legend Justin Credible from the airport a few days prior.
We didn’t really experience such a mixture of humanity in Boston, but the conference center/shopping mall that housed AAG 2017 was fairly guarded and privatized. Quantum-leaping between three different hotels on Canal St. reminded me more of San Francisco in 2016. The AAG put us in at least two hotels in the Tenderloin. From what I understood, the Tenderloin was still a “place you didn’t go” less than a decade ago (Rancid even had a song about it). In 2016, however, Diane Feinstein’s scheme was showing visible dividends. It felt accessible and safe enough, despite the pimps and prostitutes who dotted the conference hotel’s block as soon as the sun went down (some didn’t even wait until then). Canal Street, as the artery on the fringe of NOLA’s booming tourism epicenter (only, on speed… and without an ‘off’ switch), made it difficult to find reprieve. Our hotel, the Astor Crowne Plaza, sat on the corner of Bourbon Street, and it’s telling when your hotel provides you with earplugs rather than a Gideon bible.
Roscoe, one of the coolest creatures I know in NOLA.
All that being said, I had a great time both out in the city and at the conference. I arrived on a soggy Saturday to give myself a couple of days to see some friends before the conference kicked into high gear on Tuesday. A large population of my colleagues had the same idea, though I had the advantage of staying near the horse track not far from Mid-City and avoiding the French Quarter until I checked in on Monday.
On Sunday, I headed to Uptown to grab lunch, find some old haunts, and buy some records. I wandered through Oak Street to catch up with the Live Oak Café, where my friend Ted and I once befriended the in-house pianist, Charles Farmer, and tipped him into playing “Jersey Girl” by Tom Waits*. My friend Sean in Knoxville had also given me instructions to find an old friend of his named Rosie at the Avenue Café on St. Charles. Only if he had delivered that directive to me in a Tom Waits voice under a streetlamp could it have been more quintessentially New Orleans. I needed to finish and refine my presentation before conference madness set in, so I ordered some tea and set up shop there for the afternoon. When Rosie came back from her break, I introduced myself and we had a great conversation about New Orleans, our buddy Sean, and life in general. Another thing I’ve always appreciated about the city has been its supernatural ability to bring people together from walks of life you wouldn’t even expect.
Monday, which happened to be my birthday, was when the aforementioned conference madness really began to spark. I knew that anytime I wandered to the anchor hotel (the Marriott, in this case) I ran the risk of getting “AAG’d” which was a verb I (doubt that I) invented to characterize the possibility of getting roped into interaction after activity after interaction that dislodges any best laid plans. The registration desk opened at 4pm, so those of us who were in town converged on our hotels and got our bearings. My best friend in Atlanta happened to be there for a few days for a separate conference, so he came by and took me out to lunch, which was wonderful. We had a whirlwind catch-up session over po’boys, beignets, and coffee, which was fortunate because our respective schedules prevented us from meeting up again before he returned to Atlanta. As much as I laud the city for bringing people together, it can also easily do that to you, too.
My friends Laura and Dave had pinned “starter dollars” on my shirt, as is the local tradition. I did not make a ton of money by the end of the night, though I did get a torrent of pleasant birthday wishes from strangers. Walking down Bourbon Street with the dollars on me a target, though, so some colleagues/friends and I quickly slipped off the block and wound up getting drinks at Brennan’s. Hearkening back to a fantastic photo that Erik Johanson took in Tampa on my birthday in 2014, I snapped this:
Matt Boehm, Matt Kerr (armed with Sazerac), Mimi Thomas, and your author representing UTK Geography in the Brennan’s courtyard.
Another thing I appreciate about the AAG, now having been to my sixth meeting, is the ease of starting ‘traditions.’ They don’t always need to include the same people; they just have to go through the same (or similar) motions. In San Francisco, my Berlin-based friend Lucas Elsner and I took a sojourn to the Haight to shop at Amoeba. This year, we gathered some others (four people from four different countries) for an afternoon in the Bywater neighborhood. The six of us treated ourselves to lunch at Elizabeth’s and then spent more time than most normal people would at Euclid Records, nearby. I wish I had taken more pictures. I can see this tradition continuing and growing. Geographers on vinyl.
Lucas shuffles through a pile of pop-punk 7″s.
Nathan and I have never had to pose with records before, but you know how demanding social media can be.
[As a cheap plug to those of you in Knoxville, Nathan McKinney and I will be playing some cuts from some of the records pictured at our next DJ night, May 3rd at Last Days of Autumn Brewing. There is no real academic outreach element here; it’s just going to be a fun night of music, craft beer, and maybe some dancing if the crowd is into that.]
