Author Archives: Paul Mullins

Ashes Underfoot: Human Remains and Public Memorialization

The 2011 launch of the Goddard flight carrying cremated remains into space (image from Celestis).

The 2011 launch of the Goddard flight carrying cremated remains into space (image from Celestis).

The remains of CJ Twomey have blazed an enormously rich path to eternal rest since his death in 2010.  Over 800 packets of CJ’s cremated remains have been scattered in an astounding range of places including baseball diamonds (e.g., Camden Yards and Fenway Park), historic sites (e.g., Notre Dame, Ground Zero, the Colosseum), tourist destinations (e.g., the Vegas Strip, Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, Central Park), sporting event sites (e.g., the finish line of the Boston Marathon, Tour de France climb Alpe d’Huez), and theme parks (e.g., Disney World, Disneyland Paris).  Next week some of CJ’s ashes will be sent into space aboard a rocket launched by a Houston firm that specializes in the delivery of human remains into earth orbit.  As his ashes now travel to space, CJ joins Timothy Leary, James Doohan, L. Gordon Cooper, and Gene Rodenberry, who also were placed to rest in orbit or returned to earth after suborbital flight (lunar deposits are expected to be available in the next two years, and all the burial options for humans are now available for pets as well).

CJ’s global and spatial scattering is perhaps distinguished by the scale of memorialization; a legion of people touched by his story have shepherded his remains to numerous resting places.  Nevertheless, one survey conservatively suggests that about 135,000 survivors scatter the ashes of their families and friends each year (another says one-third of cremated remains are scattered), and many of those remains are left in public spaces ranging from stadiums to theme parks.  Eternal rest now routinely reaches outside a stereotypical peaceful cemetery as the scripted funeral gradually disappears.  Cremation scattering extends memorialization to an increasingly rich range of symbolically meaningful public places, transforming burial rituals and memorial landscapes alike in a bereavement process that survivors control long after death.

Human cremated remains typically account for about 3.5% of body mass, which is normally between four and six pounds of coarse calcium phosphate dust.  Modest quantities of the ash will become part of surrounding soils and wash away within a few days under most conditions, and they pose no health hazards.  Nevertheless, many people seem reluctant to reconcile the literal presence of human remains in even trace form with public space, and we seem unwilling to concede that the Fenway Park warning track and Pirates of the Caribbean are memorial landscapes.

In 2013, this cremation deposit was recovered from Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Field after an upset victory over Alabama (image from Auburn Turf Team).

In 2013, this cremation deposit was recovered from Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Field after an upset victory over Alabama (image from Auburn Turf Team).

The practice of surreptitiously depositing cremated remains in public places is referred to as “wildcat scattering,” and in most places it is frowned upon if not prohibited.  In August, a Toronto Blue Jays fans discreetly deposited a sandwich bag of his stepbrother’s ashes near the dugout, only to be caught when a gust of wind spread the cloud out across the warning track sand and a television crew.  In 2013, thousands of fans poured onto Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Field after an upset victory over Alabama, and afterward the field crew found a pile of cremated remains ground into the turf.

Perhaps the boldest of all wildcat scatterers was Christopher Noteboom, who sprinted onto Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field in the midst of a 2005 game between his late mother’s beloved Eagles and the Green Bay Packers.  As he made the sign of the cross at the 30-yard line, Noteboom was tackled by security and hauled away, but not before he released a cloud of powder that was the remains of his mother Charlotte.  When his mother’s health had declined the year before, Noteboom promised he would leave her ashes on the revered field: “I told her I was going to do it. She was thrilled.”  He acknowledged he hoped to memorialize his mother’s great passion, noting that “She never cared for any other team except the Eagles. I know that the last handful of ashes I had are laying on the field, and will never be taken away.  She’ll always be part of Lincoln Financial Field and of the Eagles.”

Charlotte’s ashes in the Philadelphia turf confirm the consequence of sport, and it is clear that an enormous number of people view stadiums, baseball diamonds, and soccer pitches as hallowed spaces wed to their most consequential memories.  However, scatterings on such playing fields may most clearly demonstrate the power of place and the sense of permanence such spaces provide.  Playing fields are especially magnetic scattering points because they are passions with a place and a history; Christopher Noteboom seemed confident and perhaps even comforted that his mother will “always” be part of the Eagles’ turf.  Sporting venues, historic sites, and parks are tangible material landscapes that look familiar over long spans of time.  Of course, soccer pitches, nature reserves, and battlefields are dynamic stratigraphic spaces that are constantly being overhauled—a grounds crew member at Fenway Park assessed the desire to be scattered on the field and laughed that “People think this is the same dirt as Ted Williams dug his cleats into. That’s a joke.”  Nevertheless, Fenway’s home plate is in the same spot as Ted Williams, Carlton Fisk, and a host of greats once stood; Fenway Park and similar scattering points seem to be static aesthetic and material landscapes, places with a stable history extending into the present.

