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!

 

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Mic Nite at Relix Theater this Thursday

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I’m looking forward to represent UTK Geography at the UT Faculty Fall Mic Nite this Thursday! It will take place at Relix Variety Theater (1208 N. Central Street). Doors are at 5:30pm, and presentations begin at 6:30pm. It’s free to attend, but they’d like for you to RSVP here so they can stock the pizza and bar appropriately.

This will be my second time presenting in the Pecha Kucha format and my first time presenting on what I’m referring to as “symbolic gentrification,” so it should be interesting, at the very least. I feel like Mic Nite, since it’s interdisciplinary, will provide a good forum for unpacking such a broad subject. I’ll paste my abstract from the program here.

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Symbolic Gentrification and Learning from Pop Culture

Gentrification has been a concern of sociologists, geographers, and urban dwellers at large since the sociologist Ruth Glass coined the term to describe changes in 1960s London. Critical geographers have long assumed much of that mantel, particularly Neil Smith, whose “The New Urban Frontier” remains a cornerstone. However, understanding gentrification solely a process of city development leaves out much of the story.

My research argues that gentrification is not simply a process of what Smith calls “revanchist urbanism,” but is, at its core, a greater dynamic that weaves geography together with multiple other fields within the humanities. Specifically, my experience teaching American Popular Culture has inspired me to approach what I call “symbolic gentrification,” a critical understanding of the relationship between urban space, capital, and the arts.

The last time I presented in this format (20 slides, 20 seconds apiece) was for the Pecha Kucha Night Knoxville in November 2016. I presented on Ben Irving publicly for the first time; you can watch here. I’m such a fan of the timed-slides format that I’m employing it in one of my classes this semester for the first time.

Hope to see you Thursday!

Will Straw’s “The Urban Night” and 2016’s Fight for the Right to the City

Will Straw – Cities of the Night, Cultures of the Night from Winnipeg Arts Council on Vimeo.

Sorry the video doesn’t allow embedding; I’ve done similarly with a few videos I’ve posted over the years, so I’m not complaining. Go ahead and watch it on Vimeo.

Over the course of my dissertation research, I’ve realized that the day/night binary in the city is largely overlooked in urban geography. Particularly in cities like DC, the population balloons during the day, though the census reflects overnight residents who may or may not take part in much of the city’s nightlife. The “day” population and the “night” population, especially as they increasingly overlap in the age of revanchist urbanism, engage in a tacit conflict over “whose city” it is. This becomes increasingly complicated when quintessentially “night” activity occurs during the daytime. As Straw mentions in this 2010 talk, cities like Winnipeg and others in their corner are embracing traditionally nighttime activities (raves, dance parties, punk shows) and reorienting them to happen during the day, thereby supporting the arts while lightening nighttime disruptions. Punk scenes like that of Washington, DC have been doing this with little to no involvement from the city government for decades.

300px-st_stephens_church_exterior_1932DCist recently posted a 2016 retrospective blog, which included a heated debate between punks and irate young professionals.  The blog PoPville, started by Dan Silverman (aka the “Prince of Petworth”), a legendary neighborhood blogger/flâneur and the veritable face of gentrification in DC, posted an anonymous letter from an irate resident of the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood who was more than slightly annoyed at the noisy music coming from St. Stephen’s. Unsurprisingly, Silverman’s responsible decision to post the email resulted in a firestorm of animated responses. The perpetual verbal tug-o-war between “new” residents and historic participants in underground culture makes for a fascinating read, and I’d love to use this comment chain as an introductory anecdote in a class on Urban Geography of the 21st Century. As obnoxious as the debate gets at times (it is the internet, after all), I’ve seen few better encapsulations of where David Harvey’s “right to the city” sits in the public discourse in 2016.

In the interest of being a professional reporter of this cultural geography, I’ll withhold my own opinions (though you are free to guess based on who I am and what I research, and you can always ask). One comment from a user labeled “harDCore” posted this some ways along in the comment chain:

This may come as a surprise to the NIMBYs on here but DIY music festivals like this are actually a good thing for the community. The church doesn’t do it to make money, they aren’t a for profit company, they do it to help support and be a part of their community. Events based around music like this keep kids off the streets and has them doing something constructive and positive instead of just doing drugs and becoming criminals. The church isn’t selling booze so people aren’t drunkenly disorderly around the event either. There’s less as less places for youth to play music in this city as the property costs keep going up and developers take over (the Union Arts building being turned into a luxury hotel is a good recent example of this). We need local and community art and music in DC, don’t try to push it out. I suggest Googling things like Positive Force DC and getting a better understanding of what a punk concert or festival really means to the community.

And I suppose the armchair lawyers commenting here didn’t realize that the festival had permits for the event, which the police know about, and why they weren’t doing anything if the permits weren’t being violated.

In the end if you want to live in a sterile, art free environment maybe the suburbs are for you.

