Author Archives: Paul Mullins

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.

Detroit's Blue Bird Inn was one of the city's most prominent jazz venues from 1938 to the 1970s (image from Carelton Gholz)

Detroit’s Blue Bird Inn was one of the city’s most prominent jazz venues from 1938 to the 1970s (image from Carelton Gholz)

The fate of those contemporary musical landscapes is not simply a reflection of fickle tastes and unpredictable profits; instead, it is a testament to transformations wrought by postwar urban renewal, industrial collapse, suburbanization, and assorted other processes that have engineered cityscapes and reached well outside musical spaces alone.  Music landscapes have been preserved in many places:  Memphis’ Beale Street declined significantly in the 1960’s, but it never really disappeared; New Orleans’ Bourbon Street may be one the city’s most famous landmarks; and Austin, Texas’ musical scene is spread into pockets that cover the city and include virtually every musical oeuvre.  However, beyond a handful of tourist-friendly reconstructions, abandoned and declining musical communities hold an especially compelling—and wholly archaeological–mechanism to critically interpret American history.  That musical heritage is dealt a significant challenge by continuing urban decline and the reality that many Black and working-class communities have been erased by postwar spatial projects, left in ruins, or are facing the wrecking ball.

An undated image of Indiana Avenue commercial buildings after their decline (image Indiana Historic Architecture Slide Collection, IUPUI University Archives).

An undated image of Indiana Avenue commercial buildings (500 block) after their decline (image Indiana Historic Architecture Slide Collection, IUPUI University Archives).

Indianapolis, Indiana’s musical history is routinely told with reference to Indiana Avenue, where African-American musicians began to congregate in significant numbers around the turn of the 20th century.  The network of clubs on the Avenue is persistently heralded as a show of cultural resilience, and the rich world along the Avenue does say quite a lot about persistent African-American cultural traditions.  However, concluding the narrative at that point risks disingenuously ignoring music’s essential role in a local Black economy common to most 20th-century African-American communities; that is, music risks being reduced to an abstracted art and detached from a complex material and social world profoundly shaped by racism.

The Hindel Building, with the Walker Theatre in the background (Indiana Historic Architecture Slide Collection, IUPUI University Library).

The Hindel Building, with the Walker Theatre in the background (Indiana Historic Architecture Slide Collection, IUPUI University Library).

Music spaces along the Avenue were simply one dimension of a segregated economy that delivered essential goods, leisure, and professional services to African Americans who once lived all around Indiana Avenue.  That everyday Black economy collapsed after World War II as urban renewal projects depopulated the area, the interstate sliced through its heart, and disinterested municipal administrators let the community’s infrastructure—utility services, local schools, pollution management—collapse.  The Madame Walker Theatre sits on Indiana Avenue today and quietly provides musical offerings, but the remainder of the Avenue has been almost universally uprooted.  Visits to clubs like the Sunset Terrace (which opened on Christmas Eve 1937), The Oriental Café (advertised in 1938 as “Bronzeville’s Swankiest Nitery”), or The Mitchellyne are today pilgrimages to parking lots or undistinguished postwar architecture.

There is absolutely nothing about that Indianapolis history that is unique, one of many musical spaces and leisure districts razed alongside the communities from which musicians came and the business places that served the area.  Such narratives are not unique to predominately Black communities, but postwar urban engineers clearly took aim on African-American neighborhoods that had themselves been created by racist urban management.

Detroit's National Theater (image form Alfred Jameson).

Detroit’s National Theater (image from Andrew Jameson).

Ironically, perhaps, contemporary planners and cultural heritage policy makers seem eager to celebrate African-American music history, and Indiana Avenue is now one of the city’s six cultural districts, pinning much of its claim to fame on its jazz heritage.  However, there is nearly nothing to actually see representing the neighborhood’s musical heritage, with its clubs long-ago razed.  Tellingly, the national embrace of jazz, blues, and early rock is not mirrored by an equally energetic hip hop preservation movement, which is simultaneously being unceremoniously dismantled in many places (there are archival and educational organizations like the Hip Hop Culture Center and Cornell University’s Hip Hop Collection, but most of this good work is about hip hop culture and not hip hop place).  Hip hop and rap are perhaps living traditions rooted in contested landscapes, so they may not be sufficiently distanced to neutralize their threat; when they are eventually domesticated by consumer culture their landscape may well be gone or in ruins.  Much musical innovation occurs on social and spatial fringes that were already under fire by municipal planners and optimistic realty investors, so the claim for a noteworthy musical heritage may be insufficient to save these places.  The modest and often-unpleasant clubs that incubated garage bands or launched genres like punk were in many cases makeshift spaces and short-lived, financially unstable enterprises that instantly declined, and raves and much electronic music has been the province of utterly transitory spaces; much of this musical landscape and performance space was intentionally ephemeral.  Through the sober lens of heritage planning, the cost of saving small clubs or deteriorating housing projects may well be prohibitive and inspire little interest; some local communities may desire the blank slate that demolition and new construction promises.

