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!

 

A New Life in a New Town (Central Michigan University)

or, I could just call this entry ‘Fire Up, Chips!’

0826191108a_hdr I would say I’m surprised I haven’t written anything here about my new position and base of operations in Mt. Pleasant, MI, but that would involve me ignoring how little I’ve posted in general over the past month. I’m still hoping to post some pictures from the IAG meeting in Hobart, I swear.

Right before I left for Australia, I accepted a position as a Lecturer in the department of Geography and Environmental Science at Central Michigan University.  I’m teaching four classes this semester: two sections of the world regional course GEO 121 WI (that means writing-intensive), one section of ENV 101 WI (Introduction to Environmental Science…writing-intensive), and one section of GEO 350 (The United States and Canada). So far, I have no complaints. I’m working with a great new faculty who have been overwhelmingly supportive, and from what I can tell now that classes have begun, really cool students as well. I had trouble preparing to teach my class today because so many people were stopping by to ask how I was doing, offer help wherever needed, or invite me to play pickleball (which I’m sure will be a blast, once I look up what that is).

Also, I can’t say enough good things about living in the middle of the Mitten. Mt. Pleasant in particular is a wonderful place, with extreme walk-ability, wonderful cycling culture, a disproportionately high number of good radio stations, a cat-fé, and if you move here on a Thursday toward the end of the summer, Max & Emily’s may enable you to watch Brian Vander Ark and his band play a free show minutes from your house. For the life of me, I cannot remember a more fortuitous “Welcome, Tyler!” moment anywhere else I’ve moved.

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Brian also welcomed me to Michigan via Instagram (a proposition that would make less than zero sense to my thirteen-year-old self, enjoying a Verve Pipe video on MTV), telling me to say hello to Mustard Plug when I go see them at the Bell’s Brewery in October. I guess those rumors about the great Grand Rapids ska/alt-rock beef were unfounded after all.

As always, thanks for reading. Back to lesson-planning and life-organizing.


COMING SOON

  • Part Three of “Tyler Down Under” (It’s going to happen!)
  • Part One of “The Ben Irving Postcards Go to Michigan”
  • Updates on CMU Course Work and hopefully some news about Capitals of Punk

Vinyl Excursions: Scarce Sounds in Canberra

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Australia National University, June 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

SIGNAL BOOST: Call for Papers on Isolated Music Scenes

Happy Friday, everyone! I have a pair of massive new entries on the way – one which goes through the third week and conclusion of my Australia excursion, another which breaks down a pretty big announcement about a new position I will begin next month – but in the meantime, please check out this call for papers from Dr. Chrissy Ballico, an Australian friend and colleague in music studies. Her youth spent in Perth, the world’s most isolated major city, inspired a project on how music scenes proliferate (or don’t) in remote locations, especially in the age of the internet. Take a look at the CFP below and contact Dr. Ballico with any questions. – Ty

FROM DR. CHRISTINA BALLICO

I’ve had a few slots open up for contributions to an edited collection on geographically isolated and peripheral music scenes. I’m particularly interested in bringing in diverse perspectives beyond the UK/ North America and Australia/ NZ dialogues I currently have, and am particularly keen to provide this opportunity to female academics. Please see below, and if you are interested please send your abstract to cballico@gmail.com by Wednesday August 21, 2019. Full chapters will be due October 31st, 2019.
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Despite advancements in technology facilitating an ease with which geographical distance can be overcome, coupled with a shift away from a reliance on core creative centres for a range of creative and business services, peripheral and geographically isolated contemporary music scenes continue to face a range of challenges which impact upon the ways in which they connect with new audiences and industry beyond their home locale. This ranges from needing to make higher investments of time and money, to having to overcome attitudinal and cultural barriers in order to be viewed as worthy of prominent attention. More broadly, geographic isolation also impacts upon the ways in which culture can flow into these scenes, particularly in the live music setting. At the same time, however, this distance can also result in a range of benefits to these scenes in relation to the ways in which they are structured and how they function locally. This includes cultivating a recognition of the need to support one another, a high degree of expertise and skills concentrated on a small number of workers and a tight network of spaces, as well as the development of a strong work ethic to make the most of opportunities when they arise.
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With a particular focus on the below themes, proposals based on place-specific music scene and industry research are now being invited from scholars around the world:
  • How do these scenes construct themselves in relation to larger, ‘core’ scenes?
  • What role do social networks and Communities of Practice play in the functioning of these scenes?
  • How do temporal and financial barriers impact being able to connect with audiences and industry beyond musicians’ home locale?
  • What role does migration and mobility play in ongoing career development?
  • How has social media broken down barriers to larger centres?
  • What role have governments played in overcoming the isolation faced by musicians and industry?
  • How do industry workers navigate their careers in these centres?
 
