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.

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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:

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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.

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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. 

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Repeat Photography in New Orleans (AAG 2018 Recap, Part II)

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Dr. Yolonda Youngs presenting in “A Second Look: Exploring Repeat Photography Across the American Landscape” on Friday 4/13/18. Photo by the author.

Last week, I found may way to an excellent session on Repeat Photography-as-Geographic Method organized by Dr. Bill Wyckoff from Montana State University. It inspired me to adopt the term “repeat photography” over “re-photography,” mostly because the former has seen an increase of use in academic texts, but also because it simply sounds better. Hyphenated words create all sorts of awkward syntax situations. Hopefully nobody minds if I keep the “Re-Photography” category for now (I don’t know how easy it would be to go back through and change all of my prior entries).

One post here from 2014 described talking my way up onto a balcony at the corner of Royal St. and St. Ann in the French Quarter to recreate one of my favorite postcards from the Ben Irving collection (if you don’t know who that is, stop, read this, then come back here. I’ll wait). I revisited the site several times on this trip, only once on purpose (a dinner with the Music Geography group on Tuesday night). The Pere Antoine restaurant had not changed at all, but the intersection had a giant divot. One of the structures diagonally across Royal Street had been torn out, apparently. I snapped a photo of the lot, and we moved on.

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After getting back to Knoxville, I did some light research. Apparently, the building in question wasn’t torn out; it collapsed from years of neglect a few months after I took that picture. Though the French Quarter is one of the most photographed neighborhoods in North America, this building came off as fairly unremarkable. I doubt I would have thought much about it had it not been for its position within that postcard’s frame. I’m sure some photographs of it exist that were taken after mine (July 2014), but there’s no way to know for sure, outside of scoping Google Street View:

Oh, what’s that? Google sent their gaudy Streetview mobile through the Quarter in January 2014 (when the yellow house was still up) and then again in January 2017 (after it had collapsed)?

Looks like I have the last photo taken of that house EVER. If you see this and have a more recent photo, please comment or email it to me. I will be too ecstatic that people are actually reading this blog to feel bad about being proven wrong.

I didn’t speak with the Pere Antoine management and ask whether anyone was still there from 2014, but turnover in the restaurant industry being what it is, I would have been surprised. By the way, this mini-paragraph is foreshadowing.

Let’s roll the tape. Today’s entry will be divided into two distinct subsets of repeat photography: image recreation (the Ben Irving postcards) and personal photo recreation (re-staging my own photos from my first trip to New Orleans in April 1998). On this trip, my personal photo recreation were much more successful, for a variety of reasons that mostly narrow down to timing, luck, and people not wanting a stranger to go onto their (Federally owned) roof.


THE POSTCARDS

The Roosevelt Hotel (1937 / 2018)

This one was hardly a success story. The artistic interpretations on the postcards take some liberties in “inventing” impossible perspectives on these buildings. Baronne Street, no longer the home to the wide-berth streetcar lines from 1937, is almost uncomfortably narrow, at least for my purposes. I took my picture (right) of the Roosevelt, standing in front of Cajun Mike’s Pub n’ Grub, which sits next door to the incredible Crescent City Books, which opened in 1992.

The following message appears on the postcard (February 1937):

This picture shows the Roosevelt Hotel, the largest and finest hotel in the South. It has been designed to meet the demand for the highest type of hotel service and accommodations. The Roosevelt, and the Bienville Hotel — facing Lee Circle, (under Roosevelt management) — together provide more than 1200 strictly first class rooms, each with a bath. The First Hotel in the South with more than a hundred Air Conditioned Guest Rooms. Come to the Roosevelt.

As with previous hotel postcards I’ve shared, air conditioning was a major selling luxurious selling point at that time. Being a Waldorf Astoria hotel, restored to its former glory in 2009, didn’t remove it from the luxury conversation either. I felt out of place breathing the air in that concourse. I paused to check out the Sazerac Lounge on my walk through to the other side, where I took these pictures:

 

Lafayette Square (1941 / 2018)

The souvenir packet contained a handful of beautiful vistas of City Park and Metairie Cemetery, neither of which I found a window of time to explore on this trip. I would have loved to, in either case. I’ve never been to City Park, and I haven’t been to Metairie Cemetery since 2008. OH DRAG ANOTHER EXCUSE TO GO BACK TO NEW ORLEANS I WAS HOPING I WOULDN’T WIND UP WITH ANY OF THOSE.

