Consuming Dark Histories in Santa Claus Village

Santa Claus Village and the Arctic Circle line in the midst of winter (image from Santatelevision).

Santa Claus Village and the Arctic Circle line in the midst of winter (image from Santatelevision).

Santa Claus’ office and workshop sit along the Arctic Circle in Rovaniemi, Finland, and from his arctic headquarters Santa spends the year checking his list and entertaining visitors to Santa Claus Village.  Nestled in the Lapland woods, the village’s highlight is perhaps Santa Claus’ office, where Saint Nick and his elves hold forth for reviews of children’s behavior and photographs.  The Village’s attractions also include a post office, reindeer, a husky park, snowmobile trails, and shopping ranging from jewelry to log houses.  Not far away sits Santa Park, an underground labyrinth of caves including an elf school, gingerbread bakery, ice bar, and an Angry Birds Activity Area; for good measure, Santa’s “hidden command center” Joulukka sits in the heart of the forest in the same area.

It may be tempting to dismiss the Finnish holiday attractions as shallow consumer experiences, and a variety of scholars and ideologues routinely scorn places like Santa Claus Village and Disney World or reduce them to yet another post-modern self-delusion.  Much of contemporary tourism may be a search for pure diversionary pleasure in such places that embrace spectacle, celebrate patently inauthentic narratives, and offer unadulterated joy. In the midst of the Santa attractions’ imagination of the Yuletide, though, a quite concrete and even dark history exists in an especially fascinating relationship with the theatrical Christmas narrative woven in Santa Claus Village.

The Arctic Circle line in the Santa Claus Village.

The Arctic Circle line in the Santa Claus Village.

Santa Claus Village began as a cabin placed along the Arctic Circle in June, 1950 to welcome Eleanor Roosevelt, and from the cabin the former First lady sent a letter with the Arctic Circle postmark to the President.  The Arctic Circle cabin and post office remained modest tourist attractions for visitors traveling into Lapland after Roosevelt’s visit.  In 1984 the Finnish Tourist Board resolved to promote Lapland as Santa’s authentic home, and a year later the newly dubbed Santa Claus Village opened.  The holiday tourist trade has been quite lucrative: in December 2013, Lapland hotels recorded 381,981 accommodation nights, and 1.75 million rooms were rented in Lapland over the whole year.  Foreign guests accounted for 57% of all Rovaniemi’s overnight guests in 2013; visitors from the UK accounted for nearly 116,000 rooms in December 2013 alone (a figure that does not include the legion of day-trippers who take direct flights to Rovaniemi for a holiday visit with Santa Claus).

The Santa tourist fantasy is perhaps a predictable confirmation of global Christmas ideologies that may simply promote consumer culture.  Santa Claus Village may invoke a sort of contrived “authenticity” in its presentation of holiday folks legends, a winter landscape, and Finnish cultural referents, but it is patently contrived theater akin to Disneyland’s Main Street USA; that is, few tourists descend on Santa Claus Village oblivious to holiday avarice as much as they seek an imaginary experience that is made especially compelling by Lapland’s remote winter landscape. Santa Claus Village is “real” in the sense that it reproduces Santa Claus mythology in a distant landscape whose isolation is underscored by the white Arctic Circle line cutting through the middle of Santa’s office.

Rovaniemi Market Square in the October 17, 1944 aftermath of the German retreat (image SA-Kuva).

Rovaniemi Market Square in the October 17, 1944 aftermath of the German retreat (image SA-Kuva).

The escapist pleasure-seeking at Santa Claus Village might seem profoundly complicated by the landscape that today surrounds Santa’s headquarters.  Roughly 220,000 German soldiers were stationed in Northern Finland between June, 1941 and September, 1944, a period of World War II known in Finland as the Continuation War.  For more than three years the Germans and Finns were co-belligerents against the Soviet Union, who had attacked Finland in the November, 1939 Winter War before a treaty in March, 1940.  Fearing renewed Soviet attacks, the Finns joined the Germans as co-belligerents against the Soviets, and the Germans’ main operational headquarters was established in Rovaniemi.  Of the Luftwaffe’s nine regional airfields in Finland and northern Norway the base at Rovaniemi was the largest.  Two grass airfields had been built at the site in 1940, and that field was significantly expanded when the Germans arrived in 1941.

