Commemoration and African-American Place: Remembering Basketball and the Dust Bowl

The page from Oscar Robertson's scrapbook detailing the 1955 State Title (click for larger image; image from IUPUI University Library).

The page from Oscar Robertson’s scrapbook detailing the 1955 State Title (click for larger image; image from IUPUI University Library).

In 1955 Crispus Attucks High School won the Indiana high school basketball crown in one of the state’s most fabled sporting moments.  In basketball-mad Indiana there are many reasons to celebrate the 1955 Tigers’ victory: fronted by hardwood legend Oscar Robertson, the Tigers are venerated for their march through the ranks of Indiana high school basketball teams in 1955 and their domination of the state’s best teams throughout the 1950’s (Attucks also took crowns in 1956 and 1959 and had a near-miss in 1951).

Garage-mounted basketball hoops, stanchions rolled out onto suburban dead-ends, and scattered courts remain one of the most commonplace features of the Indianapolis landscape, where the game is a staple of everyday life.  An astounding range of people have embraced the Attucks basketball championship, which is often spun as racism’s conquest at the hands of civility and fairness—qualities that are often somewhat idealistically projected onto basketball.  Sport looms in this narrative as one of the rare activities White and Black Hoosiers shared in the 1950’s, forging some measure of understanding if not equality beyond the hardwood.  This picture of Cold War segregated basketball risks over-stating the transformations worked by basketball or mistaking good intentions for structural changes.  Nevertheless, basketball and sport did indeed provide promising glimpses into the possibilities of a life outside anti-Black racism (Richard Pierce’s 2000 study of the 1951 Attucks championship provides a compelling analysis of the intersection of the post-war color line and basketball).

Attucks players after their regional victory in 1954 (image 1954 Crispus Attucks Yearbook).

Attucks players after their regional victory in 1954 (image 1954 Crispus Attucks Yearbook).

This month Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis (IUPUI) held an event that aspires to move this discussion about life, sport, and the color line onto the contemporary landscape.  At the beginning of April the University commemorated one of the city’s most fabled neighborhood basketball courts, a court known locally as the “Dust Bowl.”  The Dust Bowl was originally a dirt court that sat near the segregated Black housing community Lockefield Gardens, which opened in 1937 in the heart of the predominately Black near-Westside.  The original “dust” surface was described by the Indianapolis Recorder’s Jim Cummings as “cinders and gravel between two backboards with netless rims,” but it had been paved by 1948; nevertheless, the “dust bowl” moniker stuck and remained attached to the tournaments first played at Lockefield in 1948.

In March, 1951 Cummings was perhaps the first commentator to celebrate the Dust Bowl’s consequence as a training ground for both basketball skills and citizenship.  As the team began its first significant march through the state tournament, Cummings intoned that “practically every aspiring Negro basketballer in the city has sent his favorite shot zooming through the Dust Bowl hoops.  And it’s there that the majority of the members of Attucks’ sensational 1951 net team learned the game that they now play so well.  … And it’s there that they learned the rules and practice of good sportsmanship.”  Many people in Cummings’ wake have reached a similar conclusion that the demonstration of basketball prowess and good citizenship on the hardwood staked a claim for African-American citizenship beyond the court.

An image of Oscar Robertson playing during the 1954-1955 season (image from Robertson Scrapbooks, IUPUI University Library).

Oscar Robertson playing during the 1954-1955 season (image from Robertson Scrapbooks, IUPUI University Library).

A host of compelling histories could be illuminated by the newly commemorated Dust Bowl, but the central challenge may be simply to push the narrative beyond basketball to a picture of the ways sport functioned in segregated America.  One of the most fascinating possibilities of the newly reconstructed Dust Bowl courts is their potential to acknowledge a place and heritage that is otherwise invisible on the contemporary landscape.  The thousands of homes that carpeted the near-Westside—including the homes of many Dust Bowl players–have long ago been erased along with the Dust Bowl itself, victims of postwar urban renewal projects that took aim on African Americans in virtually every American city.  The African-American community that quietly flourished in segregated Indianapolis remains relatively poorly understood even by basketball fans who celebrate the Attucks championships.  Even sympathetic observers hazard misunderstanding the consequence of African-American places like the Dust Bowl as refuges of social and political solidarity removed from everyday indignities and unfairness (compare Robin D.G. Kelley’s study of the politics of Black leisure and everyday life).

A 1980 image of Lockefield Gardens looking south.  The Dust Bowl would have been near the top and center of this image at the south end of Lockefield (image IUPUIUniversity Archives).

A 1980 image of Lockefield Gardens looking south. The Dust Bowl would have been near the top and center of this image at the south end of Lockefield (image IUPUIUniversity Archives).

