The Ben Irving Postcard Project: West Tennessee

0331191842a_hdr

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.

IrvingPostcard015

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.

0330192254a_hdr

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.

0330192249a_hdr

‘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:

0330192252_hdr

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

031635_Memphis_front

Thankfully, this one was a cinch.

0331191334b_hdr

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)

031435_Humboldt_front

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.

0331191840a_hdr

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.

0331191843a_hdr

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:

0331191849_hdr

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:

0331191850_hdr

0331191836_hdr

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.

0331191846_hdr


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:

Advertisements

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.

SonicGeography.com

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:

2421WestEndAve

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.

0320191801a_hdr

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. 

The Irving Postcards: Louisville, KY

1218181438_HDR

The United States Post Office, Court House, and Custom House in Louisville, KY (1936 Postcard Image, and December 2018). 

Last month, I spent a few days passing through the lower Midwest, including one of my favorite cities, Louisville. Not only is Louisville an overwhelmingly cool city with a great musical history (and according to Ethan Buckler a consistent threat of twisters), it’s also rich with history. Like its counterpart up the Ohio River Cincinnati, I imagine Louisville was a major crossroads during the antebellum era and reconstruction. It also gave us Muhammad Ali, quality baseball bats, and Elliott.

The two postcards I had on hand, like many items in the Ben Irving collection, were of newer landmarks the city was trying to show off in the WPA era. The Post Office and Memorial Auditorium both foreground Greco-Roman elements in their architecture. Only the Post Office postcard had any information about the building; it reads “Cost $3,000,000.00. Covers block on Broadway between 6th and 7th Streets.” Pretty straightforward. According to one inflation calculator, 3 Million dollars in 1930 would convert to $44,848,829.59 in today’s currency.

The more interesting building, for me, was the Memorial Auditorium. This postcard had absolutely no information on it, but according to the Auditorium’s official history, it opened in 1929 and was designed as a deliberate Greek Revival throwback by Thomas Hastings.

1218181417a_HDR

Louisville Memorial Auditorium (1936 Postcard / December 2018 in Background)

Though it looked like there were some city offices inside the building (I saw a security guard wander out one of the side doors and leave shortly after I took the above picture), nobody appeared to be home, so I couldn’t go inside. I did wander around the building to get a more detailed look. My favorite part may be the bas reliefs, which you can see pretty clearly on the 1936 postcard image.

Thank you for reading. Coming soon: a failed attempt at an ambitious vista re-creation in West Virginia!

Lyrics, Letters and the Forgotten Lives of Ben Irving

New Picture

Click to watch at PechaKucha.org

Pecha Kucha Knoxville recently uploaded the PowerPoint and Audio from my November presentation about my great-grandfather. This was a 6 minute, 40 second truncation of archival work I’d been doing about over a thousand postcards he sent from the road in the 1930s and 40s. It is an ongoing project that has been as rewarding as it has been educational and surprising regarding both my family history and a different era in American cultural life.

Here is my respectful sales pitch: If you enjoy what you see above, let me know. I am always happy to bring this lecture (in any reasonable length) to present at your company, school, civic organization, for any interested parties. Feel free to contact me at sonicgeography [at] gmail. I presented an hour-long version of this talk, which included a handful of his original song lyrics, more news clippings, and personal history at the Kimball Farms Lecture series in Lenox, MA in November. I have an audio recording available for anybody interested in the extended version.

Anyway, I’ve hinted at this postcard collection before, but until now I haven’t been completely comfortable with sharing. But now that the cat’s out of the bag and I did this presentation for over a thousand people in Knoxville, I’ll be a bit more forthcoming with Ben Irving’s story.

I assume you’ll watch the video-slideshow at the link above (WordPress doesn’t allow embedding of iframe codes; apologies), but the long and short of it was that my great-grandfather, who went by his stage name Ben Irving in most of his professional life, was a prolific musician on the Hartford jazz circuit of the 1920s. When the Depression hit, he moved his young family (including my grandmother, then a toddler) to Brooklyn and hit the road as a sales representative. In his time, Irving got to see so much more of America than most anybody in his position, including parts of the country that were still mired in dark history and summarily unfriendly to Jews. Assuming that his wife and daughter would probably never see any of these places, he sent home multiple postcards from almost every city he visited.

IMG_0876

A few years ago, when I inherited the postcards, I began bringing selections with me whenever I traveled to particular cities in North America. I began to re-pose and re-create the shots, better terms as ‘rephotography’ (see Kalin 2013 for a great overview of this). I cataloged these attempts in a handful of entries (including in FloridaNew Orleans, Mobile, and Chattanooga) all of which are tagged with ‘Re-Photography’ and I included in my PechaKucha talk. I recently created a new tag (‘Ben Irving’) for the posts I make about my ongoing work focused on (or directly inspired by) my great-grandfather. Stay tuned for a pair of new entries that follow his postcards (including an overdue AAG 2017 retrospective), coming very soon.