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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reproduced image courtesy of the Belding Library.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hotel Quincy: A Panhandle Mystery (Part 3: Solved)

Read Part One (Before I Visited Quincy) HERE
Read Part Two (After I Visited Quincy, but still had a lot of questions) HERE

The Hotel Quincy (Quincy, FL) sometime in the 1950’s. Courtesy of David Gardner and the Gadsden County Chamber of Commerce.

You are currently reading part three, and I am elated. Last week, I got on the phone with David Gardner of the Gadsden County Chamber of Commerce, and after we hung up, we felt like we’d known one another for years. As it turned out, Gardner used to work for Visit Florida, and we shared a deep appreciation for American Jewish culture and these histories that reside on the fringes of the twenty-first century.

Perhaps as importantly, Gardner did have some material to share about the Hotel Quincy, including an April 1972 feature about Mrs. Frank W. Lloyd from the Tallahassee Democrat. Her family had owned the hotel from 1928 until 1951 (as I’d found in that 1951 Democrat blurb in Part 1), and she lamented how the development of the Interstate pulled traffic away from Quincy in the 1950’s. The article (which has no visible byline) also confirms it: the hotel was demolished circa 1962.

It also turns out that, yes, my guesstimate of where the lobby once stood in Part 2 was accurate. Here was my photo recreation:

Here is another photo postcard depicting the outside of the Hotel Quincy, published in 1940, two years after Irving mailed that postcard above:

Hotel Quincy (Quincy, FL) Postcard, 1940. Courtesy of David Gardner and the Gadsden County Chamber of Commerce.

It’s apparent that the new owners, who bought the place in 1951, got rid of the Plantation-style stacked front porch (but not the rocking chairs) and repainted it to make it match the white-washed Modernist architecture that was in vogue down in Miami. It’s odd, since Quincy has always presented itself as quintessentially “Southern,” which tended to define itself against whatever happened below Gainesville.

Zherti Jasa, a former student and future star architect, put it into a helpful perspective.

“I don’t know if there’s a specific reason why people stopped designing the stacked porches like in the hotel,” she said, “but I would think that the facade is what became more prevalent. Simplicity was the name of the game. They were trying to get away from any decorative ornamentation that resembled any European classical or Roman styles and so on and so forth. The architectural styles typically represent a political and cultural movement of that time.”

So, there we have it. I’m hardly done thinking about or seeking new information about the Hotel Quincy, but as I said, I’m elated how much I was able to unlock using those twentieth-century methods of phone, email, and just stopping through. I still think it’s strange how there aren’t more publicly accessible resources about a building that formed such a heart of what was, in its time, a cosmopolitan town.

Thanks again to David and Zherti for their help in putting the mystery of the panhandle to bed. And thanks to you for reading this.

The Hotel Quincy: A Panhandle Mystery (Part 2)

If you would like to catch up first, read Part 1 of this 2-Part Entry in the Ben Irving Postcard Project here.

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Hotel Quincy (FL) Postcard, 1936.

Quincy, Florida is a small town not too far Northeast of the state capital Tallahassee (separate, dedicated entry on Tally coming in the future). A YouTube search, which I’ll admit I did not think to do when researching before my visit last week, turned up a few brief videos focusing on the newer hotels on the outskirts of downtown. One video was submitted to HGTV and included testimonials from a diverse set of local residents, including the owner of the Alison House Inn. Like the other functioning B&B’s in town, it was built as a private home, and I have no indication it was ever a hotel. Another video features barely-edited footage of walking and driving around the town set to what I assume is a royalty-free soundtrack. It’s pleasant, but not too informative.

Late last month, as promised, I took a diversion on a multi-state drive to go check Quincy out. I managed to sneak into town before 5pm, so there were still some people out and about. I parked near the intersection of Jefferson and Duval, but I saw no historical markers (at first) or buildings easily accessible to the public – only the police station and a pair of B&B’s. I decided to take a walk over to the town square’s Federal Courthouse Building, two blocks away.