The Dust Bowl sat at the south end of the WPA housing community Lockefield Gardens, but the court hosted players from all over the neighborhood and city.  Oscar Robertson notes in his biography that the dust bowl name originally referred to an impromptu dirt court “a few blocks from our house” on Colton Street, but “the paved courts over at Lockefield Gardens took over the dust bowl name … sometime during my adolescence.  The Indianapolis Police Athletic League sponsored basketball and football leagues at the `new Dust Bowl.’”  In 1951, Jim Cummings said much the same thing when he indicated that “this asphalt-covered court with its shabby backboards and worn-out nets is known all over town as the `Lockefield Dust Bowl.’”  He noted that “in the summer, the bucketeers get going at the crack of dawn. …They shoot till long after dark.”

The Lockefield court became the scene of an enormously competitive tournament that played host to many of the Midwest’s best players.  The Dust Bowl tournament was started in 1948 by Police Athletic League (PAL) officer James “Bruiser” Gaines, who built on the Lockefield PAL programs started by Anthony Watkins.  Attucks graduate Watkins moved to Lockefield in 1940, managing recreation programs at Lockefield and working during the war as the first Black machinist at the Curtis Wright Defense Plant.  In April, 1944 he became an Indianapolis Police Department Officer while directing the Lockefield PAL Club, and he eventually became the force’s first African-American Captain.  Gaines likewise was an Attucks graduate who moved to Lockefield in 1941 and took over when Watkins left the Lockefield PAL Club in 1948.

The first tournament in 1948 was sponsored by Stuart Mortuary and Sunset Cleaners.  About 20 teams were chosen by captains, with James Barrett’s team beating Garnett Rhim’s team for the first crown.  The annual August tournament soon became a major event, with thousands of people crowding around the courts to watch many of the country’s best players.  In 1953, for instance, Attucks star Willie Gardner led the Stuart Mortuary team to the crown.  Gardner had been part of the 1951 Attucks team and was one of a series of Attucks players who would go on to play for Harlem Globetrotters.  The runner-up “Blake Street Blues” team was led by 1947 Indiana “Mr. Basketball” Bill Garrett, who was the first African American to play for Indiana University and an All-American in 1951.  Garrett eventually became Attucks coach in 1957 and won the state title in 1959 before playing as a Globetrotter and eventually becoming an Assistant Dean at IUPUI.

Perhaps the best-known of these players is Oscar Robertson, whose fabled career sometimes overshadows the broader story of the neighborhoods around the Dust Bowl.  Robertson and his older brother Bailey lived on Colton Street just west of the Dust Bowl and Locke Street.  For all his remarkable sporting achievements, much of Robertson’s upbringing and youth in Indianapolis’ near-Westside was quite typical.

The 1898 Sanborn Insurance map shows 1005 Colton Street (second from the left).

The 1898 Sanborn Insurance map shows 1005 Colton Street (the second house from the left here).  Alley houses sat in the back yards of neighboring homes at 973 and 975 Colton.

The house Robertson grew up in on Colton Street was built in the 1890s and was typical of the small and densely packed frame homes around the Indiana University Medical Center.  Known until April, 1903 as Rhode Island Street, Colton Street once reached further east into space that eventually was removed for the construction of Lockefield Gardens.  In 1898 the two blocks where the Robertsons moved in about 1946 had 34 houses, including four doubles and one six-residence unit alongside a series of shotgun-style homes.  A trio of alley houses sat in the backyards of 973-975 Rhode Island Street, immediately neighboring the home where Bailey and Oscar Robertson would grow up.

In 1900 and 1910 a few White households were scattered on Colton Street and in surrounding neighborhoods.  For instance, in 1910 three White families lived on Colton Street.  German-born foundry laborer George Bauer and his wife Nancy lived at 982 Colton Street.  Born in 1839, George had migrated to the United States from Baden in about 1847, volunteering for the all-German 32nd Indiana Infantry regiment (Company I) in 1861.  Bauer saw action at the Battle of Rowlett’s Station; he was subsequently wounded in battle at Shiloh on April 6, 1862; and on September 19, 1863 he received a gunshot to the jaw at Chickamauga (he died in his Colton Street home in 1914).

The Robertsons' future home at 1005 Colton Street in 1915 (yard outlined here in yellow).

The Robertsons’ future home at 1005 Colton Street in 1915 (yard outlined here in yellow).