Proposals for chapters should consist of a title and abstract (of no more than 250 words), bio (of no more than 100 words), affiliation and email address and be sent to cballico@gmail.com by Wednesday August 21, 2019.
 
Full chapters will be due October 31st 2019 and be 6- 7,000 words in length.
 
Please note that only abstracts that closely fit the theme will be considered.

Transmissions from Down Under: Week Two (Wellington Talk Friday)

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Morning in Cairns, looking south on Grimshaw St. June 30, 2019.

Happy Thursday, everyone! I’ve got (abridged) stories to tell.

First, I began this entry in Cairns, a very cool little city in Tropical North Queensland. I swam with the most stunning variety of fishes I’ve ever seen on the Great Barrier Reef, and I took zero pictures. I did get my Certificate of Recognition from the Divers’ Den (which they clarify, in my favorite part of the certificate, is NOT a Scuba Certification). Considering how uncomfortable I am (1) underwater and (2) cycle-breathing, Scuba seemed like a terrible undertaking. That is mostly because it was. As I write this, my ears are still ringing from when my head nearly caved in on itself, and I’m still wincing at how I looked when I first saw myself in the mirror after returning to the boat. I managed to pop a blood vessel in my nose in attempts to expel water from my mask and equalize the pressure. I think “not looking like Tom Savini designed your face” after removing one’s goggles is a skill that some of the finer divers develop. Also, considering how far self-contained underwater breathing apparatuses have come technologically, I couldn’t stop thinking about how terrifying those early dives must have been for Jacques Cousteau and his antecedents.

All that being said, it was 100% worth it. Granted, the snorkeling session in the afternoon was almost as majestic from up on the surface, but we were parked by an atoll with relatively high towers of coral. I’m clearly no ichthyologist, but every single fish I saw felt like a revelation, considering how massive and rainbow-toned many of them were. The guides emphasized to apply sunscreen at least a half-hour before diving and to avoid contact with coral or fish at all costs. I didn’t see any sharks or lethal jellyfish, so you’ll all be happy to know I’m alive and well unless one of the species applied some kind of slow-burn poison on my skin thaa;fwoij;oi4j……………Just kidding. I’ll post if anything changes. Maybe I’ll get lucky and have a run-in with a particularly vicious Koala. [Update: I did not].

 

Second, back to the tape. Before I get to my IASPM experience in Canberra, I’ll extend my gratitude to Maartje Roelofsen and Macquarie University’s GeoPlan Seminar for hosting me last Tuesday. I couldn’t have asked for a nicer setting and better group for my first international colloquium talk. Their seminar room featured a 19th century court room gate rescued from somewhere indeterminate in rural New South Wales, which most seminar rooms should have. Also, I saw my first Lorakeets. I probably confused Maartje with my overreaction, never having seen birds that beautiful outside of captivity before.

I’m looking forward to seeing several members of that faculty and student body again in Hobart next week. I would have enjoyed hanging out for a bit and seeing more of the campus, but I had to get back to Sydney to catch my coach to Canberra. IASPM was already well underway, and I’d missed a good handful of fascinating sounding papers.

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Aboriginal musicians’ panel kicks off the IASPM Wednesday proceedings at the Llewellyn Recital Hall at Australia National University’s School of Music (June 26, 2019).

IASPM was every bit as fun and insightful as a global conference of the world’s top popular music scholars (and me) would be, and Canberra was wonderful. I got to see a few old friends and meet some new ones, learn a nearly overwhelming amount about great new research in pop music studies, and watch Franco Fabbri bring down the house with “Space Oddity” at closing-night karaoke at the coolest bar in Canberra. Scotty Regan (Queensland Uni of Technology) DJ’d the set and closed with “New York, New York,” but replacing “New York” with “Canberra.” Feel free to dig into his Twitter for more details, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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Fakhran al Ramadhan presents his paper on the the Jakarta skinhead movement at IASPM at ANU (Canberra) on June 27, 2019.

I was honored to be on the Punk session with Paula Guerra, the co-founder of KISMIF, a Porto conference I’ve been dying to go to since I discovered it a couple years ago, and Fakhran al Ramadhan, who splits his time between the Cultural Studies program at the University of Indonesia and his band No Slide (whose t-shirt I’m wearing as I type this). It was one of the best-attended paper sessions I’ve been on, and as on many conferences outside of my field, the way my ideas resonated with the attendees was highly encouraging. It’s a shame I might never be able to experience IASPM in Canberra again, but I count on returning to both the meeting and the city at different times in the future.

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Paula Guerra, Fakhran al Ramadhan, and I express our thoughts after our punk paper session closes (ANU Canberra, June 27 2019).

While in Canberra, I also had the opportunity to meet and talk archivism and records with Ross Laird, one of the top collectors/curators in Australia, if not the world. In the interest of time (and making another quick announcement about a talk I have in Wellington, where I’m actually finishing up this entry), I’ll move my meeting with Ross to its own future entry.