Time to complete this section with my only real success of the week:

CANAL STREET AND RAMPART AT NIGHT, 1937/2018

If I had to make a list of my ten favorite cards in the Ben Irving collection, this one would most certainly be on it. The message on the back runs provides a 5-cent history of Canal Street, and makes you dig for the rest:

Canal Street, so named because in the olden days a big drainage Canal ran down its center, recently rebuilt at a cost of $3,500,000 [$51,078,304 in 2018 by USDL inflation metrics], is 170 feet wide, one of the widest central business thoroughfares in the world, has sidewalks of terrazzo marble and neutral grounds. It marks the upper limits of the old city.

This street scene fascinates me for a few reasons. First, the city apparently altered or tore out that traffic island in the center of the postcard (or just played a trick of perspective and that “island” is where those light poles are standing to the right of my photo). Second, it seems presumptuous of the postcard artist to include those puffy clouds in the background, considering how much light pollution emanates from Canal Street anytime that the sky is as dark as it appears there. That being said, the buildings were much shorter back then. Third, while the Saenger Theater (on the respective left sides) is still operating in its full glory the Loew’s theater, shown on the right side of the 1937 postcard in its full glory, currently sits in state, having closed due to fire code violations(?) in 2007. Learning from that Cinema Treasures page that the owners are planning to tear it down and build a hotel on the site (can never have too many of those) makes me want to get on a plane back and break into it while I still can. The whole building is boarded up, even the street-level businesses. I guess the property is still generating some revenue with those two billboards:

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The State Palace Theater, April 2018. Photo by the author.


RECREATING MY 1998 PHOTOS

As I’ve mentioned, my first trip to New Orleans took place over the French Quarter Festival almost exactly two decades ago. My incredibly talented sister played in the Connecticut Youth Jazz Workshop, whose director managed to book various combos on stages throughout the French Quarter over that week. I was a Freshman in high school and taking a crack at amateur filmmaking and photography. I have no idea if I’ll ever digitize the videos I filmed of the shows, but the band(s) performed on the Natchez Steamboat, the Marriott Hotel, and once the Festival kicked off, the Bourbon Street Stage (with a looming storm overhead). I also filmed the Second Line parade that opened the Festival that Thursday*. It’s remarkable that the Youth Jazz workshop got booked, considering how fast the FQF was growing and the height it’s grown to, based on what I saw the other week.

This year, I was chairing a paper session during the opening day parade (Thursday at 10 AM), so I couldn’t retrace my 20-year-old steps and film it. It would have been fun to find my 1998 vantage point and compose some video that juxtaposed the two, especially if I had landed any footage of Mitch Landrieu (I have a few seconds of Marc Morial walking through the frame in 1998). The last time I was in the same room with Landrieu (at the US Convention of Mayors in 2010; more on that soon), he shook all of our hands and introduced himself as Mitch. Class. Act. Also, he delivered one of the greatest speeches of the twenty-first century last year.

Coincidentally, the NOLA Virgin Megastore opened that week in a style best described as “Richard Branson.” My father and I went down to 620 Decatur, where a large crowd had gathered that included Branson, some city authorities, and a performance by Aaron Neville. At the time, his only song that I knew was “Everybody Plays the Fool.” Either way, I loved the spectacle, and I bought my first Pavement CD that day (Brighten the Corners), along with Beck’s Odelay and the Richard D. James Album by Aphex Twin. I still listen to all three regularly, and I’ve written extensively about the former’s influence on my love of music and approaches to teaching musical geography. I still have a poster of a young B.B. King they gave out as souvenirs that day. I wonder why they put King on there rather than an artist properly from New Orleans, but it looked cool and still does. The poster and the CDs have both outlived the store itself^, which shuttered around the time of Katrina and became one of the first casualties in a wave that claimed all of Branson’s stores in 2007.

I enjoyed revisiting some of the pictures I took on that trip, considering how many tangential elements of the French Quarter’s landscape had changed since then. I took photos of my pictures for reference (scanned in here for consistency) and stopped by a few locations before AAG kicked into high gear. Here are some of the results.

The LaBranche House (700 Royal St.)

In my 1998 photo album, I labeled this building as “highly photographed building in the French Quarter,” forgetting what it was called. The LaBranche House has gone through a few iterations, including the Royal Cafe (the possible setting of one of my favorite American Music Club songs) and all within the vice grip of the tourist gaze. Today, the street level contains the Forever New Orleans gift shop, home to the dumbest catalog of tacky souvenirs I’ve ever laid eyes on and probably the most profitable business to ever occupy that space.