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After encircling the building, I found the ground-level public entrance. The security guard on duty seemed like he had a good base of local knowledge, so I showed him the 1936 postcard. I told him that I read that the Hotel had been located on the corner of Jefferson and Duval. He replied, “Yes… that hardware store’s parking lot is where the hotel was located.” I left him my information and walked back over to where I’d parked my car next to the Bell & Bates Home Center.

Given my limited resources at the moment, nor immediate access to anybody old enough to clearly remember the hotel, I decided to take the security guard on his word. I stuck the postcard and my camera through the fencing and took this picture:

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Looking at it again, I wonder: Are those pillars and slats supposed to be an homage to the vanished hotel building’s lobby pillars? They don’t appear to serve any clear purpose for the garden center. Was the main entrance on Jefferson Street, or was it on Duval Street? If it was the former, then I had this repeat-photo staged (mostly) accurately. If not, then I still came close enough. I turned around and looked back across the street, and I took this picture:

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As I believe I mentioned in Quincy Part I, it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that the Police Station was located in the building that had once been the Hotel Quincy. The historic placard (which you can see on the right side of this photo, standing on the grass) had another story about the building’s history, indicating that it used to be the Post Office where Ben Irving may have dropped his postcard off on January 29, 1936.

I will keep digging, but I still have not been able to find any clear references to the Hotel Quincy coming down. This very charming walking tour guide only mentions the Pat Munroe House (seen below) opposite that parking lot. I wonder if the building fell into such disrepair that it was a non-story when it did happen, a pile of rubble that needed to be cleared for that parking lot on the edge of downtown.

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The Pat Munroe House, Quincy, FL (July 2020)

So, per usual, ground-truthing brought net-positive results: I got to visit (however briefly) another charming small town, and I got a verbal testimonial that answered my original question. I believe a phone call to the local Chamber of Commerce may be in order, and I’ll post any updates to this entry below.

The greatest byproducts of my research on Quincy, however, have been the discovery of the “Quincy Five” and Marston C. “Bob” Leonard’s Florida History Internet Center website. The Q5 were five young Black men who were convicted of the 1970 murder of a regional deputy Sheriff but were later exonerated from death row (the first incident of such in US history). What an amazing story, and I’m disappointed (though not surprised) I’ve never been taught about it.  As for the Florida History website, Bob Leonard founded it in 1998. By the looks of it, it has not been updated since then, which is incredible. Crack open a bottle of Surge, throw on that scratched up New Radicals CD, and feast your eyes on this. You’re welcome.

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Via FloridaHistory.org

 

The Hotel Quincy: A Panhandle Mystery (Part 1)

On some occasions, the Ben Irving Postcard Project leads me down a path into scouring the internet for information on hotels that no longer exist in any form (unless you consider a parking lot a form). On rare occasions, his postcards lead me into small towns and ghosts of buildings that don’t exist even in (digitally accessible) historical records. Most of the larger cities that Ben visited have been blanketed with Google Streetview imagery, making ground-truthing of the postcard images slightly redundant (though never unnecessary). However, some of the smaller towns, even where Streetview previewing is possible, don’t tell much of the story.

Take, for example, the Hotel Quincy in Quincy, FL, the lobby of which is detailed in this 1936 postcard:

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I’ve been through the Florida panhandle once or twice, mostly speeding through the stretch between Pensacola and Tallahassee save for a lunch stop in DeFuniak Springs (thanks for the tip, Bruce Hunt). I never heard of Quincy, a small town not far from the US-10 west of Tallahassee, until I saw this postcard. The city’s website, especially the history page, is bare-bones.