The Vanity Ballroom in Detroit (image Albert duce).

The Vanity Ballroom in Detroit (image Albert duce).

Nevertheless, there is a compelling case to be made for a contemporary archaeology of musical landscapes and heritage that might reach beyond performance spaces alone to churches, schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods where musicians’ experiences were rooted and where they honed their crafts.  John Schofield has perhaps led this charge, with studies of musical landscape in Cold War Berlin (in Brett Lashua, Karl Spracklin, and Stephen Wagg’s 2014 edited collection on place and music, Sounds and the City: Popular Music, Place, and Globalization), his edited 2014 World Archaeology collection “The Archaeology of Sound and Music,” and a study with Brett Lashua and Sara Cohen of alternative musical histories in Liverpool.  He has been joined by Paul Graves-Brown, whose 2012 “Where the Streets Have no Name: a Guided Tour of Pop Heritage Sites in London’s West End” provides a detailed dissection of the relationship between place, musical heritage, the surviving musical landscape in London (in The Good, the Bad and the Unbuilt: Handling the Heritage of the Recent Past).

Sex Pistols graffiti (from Paul Graves-Brown, in The Guardian).

Sex Pistols graffiti (from Paul Graves-Brown, in The Guardian).

In a widely reported 2011 study, Graves-Brown and Schofield examined the heritage implications of a London flat adorned with 1975 Sex Pistols graffiti.  The straightforward and often-lewd marker art and the notion of celebrating punk history falls outside conventional aesthetic and heritage standards, and in the project’s widespread popular press some observers were predictably contemptuous, such as Jonathan Jones’ Guardian commentary dismissing the project as “clichéd dumbness.”  Nevertheless, the graffiti has been preserved nearly four decades because a series of residents valued punk’s historical moment and its material history, regardless of dominant notions of historicity, and the public attention for the project confirms the widespread fascination with such relatively recent music histories.

The Detroit Sound Conservancy may provide a model for an ambitious musical heritage project that includes an oral historical project, blog, and sound landmarks preservation program, with the latter including a thorough analysis of the endangered musical landmarks in the city.  Detroit stands in a somewhat distinctive position, marshalling a rich musical history while simultaneously confronting a dramatic decline that has left numerous musical landmarks under fire.  United Sound Systems, for instance, is a recording studio that since 1940 has hosted John Lee Hooker, Bob Seger, and Parliament Funkadelic, but it is now under threat from interstate widening; the Vanity Ballroom, a 1929 Mesoamerican-themed big band dance hall that began to cater to rock acts in the 1970’s, including Detroit staples MC5 and The Stooges, began a long vacancy in the 1980s and stands empty today; and the National Theatre is one of Detroit’s last vaudeville houses, an exceptionally distinctive Albert Kahn design that opened in 1911 but is today a shell.

The Grande Ballroom interior, 2010 (image Albert duce).

The Grande Ballroom interior, 2010 (image Albert duce).

Among the best-known of Detroit’s now-declining musical spaces is the Grande Ballroom, a 1928 dance hall that between 1966 and 1972 hosted many of rock’s most prominent groups, including locals like MC5, the Psychedelic Stooges and their frontman Iggy Pop, and Alice Cooper as well bands including the Who, Cream, and Led Zeppelin (see Motor City Archives’ Grande Ballroom play list).  The documentary “Louder than Love – The Grande Ballroom Story” tells the story of the hall that is sometimes referred to locally as a rock Mecca, but it today has a hole in its roof (compare this 2013 urbex video).

There are myriad ways to conduct such projects.  Students in Wayne State’s Urban Archaeology Detroit program, for instance, produced videos on many of these Detroit landmarks for the Making Music in Detroit project.  The musical landscapes included the Grande, Hitsville USA, the Brewster Douglass Projects, the Blue Bird Inn jazz club, the “Motown Mansion” (Motown Record founder Berry Gordy’s home between 1967 and 2002), the Eastown Theater, and United Sound Systems (the project’s You Tube page has links to more case studies).