Living beside the Bauers in 1910 were 68-year old rag picker David McGuire and wife Maggie, who had outlived all eight of her children, and Indiana-born Charles and Lucille West.  European immigrants and White Hoosiers had lived alongside African Americans in the near-Westside over the second half of the 19th century, but the Bauers, McGuires, and Wests were among the last White families living in the neighborhood.  In 1914 every household on Colton Street was African American, and many more streets in the near-Westside were likewise racially segregated.  Indianapolis housing remained strictly segregated until the late 1950s, with affluent and working-class African Americans compelled to live in relatively contiguous neighborhoods.

In 1928 John Crumes moved to 1005 Colton Street, the house that would become the Robertsons’ home in about 1946.  Like many other African Americans, Crumes had come to Indianapolis from Kentucky in about 1917, when he, his wife, and five children moved into a house on West Walnut Street a block from Colton.  African-American migration waves to Indianapolis came at the turn of the century and during World War II, but a steady stream of African Americans from the upper South (especially Kentucky) arrived in the period between 1900 and 1950.  Crumes moved to 1005 Colton Street in 1928 and remained there until 1939, when he moved a few doors down to 1019 Colton Street in 1940.  Of the 29 houses on the street in 1940, only Crumes lived in the same home in both 1940 and 1950, eventually moving to West 35th Street in 1955.

Families around the Dust Bowl tended to move quite often, but they routinely moved short distances and remained in the same neighborhood.  In 1940, the house at 1005 Colton Street was home to Gladys Cruse.  Cruse had just moved with her five children from an alley house off Agnes Street a few blocks away, and she would move again within a year.  Two more families called the house home before it stood vacant in 1945.  By the 1947 city directory’s publication, the Robertsons were living in 1005 Colton Street.

The houses along Colton Street were quite insubstantial, and they declined significantly by the 1940s, when a wave of wartime migrants arrived in the near-Westside.  Landlords subdivided existing homes, and at 1005 Colton Street a 19th-century back yard stable was transformed into an insubstantial home (it appears to have last been rented in 1942).  The modest backyards and slender lots were already crammed with outhouses, and none of the Colton Street homes appears to have ever had indoor plumbing installed before the last of the houses were torn down in 1958.

Oscar Robertson himself remembers Colton Street as “maybe two blocks long; it wasn’t paved, just surfaced with a mix of gravel and oil that had been packed down over time.”  The Robertsons’ home was “your standard shotgun shack.  Its rooms joined in a straight line that you could look through, and the roof was made of tar paper—just strong enough to protect us from rain, but too flimsy to shelter us from cold, windy nights, or flies and mosquitos.  There was running water, but the toilet was outside.”

A few blocks from the Robertsons sat Calvin Bryant’s home on Hiawatha Street.  The Robertsons, Bryants, and many of their neighbors had fled the South in the inter-war period.  The Bryants came to Indianapolis from South Carolina in 1946, and Calvin was working at the Indiana University Medical Center as a porter, living first on West Vermont Street and then moving to Hiawatha Street by 1949.  Bryant’s son Hallie was among Crispus Attucks’ first stars, playing on the 1951 team that lost in the state semifinal before receiving the highest prep honor of being named Indiana Mr. Basketball two years later.  He then went on to play at Indiana University, and after two years military service he spent 27 years as a Harlem Globetrotter.

A 1972 aerial view of the south end of Lockefield Gardens.  The two rows of houses are Lockefield's group houses, and the building between them is William D. McCoy Public School #24.  The court sat in the center of this image north of the school.

A 1972 aerial view of the south end of Lockefield Gardens. The two rows of houses are Lockefield’s group houses, and the building between them is William D. McCoy Public School #24. The court sat in the center of this image north of the school.  Seethe close-up below.

A March, 1952 Indianapolis Recorder inventory of the year’s 12 Attucks basketball teammates identified all their homes addresses, and perhaps the most striking characteristic is that nearly all of their homes are now gone and many of the very streets have been erased.  The homes of Hallie Bryant, Bailey Robertson, and Willie Posley are under the IU Medical Center (and the streets themselves now gone); Willie Gardner’s home on North Missouri now sits under state office complexes; future Globetrotter Cleveland Harp’s home on Capital Avenue is a parking lot in the shadow of Interstate-65; Robert Parrish’s house site on Franklin Place is now a post office; once described by the Recorder as a “toy bulldog,” Leahman Covington’s house on Hovey Street is gone; and Rudy Adams’ house on West 27th Street today sits under Ivy Tech Community College.  Class of 1951 player Charles Gilbert Cook was one of the Attucks basketball players who lived in Lockefield, but most of the players gathering at the Dust Bowl and playing for the Tigers lived scattered about the near-Westside.  Holsey Hickman’s house at 3964 Rookwood appears to be the only 1952 team members’ home that still stands today (his mother Doris Stokes was a well-known Indianapolis musician).  Coach Ray Crowe’s 1952 home on 2105 Boulevard Place is also still standing.