In 1956, Edward Gearhart wrote this history of the Episcopal Church in Quincy for the Florida Historical Quarterly, but that’s the only academic article I could find that focused on the town, other than a couple of hard-scientific studies on bees and/or soybeans. I searched for any references to the hotel on the Newspapers.com database, which turned up one promising blurb. I contacted the Florida State University library via the “Ask a Librarian” portal on their website and asked about the April 22, 1951 edition of the Tallahassee Democrat. Within a few minutes, I had that page in front of me. The article “Hotel Quincy Changes Hands” contained more information and history about the hotel than anything repeated Google searches could produce:

New owners have taken over the Hotel Quincy property and have plans for modernizing the building which has been closed for the past year. The property, at the corner of Jefferson and Duval streets, has been acquired by H E Corry, Sr., H E Corry, Jr, Miami, and associates from Mrs. Frank W Lloyd. Plans for altering and modernizing the building are in the tentative stage at present, according to Corry, though he was quite definite in stating that the new owners contemplate placing the hotel in an operable condition as quickly as possible. The hotel has been closed a year after being in operation for more than a third of a century. Corry stated it would require a minimum of from five to six months time to complete, the changes contemplated. He anticipated preliminary work would begin within the next three weeks. A modernized glass front for the hotel is prominent in tentative remodeling plans.

So, in one very short article which, in all likelihood, nobody has read in almost seventy years, I found the hotel’s location (at Jefferson and Duval Streets), rough date of opening and initial closing (ca. 1917 – 1950), and its owners in sequence (Mrs. Frank W. Lloyd until 1951, H.E. Corry and Son of Miami thereafter).

Searching for the hotel’s owners has also opened up a pair of windows into Florida’s aristocratic history. Looking up “Frank W. Lloyd,” even including a “-wright” search clause, was maddening for the same reasons that Googling “Ben Irving” is difficult (it keeps on pushing me toward Irving Berlin data). The search engines are fast, but they aren’t smart. The only publicly accessible record of a Frank W. Lloyd that lines up with this story is a mention of a Spanish-American war veteran. Of course, his name shows up all over digital back-issues of the Tallahassee Democrat.

The less common/searched name “Corry” was a bit easier, though once I put the “H.E.” in quotation marks, it got interesting. On September 9, 1949, the Tallahassee Democrat published a blurb announcing the birth of Henry Edmund III, which more or less confirms what the H.E. stood for. Also, it mentions that his grandparents were based in Quincy. His mother’s family were the Martorells of Tampa, whose name I don’t recall seeing anywhere in the Bay Area. According to a blurb published the previous April announcing the Corry-Martorell wedding, H.E. Jr. got into the family construction business and the couple was planning to reside in Miami.

I’ll spare you the other detritus I scraped up when searching that name, save for a Gadsden County Times society page mention from April 1934: “Mr. and Mrs. H. E. Corry, Mr. and Mrs. Jack Vrieze, Rev. and Mrs. E. M. Claytor and Mr. and Mrs. K. A. MacGowan of Quincy and Mr. and Mrs. Frank Harrison of Tallahassee, spent Wednesday on the Gulf on board Mr. Corry’s yacht.” Even living in age when most people obsessively curate their online personae through social media platforms, reading Society Pages from that era just feels invasive and unsettling.

I hopped over to Florida Memory to see if that name generated anything good buried in the growing digital archive out of Tallahassee. I did find a few items of interest, one of which was this photo of a judge’s birthday party from approximately 1919. Edmond Corry is labeled with #16, standing in the jacket and bowtie on the left side of the picture. He appears to be about 10 or 11 years old?

Reference Collection

I also found several references to Corry Field, which refers to both the Pensacola Air Force base as well as the former High School’s Athletic field in Quincy. I think the latter is more relevant.

Anyway, the long and short of this is that this will require some ground-truthing in the Florida Panhandle, and I hope to respond to this entry in a few weeks with the Part 2 that it deserves. Also, while I have your attention, librarians are heroes and you should fight to ensure they get all of the public and private funding coming to them. Food for thought. Thanks for reading!

By the way, there will be an August song challenge.

