Lyrics, Letters and the Forgotten Lives of Ben Irving

New Picture

Click to watch at PechaKucha.org

Pecha Kucha Knoxville recently uploaded the PowerPoint and Audio from my November presentation about my great-grandfather. This was a 6 minute, 40 second truncation of archival work I’d been doing about over a thousand postcards he sent from the road in the 1930s and 40s. It is an ongoing project that has been as rewarding as it has been educational and surprising regarding both my family history and a different era in American cultural life.

Here is my respectful sales pitch: If you enjoy what you see above, let me know. I am always happy to bring this lecture (in any reasonable length) to present at your company, school, civic organization, for any interested parties. Feel free to contact me at sonicgeography [at] gmail. I presented an hour-long version of this talk, which included a handful of his original song lyrics, more news clippings, and personal history at the Kimball Farms Lecture series in Lenox, MA in November. I have an audio recording available for anybody interested in the extended version.

Anyway, I’ve hinted at this postcard collection before, but until now I haven’t been completely comfortable with sharing. But now that the cat’s out of the bag and I did this presentation for over a thousand people in Knoxville, I’ll be a bit more forthcoming with Ben Irving’s story.

I assume you’ll watch the video-slideshow at the link above (WordPress doesn’t allow embedding of iframe codes; apologies), but the long and short of it was that my great-grandfather, who went by his stage name Ben Irving in most of his professional life, was a prolific musician on the Hartford jazz circuit of the 1920s. When the Depression hit, he moved his young family (including my grandmother, then a toddler) to Brooklyn and hit the road as a sales representative. In his time, Irving got to see so much more of America than most anybody in his position, including parts of the country that were still mired in dark history and summarily unfriendly to Jews. Assuming that his wife and daughter would probably never see any of these places, he sent home multiple postcards from almost every city he visited.

IMG_0876

A few years ago, when I inherited the postcards, I began bringing selections with me whenever I traveled to particular cities in North America. I began to re-pose and re-create the shots, better terms as ‘rephotography’ (see Kalin 2013 for a great overview of this). I cataloged these attempts in a handful of entries (including in FloridaNew Orleans, Mobile, and Chattanooga) all of which are tagged with ‘Re-Photography’ and I included in my PechaKucha talk. I recently created a new tag (‘Ben Irving’) for the posts I make about my ongoing work focused on (or directly inspired by) my great-grandfather. Stay tuned for a pair of new entries that follow his postcards (including an overdue AAG 2017 retrospective), coming very soon.

 

Advertisements

Cheaper Cities Need the AAG Needs Cheaper Cities

For my non-AAG-attending readers here (and for any AAG folks who may have missed it), my colleague in the Cultural Geography Specialty Group, Emily Fekete, circulated a petition on Change.org in which her colleague Andy Shears articulated a tension that has existed among AAG members for some time. In simple terms, the conference has become way too expensive for many of its members. Here is the original petition.

I would like to continue this conversation, and make a few suggestions with my own reasoning for future conferences after Boston (2017). Regarding 2018, I initially heard Washington, DC (which made sense given AAG’s headquarters and the organizations propensity to “max out” its attendance when/where possible), but I’ve since discovered it’s going to be in New Orleans (a move in the right direction, which I’ll address later). That being said, here is my personal perspective on the issue. Feel free to use this as a case study in your own spiels about this subject.

San Francisco inspired such outbursts because it encapsulated everything that has been problematic with the AAG’s location and scheduling choices for the annual meeting for some time. While I understand that a large-scale conference during the heavy spring tourist season must require some maneuvering, putting thousands of graduate students in an exorbitantly expensive city for 4-5 days prior to when many graduate students get paid their monthly stipends is stressful. The AAG Annual Meeting is, for lack of a better term, a geographic mega-event that brings anywhere from 6,000 – 10,000 professionals, students, and their loved ones together for a week of networking and over-committing themselves. While tenured professors and professional veterans in fields like GIS and Urban Planning attend the meeting religiously, it seems like the AAG is overlooking its indispensability to graduate students like me. Getting to present your research to people from all over the world in your area of interest (as well as branching out and attending sessions outside your specific field) is paramount to beginning a career in Geography.

153

A bridge to the Davis Islands in Tampa, the morning after the 2014 conference ended.

From what I understand, the AAG considered the 2014 conference in Tampa a failure because only approximately 6,000 people attended…a measly 6,000 that allowed our sessions to end at reasonable times each evening in a fun and (relatively) accessible city that kept hotel prices affordable. As much as I love Chicago and San Francisco, Tampa was my favorite AAG meeting so far. Tampa’s relatively small (albeit growing) size made it easier to focus on the conference and partition my leisure activities. The Tampa convention center’s location (unlike that of Chicago or San Francisco) kept the AAG folks safe from the crush of morning commuters yet still adjacent to the nightlife (aided, I’ll admit, by the Tampa Bay Lightning home games scheduled that week at the St. Pete Times Forum). I understand that a lot of international geographers chose Tampa as “that one year” to skip, but a lot of geographers need to take occasional years off regardless. I knew a handful who chose to skip going to San Francisco this year, even. It wasn’t because of a misconception that people need a city with “caché” to entice them to bring their families on holiday and generate revenue. Tampa may not be the “sexiest” international city to geographers outside the US (though my TB friends would probably take exception to that), but here’s a crazy notion: we are geographers. Many of us wouldn’t be in this business if we didn’t enjoy digging up the gems that every city (yes, every city) has to offer. I could name at least 15 geographers off the top of my head who teach and work in tiny towns whose nightlife consists of the equivalent of less than one block of Ybor City.  Even coming out of Knoxville (which does have decent nightlife), I had a great time taking advantage of what Tampa had to offer, and so did many of my friends/colleagues. We also got to play Simpsons pinball and see The Dead Milkmen play, which were both awesome, but that’s neither here nor there.