The Germans destroyed all the supplies they could not take with them from Rovaniemi, and on October 20, 1944 these Rovaniemi residents picked over the remaining can (KA-Suva).

The Germans destroyed all the supplies they could not take with them from Rovaniemi, and on October 20, 1944 these Rovaniemi residents picked over the remaining cans among destroyed German supplies (SA-Kuva).

When the Finns reached a cease fire agreement with the Soviets at the beginning of September, 1944, the Soviets demanded that the Germans evacuate northern Finland in roughly two weeks.  This was an impossible deadline because of the extent of German troops and equipment in northern Finland, and the Soviets expected the Finns to take up arms against their former German comrades.  The Germans and Finns secretly agreed in mid-September that retreating Germans would systematically destroy bridges and roadways essential to pursuing armies and that the Finns would strategically avoid battle with their former comrades.  However, by late September there had been a series of conflicts between Finns and the retreating Germans; the Germans had systematically mined much of Finnish Lapland; and the region was leveled in the Germans’ wake.  Perhaps no event in this final phase of the war (known to Finns as the Lapland War) is more deeply part of wartime lore than the October burning of Rovaniemi. Even today Rovaniemi continues to be routinely referred to as a city that rose from the “ashes of war,” and when Finns entered the town they found nearly nothing standing except the emotionally powerful aesthetics of lone chimneys protruding from the ashes of the town.  Following the war Rovaniemi was rebuilt under the direction of Alvar Aalto, perhaps Finland’s most famous 20th-century architect and designer, so it is today a quite distinctive cityscape.

A stone foundation from the German military base.

A stone foundation from the German military base.

The former Luftwaffe field is now the Rovaniemi airport and known as Santa Claus’ Official Airport, sitting roughly a kilometer from Santa Claus Village and about 10 KM from the town itself.  The support base around that Luftwaffe airfield reached to the present-day Santa Claus Village, and within 50 yards of Santa’s Office sit exposed foundations from the myriad support structures that once dotted the spaces around the airfield.  The remnants of the Nazi support structures are perhaps mundane: that is, the woods contain scattered remains of barracks, workshops, railroad tracks, roadways, bakeries, trenches, and assorted support and storage structures that may lack the traumatic impact of prisoner of war and concentration camps.  Snowmobile paths and walking trails are scattered throughout the woods around the eroding remnants of the Luftwaffe base, which have been preserved but remain un-interpreted for the legion of tourists who have come to consult Santa Claus.

Foundation lines run throughout the woods around Santa Claus Village.

Foundation lines run throughout the woods around Santa Claus Village.

The foundations and scatters of German-era discards surrounding Santa’s headquarters are perhaps an awkward contrast to Yuletide consumption.  Sharon Macdonald has argued that consumption is often “predicated upon forgetting,” and Macdonald suggests that many people in post-war Germany see the nation’s post-war consumer boom as “an unhealthy repression of the awkward past.”  The tension between consumption’s historical evasions and the material presence of contentious heritage was perhaps most clearly illuminated in Nuremberg in the late 1980s.  In 1987, the largest surviving Nazi-era structure, the Congress Hall at the Nazi Party Rally Grounds in Nuremberg, was proposed as the location for an upscale shopping center. The structure is protected, but if its exterior is maintained its interior could be remodeled with some limitations (though the plan was eventually rejected).

Dark histories exist as part of much of the contemporary landscape, and they may appear to some observers as an awkward material presence in the face of contemporary life.  That may seem particularly jarring at Santa Claus Village, where the German presence is well-preserved but meaningless ruins whose heritage remains unclear to all but the best-educated tourist.  Sharon Macdonald approaches interpretations of such potentially unsettling histories as “intervention.”  She argues that such intervention is commonly “couched partly in terms of a countering of crass consumerism or commercialism,” a maneuver that approaches heritage as “an ethical space.”