Ben Irving Postcards in Chicago (Part One)

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

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

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


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

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

EPSON MFP image

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

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

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

Moving on…


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

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Postcard mailed August 1950. Image property of SonicGeography.

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

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

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WikiMedia Commons

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

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

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

Here are the postcard image, and 2019 photo juxtaposed:

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

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

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

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

Material Culture in Detroit Tomorrow (plus new Instagram Account)

Hi, everyone. Yesterday contained one of those “life comes at you fast” mornings for me (in a genuinely positive way). I found out that I won a grant to attend a meeting in France this December, and I just pried open my wallet to register for the AAG meeting in Denver next April. This week, though, I’m excited to head down to a conference taking place a short drive from me: the meeting of the International Society for Landscape, Place, and Material Culture (ISLPMC) in Detroit.

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(via CitiesofDesignNetwork)

This will (finally) be my first time in Detroit proper. I’m looking forward to doing some exploring, eating pierogies, and paying a long-overdue visit to Hello Records. I’m also looking forward to reuniting with some old friends and colleagues at the conference, especially RJ Rowley (an erstwhile collaborator from Illinois State), Ethan Bottone (an old nemesis from Tennessee), and Steven Donnelly (a punkademia collaborator all the way from Belfast).

If you’re at the conference or in the Detroit area, I’ll be presenting some brand new research on “Antique Postcards and Urban Privatization” on Friday at 2:40pm in the Fort Gratiot Room at the Double Tree Hotel downtown. Full Schedule.


NEW INSTAGRAM ACCOUNT

To coincide with this presentation and ostensible research trip, I’m also going to start up a brand new Instagram account dedicated to the Ben Irving Postcard Project! If you’re interested, give it a follow at https://www.instagram.com/postcardsfromirving/. Let’s see where this goes.

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Thanks for reading.

The Ben Irving Postcard Project: Battle Creek, MI

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

BATTLE CREEK, MI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Ben Irving Postcard Project: West Tennessee

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Lazy Sunday in Humboldt, TN, March 31, 2019. This and all images below belong to SonicGeography.com (All Rights Reserved).

Tennessee’s insane width (against its North-South length) presents a weird conundrum for anyone representing the state. Shortly after I moved to East Tennessee in 2013, a friend from Los Angeles surprised me with tickets to see FIDLAR at Exit/In in Nashville. I gave him a call on the long, winding, hour-losing ride home after the show to thank him, and he and I made vague plans should he ever come to Tennessee.

“If I ever get out there,” he said excitedly, “we’ve have to go to Graceland. I can’t miss that!”

I told him, in terms that wouldn’t put a huge damper on our conversation, that a trip to Graceland would require plastering at least three additional days onto his visit. For the amount of time we would spend in the car driving to Memphis (assuming some delays on I-40), drive to Tybee Island and jump in the Atlantic Ocean.

Largely for these reasons, my visit to Memphis for the wonderful Balancing the Mix conference at the end of March formulated my first trip to the Birthplace of Rock n’ Roll since 2011. For those doing the math, that was two years prior to my relocation to Knoxville. I’ve been a Tennessee resident for almost six years without one visit further West than Nashville. It’s disappointing, since I’ve met several visitors from Memphis, and I’ve been looking for a reason to get back out there. My 2011 visit, as brief as it was, clearly inspired me early in my geography career. One of the header images I use on this website is a photo of me standing outside of Sun Studios, after all.


Downtown Memphis (1935 / 2019)

Downtown Memphis, like I noted in my recent entry about re-tracing Ben Irving’s postcards in Nashville, reinforced a blanket notion about how increasingly privatized American cities have grown over the past few decades. Compared to when Ben mailed his postcards from Memphis (1935 and 1940), even the landmarks depicted have become surrounded by locked down landscapes.