The attitudes of the so-called NIMBYs continue a long tradition of city property owners who celebrate the arts until said arts create a disruption. Straw’s talk touches upon this, citing the late-19th-century sentiment that lighting up the urban night would eliminate “iniquity,” but instead created new shades (literally) of it. Perhaps some believe that moneyed development is to the late 20th century what artificial light was to the late 19th? Money has unquestionably shifted the “undesirable” elements, but it has not eliminated them, and in some ways, drawn even more attention to them. I find it hard to believe that the irony of the DC Public Library’s well-publicized punk archive would be lost on people committed to their city’s growth but not its history. This also belies Mt. Pleasant’s recent history as a predominantly underclass (and radical) Latin-American enclave, which is an entire other history that could easily compose its own post.

Anyway, I wish I didn’t have to say that there are no correct answers… but there are no correct answers; only correct attitudes. I look forward to following this issue as it continues to unfold, and maybe make it back to DC for Damaged City one of these years. For those of you who can make it (April 6-9…sadly overlapping with AAG in Boston), 2017’s event is going to be a doozy. They’ve got Marked Men!! And Siamese Twins (who I haven’t written about on this site, but every person needs to hear “Don’t Forgive Lightly” before they die).

While on the subject of gentrification, if you have access (or can obtain it) check out the lead article in the new edition of Southeastern Geographer. It’s an outstanding analysis of Knoxville’s place in that conversation, by my colleagues Scott Markley and Dr. Madhuri Sharma. Considering how much I’ve been picking through the complex geographic discussion of 21st century urbanism, this article is already proving inspirational for me. Congrats and great work to Scott and Madhuri.

The New Orleans – New York Times Blog Wars and the McDonaldization of the American City

Friday Reads: Us Savages in New Orleans have Done Been Discovered.

There’s still a contingent of politicians down here that are way too generous to their friends and to their own bank accounts. There’s plenty of institutional racism, sexism, and provincialism to go around. But I see this every where and at least New Orleans fills its cracks with good food, good music, and a lot of friendly people. Believe me, that makes up for a lot.  However, for some reason, we’re attracting a lot of folks who want to turn us into Brooklyn or what Brooklyn has become.”

I’ve noticed a lot of animosity in the blogosphere as of late regarding the New York Times’ treatment of New Orleans as some kind of sub-cultural/human curiosity sideshow (where kale is nowhere to be found; what an atrocity). Sky Dancing Blog has some choice words (and excellent, eclectic sourcing) regarding this surreal cultural condescension. Click the link above and get up to speed.

New Orleans is one city I’ve loved deeply since the first time I visited it in 1997, and perhaps my fascination with her, outside of the music and brain-splittingly good food, has been rooted in its purported lack of shine and grittiness. Also, the whole “no other place existing like it in the world” thing. To use a lazy epithet, what you see is what you get.

This leads us down a major philosophical conundrum when we think about the “livable city:” What happens when the continued urbanization of America (and the entire world, for that matter) produces not necessarily standards but ways of living that hollow out a city’s underlying character? Is this just capitalism running amok and bleeding into a concept not unlike the McDonaldization of the American city?

I’m no expert, considering how I’ve never lived in Brooklyn nor New Orleans (and would be hard-pressed to afford visiting either at the moment), but isn’t there something remarkable enough about a city that’s so notoriously blighted and corrupt yet lovable that you wouldn’t want to change it?

Here’s the rub: this debate has inevitably overgeneralized New Orleans and Brooklyn. Both sides (but mainly the outsider accounts, not to split hairs) treat the former as if it is not a massive unrefined agglomeration of moving/mutating parts, but one homogeneous entity. Perhaps this was the dream of urban re-developers at one point fifty years ago, but that pursuit was abandoned by all but the most die-hard (and loony) urban theorists decades ago.

For all the grief that gentrifiers get, you would imagine that somebody would clue them into Jane Jacobs’ (yet-to-be-disproven) theory of the necessary multiple uses of city blocks. The reason their new neighborhood is so great is exactly because you have new buildings next to the old, the scabs next to the sutures.

I am not claiming any ownership of either city; both New Orleans and Brooklyn represent seemingly divergent ends of the paradigm of urban culture in the United States, and both deserve praise for various facets of their existence, but to try to move one towards the other would be frightening. That being said, I think the most interesting aspect of this whole outrage has been this near-tribal trumpeting of ownership and provincialism (particularly considering how the writer of the blog I linked here admits to not being a NOLA native). Considering how much I’ve taken a shine to Knoxville (for all of its almost-cartoonish shortcomings), I am learning firsthand about what it’s like to adopt and defend an underdog of an American city.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this rant, if it even qualifies as one. If it doesn’t, I have one coming up soon about chili. Enjoy your week, everybody.

Me at Metairie Cemetery, 2008.

Me at Metairie Cemetery, 2008.