The German War Memorial at Norvajärvi.

The German War Memorial at Norvajärvi.

However, the contrasts between ethical heritage sites and consumer spaces like Santa Claus Village risk being drawn in over-polarized terms in Rovaniemi.  The history of the Finnish co-belligerency with the Germans may be unclear if not utterly unknown to many foreign tourists, but there is no evidence that contemporary Finns have been ignoring their wartime heritage.  On the contrary, the war has possibly more resonance in Finnish public memory than any other single historical event.  After the war soldier’s cemeteries and heroes’ monuments were built all over Finland mourning the losses of the war, and that memorial landscape was eventually extended to German dead as well; just a few kilometers away from Santa Claus Village on Norvajärvi’s shores sits a German War Memorial that opened in 1963 and holds the remains of 2530 German soldiers who fell in central and southern Finland.  The wartime heritage seems far from disappearing: for instance, Petri Raivo estimated in 2000 that more than half of Finland’s World War II commemorations have been erected since 1975.

German prisoners of war in Tornio, October 19, 1944 (SA-Kuva).

German prisoners of war in Tornio, October 19, 1944 (SA-Kuva).

Ville Kivimäki’s study of Finnish collective wartime memory argues that Finnish discourse has revolved around an effort to illuminate a continuing Finnish struggle for survival in the face of global powers like the Soviets.  In the wake of the Winter War, Finns were desperate to preserve their autonomy and embraced the Germans as Waffenbrüder, cementing generally warm feelings for their German brothers-in-arms (notwithstanding the complications of the Germans’ devastation to Lapland).  The dilemma for Santa Claus Village’s scores of non-Finnish guests may be that this discussion distances Finland from National Socialist atrocities that occurred beyond Finland itself; for many people outside Finland, the war’s narrative has become a moral tale of inhumanity, and visitors may be reluctant to risk granting German foot soldiers a humanizing historical analysis that could be extended to National Socialism.

Petri Raivo estimated in 2000 that perhaps 170 World War II battlefields were preserved in Finland, but the traditional notion of a battlefield with a historical marker does not accommodate the legion of wartime spaces like the Rovaniemi base.  Most of Finland was more akin to a home front like London than a battlefield, so contemporary Finland is not characterized by a host of epic battle sites as much as the landscape is marked by a range of modest traces of the military.  The universal presence of traces of World War II has made places like the Rovaniemi base’s ruins seem somewhat more prosaic to Finns than they may appear to many visitors (although many Europeans would understand the complications of living in the midst of heritage landscapes).

Perhaps no other historical narrative could so effectively remove the traumatic shadow of National Socialism in northern Finland than Santa Claus himself: after all, in the fantastic Santa tale woven in Rovaniemi, it was “around half a century ago that Santa Claus started to frequently visit the Arctic Circle near Rovaniemi,” just as the Germans retreated.  Reluctant to tackle the complexities of the Luftwaffe’s presence in the midst of the Marimekko outlet, Santa’s handlers may have decided to let the ruins of the military remains silently crumble in place.  The interpretation of the German military presence alongside Santa’s village may risk reducing the Finnish wartime experience to a trite experience, but turning a complex or even traumatic heritage into a commodity is a danger in nearly any heritage tourism.  The northern Finnish war narrative actually might be told in no more powerful if unexpected terms than it could be in Santa’s shadow.



Sirkka Ahonen

2001 Politics of identity through history curriculum: narratives of the past for social exclusion-or inclusion? Journal of Curriculum Studies 33(2): 179-194. (subscription access only)

2008 Finnish History Textbooks in the Cold War.  In The Cold War and the Politics of History, eds Juhana Aunesluoma and Pauli Kettunen, pp. 249-268. Edita Publishing, Helsinki.