Eastown Theater, Detroi (image from memories_by_mike)

Eastown Theater, Detroit (image from memories_by_mike)

An archaeology of musical landscapes is perhaps ambitious, but it might start by simply illuminating the prominence of musical performance spaces and recognizing their place in everyday life.  Music itself is a transitory expression, and it may seem to leave few material “fingerprints,” but it is hard to conceive of a historical narrative of musically rich places like Indianapolis and Detroit that ignores music.  It seems impossible to examine the heritage of 20th century youth cultures without examining the centrality of music, and now many of those musical experiences have become historical landscapes in ruins or on the precipice of ruination.  The contemporary fascination with places like Indiana Avenue and the Grande Ballroom is fueled by the prominence of music in so many peoples’ experiences and landscapes, and perhaps archaeology’s focus on the quotidian remains of such experiences might fuel a genuine preservation movement focused on music heritage told in broad and ambitious terms.



Russell W. Archer

2003 If these walls could jump ‘n’ jive : a study of buildings and sites associated with jazz music in Indianapolis and Richmond, Indiana (c. 1910-1960).  Unpublished Master’s Thesis, Ball State University.


Clyde Nickerson Bolden

2009 Indiana Avenue: Black Entertainment Boulevard.  AuthorHouse, Bloomington, Indiana.


Paul Graves-Brown

2009 Nowhere man: urban life and the virtualization of popular music. Popular Music History 4(2):220-241. (subscription access)

2011 Sex Pistols Graffiti: The End of the FutureThe Guardian 23 November.

2012 Where the Streets Have no Name: a Guided Tour of Pop Heritage Sites in London’s West End. In The Good, the Bad and the Unbuilt: Handling the Heritage of the Recent Past, Sarah May, Hilary Orange and Sefryn Penrose (eds). Studies in Contemporary and Historical Archaeology 7. Archaeopress, Oxford.


Paul Graves‑Brown and John Schofield

2011 The filth and the fury: 6 Denmark Street (London) and the Sex PistolsAntiquity 85(330):1385-1401. (subscription access)


Brett Lashua, Sara Cohen, and John Schofield

2010 Popular music, mapping, and the characterization of LiverpoolPopular Music History 4(2):126-144.


Preston Lauterbach

2011 The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll.  Norton, New York.


Lissa Fleming May

2005 Early Musical Development of Selected African American Jazz Musicians in Indianapolis in the 1930s and 1940sJournal of Historical Research in Music Education 27(1):21-32. (subscription access)


John Schofield

2014 Characterizing the Cold War: Music and Memories of Berlin, 1960-1989.  In Sounds and the City: Popular Music, Place and Globalization, eds. Brett Lashua, Karl Spracklen, and Stephen Wagg, pp. 273-284. Palgrave Macmillan, London.


David Leander Williams

2014 Indianapolis Jazz: The Masters, Legacy, and Legends of Indiana Avenue.  The History Press, Charleston, South Carolina.



Blue Bird Inn image from Carleton Ghloz

Eastown Theater image from memories_by_mike flick’r page

The Grande Ballroom 2009 image from Albert duce Wikimedia commons

The Grande Ballroom Interior image 2010 from Albert duce Wikimedia commons

Indiana Avenue 500 block undated image and Hindel Building image from Indiana Historic Architecture Slide Collection, IUPUI University Library

The National Theatre 2008 image from Andrew Jameson Wikimedia commons

The Vanity Ballroom 2010 image from Albert duce Wikimedia commons

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

Burying Trauma: Cemeteries and Heritage at Central State Hospital

The autopsy room in the Old Pathology Building at the former Central State, now Indiana Medical History Museum (image Huw Williams).

The autopsy room in the Old Pathology Building at the former Central State, now the Indiana Medical History Museum (image Huw Williams).

In September 1903 The Indianapolis Journal reported that Oliver S. Clay and his mother Charlotte “for years have lived in their home at 1405 East Sixteenth street, but on account of reverses, financial and otherwise, were compelled to mortgage their property for several hundred dollars, which, on becoming due, remained unpaid.”  In many ways, Clay’s story of ill fortune might well be told of many of his early 20th-century neighbors.  His father J.H. Clay had been the Pastor of the Bethel AME Church in Indianapolis until his death in 1892.  After his father’s death Oliver was an advocate for African-American education and a Black political party, and in the 1902 election he led an African-American movement to vote a blank ballot, telling The Indianapolis Journal that “if the white politicians will give the negroes recognition then he will advocate voting.”  However, like many Americans entertaining the American Dream, Clay’s ambition and hard work ended in tragedy as he was evicted, institutionalized, and eventually relegated to a potter’s field.  The ultimate fate of his mortal remains punctuate both his unfortunate end and the way contemporary society routinely ignores the unpleasant histories at the heart of American life.