As I eagerly await my reimbursement from my school for my registration fee ($155, fair for the professional Geography conference but still a hole in the wallet when you’re a grad student in 2016) and my hotel share (worth it for the proximity but still exorbitant even split among three other roommates), I’d like to put forth a few city suggestions for future AAG meetings and my reasoning for each. Shears’ petition already mentions a good handful, some of which I would enthusiastically support and others, while I’m skeptical about, I would still gladly attend:

Albuquerque, Atlanta, Baltimore, Buffalo, Charlotte, Cleveland, Dallas-Fort Worth, Denver, Houston, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Kansas City, Madison, Milwaukee, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Nashville, Oklahoma City, Orlando, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Rochester, Salt Lake City, St. Louis, Tampa and Winnipeg.

Such a great list! I’ve yet to go to an embarrassingly high percentage of those places. Taking numerous factors (city profile and sustainability, etc.) into consideration, here are a couple that I’d like to add.

1. DETROIT

00023c4e-9a10-446a-80d57506b88d4dd6

Fewer phrases bring more excitement and hope to my brain than “AAG Detroit.” This is not just because I’ve (1) never been there and (2) I may be crazy, but fewer cities in North America scream “convention” more than the Motor City. While it has been the butt of urban blight jokes for decades, it has everything: pop music history for the cultural geographers, the epicenter of the urban gardening movement, the historic epicenter of the American automotive industry for the economic and vroom-vroom (aka pure enthusiast) types, and it’s right across the line from Windsor, Ontario for the passport-holding types (which should be everybody). AAG was last held in Detroit in 1985, and 2,377 people attended, 43.7% of membership at the time. That percentage may seem paltry by today’s standards, but keep in mind that DC drew 2,707 people (47.4% of that year’s membership) the year prior, and in 1989 Baltimore would draw 3,115 (49.2%). Both DC and Baltimore were well into the “crack era” by the mid-to-late-1980’s, putting Detroit’s well-documented decline at the time into perspective. Whether the cities are “safe” in the public imaginary should be of little concern, particularly for those staying at the conference hotels. Considering how our conference this year was held in San Francisco’s notorious Tenderloin (where I spent all week with prostitutes and hustlers following me, both a part of city life but probably not what those attendees with their families in tow had in mind), perceptions of safety are highly overrated. Even downtown Los Angeles in 2013 (notably, a dip of over 1,300 registrants from New York in 2012) was beset with icons of urban blight that (given testimonies from Mike Davis and Edward Soja) were inevitable. Not to dwell on the negative aspects of any major urban area, Detroit would be amazing.
Suggested (only sort of joking) Guest Speaker: Andrew W.K.


 

2. COLUMBUS

columbus

My love of this city has been pretty well-documented (if not so much on this site…I honestly can’t remember). AAG has held their meeting here three times, the last of which was in 1965. 1,250 people  (1/3 of AAG’s Membership at the time) attended fifty years ago and saw a sleepy Columbus that would, about four decades later, blow up into what can barely be contained as the Midwest’s best secret. While The Ohio State University dominates the city’s core, the downtown area, the State capital, and other industries have expanded the city’s population and role in America’s core. It would be great for the AAG to set up in the city’s convention center and capture this zeitgeist. Not only would attendees be across the bridge (that brilliantly conceals a freeway, for the urban design types) from the Short North dining/going-out district, but they’re also walking distance from North Market, the Ohio Theater, and the Arena District (in case the Blue Jackets have a home-game-heavy week like the Bolts did in ’14). Columbus has crept into the top 15 largest U.S. cities (almost tied with San Francisco proper, believe it or not), so there is little question whether Columbus could handle a convention of AAG’s size. Also, we can eat all of Mikey’s Late-Night Pizza, Dirty Frank’s delicious (veggie and non) hot dogs, and Jeni’s insanely good ice cream.
Suggested (semi-joking) guest speaker: Urban Meyer.


 

3. NEW ORLEANS

NOLA_011741

New Orleans is a fantasti…. oh, yeah, nevermind! Rather than spell out all the reasons why bringing the meeting to NOLA in 2018 is terrific idea (AAG are way ahead of me), I’ll just reiterate here what I’ve said to countless people over the past 18 years since I first visited: it’s the coolest city in North America.
Suggested Guest Speaker (not at all joking): Marc Morial

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.
130

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:

DavidIslandsTampa_1938153

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.