MEMPHIS PARK

Before I made the (questionable) decision to check out Beale Street on that very cold and windy Saturday night, I stopped by Memphis Park, formerly Confederate Park, as seen in this postcard, mailed at midnight on March 16, 1935.

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Obviously, the park is still there. I stood at the corner of Front St. and Jefferson Ave. and snapped this, the only shot anywhere close to recreating the postcard image.

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Yeah, I’m fairly disappointed, too. The wind and cold were unbearable that night, which made even holding my phone-camera still enough to get the streetlights into focus nearly impossible. You can see the building in the background of both images. Today, it’s listed as the Cecil Humphreys School of Law (University of Memphis). In 1935, it was the Front Street Station US Post Office. The Court Square area was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in the early 1980’s.

In an attempt to subject myself to even more bitter winds at a slightly higher altitude, I looked around the intersection to see if I might get a superior angle. The first thing I noticed was a prominent parking garage opposite the intersection. Here’s a photo, which is actually ten times better than the above photo I took of the park. Figures.

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‘Ooh!’ I thought. That upper level appears to be wide open, maybe I can just walk up the steps if it’s a public gara-NOPE, SORRY, TYLER, EVERY BLOCK OF EVERYTHING WITHIN 20 MILES OF ANY AMERICAN CITY’S CBD IS PRIVATIZED AND GUARDED 24/7 BY (probably underpaid) ON-SITE SECURITY CONTRACTORS. HERE’S A GATE IN YOUR FACE NOW PLEASE LEAVE WITHOUT A FUSS, SIR:

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I’m sure my reaction wouldn’t have been so visceral had it not been miserably cold, but I would not have been any less disappointed. I was grateful that the twenty-first century had at least dumped the ‘Confederate’ from the park’s name in 2013. You win some, you lose some. Moving onto the much sunnier and less windy Sunday afternoon…

HOTEL CHISCA

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Thankfully, this one was a cinch.

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Hotel Chisca, considering how MLK’s assassination occurred a few blocks down the street, had been in a decades-long decline before it was restored earlier this decade into the modern apartments that opened in 2015. The building itself first opened in 1913 and was in full operation as such when Ben mailed this postcard on March 16,  1935. Historic Memphis has a good overview (with a great catalog of artifacts preserved) on their website, including this tidbit about the hotel’s role, like so many places around the city, in Rock n’ Roll history.

The hotel’s historic significance comes mainly from its connection to Elvis Presley.  From 1949-56, its mezzanine was the broadcast base for WHBQ radio’s “Red, Hot, and Blue” program.  It was from there that Dewey Phillips broadcast Elvis’ first record July 7, 1954.  And Elvis’ first radio interview was also conducted in the hotel by Phillips.  

While the streetcar lines seem to function mostly to carry tourists up and down Main Street, I was glad to see they were in operation, unlike the Desire line, which had been long since ripped out of Royal Street in New Orleans. Here are some pictures I took of the current iteration of the Chisca building on different sides.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again. Well, Sage Francis said it a while back, but I’ll borrow it from him in light of my experiences recreating these images of urban spaces in the United States: “the only thing that stays the same is change.”


Downtown Humboldt (1935/2019)

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One of the more obscure locations from which Ben sent a postcard was Humboldt, Tennessee, a small down located on State Road 79, about 20 miles North of where I-40 runs today. As is my bad habit when leaving anywhere, I pushed the beginning of my (very long) drive home well beyond the time I originally planned. I’d say it was well worth it after finding an old, dusty copy of Booker T. and the MG’s’ Green Onions (Stereo press from 1968, not the original 1962 Mono… I’m not a millionaire). Still, the sun was quickly caving into the horizon on my back when I rolled into downtown Humboldt.

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From what I understand (and according to the Humboldt Historical Society), the town was on the L&N Railroad line. I think that Ben drove on most of his Depression journeys, but the railway still influenced his decision to pass through. I can only imagine how much Humboldt suffered following the demise of that line.