For now, I’m pleased to announce here that I’ve added a talk to my excursion to Aotearoa/New Zealand! The kind and enthusiastic people at Victoria University of Wellington (Social Theory & Spatial Praxis Research Group) have invited me in tomorrow at noon to talk about Capitals of Punk and some more recent research directions that have emerged from it. I’ve pasted their flyer below in case you know anybody in Wellington and would like to pass word along. From what I understand, it’s free and open to the public.

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Thanks again for reading, and sorry I didn’t have enough time to go into further detail about IASPM. I can’t remember the last time I’ve taken that many notes at a conference. Not that I’m going to hold the IAG or AAG to this, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt if all academic conferences concluded with the organizer(s) singing karaoke with all of the participants.

I’ll do my best to get a Week 3 entry up from Hobart at this time next week! I hope you’re all doing well, wherever you are.

 

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It’s never too late to make new friends in your travels.

Transmissions from Down Under (Week One)

Sydney

Sydney at night is something to behold.

Greetings from Australia! I survived my first 15-hour flight with minimal sleep deprivation. A colleague warned me that I’m not in the clear yet, though, so I’ll be cautious. I’m taking advantage of a cold, miserable Sunday night in Ultimo to work on my presentations for this week, which will be taking place on Tuesday at Macquarie University in Sydney’s northern suburbs and on Thursday at Australia National University in Canberra.

Let’s go to the tape:

Announcement Seminar Tyler Sonnichsen


The Official IASPM Program is available now! My session is Thursday at 2pm (see p.56).

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More updates as I have time and reasonable access to WiFi. I’m the meantime, I’ll be trawling some of Sydney’s finest record shops and enjoying its nearly overwhelming amount of delicious Asian street food (in fully licensed restaurants, as they foreground in their ads). Here is a photo I took yesterday afternoon in the moment it hit me that I was, indeed, in Australia:

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The Birds (1963; dir. Alfred Hitchcock) remake nobody wanted. To be fair, that describes most remakes.

 

 

Down Under Summer 2019: Macquarie University (Sydney), IASPM (Canberra), IAG (Hobart), and More

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Rand McNally is really off the mark in the Simpsons Universe (see Borneo). I guess we shouldn’t expect much from a place where hamburgers eat people.

For the first time since 2016, I’ll be heading out of the country on academic business. This time, as I mentioned previously, I’m heading to the opposite side of the globe (ostensibly). I can’t wait to see the wonderful cities, meet the wonderful people, swim the wonderful waters, browse the wonderful record shops, and pet a wonderful koala. If you’re in any of these places when I am (see below), please get in touch.

As of now, I have three presentations scheduled.  I’m also planning stops in Cairns, Brisbane, and Melbourne, though I haven’t confirmed any talks or meetings yet. I will do my best to update this post, or post something new, should any details change.


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TUESDAY, JUNE 25 – SYDNEY, NSW
Macquarie University
“Music Video, Sense of Place, and the Symbolic Gentrification of Memory”
GeoPlan Seminar Series, W3A 501 Macquarie University
12pm – 1pm

Thank you to Drs. Claudio Minca and Maartje Roelofsen for inviting me to present some of my new research directions at their fine institution, and thank you to Dr. Chris Gibson for connecting me with them. This will be my first colloquium talk outside of the United States. PROGRAM HERE: Announcement Seminar Tyler Sonnichsen


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THURSDAY, JUNE 27 – CANBERRA, ACT
International Association for the Study of Popular Music (IASPM) Annual Meeting
4:30pm: “Violence, Memory, and Qualitative Research in Punk History”
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This will be my first time attending an IASPM meeting, and I look forward to discussing some of my findings from the research that culminated in Capitals of Punk. I’m also grateful to be presenting at the same conference with my friend and UTK colleague Nathan Fleshner. Naturally, we’re scheduled at the same time. This was the first conference I was accepted to in Oz, and it got the wheels moving for this entire trip.


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THURSDAY, JULY 11 – HOBART, TAS
Institute of Australian Geographers (IAG) Annual Meeting 
12:40pm: “Music Videos, Emotional Geography, and Pedagogy”
New & Emerging Research in Cultural Geography II (Tasman A)

Once again, I need to thank Joshua Pitt from Palgrave for calling my attention to this meeting, as well as the helpful and supportive IAG staff who encouraged me to apply (insisting that, yes, they do welcome geographers from all over the globe, especially North America). It’s a special treat to be able to present my newer research on Tasmania! Everyone who knows both me and Australia has told me I’ll really appreciate Hobart, which makes me even more excited.


I will have periodic access to WiFi, but I will do my best to keep in touch with those who reach out. See you all on the other side.