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.

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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).

“Save the Clocktower” Panel at AAG

As expected, I returned from Chicago with a seemingly insurmountable pile of work backlogged from the week away. I imagine this is commonplace, as the AAG meeting typically falls late in the spring semester. I cannot move any deadlines or life events that have delayed it, but better late than never, here are some photos and highlights from the first-ever Back to the Future panel! Before I delve into it, I wanted to add that my paper session on Tuesday morning and the first annual GeoSlam (also on Tuesday) were both successful and a lot of fun. Thanks to RJ Rowley and Pamela Sertzen, respectively, for organizing those. Pam and I were already chatting about next year’s AAG GeoSlam, possibly in a SF jazz club? Lawrence Ferlinghetti will probably be too old to join us, but we can always dream.

Anyway, back to Back to the Future

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RJ and I bumped into each other in the hallway outside of Skyway 282, the hatbox room we had been assigned for the session. Considering this was going to be at 4pm on Saturday (when a majority of AAG’s participants have usually left the event), we looked forward to the panel with cautious optimism. Even in a worst-case scenario, we would have a fun group discussion by which to end our AAG meeting. Maybe a small handful of curious conference-goers would find their way to it. We did not get preeminent about the proceedings; we were not expecting a big crowd.

We were so wrong. Even before any of the other chapter authors filtered in, we had a pair of strangers come in and sit down. As 4pm approached, the small room slowly filled up. My colleague Matt Cook, always helpful, went next door and even grabbed a few more chairs to fit into the entryway for the additional people who came in (unless he was violating a fire code, in which case I’m kidding about everything I’ve said in this sentence).

Co-Editor RJ Rowley introduces his chapter to a tightly packed crowd at the "Geographies of Back to the Future" Panel. Notice the packed entryway, including onlookers sitting on the floor. Julian Barr and Lydia Hou,  co-authors of another chapter, sit next to RJ and look on.

Co-Editor RJ Rowley introduces his chapter to a tightly packed crowd at the “Geographies of Back to the Future” Panel. Notice the packed entryway, including onlookers sitting on the floor. Julian Barr and Lydia Hou, co-authors of another chapter, sit next to RJ and look on.

It wasn’t enough. By 4:30pm, we had one longtime follower of the project sitting on the floor, poetry-slam-style in front of us, the room already oriented for a circle discussion. Every seat in there was full, and everybody was at complete attention to each of our presenters. One by one, Greg Pagett, Dr. Chris Dando, Stacie Townsend, Ashley Allen, Dr. RJ Rowley, Dr. Rich Waugh, Julian Barr, Lydia Hou, and myself brought a different idea to the table which the franchise had inspired.

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Drs. Robert Winstanley-Chesters and Torsten Wissman look on as I, Greg Pagett, and Dr. Christina Dando share a laugh with some attendees. (Matthew Cook photo)

After we all went around and introduced our chapters, Dr. Dando presented a brilliant and concise discussion of the panel which will undoubtedly inform our book proposal moving forward. We then opened the floor up to discussion from attendees. A pair of geographers actually thanked us for helping them understand just what Back to the Future has to contribute to the geographic literature and theory. When they said that, it felt incredibly grateful that our discussion struck so many chords across several subdisciplines.

My personal favorite anecdote came from Dr. Robert Winstanley-Chesters of Leeds University, who shared his experience as an immigrant to suburban New Jersey in 1984. His father, a visiting professor at a major NJ institution, was able to enroll him in an expensive private school that year. One of his lasting memories of that school were the three DeLoreans he saw in the parking lot every day. For most BTTF fans, the films represent this fantasy of mid-1980s America; in a strange way,  they represented Robert’s reality. I hadn’t laughed that hard since… RJ and Greg engaged in an argument over who was the bigger film nerd about one hour prior to that. Needless to say, we had more fun than anyone would predict at an AAG panel.

Another highlight came after we adjourned; two attendees introduced themselves and said they had driven up that day from Champaign (over an hour) just for the panel. They said it was worth it, and I was incredibly humbled. Checking the twitter account and seeing positive comments like this certainly didn’t hurt, either:

Thanks again to all the contributors, participants, and even curious bystanders who craned their necks to hear the proceedings from the hallway, who reminded us all that “if you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.”

Thanks for reading! Don’t forget to keep tabs on “Save the Clocktower!” at our Facebook page and on Twitter. More updates soon!

AAG 2015 in Chicago!

I’m extremely excited to announce here that I’ll be attending and presenting at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers in Chicago this week. After a brief visit to see some friends and some colleagues in Wisconsin (Madison and Milwaukee are so much fun), we’ll be heading down to the Windy City this afternoon.

The Blackhawks hadn't just scored. This picture was taken during warm-ups when they announced that the AAG was coming to town.

The Blackhawks hadn’t just scored. This picture was taken during warm-ups when they announced that the AAG was coming to town.

Here are the conference activities in which I’ll be participating, in sequential order:

1. PAPER SESSION

I’ll be presenting my paper “The Flâneur and Flânerie in Geographic Thought” in a special ‘Space and Place’ session with my friend RJ Rowley at the helm. Pasting my abstract below, from the AAG website. 