Since 1935, at least Main Street installed signal lights to handle the “onslaught” of traffic, and street parking had been sectioned off. Some of the buildings depicted in the gray-scale black and white postcard had also been knocked down and replaced. I walked up and down E. Main Street trying to figure out where, exactly, this original image had been taken. Thankfully, Sunday afternoon was relatively slow so I could stand in the middle of the street and not get run down. I made it all the way to the point where you can see those trees on the horizon of the postcard, where I found a small, public green space at the corner of Central Ave.

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The Humboldt Plaza 3 cinema didn’t appear to be doing heavy business, but it was open and people were wandering in and out of it. According to the best website on the internet Cinema Treasures, the theater opened with 800 seats in 1942, seven years after Ben passed through and mailed the postcard. It was triplex’d in the early 1980’s, I imagine because it was the eighties.

I thought it would be fairly straightforward since the postcard clearly indicated the street and vantage orientation. I had gotten a bit too far ahead of myself. After walking up and down both sides of the street, trying to match a scratchy black and white image from the 1930s with the small town’s current formation, I finally found my architectural Rosetta Stone:

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The building on the NW corner of Main and S. 13th Avenue still has its gorgeous sculpted awning, albeit in two different colors. The left side was painted black to foil the whitewashing, as was the ornamentation over the windows. Whomever duplexed and renovated this building really had to commit; just look at the window decoration in the middle. To one person, it may be tacky, but to me… well, it’s tacky, but I love it. They bricked over the middle window with, it appears, slightly different, newer bricks. I can’t stop looking at it. It’s so distracting.

So, here was my conclusion. I took the first photo at an angle from the south side of the street, and I took the second about ten yards too far back, but you get the idea:

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From what I can tell, the entire block opposite of the duplex building was torn down, eventually filled (sort of) with a newer Regions bank building. For a Sunday evening, there were a good handful of people wandering in and out of the Mexican restaurant and the movie theater. Strawberries featured prominently in the downtown corridor to signify the town’s annual Strawberry Festival, which appears to be Humboldt’s biggest tourist draw. I’m glad Ben Irving’s postcard drew me through here, the place seems to be a quintessential slice of West Tennessee that disappears under Memphis’ increasing weight.

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Alright – thanks to you (reader) for following this long long-term project on Sonic Geography, and thanks to the Ben Irving Postcard Collection for continuously providing a worthwhile distraction. Back to grading finals. Here are a couple more photos I took that don’t necessarily connect directly to the postcard sites, but I still love:

The Irving Postcards: Nashville

Spring Break! 2019! PARTY! By “party,” I mean… take a day in Nashville to buy some records, see some friends, and investigate a couple of sites from the Ben Irving Postcard collection. I mean, it’s a party to me… 

Before I go any further, I’ll provide a helpful link for any new readers who Ben Irving was, and why I have so many postcards he mailed to Brooklyn in the 1930’s.

Who Was Ben Irving?

Now that you’re caught up, I will say that it appears that Irving only visited Nashville two or three times during his Southern journeys in the depression era. In mid-February 1934 and again in November 1935, he was in bad way financially. In retrospect, it seemed fairly obvious that the South wasn’t going to deliver the goods to a travelling sales representative as the region limped out of the Depression’s (subjective) height in 1933. One could understand how life in Brooklyn might have distorted the economic landscape a bit for Irving. It may be worth looking into whether his shock at the South’s slowness tempered over the decade. Early on, though, this part of his journeys were always a slog.

February 1934

For his first (documented) visit to Nashville in February 1934, he mailed home a postcard that advertised the city’s flagship station WLAC. The station’s history often gets overshadowed by WSM, considering the role the latter station played in growing the country music industry, but it has a fascinating story nonetheless. Though it’s the home of iHeartMedia-financed reactionary hate speech today, WLAC is perhaps best remembered as the station that went against the segregationist grain and played black music in the late 1940’s. It originated as the station of the Life and Casuality Insurance Company of Tennessee, with studios on the 5th floor of their building downtown. Considering how both the studios and said building no longer exist (to my knowledge), I took the postcard to the (possible; I’ll explain these parentheticals, don’t worry) broadcast site depicted.