2569
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. .

A Call for Papers, and Happy Thanksgiving

I apologize for the late notice on this, but in case you have not received this CFP from Johnny Finn yet, I’ve decided to post it here, and encourage you to send him an abstract by this weekend. Finn has established himself over the past decade as one of the top music geographers, and I’m sure there will be much more from/about him on my site in the future. At any rate, I’m looking forward to working with him at the AAG Conference in Tampa this coming April, where I’ll be presenting some of my research on music and urban landscapes of public memory.

CALL FOR PAPERS
Geographies of Sound & Music

Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting
2014 AAG Annual Meeting, Tampa, April 8-12, 2014

Sponsored by:
Communication Geography Specialty Group
Aether: The Journal of Media Geography

In recent years sound, rhythm, and music have commanded increasing attention from geographers. Geographical engagements with the aural have come in a variety of forms: from quantitative studies of music scenes to theoretical considerations of sound and music in non-representational theory; from research focusing on the role of music in constructing and maintaining regional identity to new methodological approaches and techniques for the sound world.

This session aims to gather researchers from a wide range of theoretical, practical, and topical areas to push the boundaries of geographical research that engages the spatialities of sound, rhythm, and music. Potential topics of interest include (but are in no way limited to):

  • Music and national/regional/local identity
  • Sound/music in creating filmic space
  • The political economic of the music industry
  • Sound and urban space
  • Aural methodologies
  • Mapping sound and music
  • GIS & music
  • Music & geographical pedagogy
  • Music & non-representational theory

If interested in participating in this session, please email Presenter Identification Number (PIN) and abstract to Johnny Finn (john.finn@cnu.edu) by Dec 1, 2013.

There you are. Good luck. And everyone, have a wonderful Thanksgiving, wherever you are.

In this case, I’m thankful for artchive.com.

Postcards from Tampa Bay, 1938 (Part One)

Last week was even more of a mess than the week prior to it. This week? Plenty to do, but I do have a few minutes to post a quick update on some recent activity over here.

(mush records)

First, for those who missed it, I recently contributed a column to ZME Music commemorating the tenth anniversary of the release of my favorite hip-hop album of all time, Aesop Rock’s Bazooka Tooth. Hip-hop had never cast such an anti-establishment love letter to any city as Ian Bavitz did to New York in a moment when that town desperately needed it. While what I wrote skewed heavier toward media studies and sociology than geography, there is plenty of place-based thought crammed into there. I hope you enjoy it and would love to hear your thoughts, especially if you haven’t endured the positive brain-numbing of this record yet.

Last weekend, I inherited a massive stash of postcards mailed to Brooklyn from around North America over the course of the Great Depression and the onset World War II. I am not adequately prepared to explain the significance and context of these cards here, but I am happy to provide a teaser.

In honor of the upcoming 2014 Association of American Geographers meeting in Tampa, Florida, here are a few wonderful postcards from the region in 1938, with brief descriptions. Taken as a whole, they represent a fine cross-section of the pre-Disney Florida tourism industry imagery. (h/t to Derek Alderman for this observation). All scans are mine.

St. Pete's Green BenchesMany American cities have unfortunately done away with benches like these for class and urban blight-related reasons, but the ones in St. Pete have gone through a bizarre history, now lending their heritage to the city’s finest craft brewery. Read more about the green benches here.

HotelDixie_Bradenton_1938

Until I saw this one, all I could really tell you about Bradenton was that it was the subject of a Hot Water Music song. When I saw this archival photo on the postcard, flanked by these cool 30s-Hollywood decorations on the side, I discovered Bradenton had quite the fancy landmark back in the day. The city tore the building down in 1974. You can read more about that here.

DavidIslandsTampa_1938About eight decades before Dubai had everyone in the developed world talking about man-made islands, the enigmatic D.P. Davis (one of the kings of the Florida land boom of the 1920s; read about him and the boom in this masters thesis here) pumped a bunch of mud onto a pair of small grassy atolls and created one of Tampa Bay’s first upper class residential communities. More background can be found here.

hotelfloridian_tampa_1938Of course what better place to stop than the Hotel Floridian? It has a fairly common story: built at the height of the Jazz Age in 1926, fallen into disrepair, and restored to a modicum of its glory, and available for those who can afford rooms today. The ribbon was actually re-cut last year, so looks like it was just in time for the hordes of Geographers who probably can’t afford to stay there but will definitely pass through and take a look.

There’s more where this came from, so don’t worry. Here’s a quote from John Blacking (and a music video by a Tampa band that pretty much proves his point) to tide you all over until next time:

The value of music is, I believe, to be found in terms of the human experiences involved in its creation. There is a difference between music that is occasional and music that enhances human consciousness, music that is simply for having and music that is for being. I submit that the former may be good craftsmanship, but that the latter is art, no matter how simple or complex it sounds, and no matter under what circumstances it is produced.

– John Blacking, 1973 How Musical is Man?, University of Washington Press, (2000 Edition), p. 50.

Merchandise – Time from Id House Vid. Group on Vimeo.