Tuesday, April 21st, 8am
Burnham, Hyatt, West Tower, Silver Level

“…the ambivalence of the stranger thus represented the ambivalence of the modern world…” (Jacques Derrida, quoted by David B. Clarke in The Cinematic City).
The flâneur, a common literary and theoretical term for the apocryphal urban wanderer, has long been a commonly held analogue in sociological thought. Normally (un)settled in Paris and influenced heavily by the work of Charles Baudelaire as well as post-modernist thinkers like Jacques Derrida as ‘the hero of modernism,’ the flâneur has appeared relatively infrequently in the geographic literature. This seems to be contradictory, as the character is well suited to frame the dialogue over the interaction between individuals and the urban landscape.  In light of the emphasis on interaction and detachment with the city in the concourse of twentieth century thought, this paper examines and rethinks the flâneur and flânerie through contrasting lenses of humanism, modernism, and feminism/postmodernism. While the flâneur may be essentially a “literary gloss” (according to Rob Shields, 1994), the idea of the character and conversations around him illustrate various (sometimes contradictory) perspectives on the changing role and position of the Western urban citizen over the past two centuries.

2. GEOSLAM

I will also be participating in the first-ever GEOSLAM (which is exactly what you think it is). I’ll be doing a reading talking about my obsession with punk rock and Gainesville, Florida. This will be
Tuesday, April 21st from 12:40 PM
2:20 PM at
Skyway 260, Hyatt, East Tower, Blue Level.

A word from the organizers: “Drawing on Ruth Behar’s The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology that Breaks Your Heart, this year’s theme is “vulnerable geographies.” Through these pieces, we want to explore the ways in which we are emotionally drawn to the places and people of our research.”

No more spoilers on this one. And last, but not least…

3. SAVE THE CLOCKTOWER

It’s AAG 2015, meaning it’s time for some discussion on everyone favorite time-travel film franchise, “Back to the Future!” I’m very excited to finally have all of the contributors to Save the Clocktower (RJ Rowley, Chris Dando, Richard Waugh, Greg Pagett, Lydia Hou, Julian Barr, Ashley Allen, Stacie Townsend, and more) in one room to introduce their chapters and discuss the overall contributions that Marty McFly, Doc Brown, and their fictional town of Hill Valley still have to contribute to geography. This will help formulate an introduction to the book in honor of the film’s 30th anniversary as well as Doc, Marty, and Jennifers’ impending arrival this October. Our panel will be closing out the conference on…

Saturday, 4/25/2015, from 4:00 PM – 5:40 PM in
Skyway 282, Hyatt, East Tower, Blue Level

If you aren’t following the Clocktower 2015 project on Facebook or Twitter, here are your links. If you’re in town on Saturday, don’t miss it.
Looking forward to a great week! See you shortly, Chicago.

John Jakle and Keith Sculle on the U.S. Postal Service

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[One sample] postcard [in our collection] was mailed on a Saturday in 1919. The message concerns an intended ride to town the next day by electric interurban car. “I wrote you a letter telling you I would be in town Sunday on the quarter to 9 car, but that makes me hurry so much that [I] will come later… on the quarter to 11… meet me…and I will take you to church.”

Today, most Americans forget (if they ever knew) how fast and dependable the U.S. Postal Service once was. In many localities, postcards could be used to set and change appointments, even within the course of a few hours’ time. Streetcars carried mailboxes, which were emptied after every run. In many cities, mail was delivered to homes several times a day.

– from Picturing Illinois: Twentieth Century Postcard Art from Chicago to Cairo by John Jakle and Keith Sculle, p. 127. This completely clarifies, to someone going through antique postcards in 2014, the function and timing of postcards from that era. I’m fairly surprised the authors didn’t mention this much earlier in the book.

“Watch Me for the Changes and Try to Keep Up…” (Summer Update)

Here’s a quick update to what I’ve been up to so far this summer. If you have any questions about the status or background of anything I may have not explained thoroughly enough, please send me an email.

POSTCARD BOOK REVIEW

via UI Press

I am currently reading this neat book about the “golden age” of postcards (I hadn’t realized that was a thing) from Illinois by John Jakle and Keith Sculle in order to review it for the journal Material Cultures. I’ve always been fascinated with the shifting discourse on depictions of place throughout the years, especially given how integral postcards have been in these constructions of twentieth century America. I’ve posted a few items about vintage postcards on this site, but Jakle and Sculle take that analysis to the next level with the book. From what I’ve read so far, they aim to juxtapose the images of pre-Depression Chicago with that of rural Southern Illinois, arguing that the two were light years apart ideologically, yet inextricably tied together via the icons of industry. I’m pretty excited to learn more about the Chicago of that era. I might argue that few world cities are more interwoven with the “Roaring 20’s” mentality and urban blue-collar America, even to this day. I love that city, and I can’t wait to visit it next year for the AAG Meeting. Who wants to join me at the Oakwood at 3:30 AM? I really hope that place is still around. Anyway, I apologize in advance for getting sentimental about my visits there. No apologies for rooting against the Blackhawks in the Western Final, though. I still have a soft spot for the Kings after those two years in Long Beach. Now that I think about it, I’m grateful to not be at the Oakwood while I write this.