The outlines of the Lockefield court are barely perceptible in this 1972 aerial image.

The outlines of the Lockefield court are barely perceptible in this 1972 aerial image.

The Lockefield Dust Bowl tournaments included many of the region’s best players.  In 1953, the Stuart’s Mortuary team won the tournament behind Willie Gardner and Hallie Bryant, winning an overtime final over the Blake Street Blues led by Bill Garrett.  Notre Dame star Joe Bertrand (one of the first two African-American players in South Bend) led the Stuart’s Morticians team to the crown the following year.  In 1956, the Dison Heating team came to Lockefield as part of a “barnstorming” tour of the Midwest armed with Oscar Robertson and his brother Bailey, as well as Bill Brown (1955-1956 Attucks state champ also played at Tennessee State, was a Globetrotter, and appeared in an ad in the 1956 Attucks yearbook for Leon Tailoring) and Herschell Turner (a Shortridge High School player who went on to play for the Syracuse Nationals in the NBA, two ABA teams, and the Globetrotters).  The Dison team beat out the Blake Street Blues, once more led by Bill Garrett.  Most victors in the tournament emerged from central Indiana, but in 1960 three of the final four teams in the tournament were from Chicago, with the winning team led by NBA players Shellie McMillon and Willie “The Bird” Jones.

In 1984 the Dust Bowl court had been removed along with School 24, the group houses, and half of the original Lockefield structures.

In 1984 the Dust Bowl court had been removed along with School 24, the group houses, and half of the original Lockefield structures.

The expansion of the Indiana University Medical Center, a host of federal legislation targeting “blighted” communities, and the emergence of the IUPUI campus quite rapidly erased most of the near-Westside.  In 1954 the Robertsons appeared in the city directory at 1005 Colton Street, but Oscar Robertson remembers in his biography that the family was displaced by expansion of the Indiana University Medical Center that summer.  In 1957 18 families still appeared in the city directory on Colton Street, and Napoleon Jones had moved into the home at 1005 Colton Street.  However, a year later every family on Colton Street had been relocated, and the final houses were razed and the street itself was removed not long after.

As the neighborhood was de-populated, the Lockefield tournament soon left the near-Westside as well.  In August, 1974 the Indianapolis Recorder soberly acknowledged that the 1974 tournament “will likely be the last event on the Westside court. … Lockefield is currently being renovated and most of the families being moved out.”  Yet a year later the tournament returned for what appears to have been its final playing at Lockefield, with George McGinnis and the B&H All-Stars winning their ninth Lockefield title (like many Dust Bowlers, McGinnis had spent at least part of his childhood living on the near-Westside, including a home on Minerva Street).

The original site of the Lockefield basketball courts, with Lockefield Gardens in the background looking north.

The original site of the Lockefield basketball courts, with Lockefield Gardens in the background looking north.

The former Attucks players remain models of Ray Crowe’s dignity and ambition, so it is perhaps easy to overlook the dehumanization many of them faced.  Their narrative of everyday community life does not ignore anti-Black racism as much as it does not allow their stories to be told in hindsight simply as responses to a segregated world.  In that picture of everyday life, the Dust Bowl was a consequential Black public place, a space that incubated African-American politics without ever being seen as an especially politicized place.  Yet perhaps by acknowledging the courts once more and recognizing the everyday culture of basketball and leisure in the now-effaced near Westside, a more complicated narrative than basketball nostalgia may emerge.

 

References

Robert G. Barrows

2007 The Local Origins of a New Deal Housing Project: The Case of Lockefield Gardens in Indianapolis. The Indiana Magazine of History 103(2):125-151.

 

Robert Scott Carey

2011 Hoosiers on the Hardwood: A Critical Examination of Indiana Basketball Culture and its Effect on Identity Formation.  Masters Thesis, Brock University.

 

Aram Goudsouzian

2000 “Ba–ad, Ba–a–ad Tigers”: Crispus Attucks Basketball and Black Indianapolis in the 1950sIndiana Magazine of History 96(1):4-43.

 

Tom Graham and Rachel Graham Cody

2008 Getting Open: the Unknown Story of Bill Garrett and the Integration of College Basketball. Indiana University Press, Bloomington.

 

Robin D.G. Kelley

1993 “We are not what we seem”: Rethinking black working-class opposition in the Jim Crow SouthJournal of American History 80(1):75-112.

 

Richard B. Pierce

2000 More Than a Game: The Political Meaning of High School Basketball in IndianapolisJournal of Urban History 27(1):3-23.  (subscription access)

2005 Polite Protest: The Political Economy of Race in Indianapolis, 1920-1970.  Indiana University Press, Bloomington.

 

Randy Roberts

2012 But They Can’t Beat Us!: Oscar Robertson and the Crispus Attucks Tigers.  Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis.

