#AAG2017 Recap Part III: A Visit to Mirror Lake (St. Pete, FL)

As the AAG meeting was winding down, I snuck out of Boston a night early to fly to Tampa. Two of my good friends from Knoxville were back in the States (he and his Scottish wife live in the UK now; long story) to officially tie the knot. The American half’s folks retired to Western Florida some years ago, and they wanted to give their son a proper party in the US while they had the opportunity. So, a few of us converged on St. Petersburg for a couple of days. Though much of our trip was taken up by the Sunday wedding (my friend Shane, who has appeared on this blog multiple times, did a great job officiating it), we managed to fit in several other activities. We ate lunch at Taco Bus, spent some time at the beach, went to the Dali museum and caught a great Frida Kahlo exhibit, checked out Banana’s Records, and last but certainly not least, tracked down the site of another Ben Irving Postcard.

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Ben mailed this one from St. Petersburg on February 10, 1939. He had spent so much time in Florida over that decade, it would be fairly safe to assume that he’d decided by this point to retire down there eventually (as he did). He didn’t indicate whether he stayed in the Suwannee Hotel, pictured there, directly across Mirror Lake from the artist’s vantage point.

Considering how the hotel was a prominent selling point for the city in D. P. Davis-development-era postcards, I had a surprising amount of difficulty finding anything about the building other than cursory information. A few sources indicated that the hotel was closed but the building had been converted into “offices for Pinellas County,” which was not all that helpful in figuring out the coordinates. The postcard also didn’t have the address or phone number anywhere on it. The caption on the back just said it was “a fireproof building with 205 modernly-equipped, well-ventilated, steamheated guest rooms. Located in the center of everything of interest” and implored people to write the Managing Director John N. Brown for rates. At the time, the postmaster in St. Petersburg would know exactly where a landmark like a hotel with over two hundred rooms was, so an address was not really necessary for someone to write them. I only had the browser on my phone available at the time, so advanced newspaper searches were out of the question. Thankfully, the building’s location near Mirror Lake helped me to sort it out using Google Maps, since it’s highly unlikely that the city took such drastic measures during redevelopment that they needed to move a lake.

I sorted through potential locations, looked at buildings in street view, and settled on a location at the corner of 1st Avenue and 5th Street on the southeastern corner of Mirror Lake.

Until I tried to investigate the hotel building, I had completely forgotten that St. Pete and Tampa are in two different counties, which I suppose makes sense if they are separated by a big body of water, but creates an administrative nightmare for getting people and capital between the two cities. In the sports geography case, the Lightning and Buccaneers both play in Hillsborough County (Tampa proper) while the Rays play in Pinellas County (St. Pete). It seems hard enough to get from one city to the other using public transit, so I don’t want to imagine what it was like for the counties to battle over the Tampa Bay sports franchises.

Anyway, back to the vantage point search. In an attempt to recreate the aesthetic of the postcard image, I convinced my companions to visit the site as the sun was setting. We drove over to Mirror Lake right around 7:00 pm, as the sun was setting, and it was finally no longer too hot to comfortably walk around. In fact, the temperate was perfect and the Mirror Lake ring road felt like heaven as the Spanish Moss floated in the breeze. I knew if we let the sun get too low that my phone’s camera (not too advanced to begin with) would have trouble adjusting for the dusk light levels.

We parked the car next to a gorgeous church across the lake from where the Suwannee Hotel’s apparent address was.

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I was considering including this as a ‘bonus’ item to my Boston re-photography entry, but once I started writing what you’re about to read below, I decided to give Mirror Lake its own entry.

One thought that occurred to me is how Florida, while already carrying the title of ‘America’s Weirdest State,’ is exceedingly difficult to parse geographically. This may actually have something to do with how weird the state is. Most people know the mantra about how Florida is culturally split between a ‘southern’ North and a ‘northern’ South, but once you actually observe and take stock of the state’s cities, that dichotomy is complicated. For example, three of the biggest cities in the state (two of which are twin cities…kind of) are laid out across the nebulous transition zone. Orlando, St. Petersburg, and Tampa are all crossroads between South and North Florida. Orlando is the home to University of Central Florida (among many other colleges), where Tampa Bay, not much farther South than Orlando, is the home to the University of South Florida. I’ve never heard anybody describe Tampa Bay as “southern Florida,” considering how much territory is located beneath it. Granted, the Everglades eat up a lot of the land west of Miami, but there are still a large handful of prominent cities strewn across the marshy Southwest coast, like Sarasota and Naples. Only four proper cities (Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Daytona, and Jacksonville) fall clearly into those cultural categories, two of each on each side of this highly arbitrary and slowly unraveling (in my mind, at least, as I’m typing this out) division.

I’ve gone on record here claiming that Gainesville is my favorite city in Florida, but it’s by no means a “major” city, considering it owes its existence to a massive land grant and perpetually growing state University. I know popular culture has tried to ensconce Gainesville within the realm of ‘southern’ Northern Florida, between a CMT reality show and generations of ‘southern fried’ punk bands, but it’s still a college town full of Caribbean influence and enough Jewish students to merit knishes on the menu at hole-in-the-wall diners.  I’ve only been to Tallahassee twice, and I haven’t seen any knishes for sale anywhere, but the moment I expand this conversation into the panhandle is the moment I expand the geographic discussion by about 4 paragraphs. I don’t want to disparage Pensacola, though, since SEDAAG 2015 was enjoyable, I have some good friends there, and it’s only 45 minutes from Mobile.

