#AAG2017 Recap Part II: Boston, 1935-1952

I have a bad habit of over-planning, making grand plans that would be inconceivable to complete in whatever short time span I’m presented. Of course, this results in me spreading myself too thin on occasion when on the road. I mentioned in the first Part that my AAG Boston experience was somewhat truncated, so if I was going to pursue a couple of re-photography sites, I would need to act strategically.

This meant that I needed to sacrifice at least one morning of the conference, which is never an easy decision to make. I also needed to take weather into consideration, since pouring rain and 50-degree weather (which would encapsulate the entire day and night Thursday) would not lend themselves to a hypothermia-free walkabout. Because it appeared that the rain would hold off for most of Wednesday and I had not committed to any sessions until that afternoon, I decided to start off my conference in side-project territory.

After visiting registration early, buying an AAG hoodie on the way for a fantastic deal (I forgot, somehow, to pack something suitably insulated or warm for early April in Boston), I set out eastbound on Boylston Street toward the Common. Though I would normally take a detour through the park, the lagoons were drained and half of the paths were covered in mud. Some would still probably be interested in this “anti-tourist-gaze” dynamic, but because my time was somewhat limited and I needed to make it to Cambridge by lunch time, I kept walking. My first site, conveniently, sat right at the far corner of the Common at the corner of Boylston and Tremont Streets.

The Hotel Touraine / 62 Boylston

My great-grandfather Ben Irving sent this Hotel Touraine postcard home from Boston on December 1, 1943. The information on the back of the card indicates this building was “erected on the site where John Quincy Adams, sixth President of the United States, lived, and his son Charles Francis Adams, Minister to Great Britain during the Civil War, was born. Opposite Boston Common.” It does not provide any dates, but according to the National Register of Historic Places, it went up in 1897 and operated as a hotel until 1966, when it closed down to become an apartment building. Its early-20th century charms included an impressive little hotel library.

The farthest I got into the building was the security desk, as you’d expect with any private residence. I spoke for a few minutes with the desk clerk Mike, who took my card and told me he would pass it along to anybody in the leasing office with a historical interest in the building (nobody was there at the time). He also told me about one elderly resident named Elaine who he understood had been a resident of 62 Boylston (as it is currently known) since 1967, the building’s first full year zoned residential.

As one should be able to make out from my picture, the street level entrance of the building on the SE corner of Boylston and Tremont is now a Starbucks.

J.W. McCormick Post Office & Courthouse Building

Here was where my day got interesting. This postcard, which has been damaged since I inherited it a few years ago, was mailed home from Boston on September 24, 1935. The caption on the back reads “NEW FEDERAL BUILDING AND POST-OFFICE. Boston Postal district is the fourth largest in the United States. Postal receipts of this district aggregate more than $13,000,000 a year.” According to the US Inflation Calculator, that amount inflates to $231,344,014 in today’s currency (cumulative inflation 1,679.6%), which is impressive either way, given how much more communication was done via the Post back then (and how much more efficient the system was).

At the end of my PechaKucha talk about the Ben Irving postcard collection, I implored my audience to “always, always, always” ask (I think I used “always” three times for Marge Simpson-style/’part of us all’ repetition/emphasis). After snapping that surprisingly challenging photo of the building from the far corner of the intersection, I wandered into the main entrance, which is probably impossible to discern with the construction scaffolding wrapped around the first level of the building, but it’s there in the center. The security guards were hardly warm and cuddly, but the first couple of whom I spoke to near the metal checkpoints offered suggestions for who to seek out upstairs.

Immediately after the checkpoint, a set of steps leads you up to the second floor, where I took that photo of the sign that they never bothered to junk when the news stand shut down (date unknown). Today, the EPA’s Boston offices sit in that space, and a couple EPA employees with connections throughout the (somewhat vacant) building were happy to show me around.

One EPA employee (whose name I forgot to write down) brought me up to the third floor and introduced me to Jim Sheehan of the GSA. We chatted for a few minutes, and he told me that, contrary to what I had assumed, the McCormick building actually pre-dated the WPA era. I had only assumed it was a WPA building since a 1935 postcard was showing the building off, but he told me it was an easy mistake to make. I would later find the GSA’s broadsheet about the building, which had more information that I should have probably looked up before going there.

The EPA employee brought me by the old post office window bay, which had long fallen out of use, but were virtually untouched for decades. He also brought me upstairs to a beautiful old courtroom that had also fallen out of use since the era of the Anderson vs. Cryovac, Inc. battle in 1986 (which would inspire the Jonathan Harr book A Civil Action, which inspired the 1998 John Travolta movie of the same name, which was filmed on site in said courtroom). Most of the legal texts had been removed from the shelves, but enough remained to lend the room a slightly creepy semi-used aura. The Depression-era brass/steel doors that led to the original judges’ chambers were also among the coolest I had ever seen; nobody really knew the last time half of them had been opened. In retrospect, it’s probably better that I forgot the EPA employee’s name since me saying any of this may get him into trouble.