In 1901 the Public Library Bulletin reported on Clay’s aspiration to turn his home into what he dubbed the Claysonian Library.  Clay’s collection included “the 315 volumes comprising the library of his father, the Rev. J. H. Clay, deceased, to which have been added by donation a sufficient number of books to make the collection 521 volumes, besides miscellaneous magazines and periodicals.  The object is to cultivate a taste for literature among the young colored people, especially of the immediate neighborhood.”  Oliver Clay’s neighborhood library was dedicated in April 1901 on what would have been his father’s 51st birthday, and several months later he received a gift of 50 volumes from Congressman Jesse Overstreet.  The library subsequently hosted regular events at the Clays’ home and local venues, such as a lecture on the Emancipation Proclamation’s 40th Anniversary in January 1903.

In August, 1903, though, the Indianapolis Sun reported that Clay “has, with the furniture of the institution of which he is founder, been ejected into the street.”  Clay moved his things back into the home and told the newspaper that “`You may say, mistah, that the Claysonian will be re-established in other quatahs soon and that the good work started by me will never die.’”  In September a realtor returned in an effort to eject the Clays and once again “started to move the furniture out into the street.  When he looked up he was gazing into the barrel of a revolver held firmly in the dusky hand of the Claysonian.  `Claysonia forever!’ cried Oliver Clay, `and if you dare to move anything from this house you will forfeit your life.’” Read the rest of this entry

The Disturbed Tomb: Memorialization and Human Remains at the 9/11 Museum

The remains repository wall at the 9/11 Memorial Museum (image 9/11 memorial Museum).

The remains repository wall at the 9/11 Memorial Museum (image 9/11 Memorial Museum).

When visitors tour the newly opened National September 11 Memorial Museum this week they will be greeted by the relics of one of the world’s most traumatic shared events.  The Museum opens to the public May 21st, and its collection of material artifacts, images, and oral memories documents the September 11 and February 2003 attacks on the World Trade Center and examines the broad consequences of global terrorism.  The museum sits in half of the World Trade Center’s 16-acre shadow, a space that may perpetually play out the tensions between its roles as memorial landscape, history museum, forensics repository, cemetery, and tourist trap.

Much of the discussion about the museum has recently revolved around whether the site is an appropriate temporary or permanent resting place for human remains.  Of nearly 3000 people who died September 11, about 1115 remain unrecovered and perhaps represented somewhere among thousands of unidentified human elements recovered from the site.  In August 2011 the Medical Examiner held just over 9006 pieces of human remains (skeletal fragments as well as tissue), most of infinitesimal scale that an examiner described as the size of “a Tic Tac.”  In February 2013 this figure was reported as 8354 human remain samples, and on May 10, 2014 7930 remains were ceremoniously transferred to the 9/11 Museum to be placed in a “repository at bedrock on the sacred ground of the site.”  Those and any remains subsequently recovered will be subject to continuing forensic examinations “temporarily or in perpetuity.” Read the rest of this entry

Unsavory Materiality: The Aesthetics of Institutional Food

A 2008 image of Cheeseburger Macaroni served at a Virginia school.

A 2008 image of Cheeseburger Macaroni served at a Virginia school.

Few dimensions of the material world have more sensory, tactile, and visual impact than food, a point that seems confirmed by the rich food studies scholarship, food advocacy groups ranging from sustainable agriculturalists to local food champions, and the avalanche of desserts on Pinterest.  Nevertheless, somewhat less attention has focused on diners’ experiences of institutional foods: that is, mass-produced foods like the cheese pizza and tater tots clouding elementary school cafetoriums; the nutritionally balanced but unsightly purees scooped onto hospital plates; and the reheated frozen food adorning plastic prison trays and military mess halls.  Observers have long dissected a widespread sentiment that such meals are perceived as unappealing and discarded in massive quantities, but much of this attention fixes on food waste and does not always confront why we find some foods so unappetizing in the first place.

An enormous amount of food photography acknowledges the desires projected onto food and the depth of emotional sentiment invested in images.  A 1996 survey of institutional diners examining negative perceptions of such foods found that consumers rated the “manner of food presentation” lower than every other factor; despite recognizing that many consumers found institutional foods visually unappetizing, though, the study focused on how that reception mirrors our negative stereotypes that precede their consumption, devoting little attention to the ways our visual and sensory interaction with food shapes its consumption.  Observers often seem unable to fathom the idiosyncratic ways we actively perceive, eat, and discard food, and they routinely fail to understand that much of the desire we deny institutional foods is linked to their visual aesthetics. Read the rest of this entry


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