Disney's Haunted Mansion is rumored to be one of the places human remains have been scattered at Disneyland (image from Jeff Fillmore).

Disney’s Haunted Mansion is rumored to be one of the places human remains have been scattered at Disneyland (image from Jeff Fillmore).

Most places are eager to acknowledge their prominence in peoples’ lives, but they are much more reluctant to concede the dust of the departed.  Disneyland is reputed to be one of the most common ash scattering sites, with the Haunted Mansion supposedly the single most common place that survivors leave their friends and families’ remains.   The Disney park blog MiceAge indicated in 2007 that when ashes are scattered into the Haunted Mansion ride the scattering is sometimes witnessed on security cameras, and the ride is closed down and immediately cleaned with vacuums purchased expressly for the task of cleaning up past guests.  Pirates of the Caribbean and Small World are both rumored to be scattering points, and in Fall 2007 a Haunted Mansion cast member reportedly found several piles of ashes along the tracks, and police confirmed that “the large amount of ashes this deposit was likely a small group of deceased people, or perhaps a very large married couple.”  A widow admitted that she left some of her husband’s ashes in a Donald Duck topiary, suggesting that “I think Donald would appreciate that it’s slightly illegal.  What will they do?  Arrest a widow?”  An anonymous MiceChat commentator who described themselves as “a night custodial cast member myself” suggested that “I’ve heard mention of the ashes alot on the haunted mansion … it’s usually a light grey color.”  However, Disneyland officially disputes that human remains have ever been left at the park.

The Fenway Park scoreboard is among the places ashes have reportedly been scattered in Fenway (image from Alex).

The Fenway Park scoreboard is among the places ashes have reportedly been scattered in Fenway (image from Alex).

Some places receive an enormous amount of requests to have ashes deposited on site.  Numerous Boston Red Sox fans aspire to be placed to rest at the foot of the Green Monster or scattered at home plate, and the team once accommodated some of those requests.  However, the Sox’ former General Manager indicated that “Many times you go out there after a game and you’ll see [ashes] on the grounds. I went out there last year twice, and twice I saw it on the warning track.  It’s unbelievable. It’s almost like a burial ground of Red Sox Nation. It’s amazing how it happens. Most of the time, it’s done on off days. Someone comes in on a tour group and they just drop them on the ground. It happens frequently.”

British Premier League teams generally forbid ash scatterings on the pitch, though there have been scatterings for decades that clubs did not publicize.  In 2004, Everton stopped allowing fans to scatter ashes at Goodison Park, where the team has played since 1892 and about 800 fans’ ashes have been laid to rest.  The Blackburn Rovers have played at Ewood Park since 1890 and allow fans to conduct services and scatter ashes in a Memorial Garden; Manchester City likewise has a Memorial Garden.   Tottenham Hotspur made an exception to their scattering prohibition in 2009 when they allowed David Beckham to scatter the ashes of his grandfather on the pitch of the White Hart Lane stadium, where the team has played since 1899.  Many of Argentina’s famed Boca Juniors fans “were leaving instructions to their families to scatter their ashes on the playing field of La Bombonera,” where they “would arrive on weekdays with their urns and scatter the ashes on the playing field.”  A press officer suggested that on the La Bombonera pitch “you could see little mounds of ashes left afterwards,” and the team opened a cemetery in 2007 that includes turf from the pitch.

Many scattering places have a well-known heritage, like stadiums or Disneyland, and some of the most popular scattering places are picturesque places with deep histories.  Grand Canyon National Park, for instance, introduced scattering permits in 1994, and national parks like Yosemite require a scattering permit.  Abbey Hepner’s photographic project Temporary Container argues that one key reason such spaces are chosen is because they are “scenic, postcard-worthy and highly photographed areas.”  This month Aztec Ruins National Monument and Chaco Culture National Historical Park  prohibited scattering of human remains.  The parks’ superintendent indicated that “We’ve had a couple this year, people leaving ashes in the Great Kiva (at Aztec Ruins) and at Chaco we’ve had between 25 and 30 this year,” which disturbs archaeological remains and violates indigenous spaces.

Historic sites have also been scattering points.  In 2008 staff at Jane Austen’s House Museum  felt compelled to prohibit human ash scatterings in Austen’s idyllic Hampshire gardens; the collection’s manager exclaimed that “It is distressing for visitors to see mounds of human ash, particularly so for our gardener.  Also, it is of no benefit to the garden!”  In 2013 Richie Havens’ ashes were left at the site of the Woodstock concert.