Anne Bundschuh

2006 The Magic of the Line: an analysis of the Arctic Circle as a tourist destination.  Unpublished paper.


Henry L. deZeng

2014 Luftwaffe Airfields 1933-45 Finland


Alain A. Grenier

2007 The diversity of polar tourism. Some challenges facing the industry in Rovaniemi, Finland.  Polar Geography 30(1-2): 55-72.  (subscription access only)


C. Michael Hall

2008 Santa Claus, place branding and competition. Fennia 186.1 (2008): 59-67.


Nigel Halpern

2008 Lapland’s airports: Facilitating the development of international tourism in a peripheral region.  Scandinavian Journal of Hospitality and Tourism 8(1): 25-47. (subscription access only)


Ville Kivimäki

2012 Between Defeat And Victory: Finnish memory culture of the Second World War.  Scandinavian Journal of History 37(4):482-504.


Mika Kylänen (editor)

2007 Articles on Experiences 3 – Christmas Experiences.  University of Lapland Press, Rovaniemi.


Mike Kylänen and Marcello M. Mariani

2012 Unpacking the temporal dimension of coopetition in tourism destinations: evidence from Finnish and Italian theme parks.  Anatolia 23(1): 61-74.


Henrik O. Lunde

2011 Finland’s War of Choice: The Troubled German-Finnish Alliance in World War II.  Casemate Publishers, Newbury UK.


Sharon Macdonald

2008 Unsettling memories: intervention and controversy over difficult public heritage.  In  Heritage and Identity: Engagement and Demission in the Contemporary World, eds Marta Anico and Elsa Peralta, pp.93-104.  Routledge, New York.

2009 Difficult Heritage: Negotiating the Nazi Past in Nuremberg and Beyond.  Routledge, New York.


Tuomo Polvinen

1986  Between East and West: Finland in International Politics, 1944-1947.  University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.


Michael Pretes

1995 Postmodern Tourism: The Santa Claus IndustryAnnals of Tourism Research 22(1):1-15.

2007 Santa Claus Tourism in Lapland.  In Articles on Experiences 3 – Christmas Experiences, Mika Kylänen (editor), pp.22-31. University of Lapland Press, Rovaniemi.


Petri J. Raivo

2000  “This is Where They Fought”: Finnish War Landscapes as a National Heritage.  In The Politics of War Memory and Commemoration, eds. T. G. Ashplant, Graham Dawson, and Michael Rope, pp. Routledge, London.

2002  The Finnish landscape and its meanings. Fennia 180(1–2):89–98.

2004  Karelia lost or won – materialization of a landscape of contested and commemorated memory. Fennia 182(1):61–72.


Oula Seitsonen and Vesa-Pekka Herva

2011 Forgotten in the Wilderness: WWII German PoW Camps in Finnish Lapland.  In Archaeologies of Internment, edited by Adrian Myers and Gabriel Moshenska, pp.170–190.  Springer, New York.


Sandra Wallenius-Korkalo

2010  Remembering and Forgetting the Second World War in Finland: The Politics of Memory in Online Discussions.  In Progress or Perish : Northern Perspectives on Social Change, eds. Aini Linjakumpu and Sandra Wallenius-Korkalo, pp.65-82.  Ashgate Publishing Ltd, Burlington, Vermont.


Ylimaunu, Timo, Paul R. Mullins, James Symonds, Titta Kallio-Seppä, Hilkka Heikkilä, Markku Kuorilehto, and Siiri Tolonen

2013 Memory of Barracks: World War II German “Little Berlins” and post-war urbanization in Northern Finnish towns. Scandinavian Journal of History 38(4): 525-548. (subscription access)


Earl F. Ziemke

1959 The German Northern Theater of Operations, 1940-1945.  Department of the Army Pamphlet No. 20-27.  Department of the Army, Washington DC.



Market Square Rovaniemi October 17, 1944, canned goods ruins October 20 1944, and German Prisoners of War in Tornio October 10, 1944 images from SA-kuva (Finnish Armed Forces).