THE ACTUAL CONFERENCE
I meant it when I said New Orleans was simultaneously a great and terrible setting for AAG. The fact that I’ve been working on my retrospective post(s) for hours and I’ve written so little about the actual academic, business, and networking contents of the week. Much of the time I did spend conferencing tended to blur together, composed of well-organized paper sessions, fascinating plenary talks, and poster sessions that I tried my best to swing through in between. Of course, I found myself “AAG’d” at least 3 or 4 times per day, so I missed a bunch of sessions I had saved on the AAG app.
Bill Wyckoff (Montana State) gets an overview from Fuhito Kadama (Nagoya University) on using cartographic analysis to map early modern castle towns in Japan. Photo by the author.
Speaking of the AAG app, kudos to the organization and whatever contractor they hired to build it. I’m assuming ESRI had a hand, considering how they posted at least 2 seconds of an ad every time the app opened, but these programs don’t grow on trees. This was the first AAG that I, an obnoxious analog loyalist, did not leave with (1) a printed program or (2) a water bottle. I did not get the program because I may have just forgotten whether I had ordered one, and I didn’t get a water bottle because nobody did! The AAG forewent those party favors this year. I never heard why, but the rumblings of geographers who had too many water bottles probably became loud enough on twitter or in the conference hallways. I had enough to pack when preparing to head home, so I didn’t miss having the veritable phone book and bottle clinking around this year.
I spent much of Day One, similarly to my first day in Boston last year, wandering around the city doing some independent research and repeat photography, which I will detail extensively in Part II of my retrospective (coming later this week).
Day Two (Wednesday) I caught the cultural geographies Plenary Talk by Paul Kingsbury, which was just as solid as any other cultural geographies keynote I’ve seen, but may be the most entertaining one yet. Kingsbury’s work, already gaining a lot of steam through the preeminence of science fiction-themed reality television and paranormal preoccupations, focuses on the people and community built around these investigations. Although I went in expecting something different, the result was strangely comforting, particularly in an era when UFO enthusiasts and paranormal investigators are more often painted as wackos or transformed into memes before being understood as humans. I look forward to seeing whatever else he produces from this line of work, especially if he does somehow inadvertently prove we’re not alone.
After Kingsbury’s talk ended, I picked up a rental car and left for Lafayette. A friend invited me out there for the evening, and since I had never been to the city and was eminently curious about it, I took him up on his offer. At the advice of various Cajun friends, I wound up outside the Best Stop Supermarket in suburban Scott, sharing delicious boudin with a stray kitten. I also tasted my first pork cracklin, and quickly looked up where (if anywhere) I could get Cajun food in Eastern Tennessee.
Dat good boudin.
“Gimme dat boudin!”
My view outside the Best Stop Supermarket. I think I did this correctly.
Somewhat inspired by a 1984 Marjorie Esman article on the rediscovery and leveraging of Cajun identity in Lafayette, I walked around downtown with a critical eye, noticing the “Shop Leauxcal” signs in many storefront windows, spotting street signs that had been modified to say “Rue….” rather than the English name, and of course patronizing Lagniappe Records. Not that I didn’t support the leauxcal economy plenty at Lagniappe, but I’m grateful that my ignorance of various obscure Zydeco legends prevented me from shelling out big bucks on their rare 7-inch records that sat in a box behind the register. In a way, it felt reassuring seeing such an intensely local form of music retaining its geographic allure despite an international community of music collectors willing to drive Cajun music prices to those extremes.
The Circle Bar, New Orleans, 2007. Photo by the author.
I got back to New Orleans around 1 AM, where I raced to the Circle Bar to find a few international friends in an effort to continue another AAG tradition: seeking out a punk show in a dive bar. The French Oi! band Rixe happened to be playing a late show, so I told my good friends Sarah Gelbard and Lucas Elsner (both of whom went on the Friday vinyl excursion) that I would meet them there. Unfortunately, Rixe were thundering through their final song as I parked and ran in, but the group of us had a great time catching up outside. We actually outlasted everyone else who had congregated on the sidewalk. The opening band drove back to Hattiesburg, and even Rixe had taken all of their merch and gone by the time we realized we had outlasted everyone short of the bar staff who were trying to clean up and close inside. Although I didn’t get to experience the show with my friends, I got the rewarding conversation and exhaustion afterwards. So, in other words, I felt at home again. Extra respect to Sarah for her impressive ability to talking her friends and colleagues, many of whom were not even into punk and had never been to a show, into what must have been a marginally terrifying experience for them. Although the building looks fairly large from across the circle (as seen in that photo I took of it in 2007, above), inside it was as intimate and divey as any bar where you would see a French Oi! band play on a Wednesday night. I remember how curious the place made me when I wandered by it in December 2007, so I loved being able to see inside it. It wasn’t quite the dream-come-true that I experienced outside of Segovia in 2015, but I appreciated the stop nonetheless.