By all accounts, cremation is becoming increasingly common in the US–in 2017 more than half of Americans will be cremated when they die.  In the UK two-thirds of the deceased have opted for cremation since the 1970’s.  Leonie Kellaher, David Prendergast, and Jenny Hockey’s 2005 study of cremation in the UK found that many people chose cremation and scattering to escape the “fixity” of a cemetery and death rituals governed by municipal and religious regulations.  Cremation scatterings may seem placeless dispersals in some observers’ imaginations; however, Kellaher, Prendergast, and Hockey found that many survivors scattered cremation remains yet retained some ashes in a particular spot, knew the location where the ashes had been released at sea, or otherwise kept remains in personally meaningful spaces.

CJ Twomey's ashes being scattered along the Rhine in Cologne (image from Scattering CJ).

CJ Twomey’s ashes being scattered along the Rhine in Cologne (image from Scattering CJ).

Americans’ increasingly common ash scattering probably reflects the same disenchantment with deathways that Prendergast, Hockey and Kellaher outlined in their 2006 study of British cremation disposal.  Cremation rituals in the US are an emergent if flexible set of rituals, but bereavement has become increasingly controlled by survivors managing the material remains of their families and friends.  Both the UK and US governments exercise very little regulation of cremated remains, so survivors have a significant amount of freedom over the disposal of the deceased (in contrast, Belgium, Germany, and Italy are among the states that forbid cremated remains leave a cemetery or formal site).  Prendergast, Hockey and Kellaher argue that ash as a material thing can be kept at home as a presence; it can be released in a meaningful place; or it can be scattered in meaningful places while portions remain in the hands of survivors.  Ash scattering roots the deceased in consequential communal experiences in places like stadiums and theme parks; scattering favors spaces like the Grand Canyon or La Bombonera that appear resistant to change, if not timeless; and it allows groups of people like CJ Twomey’s family and friends to share grief through the scattering of his ashes.

 

References

Liam David Renshaw Brown

2012 Death in the City: The St. Lawrence Funeral Centre thesis.  Masters Thesis, University of Waterloo.

 

Douglas James Davies and Lewis H. Mates (editors)

2005 Encyclopedia of Cremation.  Ashgate Publishing, Aldershot, UK.

 

Doris Francis, Leonie Kellaher, and Georgina Neophytu

2005 The Secret Cemetery.  Berg, Oxford.

 

Robert W. Habenstein

1949 A Sociological Study of the Cremation Movement in the United States. M.A. Thesis, University of Chicago.

 

Hans Hadders

2013 Cremation in Norway: regulation, changes and challengesMortality 18(2):195-213.

 

Howard Williams

2011 Cremation and present pasts: A contemporary archaeology of Swedish memory groves.  Mortality 16(2):113-130. (subscription access)

 

Tom Jokinen

2010 Curtains: Adventures of an Undertaker-in-Training.  Da Capo Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

 

Lisa Kazmier

2009 Leading the World: The Role of Britain and the First World War in Promoting the “Modern Cremation” MovementJournal of Social History 42(3):557-579.  (subscription access)

 

Leonie Kellaher, David Prendergast, and Jenny Hockey

2005 In the shadow of the traditional graveMortality 10(4): 237-250. (subscription access)

 

David Prendergast, Jenny Hockey and Leonie Kellaher

2006 Blowing in the Wind? Identity, Materiality, and the Destinations of Human AshesThe Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 12(4):881-898.  (subscription access)

 

Stephen R. Prothero

2001 Purified by fire: A history of cremation in America. University of California Press, Berkeley.

 

Pamela Roberts

2010 What Now? Cremation Without Tradition.  Omega: Journal Of Death & Dying 62(1): 1-30. (subscription access)

 

Mark Rowe

2003 Grave Changes: Scattering Ashes in Contemporary JapanJapanese Journal of Religious Studies 30(1/2):85-118. (subscription access)

 

Erin Sawatzky

2009 Death Perception: Envisioning a Cemetery Landscape for the 21st Century.  Master of Landscape Architecture Practicum, University of Manitoba.

 

Tim Flohr Sørensen

2009 The presence of the dead: Cemeteries, cremation and the staging of non-placeJournal of Social Archaeology 9(1):110-135.  (subscription access)

 

Images

2011 Goddard Flight image from Celestis

Auburn Cremation Ashes image from Auburn Turf Team

CJ Twomey ash scattering, Rhine River Cologne Germany image from Scattering CJ

Fenway Scoreboard image from Alex

Haunted Mansion image from Jeff Fillmore

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. Read the rest of this entry

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

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