Santa Claus Village winter image from Santatelevision

Concealing the Unmentionable: Sight, Sense and the Public Restroom

The labyrinth entrance to the Cavanaugh hall bathroom

The “labyrinth” entrance to the Cavanaugh hall bathroom

The cinder-block walls and windowless offices of IUPUI’s Cavanaugh Hall have aged rather gracelessly over more than four decades.  The utterly functional brutal modernist building will inevitably meet the wrecking ball someday, but in the meantime administrators extend the decaying structure’s life with a host of makeshift changes.  The most recent renovations have come to a series of women’s restrooms (men’s apparently will undergo similar changes soon), which are now appointed with new tile, another set of toilets, and a slightly different floor plan.  None of those changes has prompted more fevered discussion than the installation of a labyrinth entrance; that is, the new bathrooms have no doors.  The labyrinth design is intended to minimize germ transmission and make restrooms more secure spaces, and nothing is literally visible from the adjoining public hallway; nevertheless, the absence of doors and the sonic amplification provided by the tile have unleashed a host of anxieties that illuminate the unmentionable, underscore the divisions between public and private spaces, and highlight the limits of functional restroom design.

The definitive study of the washroom is perhaps still architect Alexander Kira’s 1966 masterpiece The Bathroom.  Based on extensive research between 1958 and 1966, Kira ambitiously approached the bathroom as an architectural, functional, ergonomic, and social space.  Kira pilloried architects’ sloppy bathroom designs and the century of architectural planning that viewed bathrooms as mere afterthoughts.  Kira instead ethnographically delved into the “bathroom experience” as a design issue with concrete social and psychological dimensions that needed to be placed at the heart of spatial planning.  Among other things, Kira systematically dissected such hither-to unexamined issues as the physics of urine trajectories, the space between urinals, the physiology of seated positioning, the cleaning ineffectiveness of toilet paper (a passage not for those apprehensive of cooties), and the anxieties created by the acoustics of elimination. Read the rest of this entry

Air Guitar as Global Diplomacy

Former Air Guitar World champions Justin "Nordic Thunder" Howard (2012) and Markus "Black Raven" Vainionpää (2000) tutor three audience members in air guitar (image Aleke Ollila).

Former Air Guitar World champions Justin “Nordic Thunder” Howard (2012) and Markus “Black Raven” Vainionpää (2000) tutor three audience members in air guitar (image Aleke Ollila).

There may be no more audacious pursuit of global justice than the Air Guitar World Championship’s aspiration to “promote world peace.  According to the ideology of the Air Guitar, wars would end, climate change stop and all bad things disappear, if all the people in the world played the Air Guitar.”  It is perhaps difficult to conceive of a host of global diplomats exaggerating the fluid moves of Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix, yet last week a legion of the faithful gathered in Oulu, Finland for the 19th annual Air Guitar World Championship’s unique performance of self-aware camp, bold sincerity, naïve optimism, and playful theatre.  Air guitar is quite possibly among the most democratic if not egalitarian of all expressive arts.  Even the clumsiest person is capable of reproducing the familiar motions of guitar players, and it harbors an interesting politics of community that may not yield world peace, but it is a fascinating and idealistic starting point.

Your 2014 champion is Nanami ”Seven Seas” Nagura (image Aleksi Ollila)

Your 2014 champion is Nanami ”Seven Seas” Nagura (image Aleksi Ollila)

It is tempting to reduce air guitar to shallow imitation of authentic musical performance, but air guitar is not really mimicking as much as it is its own performance.  Air guitar playing makes sense to audiences because it invokes physical and musical referents that nearly all of us know.  In some ways, this is much like Elvis performance artists, who are not “impersonators” as much as they interpret threads of popular musical consciousness.  Where Elvis performance artists do sing, air guitar may be distinguished by its celebration of the pleasure so many of us take in music we cannot hope to play and the optimistic democracy of air guitar.  The compelling fundamental attraction of air guitar is that it appears so simple and accessible to all of us with the faintest musical sentiments and a suppressed desire to strut about with Angus Young’s theatrical lack of self-consciousness. Read the rest of this entry

The Ruins of Music

The Grande Ballroom in Detroit in 2009, which remains in ruins today (image from Albert duce).