THE ACTUAL ACTUAL CONFERENCE
Thursday was my first day completely full of conference activity, beginning with a session I chaired on the Geographies of Music. It featured talks from Max Buckholz on the Bay Area punk explosion of the 1990s (a project after my own heart), soundmapping the music of Donny Hathaway by Ranier LeLoup (Laval), gentrification in Brixton by Australian transplant Kate Carr, Erasmus Institute research on gig economies and spaces by Arno van der Hoeven (Rotterdam), and a discussion by Ola Johannson (Pittsburgh-Johnstown), who has appeared numerous times on this blog.
Max Buckholz presents on the Bay Area Punk Explosion, Thursday morning. Photo by the author.
Arno van der Hoeven (Erasmus Institute, Rotterdam) presents on Thursday morning. Photo by the author.
That afternoon, Helen Morgan-Parmett’s (UVM) Plenary Talk for the Media and Communication Geography specialty group became perhaps my favorite session of the entire meeting. My friend (and AAG social media guru) Emily Fekete introduced her, and the first thing that Helen commented was that she wasn’t a geographer. Ironically, whenever extra-disciplinary presenters mentioned this throughout the conference, I noticed that their audiences perked up a bit. Or maybe it was just me. Either way, I was disappointed that Helen didn’t have a bigger crowd for a discussion of generations of representation of New Orleans in film and television, one of the most gift-that-keeps-on-giving of locally focused topics covered at AAG.
The lecture taught me a ton about the history of film in New Orleans, including correcting many false assumptions that I’d had. One of which was that much of the city’s burgeoning role as a filming site was a post-Katrina phenomenon; in fact, the Film New Orleans tax credit initiatives went back to 2002. She also included a discussion of the quintessential “brilliant, but canceled” 1988 series Frank’s Place, which actually had to be rescued from complete eradication by forward-thinking pages at CBS, snatching the master tapes out of the garbage. Helen shared the beautiful, nostalgic credit sequence that made more money for Louis Armstrong’s estate per episode than any of the actors did. Still, it nearly brought a tear to my eye, as I’d watched scenes from the show before in undergrad, but had never seen this:
One of my favorite professors in undergrad, Richard Dubin, was one of the principal producers on the show, and this talk gave me a wonderful excuse to get back in touch with him. He told me he was still proud of that show, thirty years later, and I was glad to mention this connection to Helen while I was commending her for her talk. It got several gears turning in my head regarding writing I’ve been doing on symbolic gentrification in popular culture and reading I’ve been doing on Debord’s society of the spectacle (“places becoming filmed places”). It also bears mentioning that while searching for postcard image sites on Tuesday (again, more on that soon), my friends and I walked past a crowd that had accumulated by Lafayette Square where NCIS was filming a scene. The city as a compilation of inescapable representations, indeed.
On Friday, I woke up early to present my new paper on the uses of Punk and Underground Music in Teaching Geography, which seemed to go over well. Erik Hitters kicked off our session with a continuation of the research that he and van der Hoeven had been doing on Rotterdam, Adam Zendel (Toronto) talked about qualitative research on people on the fringes of the music industry (union workers, roadies, DIY musicians) and the toll that the lifestyle takes on them, Anne Smith (Montpellier) talked about music’s role in surf communities in Florida, I presented, and then my buddy Séverin Guillard brought it home with a discussion.
And just like that, our session ended, we congregated and chatted in the hallway for a few minutes, and then we all scattered. I got back together with Séverin, Sarah, and Lucas that afternoon for food and record shopping in the Bywater, but for the most part the conference pulled us in multiple directions later that day. Lauri Turnpeinin, another European geographer with deep interest in music who came on the vinyl excursion, and I caught up in the airport early the next morning (more on that in my very left-field Part III entry, later this week).
Later on Friday, I was incredibly fortunate to find a session on Repeat Photography happening in the Sheraton in an unenviable time slot (imagine what was happening down on the street, one block away from the casino and portals to the French Quarter Festival). I’ll write more about that very soon. I’m going to cut this off here for reasons of length and sanity. Come back for Part Two in a few days, where I’ll share some of the repeat photography mentioned here and alluded to throughout this entry. Thanks for reading this far.