 

Oscar Robertson

2003 The Big O: My Life, My Times, My Game.  Rodale, New York.

 

Images

1954 Regional Victory image from Crispus Attucks Museum Collection, IUPUI University Library

1980 Lockefield image and 1984 Lockefield aerial from IUPUI University Library

Oscar Robertson circa 1955 image and Scrapbook page image from Oscar Robertson personal scrapbook for the 1954-1955 Tigers season, IUPUI University Library

Mapping the Black Road: Segregated Driving and the Indianapolis Roadside

The 1956 Negro Motorist Green Book (image South Carolina University Library).

The 1956 Negro Travelers’ Green Book (image University of South Carolina Digital Collections Library).

In a 1936 study of life in segregated rural Georgia, Arthur Franklin Raper captured the anxiety posed by the African-American car and the political implications of African-American travel.  Raper saw the roads as spaces in which White privilege was being undermined if not contested, noting that “only on automobiles on public roads do landlords and tenants and white people and Negroes of the Black Belt meet on the basis of equality. … [T]he tenant can go where he pleases on the public road, and after he gets twenty or thirty minutes from home he travels incognito and is subject to his own wishes.”

The story of segregation is often told in spaces that hosted civil rights confrontations: lunch counters, bus stations, and school steps are concrete spots where the denial of privilege was contested.  Nevertheless, all public space was regulated, and Black movement inspired particularly neurotic fears.  One White farmer interviewed by Arthur Raper “advocated that the cars be taken from the Negroes or that the county maintain two systems of roads, one for the whites and one for the Negroes!”  Movement evoked freedom, independence, and agency outside White surveillance, so it inspired anxiety over more than a century:  an uneasiness that African Americans were operating outside White control was shared by antebellum ideologues viewing the Underground Railroad, Northern cities witnessing the Great Migration, and Georgia farmers watching African-American cars on the public roadway. Read the rest of this entry

Vacationing and the African-American Dream

Recorder June 19 1926 Fox Lake ad

Fox Lake's "Big Opening" was heralded in the Indianapolis Recorder on June 19th, 1926.

Fox Lake’s “Big Opening” was heralded in the Indianapolis Recorder on June 19th, 1926 (click for larger image).

In June, 1926 the Indianapolis Recorder heralded the opening of Fox Lake, “the long looked for Indiana lake resort for colored people.”  Two weeks later the paper ran a spectacular advertisement for a Fourth of July event at Idlewild of Indiana, a segregated vacation getaway south of Indianapolis “promoted by the `race’ for the `race.’”  In many ways nothing especially dramatic distinguishes such African-American vacation spots from the legion of forest cabins, beaches, and leisure destinations that dotted America.  The 20th-century rural Midwest was carpeted by African-American vacation spots that mirrored segregated leisure spaces that began to emerge throughout the country around the turn of the century.  Yet in the midst of segregation places like Fox Lake incubated an African American Dream that was perhaps distinguished by a simultaneous embrace of “middle class” values and a rejection of their presumed White exclusivity.  Places like Fox Lake certainly provided refuge from racism, but they also incubated class respectability, fed economic and social ambitions, and fanned genuine politicization.

A text-heavy pitch for Idlewild of Michigan that appeared in the Indianapolis Recorder March 18, 1916.

A text-heavy pitch for Idlewild of Michigan that appeared in the Indianapolis Recorder March 18, 1916.

Widespread middle-class ambitions did not grant mass access to inter-war African-American resorts.  Idlewild of Michigan (which had no relationship to the Idlewild of Indiana resort) was the most prominent African-American resort in the Midwest, and when the Indianapolis Recorder first referred to it in March, 1916 the African-American newspaper celebrated that “beautiful Idlewild is to be an exclusive, high-class colored summer resort.”  Idlewild ads emphasized that the resort “has been thoroughly investigated by a number of prominent business people and professional people of the race.”  A 1919 promotional pamphlet for Idlewild expressly targeted “the thinking, progressive, active class of people, who are leading spirits of their communities.”