The Grande Ballroom in Detroit in 2009, which remains in ruins today (image from Albert duce).

Music has a rather ephemeral materiality rendered in tangible things like CDs, cassettes, records, and perhaps even digital playlists, but its more compelling archaeological dimension is probably the historical landscapes of clubs and music districts that dot nearly every community.  Local grassroots music tends to be relatively dynamic, but live music holds a tenacious if ever-transforming grip on the landscape: most communities can point to a distinctive soundscape of clubs, impromptu spaces, and places from churches to schools where music was the heart of local experience.

Music has had a profoundly consequential hold on youth culture for most of the last century, but many places’ local musical heritages are in ruins or razed.  The musical landscape is exceptionally dynamic: a parade of fringe styles continually step forward in nearly every place, articulating a host of local, generational, and social experiences.  Most musical circles seek some modestly satisfying measure of relevance, creative community, and profitability, and some express broad if not universal anxieties and sentiments while others are simply more ephemeral sounds. Read the rest of this entry

Failed Ambition: Ruins, Gaze, and Public Housing

IMG_6226Much of our fascination with ruins—and perhaps some of our uneasiness—revolves around their stark testimony to failure, and perhaps no ruins aesthetically underscore the collapse of modernity more clearly than public housing.  Public housing was born from a distinctive marriage of modernist optimism and racist and classist ideologies aspiring to remake the American city (and with many global parallels).  Last week Detroit’s Brewster-Douglass housing project went under the wrecking ball, another in a series of 20th-century housing projectsPruitt-Igoe, Cabrini Green, the Robert Taylor Homes—that are routinely stereotyped as the epitaph for modernity’s over-reaching ambition, xenophobic nostalgia, or the misplaced optimism of state-supported housing.  Regardless of their legacy, the ruins and razing of public housing raise interesting questions about gaze and how we see and imagine particular sorts of ruins.

IMG_6239Ruins fascinate us because they energize our imaginations, providing material evidence of lost experiences while simultaneously underscoring the passing of that heritage.  Those lost experiences assume meaning through an idiosyncratic mix of popular iconography, mass discourses, and personal spatial and material experiences that shape how we perceive places like Detroit (what Edward Said referred to as “imaginative geographies”).  Every ruin fuels a distinctive corner of our imagination and tells a distinct sort of story, and the narrative of public housing ruination is distinguished in modest but critical ways from the tales woven about industrial decline, dead malls, or eroding post-Soviet landscapes. Read the rest of this entry

The Feral City: The Convergence of Ruins and Nature

Open lots in Brush Park

Open lots in Brush Park

Detroit’s Brush Park was once one of the city’s finest Gilded Age neighborhoods, a 22-block community of mansions that included a host of high style Victorian homes within reach of downtown.  Referred to by one period observer as the “little Paris of the Midwest,” Brush Park was home to some of the city’s wealthiest residents between the mid-19th century and the early 20th century, when it began to gradually decline, transformed into boarding houses during the Depression and subsequently declining along with much of the postwar city.   Today, only about 80 of the neighborhood’s roughly 300 original structures remains standing.  Some rehabilitated homes stand alongside others that are decaying as forlorn testimony to the neighborhood’s former glory, and the remaining homes are magnets for artists, preservationists, and urbanites re-imagining the life of the city. Read the rest of this entry

The Optimism of Destruction: Demolition and the Future of the Historic City

The Claypool Hotel, circa 1904-1909 (image Indiana University)

The Claypool Hotel, circa 1904-1909 (image Indiana University)

In June, 1969 Edward Zebrowski held a massive party at Indianapolis’ Claypool Hotel.  The lavish Claypool opened in 1903, distinguished by its gargantuan lobby and opulent meeting rooms and the novel luxury of a private bath in each of the 450 guest rooms.  Numerous conventions met at the Claypool, and in its strategic location blocks from the State Capitol the Claypool was home to both the Republican and Democratic parties and hosted a stream of politicians over three-quarters of the 20th century.  On June 23, 1967, though, 300 Claypool guests including the visiting Tacoma baseball team were forced out to the street by a fire, and by the time Edward Zebrowski had his party in 1969 the hotel faced the wrecking ball.