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2421 West End Avenue, Nashville TN. March 20, 2019.

So, this postcard is somewhat unique, in that it prominently features an inset image. I suppose there was a massive abyss in the sky between the two broadcast towers, so may as well show off the sleek 5th-floor studios. It’s an exciting new medium, after all.

The only address I could find for the towers’ location was 2421 West End Avenue, which doesn’t line up with a specific business address today because, well… you see the scaffolding. I have no concrete evidence that the towers depicted in the postcard were located here, but there’s definitely a possibility considering how the landscape does elevate a bit (when not full of new construction). The image on Google Streetview (as of this writing) shows a parking lot behind a row of trees, which was surprisingly demure for being right down the street from Vanderbilt’s campus. This was less than two years ago:

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So, in conclusion, this was the best I could do, given how I didn’t have time to dig up the original insurance maps, official WLAC archives (if they even exist anymore), or talk to a nonagenarian who happened to live around there in the 30’s. If you have better insights, or my site was way off, please get in touch.

November 1935

In late 1935, Irving came back for his second visit, this time down from Harlan, KY, at the end of 1,518 miles of driving since leaving Brooklyn the previous month. I know I beat this point into the ground when writing these entries, but the Interstate Highway System was still almost two decades off. Even the Federal-Aid Highway Act, which many believe sets those dominoes in motion, was more than two years away. That driving experience was pure PAIN.

What was almost as painful was finding a place to park, during rush hour, at an incredibly busy intersection with no street parking and only hyper-privatized lots nearby. Again, as far as I could tell, this was where the Hotel Tulane once stood. It’s now a giant pit.

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Church St. and Rosa Parks Boulevard, Nashville TN. March 20, 2019.

Most obviously, 8th Avenue was re-named Rosa Parks Boulevard several decades later. When Irving stayed at the Tulane in 1935, Rosa was an unknown 21-year-old domestic worker in the Montgomery area.

Again, I didn’t have time to look at any aerial images or flood maps that may have existed of downtown Nashville, so the SE corner of the intersection (which has been transformed by viaducts) was my best guess. This page, which details how the hotel was actually razed in 1956, was helpful.

Conclusion

Based on what I know from the postcards, Irving’s final visit to Nashville saw him spending November 1st-2nd in the city, staying at the Hermitage Hotel for a night before heading to Knoxville. I never found any postcards he mailed from there, but on November 2 (very close to Election Day), he mailed a postcard home that was just a photo of FDR, writing Every state in the South is for Roosevelt If only all the others were it would be fine. Will write from Knoxville.

Every attempt I’ve made to find Irving Postcard sites has been somewhat rewarding, but I have to say Nashville was the most frustrating yet. The basic act of driving around the city makes one clearly aware of how rampantly it’s growing. I didn’t particularly enjoy either of my re-photography attempts above; in both situations, I had to snap the photos quickly and hurry back to my car out of the fear it would be impounded and crushed into a small cube. As the photos I did get show, entire tracts of land have been razed with cranes looming overhead; to me, it almost recalls the uncontrollable growth of DC over a decade ago. The large artists’ renderings of yuppie markets not unlike the ones that have come to dominate Atlanta (speaking of uncontrollable growth) don’t make me feel good about the sustainability of this gargantuan landscape modification, but what do I know? I’m not a Nashvillian; I’m just a fan of its record shops, vegan options, and (unless they’re playing the Caps) hockey team.

COMING SOON TO SONIC GEOGRAPHY

It’s conference season! I’ll be presenting at the Balancing the Mix Conference in Memphis on March 30th as well as the AAG Meeting in DC (along with some other surprises there). Check back in soon.