Back to the Future Day, 2015

In the decades of my life which I’ve spent (as millions have) in eager anticipation of this date, I never expected when it finally arrived to be in the middle of my third year of PhD study, preparing for my comprehensive exams, starting to turn the gears on a dissertation about the undercurrent between DC and Parisian punk, a series of personal pursuits and projects around Knoxville (where I never suspected I’d be living)… and working on co-editing a book about the Geography of Back to the Future. When my friends David, Teresa, and I started the early iteration of this project in 2012, we had grand ambitions to have it out by today, but life, the academic publishing vortex, school, and more life got in the way. However, I am pleased to report the project is still alive, and in the wake of a fantastic panel at AAG in Chicago earlier this year, we have a great, creative crew of writers assembled with contributions. I look forward to having more news to report in the spring. For now, I need to get back to reviewing, writing, planning, and a bunch of other things that aren’t quite as fun as discussing Hoverboards, flying cars, and Marty McFly (though I have written a chapter draft about his home town).

Happy Back to the Future Day, everyone. As much as the production team may have gotten wrong about 2015 (we still need roads), the Bobs probably never anticipated just how excited they would make us all to be here.

“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


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.


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:


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.


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…


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.

Listen to Tyler and Tree discuss ‘Save the Clocktower,’ Imagined Geographies on the Radio


As was mentioned on Monday, Teresa “Tree” Anderson-Sharma joined me and Bret on our radio show to talk about just what we mean when we say “imagined geographies” pertaining to Hill Valley, CA and explain more about our project. What’s remarkable was just how much geographic material on the Back to the Future trilogy we didn’t even have time to discuss. Here is the hour show for your listening pleasure. Forgive the freewheeling format; we included some Huey Lewis & the News, if it helps our cause.

More updates soon about the Los Angeles AAG Meeting and other work in the pipeline.

Announcing ‘SAVE THE CLOCKTOWER: The Imagined Geographies of Hill Valley, CA, 1885 – 2015’

“History is going to change.”

I remember watching Back to the Future once during my sophomore year of college. My friends and I got into a serious discussion of why Marty McFly would have totally hung out with us if he hadn’t been merely a culturally iconic character played onscreen by Canadian actor (and cultural icon himself) Michael J. Fox. Marty was the perfect 80’s comedy/adventure protagonist; he was respectable, respectful, witty, good on a skateboard, and blessed with self-control during an era of Reaganist excess. Given Marty’s kid-next-door appeal, he was still iconoclastic and curious enough to both front a “too loud for school” rock band named after a Ramones song and to form a close personal friendship with an eccentric elderly scientist obsessed with time travel.

I didn’t completely realize it as a teenager, but the Back to the Future trilogy was a worldwide phenomenon. As Fox mentioned in an interview on a documentary included with the trilogy’s DVD set re-release in 2004, who wouldn’t want to go back in time and be able to meet their parents when they were their own age? This trigger set off a cultural earthquake that is still shaking 28 years later, replete with active fan clubs, the now-universal equation of a horrible, cocaine-affiliated car with the supernatural idea of time travel, and new referential material appearing in various corners of the internet about the trilogy on a literally daily basis.

The trilogy’s depiction of Hill Valley, CA and the fictional town’s development over the course of the four distinct time periods in which the films take place (five, if you count an alternate, Philip K. Dick-level dystopian future represented in the dark second film), is strikingly similar to the appeals of Marty McFly and time travel itself. It represents an ideal landscape to act as canvas for these fantasies: a mid-size, functional California community with an oxymoronic name that carries the positivities, shortcomings, and synthetic realisms that formulate the prototypical Everytown, USA as far as the 80’s were concerned.

Via Map of Hill Valley, 1885 based on geographic (re)constructions of the third movie.

The geographic ramifications run deep. Tim Cresswell, the noted British spatial theorist, once wrote how “even a totally imaginary place has an imaginary form in order to make it place-like.” So has Hill Valley developed such a tangible reality over the past three decades. Everything established across the three films, animated series, video game spinoffs/mods, and assorted feature stories about these items flies off the tongue pretty easily: the clock tower, the Twin Pines Mall, Hill Valley High, Biff’s Pleasure Palace, and more. I started wondering about how geographers would treat this subject about six months ago, but I hesitated to publicly post anything on social media. This wasn’t because I was afraid anybody would steal my idea; I was afraid that it would look silly, or people would just miss the point.

In came my good friends and colleagues, Teresa “Tree” Anderson-Sharma and David “Inky” Schwartz. The subject of geographic publishing came up amid an afternoon in San Pedro, so I decided to spill this idea I’d had swimming around my brain for the last half of 2012. Surely enough, they loved the idea, and a coalition was immediately born. Today, we are proud to announce that we are officially working on a collection of peer-reviewed essays on the imagined geographies of Hill Valley, CA!

This collection will cover diverse topics including (but not limited to; the list keeps growing): emotional and gender-based geographies of “rhythmic ceremonial rituals” (dance), geopolitical conceptions of the story (Libyan nationals on US soil), the evolution of the subdivision (Lyon Estates), the international consumption of the trilogy (Fox once got called “Marty McFly” by a pack of monks in Bhutan), and the course of urban planning surrounding the town’s iconic clock tower.

And, here’s your CFP: If you are a geographer who loves Back to the Future and would like to get involved either in writing or editing/reviewing, please drop us a line. We would love to hear from you. The  provisional release date is (you guessed it) 2015, and we are excited to launch this proposal into the AAG meeting in Los Angeles and the CGS meeting in San Luis Obispo next month.

In the meantime, please follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and our website, where we’ll be posting more information as it becomes available. We’ll also be discussing this book today on The Casual Geographer at 3pm PT on KBeach or 88.1FM-HD3 if you’re in the Long Beach area. I’ll do my best to keep this site updated as well. I suppose being the lead editor entails some of that responsibility. We know that the publishing process takes a long time and hard work, but those challenges didn’t stop Dr. Emmett Brown from making his trauma-induced vision of the Flux Capacitor a reality, and it shouldn’t stop us, either. As the man always said, “If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.”