That wrecking ball was swung by Ed Zebrowski himself, who ushered his guests outside at midnight to watch the floodlit building meet its end.  Such theatrical demolition was Zebrowski’s hallmark:  in 1967 Zebrowski erected bleachers and had an organ player serenade the lunchtime crowd watching the dismantling of the 12-story Pythian building.  His firm dismantled much of the city’s aging architectural fabric over more than a decade of fascinating destructive spectacles, tearing down the Marion County Courthouse in 1962 (built in 1876), the Maennerchor Hall (1907) in 1974, and the Central State Hospital Department for Women (opened in 1888) in 1975.  When Zebrowski was finished, he left a large sign in many of the empty lots proclaiming “Zebrowski was here.” Read the rest of this entry

Imagining Heritage: Selfies and Visual Placemaking at Historic Sites

A selfie at the Lincoln memorial (image Joe Flood).

A selfie at the Lincoln memorial (image Joe Flood).

A variety of ideologues routinely reduce selfies to yet another confirmation of our mass superficiality.  Instagram is indeed littered with scores of us primping for our bathroom mirrors and posing at arm’s length for “ego shots”: it seems infeasible to salvage especially profound insight into contemporary society from Justin Bieber’s self-involved posing or Kim Kardashian’s often-ridiculous stream of booty calls.  Nevertheless, the countless online selfies register a self-consciousness about appearance that is likely common in every historical moment, and the recent flood of online selfies may simply confirm that we know we are being seen and we are cultivating our appearance for others.  After looking in the mirror for millennia, digitization has provided a novel mechanism to re-imagine, manipulate, and project a broad range of personal reflections into broader social space.

An image of the facebook page of camp selfies.

An image of the facebook page of camp selfies.

Last week a New Yorker article fueled selfie critics who lamented the apparent narcissism of selfies at Auschwitz.  The page was removed after a host of media decried self portraits at the concentration camp and rejected (or simply did not comprehend) the page’s clumsy attempt to use irony to assess the holocaust’s social meanings.  The Israeli page collected youths’ concentration camp selfies, and the images push irreverence and irony beyond many peoples’ tolerance: the page included typical selfie poses of pouting expressions and stylized self-contemplation, but these selfies were at places like the iconic Auschwitz gates or had sarcastic added descriptions such as “Even here I’m drop dead gorgeous!” Read the rest of this entry

Imagining the Black Suburbs: Homogeneity and African American Suburbia

levey family

The Levey family posed in front of a Levittown home in New York in 1949.

The postwar suburb seems painted in our collective imagination as a White nuclear family standing proudly in front of a standardized tract home and a chrome-accented American car.  Fortunately a rich scholarship on postwar suburbia has complicated or utterly unraveled that and many other suburban stereotypes, underscoring the material, social, and historical diversity of suburban landscapes: we know suburbia included a multitude of architectural forms beyond the interchangeable Levittown box; the roots of the suburbs reach well into the 19th century; working-class families predominated; and we are paying increasingly more attention to the suburban experience along the color line.

Henry Greer advertised his Northwest Street liquor store in December 1935.

Henry Greer advertised his Northwest Street liquor store in December 1935.