The Black elite enlisted to boost their cause included Madam C.J. Walker, who owned property at Idlewild.  Once control of Idlewild was turned over to African Americans in 1921, W.E.B. Du Bois waxed poetic about the retreat in The Crisis: “For sheer physical beauty … it is the beautifulest stretch I have seen for twenty years; and to that add fellowship—sweet, strong women and keen-witted men from Canada and Texas, California and New York, Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois—all sons and great-grandchildren of Ethiopia, all with the wide leisure of rest and play—can you imagine a more marvelous thing than Idlewild?” Read the rest of this entry

Littering Everest: Nature, Toilets, and Waste on Mt. Everest

One of the most recent volleys in a long-running moral critique of consumption, pollution, and imperialism comes from Mt. Everest, where uneasy scholars and activists have long decried the detritus left on the world’s tallest peak.  In 1963 National Geographic photographer Barry Bishop was part of the first American team to scale Everest, and he described the mountain as “the world’s highest junk yard.”  Indeed, climbers ascending the mountain have discarded oxygen tanks, tattered tents, food containers, and a helicopter, and dead climbers have been left on the peak since George Mallory and Andrew Irvine died in an ascent attempt in 1924Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay scaled the mountain for the first time in 1953, and Hillary later said “I must admit, when we went to Everest in 1953, we heaved our rubbish around with the best of them. That was nearly forty years ago and in those days hardly anyone had even heard of conservation.”  When the New York Times examined the massive growth of tourism to Nepal in 1978, Hillary lamented that the Everest region “is now an ecological slum.  Tins and trash clutter up the paths and campsites. … The traditional culture is being crushed by the insidious economic machine.”

Last week the head of Nepal’s mountaineering association spearheaded the charge to address the most repulsive of this trash when he took aim on “large amounts of feces and urine” left on the world’s tallest mountain.   The Washington Post amplified the rhetoric over human waste on the peak when it repeated Grayson Schaffer’s 2013 description of Everest as a “fecal time bomb,” quite possibly the most colorful description ever provided for a potential ecological disaster.  By various counts, over 5000 climbers have relieved themselves on Everest and left “pyramids of human excrement.”  In 2012 a Washington Post column by Schaffer had sounded the same jarring image of the Everest base camp outhouses “continuously overflowing with waste.”  Last year Outside’s Lauren Steele reported on climbers’ longstanding practice of defecating into glacier crevasses, and with mountain warming “the glacier—and the waste entombed within it—is slowly making its way back toward Base Camp,” where climbers drink the melt water. Read the rest of this entry

The Ruins of Racism

Eminems' childhood home graced the cover of his Marshall Mathers 1 and 2 albums.

Eminem’s childhood home graced the cover of his Marshall Mathers 1 album (2000), and it stood empty in 2013 on the cover of the Marshall Mathers 2 album (shown here).

Detroit’s 8 Mile Road is perhaps today best known as the thoroughfare bordering the neighborhood where Marshall Mathers grew up.  Eminem’s 2002 film 8 Mile told his story of life adjoining the roadway that has often loomed as the line separating White and Black Detroit.  The neighborhood’s residents and decline have routinely been reduced to shallow clichés, like USA Today’s 2002 conclusion that “8 Mile Road remains what it was three decades ago: a catch basin for the city’s human flotsam”; in 2006 The Guardian called 8 Mile Road “America’s most notorious highway, the road that divides black from white.”  Such rhetoric provides little insight into Detroit, but it does underscore the emotion if not irrationality that shapes how we imagine landscapes along and across color lines.  Many of these landscapes today are in ruins or are prosaic declining spaces like stretches of 8 Mile Road, so they are easy to ignore or reduce to shallow analyses.  Nevertheless, viewed simply as dehistoricized ruins these places risk being divorced from a legion of racist inequalities that have shaped the contemporary American city. Read the rest of this entry

Intimate Spaces: The Archaeology of Pockets

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The contents of Abraham Lincoln’s pockets when he was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre in April, 1865 (Library of Congress).

On April 14, 1865 Abraham Lincoln went to the theatre for the evening, a night that would end in his murder and death the following morning.  Lincoln’s pockets contained a handful of prosaic and idiosyncratic things:  two pairs of eye glasses, a lens polisher, a pocket knife, a watch fob, a handkerchief, and a brown leather wallet containing a Confederate banknote and nine newspaper clippings.   The things in Lincoln’s pockets were perhaps a chance assemblage, like the $62.00 and a plane ticket in Kurt Cobain’s pocket when he died in April, 1994.  Those scatters of things in Lincoln and Cobain’s pockets occupied perhaps the most intimate of all clothing spaces that we generally reserve for our most essential and meaningful things.  We tend to see pockets as harboring a special class of prosaic yet consequential things even as the pockets themselves claim a distinctively intimate but unexamined status.