The 400 Block of Royal Street, Looking East

As much as Google Streetview has revolutionized the way we think about cartography, place, and space, I resent it for making this whole process a bit too easy. In this situation, I stopped myself dead in my tracks and just saw this row of buildings, proud of myself for not prowling through Street View images to line this up ahead of time. I guess the NOPD was into queuing up their squad cars on the sidewalk by the station. I’m assuming that’s what the large building out of the frame(s) to the right was, since it’s unmarked on Google Maps and I can’t find a sign anywhere.

Court of the Two Sisters Restaurant, Exterior (613 Royal St.)

From what I remember, my family and a few others made reservations for one nice dinner while we were in New Orleans that week. I may have been turned away for wearing shorts and had to run back to the Sheraton to change before being allowed to sit down. I also think that at one point during our meal, my mom asked our server to bring her meal back to the kitchen, and he reacted as if he had been shot. We never were too comfortable in higher-class dining. At any rate, I took this first photo (above, left) before we walked into the restaurant. Portions of two heads are visible in the frame, and I can’t remember who they were. The only obvious difference here is that the building next door has been repainted yellow from red. The restaurant’s facade, even the positions of its green shutters (coincidence, I’m sure), have not changed in twenty years.

Court of the Two Sisters Restaurant, Interior (613 Royal St.)

I regret not taking more time to snap this one (on the right), but I didn’t feel completely welcome back there. The restaurant had just reopened for dinner service (around 4:30) and I was the first customer in there, clearly not intent on buying anything. I walked back, saw the fountain, pulled out my phone and snapped the picture. In the 1998 photo (left), I appear to have been standing right behind the fountain. I could probably also blame this discrepancy on that table right in front of me (right).

My favorite element of this photo, as beautiful as that courtyard has always been, was that cook walking through with the dolly. After I snapped the photo on the right last week, I walked out and introduced myself to the hostess. She didn’t seem terribly interested in what I was doing, but she asked a couple of older employees if anyone who worked at the restaurant in 1998 was still there. After a couple of servers and kitchen staff relayed the message, “Mr. Thomas” emerged from the courtyard. According to the hostess, Mr. Thomas had been there for 35 years, though he wouldn’t corroborate that exact number when he arrived. I showed him the original photo and asked him if he remembered who that man with the dolly was.

“Yeah, I remember him. He was a cook who used to work for us.”
“He’s not still here, is he?”
“Nope”
“Um, do you remember what his name was?”
“Nope,” said Mr. Thomas as he drifted back toward the kitchen.

And that was that. Moving on…

The Napoleon House (500 Chartres St.)

All I know about this house was that it was built for Napoleon following his (first? second?) exile, but he never lived there. Still, it has that mystique about it. The sign hanging above my vantage point in 1998 was no longer there, so I had trouble framing this. I recognize that this is a strange area in which to be a perfectionist.

 Jackson Square (Facing Chartres St.)

I remember taking this picture during a stop on a walking tour that brought us through Jackson Square and at Cafe du Monde, on the Square’s Southeast corner. I also took a good photo of the Andrew Jackson statue nearby that my friend Blake ruined/enhanced by running into the frame. The other week, while my friends and I were passing through, I noticed the same rounded balcony (the French Quarter makes this really easy) and snapped the photo on the right. It wasn’t intentional, but I did capture a gentleman who we lovingly called “Steampunk Santa” walking through and eating frozen yogurt. Though the resident band wasn’t set up in that exact spot (as amazing as that would have been), there was still plenty of action less than 10 meters away:

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Old man party time with a brass band in Jackson Square, April 2018. Photo by the author.

That’s all I’ve got. I love New Orleans so much. I wish I had more in the tank to write about, but it’s late, it’s the last week of classes, and I’ve already put you all through enough. Don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have any questions about these photos or the stories that accompany them, or you have your own photo blog/dump from AAG this year. Have any of you caught yourself doing some repeat photography of your own? I think this is proof enough of how addictive it is. Since the AAG is now dedicating paper sessions to it, I have some hope that I’ll roll all of this insanity into something bigger.

Part III (yes, really) of my AAG 2018 retrospective coming on Friday. Don’t worry, though; I promise that it’s nothing like these first two parts.

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A lagniappe: me waiting for a streetcar up Canal in December 2007. Hopefully I’ll recreate this one some day (this may have been somewhere in Mid-City). Photo by Ted Hornick.

*Whether the term “Second Line” was thrown around so much by tourists before Katrina is questionable. I also remember hearing a constant churn of Zydeco music emanating from gift shops along Decatur Street, which I cannot say is still the case twenty years on.

^ I can only assume. I still have the CD of Brighten the Corners, but the other two fell to one of a handful of downsizing rampages over the years.