The Dirty Dozen Brass Band at the French Quarter Festival, Thursday afternoon. Photo by the author.
^ I will withhold judgment in this area until I see this movie, but it never hurts to be cautious there.
* I also bought Charles’ album Dead Men Tell Tales, which was a CD-R and didn’t play very well. Anyway, you can check out his music here.
This summer, I realized that I had spent more time living away from Washington, DC than I spent actually living there (6 years). It gave me a minor existential crisis. It was hardly the type of existential crisis that led me to lease an expensive car on credit or go on some barefoot walkabout in the Smokies, but some minute form of reckoning nonetheless.
This afternoon, I found out (thanks to my colleague Mimi, again) that the Berlin Wall has now officially been gone for as long as it stood (28 years). I’ve never even been to Berlin, and learning this fact nearly shut down my brain for a minute. I can only imagine that this should give the world an existential crisis. Can we, as Westerners, conceive of a planet without the footprint left by the iron curtain, and in microcosm, that wall?
I found it strange how quickly my span of formative years in DC came to mind when I discovered this milestone for Berlin that, unlike my personal coming-of-age, most people actually care about. But, the personal is political. Envisioning the type of person I would be had I not taken a chance to moved to Washington in 2005 is impossible, as is trying to imagine the current physical or mental state of Germany, Europe, and political geography in general if the DDR had pursued some alternate course of action in 1961. Both epiphanies are similarly remarkable, too, because of the tricks that our minds play on us – time is both an abstraction and a distortion. To me, the six years I spent in DC felt insurmountably longer than the six years I’ve spent between Long Beach and Knoxville. I have many theories as to why, some personal and others easy enough to ascertain for anyone who has taken Psychology 101.
To Berlin natives (many of whom have been depositing genuinely fascinating replies on this twitter thread), those 28 years must have felt like a solid eternity. For a whole generation, life was always and would always be like this. It wouldn’t surprise me to hear an East German genuinely shocked at how relatively fast these past 28 years have passed. Either way, this makes me feel even worse for never having made it to Berlin, especially when I was a young professional in DC who occasionally had enough time and money scraped together in order to make that happen.
Four preserved panels from the Berlin Wall set up for a public exhibition in North Jakarta. (via the Jakarta Post).
Happy 2018! I’m excited to announce I’ve just published a new article in the UK journal Punk and Post-Punk. Read the abstract, order it, or find citation info here. It overviews the geographic history of Paris hardcore, focusing on the three or four years of the mid-1980s when the underground style first attempted circulation in the Ile-de-France region. I based this off of a range of accounts I gathered during my fieldwork in France in 2015 and through follow-up correspondence since then.
As far as I know, this story has never been told formally before, and I’m grateful for this opportunity to give progenitors like Heimat-Los and Kromozom 4 their rightful place in the greater global post-punk timeline. Hopefully somebody who was there at the time can take the baton and publish a more authoritative and comprehensive history of that era someday. In the meantime, there is plenty of great material archived and linked via Euthanasie Records.
Thank you to Russ Bestley and all of his colleagues at this fantastic journal. You can look into the index of Punk & Post-Punk back issues and learn how to submit on the Intellect Ltd. page here.
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 Four, and 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).
Nina Cole, a ska DJ and drummer from Los Angeles (working on her dissertation at Davis) presents on the LA trad ska scene.
Staunton and Alice Lynd, the veritable faces of the American anti-war movement in the 20th century, speak to their oral history work.
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.
Tom LaBlanc begins the walking tour of Franklin Ave.
Robert Lilligren talks about the work that NACDI has been doing over the years in Minneapolis.
Alan Gross discusses the mural in the background, which illustrates the Ojibwe origin story.
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.
I really miss Fall.
Photos were (thankfully) prohibited inside of Paisley Park, but I “got ta, got ta, got ta” snap this on the way in.
The fog slowly lifts over downtown Minneapolis on Saturday morning.
* 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.
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).
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.
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.
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:
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
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.
So many rules.
This is the photo taken not far from the postcard’s vantage point.
I just don’t even know.
Los Angeles has cornered the market on hobo-proofing structures out of general usability. Amazing.
I still don’t even know.
“Curse this extra year in jail! If only I’d listened to that helpful sign!”
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:
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.
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…
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:
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:
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.
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…
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…
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…
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.
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 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.
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
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 hatedit 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
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. Even 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).
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.