So, yeah, if you’re curious about a place, always ask. The next destination was a bit more confusing to find and a bit less security-heavy.

Boston’s Old City Hall

Because I care about my readers, I’m not going to subject you to any images of the brutalist atrocity that the city government moved into post-redevelopment. Nope. None at all. Let’s focus our gaze instead on this 19th century building, tucked away around the corner from the Old South Meeting house. The Meeting House, by the way, was the first building the the U.S. designated for historical preservation, and remains today a key reference point. I actually bumped into my colleague Jordan Brasher across the street from it, as he was headed to meet an old friend for coffee nearby. I wasn’t expecting to run into any geographers that far away from Hynes that early in the conference week, but I clearly wasn’t the only one taking advantage of the window to wander.

Anyway, the postcard there on the left is one of the later items in the Ben Irving collection; he sent it home from Boston on January 21, 1952. The front caption is visible above, and the rear caption reads “Boston City Hall located on School Street dates back to 1865. A Latin School stood here in colonial times, later the County Court House. Statues of Benjamin Franklin and Josiah Quincy stand at the entrance. At the rear is the City Hall Annex.” The statues are still prominent, but I’m not entirely sure what part of the building constituted the Annex.

As I was taking the photograph(s) recreating the postcard shot from the corner of Province Street, the scrums of tourists wandering around the sidewalk in front of the Hall diverted a bike messenger, who crashed into a pillar and flipped over his handlebars onto School Street. I was looking away when I happened, but I heard it as it happened, and walked over to check on him as he slowly got up and got back on his bike.

As one should be able to make out from my picture, the street level entrance of the building next door is now a Starbucks. The restaurant with the red awning that used to occupy that space was called Purcell’s (difficult to make out on the postcard, perhaps intentional, though Thompson’s Spa is prominently labeled in the background). Sean McCullough, who worked in the Old City Hall’s management office downstairs, told me that the Starbucks kept the original Purcell’s tiles at its corner entrance, but I couldn’t find them. Also, there was not much room to wander into the coffee shop and inspect the floor without having to order something out of guilt.

Seriously, I could probably compile an entire photo collection dedicated to Starbucks that currently occupy spaces in historic city scenery, but I’m not doing that without serious kickbacks from the Starbucks Corporation. They already have enough free advertising from the customers on Instagram (and I suppose writers who complain about them).

Hopping on the Red Line and moving into Cambridge…

Harvard Square with Lehman Hall in Background

Ben sent this one home down to Brooklyn late in the afternoon of November 15, 1943 (two weeks before the one of the Hotel Touraine). Due to the historic status of Harvard’s buildings and the clearly demarcated and still existent (unlike some squares in Boston) landmark, the site was very easy to identify. I tried to recreate this angle; I really did. But timing and fate prevented it from happening. The best I could do was that shot from the opposite side of the T station entrance from the Harvard gates. I deduced almost immediately that the postcard image was taken from atop the Abbot building, a flatiron-type structure located at 5 JFK Street. Given my longstanding inability to let sleeping dogs lie, I wandered into the Curious George shop to ask the employee if she knew who had access to the roof. Of course they didn’t. I found the entrance on the side nearby and wandered up the stairs (the lift was broken, which was fine since it did not look like anybody used it anyway). The window with the “Dewey, Cheatham, and Howe” (get it?) decal on the third floor would have been a great spot to recreate the superior angle on the Square, but of course Car Talk staff office had nobody home when I knocked on the door.

I wandered up to the fourth floor, where I found a very intimate Dentist’s office (the office was intimate, not the dentist… I never met them so the jury is out on the latter). I spoke with the two receptionists, including one girl with a thick Boston accent who told me I could, in spite of hand-written signs that said otherwise, could go out on the lower level of the roof. Every moment I spent outside, though, I felt like someone on a different floor or in a neighboring building would see me and call the cops. The level they had access to was a flight below the main roof and on the opposite side of the building from Harvard Square. I walked over to the ledge, leaned around, and snapped this photo (right) around the side aiming toward Lehman Hall. It wasn’t great, but it was the best I could do in the circumstances. The entrance to the top roof was padlocked.

Completely Insane Post-Script

As I mentioned in Part I, my parents came up to meet me, my cousin, and her husband on Saturday. I told my father, who worked for FEMA through the early 1980s, about my visit to the McCormick building. He told me he used to work there. I didn’t believe him, since the GSA and EPA guys told me that FEMA had been located at 99 High Street since the 1980s. ‘No,’ he said, ‘FEMA’s offices were in the McCormick Building when I worked there. They moved to 99 High Street after I left.’ What made this seem crazy was that I have clear memories of going downtown with my mom to visit my dad in his office when I was 2 or 3 years old. This means that I had been in the building before, about thirty years earlier. The only part I can still remember was the cluttered FEMA office (FEMA? Disorganized? Unbelievable, I know), but apparently the building had not changed a whole lot since then. Discovering this all, post-facto, from a short conversation with my father blew my mind.