PAPER ON THE USE OF THE S.W.O.T. ANALYSIS IN PEDAGOGY

I have been fortunate to collaborate with Dr. Ronald Kalafsky to be second-author on a groundbreaking work he has been piecing together on our GEO 451 – The Global Economy course. For those unfamiliar (which I was before TA’ing this course, with no real foundation in macro-economics), the S.W.O.T. Analysis is an analytic paradigm that companies use to evaluate locations before investing resources. It stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. It was an interesting experience, especially since many of our students had never participated in a SWOT Analysis before, and should hopefully be interesting for anyone involved in the overlap between economics, geography, and teaching. More updates on this as it develops, but for now the research seems to be in good hands with Ron.

CHAPTER ON THE NEW ECONOMICS OF MUSIC

Wombleton, the best British record shop from the 1960s that happens to be in Highland Park, Los Angeles (Timeout LA)

At AAG 2013 in LA, I participated in a panel that Brian Hracs (Upsalla University) organized about the “New economics of the music industry.” Well he recently announced that he will be turning several of the papers presented into a published book about new approaches to studying the confluence of place, music, and money. My chapter is currently titled “Emotional Landscapes and the Evolution of Vinyl Record Retail: A Case Study of Highland Park, Los Angeles.” I still have a lot of revision to do, but my argument is, as my Master’s Thesis argued, that relying on consumers’ emotional attachment to places (both concrete and imagined) is a key component in operating a physical music retailer today. While artists do their part in luring listeners in with iconic cover art that evokes place, the retailers are doing the same, and three businesses I got to know in Highland Park (one of my favorite places in all of Los Angeles) were perfect examples. Stay tuned for more details about this one.

“HEY CHUCK! IT’S YOUR COUSIN, MARVIN BERRY! YOU KNOW THAT NEW SOUND YOU’VE BEEN LOOKING FOR? WELL LISTEN TO THIS!”

“Watch me for the changes and try to keep up…”

I don’t think I can leverage that as a title for the chapter, but I’m going to begin a chapter on the soundscapes of Hill Valley, CA. How exactly does the diegetic sounds (specifically, the music) in Back to the Future formulate our perceived landscape of Marty McFly’s hometown? We’ve had this project in the works for well over a year now, and we’re excited to see if slowly kicking into motion over this fall. I’m very excited to have a “Back to the Future” panel at AAG 2015 (naturally) featuring a number of the chapter authors in “Save the Clocktower! Imagined Geographies of Hill Valley 1885 – 2015.”

I’ve been getting more emails from interested writers for the project, and I’m still anxious to see what materializes over the next year. Ideally, I’ll get my own drafts done before long (including an introduction for the book with my good friend Teresa Anderson-Sharma), since I’m going to be teaching GEO 101 in the Fall here in Knoxville. A busy time, but I’d never get anything done if I didn’t stress myself out from time to time.

THE ERGS! on One Week // One Band

Philly, 2008

This one doesn’t have as much to do with Geography, but it’s nonetheless great for anybody interested in my music writing. I’m very excited to be contributing a week’s worth of entries on the kings of Jersey dork-pop for the great site One Week // One Band over the week of June 23rd. I wish I spent more time in New Jersey so I had more to write about their humble middle class middle-NJ origins… wait, no I don’t. But if there’s one positive thing New Jersey has given us by the boatload over the past few decades, it’s been great music. Perhaps no band has encapsulated the pissed off turn-of-the-century zeitgeist with as much humor as The Ergs! did. They stopped playing formally in 2008, all three members are still very musically active (Jeff in Black Wine, Joe in Night Birds, and Mike in every band that isn’t those two) and their legacy is growing.

So…. that’s what you can find me up to this summer. I’m also on board with your bike ride around the Knoxville area or spontaneous regional road trip. If I don’t see you around, I hope you have a great break, too and get out enough. See you back here soon.

So I’m Told That Chicago’s Cold…

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I apologize for the lack of updates to this site recently. I was so submerged in thesis territory that I nearly put two spaces after that last period. I’m sitting in Chicago’s downtown loop right now, about to head off to the Cultural Studies Association meeting. I unfortunately wasn’t able to be here for my allotted presentation time, but I’ll see if I can swing something today. At any rate, it seems like a great conference with a lot of interesting people presenting research across the board of the humanities and social sciences.

I’m not sure if I’ve expounded on this yet, but I simply love Chicago and I’m quite happy to be back in the windy city. As a trinket of said love, here’s a great song by Braid, who weren’t technically from Chicago (they formed in Champaign) but I can’t help but think of whenever Chicagoland comes up in emoversation. Whenever I get time I’ll write something about emotion, affect, and the “midwest sound” (Braid, Empire State Games, any one of the Kinsellas’ 235 bands), but for now, enjoy this gem of late-90’s nostalgia. As Bob Nanna shouts, “Check it out.”