Few spaces could be more familiar yet more unremarked upon than pockets.  Clothing pockets are a presence of sorts, but like edges of an excavation unit their material definition may be made by their tangible boundaries and the things in them rather than the vacuum that is perhaps the actual pocket.  Pockets are distinctively intimate since they are stitched into our public garments yet conceal our bodies, and they hold a narrow range of small things like coins, keys, wallets, phones, makeup, lighters, and similar objects that for various reasons are held close to our bodies and accessible to our hands.  There are some idiosyncratic but illuminating insights into privacy, place, and self that can be made based on an “excavation” of pockets and the cargo that finds refuge in them. Read the rest of this entry

Cats as Domestic Spectacle: Outfitting the Modern Cat

The Cat Tower provides a chance for your cats to climb, jump, and perhaps even spin (from Catwheel).

The Cat Tower provides a chance for your cats to climb, jump, and perhaps even spin (from Catwheel).

While most of our cats are curled up on the couch, at least a handful of them appear to be lounging in stylish, creative, and even well-designed furnishings that would put many couches to shame.  This new wave of cat furnishings goes beyond the commonplace cat tower or scratch pad covered in non-descript carpet fragments that bored your cat within an hour.  Even the most indifferent cat would be curious about a host of astounding feline furnishings with massive turning wheels, sky towers, cat beds, toilet towers, neo-futurist scratching pads, cat tunnel sofas, and wonderful pieces of cat-climbing sculpture.  For those of us concerned about design, LazyBonezz’ Metropolitan pet bunk bed (in ebony or fire red) is typical of the new goods that will accommodate your pampered cat (or trim dog) in a sleek wood and stainless steel bunk bed accessed by skid-resistant steps and outfitted with microfiber cushions.  A precious few cats are even more fortunate to have the run of houses designed to turn people spaces into three-dimensional volumes accessible to cats via ceiling-suspended walkways and climbing walls.

Wohnblock's cat tower aspires to double as a piece of domestic sculpture (image from Wohnblock).

Wohnblock’s cat tower aspires to double as a piece of domestic sculpture (image from Wohnblock).

It would be easy to dismiss cat design and high-style cat products simply as misplaced affluence, but focusing purely on pet spending ignores the ways our pets profoundly shape our own household materiality.  The fascinating Hauspanther web page inventories many of these high-style cat consumer goods, arguing that “good design can enhance the way we live with cats, improving our lives and the lives of our beloved feline companions.  By paying attention to the design of objects and environments, we can create living spaces that accommodate the natural instincts of cats – keeping them happy, healthy and well behaved – without compromising our own sense of style and comfort.” Read the rest of this entry

Punk Archaeology and the Mainstream

The 2014 Punk Archaeology collection (image from MediterraneanWorld blog).

The 2014 Punk Archaeology collection (image from Mediterranean World blog).

Perhaps all scholarship inevitably hazards descending into stale convention or becoming an insular academic pursuit.  One of the most novel recent movements to unsettle archaeological conventions is “punk archaeology,” which is perhaps most clearly illustrated in William Caraher, Kostis Kourelis, and Andrew Reinhard’s edited 2014 collection Punk Archaeology.  A fascinating Society for Historical Archaeology session last week examined punk archaeology, especially the public dimensions that Lorna Richardson has most closely examined.  Punk archaeologists are leery of being narrowly defined, but a punk research perspective typically takes aim on “mainstream” archaeology: that is, in archaeology and many other disciplines the notion of punk seeks to transform scholarship that is normative, predictable, easily ignored, apolitical, emotionless, overly academic, or simply dull.  Punk archaeology embraces a critical and compelling assault on unquestioned scholarly traditions and the academy, and it drew a roomful of people at the SHA conference and has received plenty of press coverage.  Nevertheless, it may deliver death rites to a stereotyped mainstream and academy that have already disappeared or never existed in the first place.

The DIY ethic of punk is perhaps best reflected in the host of show flyers made for punk shows, including this 1987 flyer for a St.Louis show (image JB Kopp).

The DIY ethic of punk is perhaps best reflected in the host of show flyers made for punk shows, including this 1987 flyer for a St.Louis show (image JB Kopp).

Simply labeling any scholarship punk is a bit of a rhetorical maneuver, a point made by Zack Furniss’ Punkademics and also underscored in fandom scholarship that has contemplated the relationship between fans and academics since the 1980’s (cf. Matt Hills’ “fan-as-intellectual,” Henry Jenkins’ “Confessions of an Aca-Fan” blog, and Tanya Cochran’s study of “scholar-fandom”).  A punk archaeology risks posing a clumsy contrast between, on the one hand, the notion of punk as spontaneous, experiential, anti-intellectual, and anarchic and, on the other hand, the stereotype of academic archaeologists as insular and unimaginative squares committed to jargon and tweed jackets.  The line between academics and everyday people has long been much more complicated and frequently violated than we are often willing to acknowledge; there certainly are some academics committed to deep-seated scholarly traditions and clueless about The Simpsons, but there is little evidence that most academics are indifferent to everyday life and popular culture or that popular artists are not themselves intellectuals. Read the rest of this entry