Hope you have enjoyed reading this! Tune in on Friday for the third part of this AAG/April recap with a bonus re-Photography excursion in the Sunshine State.

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Dr. Michael Bishop on GWAR and Richmond, VA

I have so much to update on about my time across the pond (too much, actually), but I need to take care of all kinds of housekeeping before I do. So for now, here’s this.

This came across my feed yesterday, and a friend sent it along today, so I figured I would pass it forward. Some would be shocked that a member of GWAR is an established academic with a PhD in Music, but I would actually be more shocked if nobody in GWAR had a PhD. They’ve always seemed weirdly high-concept to me, and this talk from their longtime bassist and vocalist (out of costume) confirms how they’re as important to their hometown of Richmond, VA as they are to heavy metal, theatrics, and the fake blood industry.

In Search of Frank Hatch (Part One)

If you’ve visited this site before, I owe you an apology. If this is your first time here, welcome to my Geography research and musical fun-times yet completely professional website that I update all the time!! If you’ve been to this site before, I know I have no good excuse to not have updated this page in over six weeks. Honestly, the first few weeks of this semester have been characteristically busy, and I haven’t had enough time to write and report on what I’ve been up to lately to a standard which I’m comfortable putting out there. If this is your first time here… forget everything you’ve just read…and.. that you.. know about Geography! Because I’m about to blow your mind? (That works). Visited before? I also despise over-sharing, which may be helpful if you’re preoccupied with validation on social media, but it can be harmful on Planet Academia. First time here? Then let me tell you a little bit about what I’ve been up to since my last transmission.

Due in large part to the gracious support of the McCroskey Fund, I took a hybrid conference/research trip (not so sure if I’d do that again; it’s so difficult to make enough time for both when you’re only in a city for less than a week) to Boston. I’ve always loved Boston, and because I was born there, it’s always felt like home to me. This, among other reasons, was why it was so exciting and rewarding to peel back all sorts of layers to the Boston that I never knew, nor did my family before we left 28 years ago. Honestly, I don’t have deep roots in the city; my parents both grew up in Connecticut and my father just happened to ride out the “Massachusetts miracle” working for FEMA more than two decades prior to them accruing wide-scale public hatred (he got out years ago, and was fairly relieved that he did). Whenever I’m riding the Green Line T, I still think about my Dad’s stories of riding to work in the dead of summer before any of those cars were air-conditioned. Perhaps even more remarkable, at least according to him, you could – get this – decide at a moment’s notice to stop by Fenway Park on the way home from work and enjoy a game from the cheap bleacher seats. These were not these Red Sox you’re thinking of who you need to arrange months in advance a mortgage your home to see, person reading in 2015; these were those Red Sox – the lovable losers who barely tasted greatness before Mookie Wilson, Rick Aguilera, and an upstanding young man named Darryl Strawberry swiped it from their mouths in ’86.

Anyway, whether or not you’re a first-time visitor or returner, you probably didn’t come here to read my family history or rants about baseball, as much fun as I have digging into either from time to time. I was in Boston for two purposes. One was to attend the Harvard Hearing Landscape Critically conference. A joint cross-pond production between our most prestigious university and the Brits’ most prestigious (Oxford) that focuses on the interaction between music, sound, and the ether which surrounds us, for lack of a better term. While I don’t have nearly enough of a music theory background to claim I could incorporate quite every paper presented there into my research, I did find numerous relevant overlaps (one, in particular, circulating the Baudelarian conceit of Flânerie and Maurice Ravel’s urbanized works). In fact, the scholars I met there, while few were geographers per se, had a lot to contribute to the realms of Urban Geography and theory, even if they do not consider what they do geography. More on that sometime soon.

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Monocle and top hat not pictured. (Apologies to my Harvard friends).

While I was attending sessions and meeting interesting theoreticians from all over the world (well, North America, Europe, South Africa, and Oceania, at least), I was doing double-duty as an researcher for the University of Tennessee. As some of you may recall, I presented a paper on the process of place-memorialization through song at last year’s AAG meeting (see my Work page). It focused mainly on the works of Francis Whiting “Frank” Hatch, Sr, a classic Bostonian who made his living working for a major advertising company after graduating from Harvard in 1919 while writing poems, songs, and plays on the side. I approached the trip with relatively few leads, but those I did have, like Duane Lucia at the West End Museum and author Dave Kruh, were incredibly helpful and led me in several potentially fascinating directions. On Friday the 16th, I paid a visit to the Harvard Archive, where Hatch’s student and alumni files are kept. I’m never going to sleep on visiting any University’s archives again. What a treasure trove, particularly for my research. Special thanks to the enthusiastic and helpful staff there! I would love to be able to share some of the pictures I took, but unfortunately, that will have to wait.