Anyway, this is all to say that, yes Florida is weird, but to the cultural geographer, weird is almost always good. As long as I live, seeing Spanish Moss swinging in the breeze will always fill me with joy. It’s so serene, it makes it easy to forget how invasive and harmful the species is. Not that I’m any ecological expert, either.

 

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Attempts at (Re)photography in Florida

A big thank you to all of the Geographers and supporters thereof who converged on the Tampa Convention Center and Marriott for AAG last week, and a big apology in advance to all the ones who I met that won’t hear from me for a little while as I’m busy catching up on work and otherwise getting my life back in order. I had grand ambitions to do some work while in Tampa, but if you’re reading this you can probably take a wild guess as to how that turned out. As anyone who’s been to a conference like it knows, everyone’s too busy being constantly distracted in order to really accomplish anything other than make new connections and pray they remember you.

That being said, I was excited to see the book with a chapter I contributed displayed prominently at the Ashgate table in the exhibitors’ hall in such good company.
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I would love to give Tampa proper some attention here*, but in the interest of time, I’ll skip right to the point. A few months ago, I posted cryptically about some antique postcards that came into my possession. Where the postcards are from will hopefully one day be under an organized-enough umbrella to present here, but for now, let’s have a quick chat about (re)photography.

The term “rephotography” (alternate “re-photography” or “(re)photography”) didn’t originate in Jason Kalin’s 2013 article (found here), but he did bring the scope of its uses to my attention last year. Considering how easy the internet has made it, our culture can barely digest content without (re)contextualization. This is both a good and a bad thing, but acting on what I hope is a good manifestation of it, I decided to set out on foot from the Tampa Convention Center to try to recreate one of my the postcards myself. The over-friendly hotel concierge** told me the Davis Islands were located a walking distance from the downtown area, though strategically disconnected from the Convention Center area proper. I suppose they didn’t want legions of drunken Lightning fans stumbling over from the Forum into their bars (which are located way too deep into the island for the casual ambler).

Anyway, here is the result of my efforts:

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Not perfect, but I would have needed to defy death and stand in the middle of Bayshore Boulevard in order to get a more accurate recreation of the original artist’s perspective. Also, the bridge from Hyde Park over to Davis Islands has been remodeled, and the Davis Island residential areas of 2014 are a far cry from that of the pre-War era. Obviously, the hospital and adjacent office buildings were not there when D.P. Davis*** imagined this crazy project before building it and disappearing.

From what I can tell, the fencing by the harbor has largely retained its character, and the vegetation nearby in the foreground is even quite similar to the classic depiction. The bright yellow building depicted on the postcard can be seen at a distance to the right of the hospital today, which helps highlight how the postcard image (obviously painted to sell the city and the Davis development) is based on an off-scale interpretation. I would need to dig deeper and find archival photographs of Davis Islands in order to determine what exactly was misrepresented, and thanks largely to the conference that brought me to Tampa backing up my workload, I have no time right now. At least there’s always Google, right?


LINER NOTES (SPECIAL “IF” EDITION)

* If you’re in Tampa, though, and looking for great places to hang out, look no further than New World Brewery (Ybor City), The HUB (Downtown and if you’re okay with smoke), and the Independent (Seminole Heights, next to the wonderful money-pit Microgroove record shop). Full disclosure, we didn’t make it into the Independent since our ride downtown was leaving, but you could just tell it was awesome.

** If you’re wondering if that’s a reference, the answer is yes.

*** If you want to read one of the most fascinating accounts I’ve found about the mysterious Florida land developer, check out this history thesis by Rodney Kite-Powell. It helps explain his legacy and bizarre disappearance.

Returning to Florida Next Week

I'm not actually staying in this hotel. But I may need to go check it out.

I’m not actually staying in this hotel.  I may need to go check it out, though.

It’s hard to believe that the AAG Conference is almost already here. I’m looking forward to seeing some old friends and making new ones over a backdrop of near-constant happy hours and pontificating.

I’m working on posting some background here about the research I will be presenting in Tampa next week. In case I’m not able to (and you’re in the Tampa Bay area), here’s where you can see me. Copied directly from the AAG Program.

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Geographies of Media 3: Music Geography (Sponsored by Cultural Geography Specialty Group, Communication Geography Specialty Group)
Room: Meeting Room 2, Marriott, Second Floor (Paper Session)
ORGANIZER(S): John Finn, Christopher Newport University; Joseph Palis, North Carolina State University
CHAIR(S): Tyler Sonnichsen, University of Tennessee

2:40 Tyler Sonnichsen*, University of Tennessee,
‘The Boston I Knew is Lying on the Ground’: Reinterpreting Boston Landscapes Through Song.
3:00 Rex Rowley*, Illinois State University,
Evoking Las Vegas Place Particularity and Typicality through Popular Music.
3:20 Ola Johansson*, University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown,
Lost in Translation? The Role of Place in Swedish and American Music Media.
3:40 Deborah J. Thompson, Ph.D.*, Berea College,
Performing Gender in Eastern Kentucky’s Old Time Music Community. .