If Things Could Speak

Archaeologists are routinely flummoxed by the idiosyncratic dimensions of material things; we seem unable in most instances to capture the personal histories and inchoate emotions invested in apparently prosaic things.  Nearly all of us have random objects or souvenirs from childhood trips, mundane things associated with life events, or objects passed down to us, and when we are not present to tell those stories they are impossible to capture archaeologically.  A novel kickstarter project proposes to ensure these individual and idiosyncratic meanings remain literally attached to things.  Bemoir proposes to capture oral histories and other data sources about an object’s history and record them via near field technology.  For instance, your grandfather could relate the tale of a well-loved teddy bear, you could include pictures of him with it, and you could add a background history on the bear itself; similarly, you could give somebody a piece of art, attach an interview with the artist, and include a story about the gift-giving occasion that you share via Bemoir’s web page and app.

Bemoir's prototype page

Bemoir’s prototype page.  Among the most commonplace symbols of childhood and innocence, the teddy bear is Bemoir’s brand symbol and appears throughout its literature.

On the one hand, the appeal of Bemoir is its capacity to relate utterly idiosyncratic histories told in the vehicle of everyday things and oral memory.  The archaeological record and material world are certainly populated by myriad things with such histories that we know in only cursory ways (e.g., “this was my mom’s watch”), or they are lodged only in our own minds or simply lost over time.  For instance, I hand-write nearly everything like this blog post in journals before transferring the text to digital form.  That perhaps harbors some philosophical insight into the process of writing (compare Tim Ingold’s defense of hand writing), and I like the literal sensation of a pen nib on paper and the visual dimension of seeing and rearranging text.  However, in large part I do so because I have a wonderful Waterman fountain pen.  In pure functional terms, the pen is easy enough to describe in its physical composition and decorative style, and any modestly skilled archaeologist would deduce its age and original price and assess the symbolism of the Waterman firm and hand-writing in the 21st century.  Such analysis is the nuts-and-bolts of archaeology, but such descriptive details would rarely appear in the oral histories of things that Bemoir aspires to produce. Read the rest of this entry

Memorialization on Canfield Drive

In 1970, African-American engineer Adel Allen testified before the United States Commission on Civil Rights about his experience as one of suburban St. Louis’ earliest Black residents.  Allen circumspectly assessed the police services he initially received in his otherwise White suburb of Kirkwood, concluding that “I think we got more police protection than we required when I first moved there.  I don’t know if they were protecting me or protecting someone from me.”  Allen related experiences with the police that ring familiar today, indicating that “I don’t think there’s a black man in South St. Louis County that hasn’t been stopped at least once if he’s been here more than 2 weeks. . . .There’s an almost automatic suspicion that goes along with being black. . . . I’ve been stopped, searched, and I don’t mean searched in the milder sense, I mean laying across the hood of a car. And then told after they found nothing that my tail light bulb was burned out, or I should have dimmed my lights, something like that.”

Lesley McSpadden (center) places rose petals on the blood stains of her son on Canfield Drive (Huy Mach, St Louis Post-Dispatch.com)

Lesley McSpadden (center) places rose petals where her son died earlier on August 9th on Canfield Drive (Huy Mach, St Louis Post-Dispatch.com)

Adel Allen’s experience underscores the tense, long-term relationship between police and the color line, and perhaps it is tempting to conclude that his story might now be considered a historical aberration.  However, not far from Kirkwood over a half-century after Allen moved to St. Louis, Michael Brown’s death has complicated the American imagination of public space and the color line.  That landscape is perhaps most uncomfortably evoked by the otherwise prosaic suburban street where Brown’s body lay for nearly four hours after he was shot August 9th.  The stretch of Canfield Drive where Brown died has become part of an informal memorial landscape, with an array of idiosyncratic things placed along the street by a steady stream of visitors.  The spectacle of Brown’s body on the non-descript street captures much of the tensions with local police, but the spontaneous memorialization of the Canfield Drive landscape—and resistance to it–provides an especially interesting insight into the ways we discuss race and public space.

The memorialization of the spot where Michael Brown fell illuminates the Black experience of state racism and extrajudicial punishment, but some observers want Canfield Drive to again become invisible.  Many commentators simply rationalize Brown’s shooting, and some reduce the August encounter to an anomaly in an otherwise equitable society.  Asking how society should remember this stretch of pavement beyond the aftermath of Brown’s death—or if we should publicly remember it at all–asks how (or if) we should materialize landscapes of racism and death. Read the rest of this entry

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