One of the places that Hatch worked tirelessly (and ultimately unsuccessfully) to save was the Old Howard Athenaeum. David Kruh very helpfully led me to a spot that words cannot even quite explain, so I’ll give pictures some breathing room to attempt it.

The Old Howard Fire, 1961. (bambinomusical.com)

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That (approximate) site, January 2015. Photo by Tyler.

Pretty harrowing what a difference five decades can make, right? Actually, massive-scale urban redevelopment that flattened a quarter of the city by the end of the 60’s certainly helped. It took me a while to find it under a thin layer of snow, but the site where the Howard once stood exists as a faint memory in the form of a plaque on a bench on that smoking grotto next to that guard house.

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“On this site once stood the stage of the Howard Athenaeum, known the world over as The Old Howard. Boston’s home of burlesque. Always something doing between 9 A.M. to 11 P.M.”

The rest, they say, is silence. All that’s left of Scollay Square is a patronizing road marker sitting across the street from a Starbucks next to the Government center construction pit. If there’s a better example of a city-as-(constantly injured) living organism than Boston, I would love to see it.

I raced to get here before the sun was completely down. A city's position within its time zone can pose a bigger challenge to visual methods than any weather.

I raced to get here before the sun was completely down. A city’s position within its time zone can pose a bigger challenge to visual methods than any weather.

I’d love to write some more about Scollay Square and the relics I found (or the remaining lack thereof), but it’s late and I need to continue a very busy week tomorrow. I’ll leave you all with a (marginally successful) attempt at re-photography, because what trip of mine would be complete without it? I was strolling around Government Center (which the city’s developers built on top of what used to be Scollay Square in the 1960s) and I spotted a vaguely familiar angle on the (if I may offer a popular opinion, hideous) City Hall building. I pulled out my phone and snapped this picture:

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… because I thought it was roughly where this brutality took place:

(via busingcrisissouthboston.wordpress.com)

From what I can gather at this point, I may have been facing the wrong way and a few hundred feet too far South, but I got the general vicinity and neo-brutalist aesthetic part correct. Also, if you’re unfamiliar with the Boston busing crisis of the mid-1970s, particularly any of you with interest in what’s happened in Ferguson, Staten Island, etc., take a few minutes, click that link above this photo, and please read up on it.

No matter how many imperfections my research exposes and alters my reality of the place, Boston is a fascinating city, and it will never not feel slightly like home.

I’ll speak to you all soon. For those of you who’ve been here before, I hope you keep coming back. For those whose first time it was on here, I hope I’ve interested  you enough for you to make it a habit. Thanks for reading, all of you.

Downtown crossing at sunset. Photo by Tyler.

Downtown crossing at sunset. Photo by Tyler.

Live from Athens, GA (#SEDAAG2014)

Hey, everybody. I’m taking a few minutes away from the proceedings at SEDAAG (that’s the SouthEastern Division of the Association of American Geographers for anyone keeping track) to give a quick update. If you’re at the conference or happen to be in the neighborhood of the UGA campus, I’ll be presenting my preliminary research at a session I’ll also be chairing at 8:20 am. It will be held in the Georgia Conference Center room TU. My presentation will be entitled “Frank Hatch and Memorialization of Pre-war Boston through Song.” It’s pretty straightforward, explaining how music is used to drive romantic narratives of a city’s “olden days” landscape.

The conference has been great so far; it has been my first SEDAAG conference, so it’s neat to see how the regional conferences operate in light of AAG. Prior to this, I had presented at both CGS (California) and APCG (Pacific Coast), but I had no real frame of reference back then. I’ve had the chance to watch great research presentations about everything from GISc students pushing for the creation of bike lanes in central Georgia to “The Walking Dead” to the governmental intervention of domestic work of African-American women in the South in the 1920s and on and on.

The only disappointing part of the trip so far (other than the most brutal near-freezing rain we drove through all of yesterday to get here) has been that I’ve been hanging out at Wuxtry Records for over an hour and Peter Buck hasn’t asked me to start a band! You lied to me, Athens mythology!

On a serious note, if you ARE in Athens, do stop by the Special Collections Library on campus in case you’ve ever wanted to see the closest thing to an R.E.M./Pylon/B-52’s/Oh-OK museum you’ll find. They have Bill Berry’s “Chronic Town”-era drum kit, and a really fancy clear bass that Mike Mills used to play, not to mention all sorts of ephemera from the time before they were one of the biggest bands in the world.

That’s all for now. I hope everyone is having an excellent November. The end of the semester (and arrival of more frequent/substantive updates) is nigh.