I recently assigned my Geography 101 course a writing project whereby they select a song with geographically-oriented content and report on all of that song’s inherent regionalisms. In the body of their assignment text, I include a list of suggested songs for anybody who may be interested in them or may have difficulty selecting a song on their own. The following is one of them.
Kendrick Lamar – “Compton State of Mind”
A few short years before Kendrick Lamar made modern music history with Good Kid m.a.a.d City and To Pimp a Butterfly (two records that social scientists and journalists are going to still be pontificating on for decades), he was just another “good kid” trying to make something out of himself in a city notorious for holding people down. It’s hardly shocking that most people cannot imagine Compton without N.W.A. springing to mind, even though almost twenty-seven years have passed since they changed the world. Also, Ice Cube remains busy starring in family-friendly blockbusters and directing ESPN documentaries (to be fair, he did great work putting together the 30 for 30 on the cultural legacy of the Los Angeles Raiders).
My personal exposure to Compton was limited to Blue Line metro rides through there and about four friends who lived or had grown up there (three of whom were Latino; the black one was a librarian and Oi! punk fan who had been childhood friends with Easy-E. Go figure.) So what was it about Compton that still thrills so many outsiders? Like it’s anchor city to the north, it is full of violent contradictions and even in an era of heavy gentrification still presents itself without compromise. Kendrick Lamar has no pretensions about his hometown, and in his messy mix tape appearance, he raps his way through it. Fittingly, he would close out his 2012 masterpiece with another song called “Compton” featuring (who else?) Dr. Dre. But here, despite being destined for hip hop greatness, the “good kid” becomes the aural tour guide we never knew we needed.
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.
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.
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.
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’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:
… because I thought it was roughly where this brutality took place:
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.