In 1947 Henry and Della Greer were among Indianapolis, Indiana’s first African-American suburbanites, and in many ways the story of the Greers and their neighbors might be told in many more places.  Henry was a former hotel porter who worked as a salesman and real estate agent before opening the Demi-Jon Liquor Store on North West Street in December, 1935 (and eventually selling life insurance).  His wife Della was an art teacher at Crispus Attucks High School, where she taught for 20 years beginning in 1936.  The Greers blazed a trail into rural Washington Township that would find them neighbored within a decade by a series of African-American subdivisions. That suburban African-American story has been untold in many communities, swept aside in a broader moral narrative that decries suburban conformity and material homogeneity and seems unable to fathom how the suburbs have been so alluring to so many Americans.  There is no shortage of outstanding scholarship on Black suburbanization (for instance, Andrew Wiese’s Places of their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century), but as these communities transform and in many cases deteriorate their histories risk being ignored and lost on the contemporary landscape.  Despite some wonderful preservation projects in communities like Addisleigh (New York), Berkley Square (Las Vegas), and Conant Gardens (Detroit), many communities seem slow to comprehend the consequence of Black suburban life in the postwar American experience. Read the rest of this entry

The Refined Doughnut: Taste, Class, and Doughnut Respectability

Charleston's Glazed Gourmet Doughnuts offers up this Blue Cheese Cabernet Doughnut: Blue Cheese Cabernet with homemade pear jam, Cabernet glaze, and blue cheese honey drizzle (image Glazed Gourmet)

Charleston’s Glazed Gourmet Doughnuts offers up this Blue Cheese Cabernet Doughnut: Blue Cheese Cabernet with homemade pear jam, Cabernet glaze, and blue cheese honey drizzle (image Glazed Gourmet)

Albuquerque’s Rebel Donut is among a wave of doughnut shops offering up a host of novel flavors, seasonal or organic ingredients, and culinary standards that aim to upset the caricature of the conventional mass-produced doughnut.  Their donut gallery includes such flavors as Red Chile Chocolate Bacon, Nacho, Water Melon, and their Breaking Bad tribute, Blue Sky.  Many of these gourmet doughnut shops go beyond novel flavors alone and embrace a philosophy of food consumption that is rarely extended to the prosaic doughnut.  For instance, Seattle’s Mighty-O Donut’s vegan offerings include French Toast, Chocolate Raspberry, and Lemon Twist doughnuts made from certified organic ingredients.  Few bakeries can rival Mighty-O’s philosophical assessment of the doughnut, noting that when they started the business “our intention was to make an honest living while being mindful of people and respectful of the environment.  We weren’t interested in producing anything that would just end up in a landfill or contribute to the pollution piling up in the world.  … We couldn’t find anyone making a donut the way we envisioned.  A sweet treat with no chemicals, no genetically modified organisms, and no animal products—something everyone could enjoy.”

Dough in New York offers up (top to bottom and left to right) Lemon Poppy Seed, Dulce de leche, Passionfruit with Cocoa Nibs, and Blood Orange (image Wally Gobetz)

Dough in New York offers up (clockwise from top) Lemon Poppy Seed, Dulce de leche, Passionfruit with Cocoa Nibs, and Blood Orange (image Wally Gobetz)

As we approach Doughnut Day on June 6th, the artisan doughnut shop has carved a foothold in cosmopolitan marketplaces.  Gourmet doughnut shops appeal to a consumer imagination that relishes superior flavor, embraces culinary creativity, and fancies that the consumer has a discerning and educated palate.  The gourmet doughnut invokes food as a culinary, political, and intellectual consumer experience.

That vision of food is routinely projected onto products ranging from craft beers to cheese to chocolate.  Perhaps the distinction between gourmet doughnuts and a host of many other artisanal foods is the distinctly plebian nature of the doughnut: Doughnuts are routinely caricatured as mass-produced fare that lacks the complex ingredients of gourmet dishes and is beneath the consideration of skilled chefs.  Doughnuts are often viewed as violations of body discipline, a conscious (if not conflicted) embrace of desire for a food that seems to possess little or no redeeming quality.  Doughnuts are sometimes cast as “downwardly mobile” consumption, an embrace of the common by otherwise bourgeois consumers who see the mass-produced doughnut as a bridge to the masses or ironic consumption.  We spend little time questioning the concept of a craft beer, artisanal charcuterie, or organic olive oil; however, because the doughnut is rhetorically constructed as a junk food characterized by its lack of redeeming qualities, the gourmet doughnut is often a target of popular curiosity. Read the rest of this entry


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