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.

The 1939 Green Book was the first to include businesses in Indianapolis (image New York Public Library).

The 1939 Green Book was the first to include businesses in Indianapolis (image New York Public Library).

Among the most fascinating artifacts of American segregation is Victor Green’s The Negro Motorist Green Book, which charted a path across America for Black drivers between 1936 and 1966 (see the New York Public Library’s wonderful digitized collection).  Green’s manual provided African Americans a guide to places travelers could secure accommodations, food, restroom access, and essential services that were routinely denied along the Jim Crow road.  The Green Book provides an interesting geography of Black travelers’ refuge in segregated America (compare the interactive map of all the 1956 Green Book locations or the Mapping the Green Book blog).  The Green Book is a fascinating guide to Black space, but it is perhaps equally compelling for its illumination of hidden codes and un-avowed privileges that remain largely unexamined today.

The Green Book’s enormous popularity reflected the increasing growth of car culture in African America as well as middle-class African-American ambitions if not affluence.  Gretchen Sullivan Sorin’s 2009 dissertation on African-American travel in Jim Crow America underscores The Green Book’s focus on a readership that was sufficiently affluent to afford leisure travel.  For wealthy African Americans, segregated rail cars, disagreeable roadside accommodations, and the dangers of life on the road underscored the limits of wealth in the face of racism.

Nevertheless, many of the social and material ambitions of the African-American middle class were shared well beyond the affluent, and over the 1940s and 1950 the family car and The Green Book would reach beyond a narrowly defined Black bourgeoisie to upwardly mobile and ambitious neighbors.  By 1928 there were by one count 21.6 million passenger cars registered in the United States, roughly one for every six individuals (PDF here); John Henry Mueller’s 1928 dissertation on the car concluded that one in five American households already had a car.  Despite the increasing number of cars, though, many people remained without family automobiles into the 1940s or later.  For instance, a 1941 study of automobile consumption in the southeast in 1935-1936 found that 80 of 801 wage-earning Black households owned cars; of 171 professional or clerical workers’ households, 81 (just less than half) had an automobile.

In 1937 Victor Green published his first The Negro Motorist Green Book, a modest manual that focused on the New York City area.  In the 1938 edition he had more widespread coverage of the country east of the Mississippi, and in 1939 locations throughout the country were included.  Eventually at the peak of its popularity in the 1950’s the Green Book included locations throughout the country and a handful of international destinations as well.

In 1939, the first locations in Indiana were included, and they are relatively typical of the sorts of businesses that appeared in the Green Book.  More entries were for Indianapolis than any other Indiana location, and they reveal the details of African-American consumer space in the Hoosier capital.  Indianapolis was a crossroads for rail lines since the mid-19th century, and the city had an African-American community of restaurants, hotels, and businesses serving African Americans by the turn of the 20th century.  Indianapolis lay along well-trafficked roadways reaching into Chicago, Gary, Michigan, and northern Indiana, so it was a convenient stopping point for Black motorists on leisure vacations, family trips, and business travel.

This advertisement for Jenna Crabtree and Lizzie Lasley's Home Cooking appeared in the April, 1926 Indianapolis Recorder.

This advertisement for Jenna Crabtree and Lizzie Lasley’s Home Cooking appeared in the April, 1926 Indianapolis Recorder.

Five of the seven 1939 Indianapolis Green Book entries were for “tourist homes,” private houses with rooms available to travelers, but most of Indianapolis’ Green Book entries over a quarter-century were for restaurants.  In 1939 two eateries were included in the Green Book, and one of the two sat at 510 Indiana Avenue, roughly a block from the well-traveled north-south North West Street.  Identified in 1939 as “Hambric’s Café,” the restaurant was long managed by Elizabeth Lasley Hambric.  Lizzie Lasley and her husband Arthur came to Indianapolis in 1914, and in 1920 he opened a restaurant on Indiana Avenue.  After his death in 1927 Elizabeth and her sister Jennie Crabtree began to manage the “home cooking” restaurant Crabtree and Lasley at 510 Indiana Avenue.

This ad for Lizzie Lasley Hambric's Home Cooking restaurant reminded readers the venue had been serving diners for 40 years.

This 1950 ad for Lizzie Lasley Hambric’s Home Cooking restaurant reminded readers the venue had been serving diners for 40 years.

Lasley married George Hambric in 1931, himself a restauranteur, and after their first appearance in the 1939 Green Book the couple had two entries as both Lasley’s Restaurant and Hambric’s Café in the 1940, 1941, and 1947 Green Books at the same 510 Indiana Avenue address (there are not digitized copies of the 1942-1946 Green Books).  The Green Book listed Lasley’s alone from 1948 through 1957.  George Hambric died in August, 1950, with his obituary identifying him as Manager of Lasley’s Home-Cooking Restaurant “for the past 15 years.”  His wife died three weeks later, and her daughter Thelma managed the restaurant after her mother’s death.  Lasley’s last appeared in the city directory and Green Book alike in 1957, when Thelma died.

Lasley’s was a local institution before the Green Book, but the nationally known travel guide probably did not hurt the restaurant’s popularity.  When Elizabeth Lasley died in 1950, the Indianapolis Recorder recognized the venue had hosted many travelers, observing that the “Lasley Home Cooking Café which she operated became a mecca for many of the country’s notables of all classes while visiting this city.”  The list of luminaries who had eaten at the establishment included “such theatrical and entertainment celebrities as Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Cab Calloway and numerous others.  Political leaders included Oscar DePriest, Congressman William Dawson, [and] Robert R. Church.”

In October, 1949 the Recorder featured this image of William and Margie Benbow.

In October, 1949 the Recorder featured this image of William and Margie Benbow (click on picture for a larger image).

Indiana Avenue was home to many well-known venues that hosted nationally known African-American musicians, and Black musicians were reportedly among the most devoted users of the Green Book.  Some of the Indiana Avenue venues appearing in the Green Book were managed by people who had traveled widely, including a few musicians.  Perhaps the best examples were William and Margie Benbow, who opened the Stormy Weather Café in about 1943 at 319 Indiana Avenue.  Run by two vaudeville veterans, the Stormy Weather appeared in the 1947-1951 Green Books.  William Benbow also became the manager of the Log Cabin Supper Club in 1944, a venue that appeared in the 1947-1957 Green Books (it opened in 1939); he managed the Chief Club on Senate Avenue; he was President of the Rhumboogie Social Club (536 ½ Indiana Avenue); and he was a manager and emcee at the Cotton Club, which opened in 1931 but never appeared in the Green Book.

William Benbow began his career headlining minstrel, vaudeville, and musical troupes, and he would go on to become one of the best-known Southern vaudeville performers.  In 1897 he joined the Old Virginia Cheroots tobacco company show performing the cakewalk.  The cakewalk was an improvisational dance contest that became popular in the 1870s, was performed at the 1876 Centennial of the American Independence, and continued into the early 20th century.  Cakewalk has sometimes been viewed as a sort of “reverse minstrelsy” originating with African-American performers whose dance was an over-exaggerated mimicry of White formal practice; nevertheless, it became popular among White audiences and dancers alike and was a staple of early 20th-century vaudeville.

After serving in the Spanish-American War Benbow managed a series of vaudeville troupes, including Benbow’s Minstrel’s (also known as William Benbow’s Old Plantation Minstrels); the Alabama Chocolate Drop Company (1909-1911); and Benbow and String beans (i.e., the vaudeville performer Butler “String beans” May).  The troupes included the likes of Jelly Roll Morton, who indicated that the multi-talented Benbow “would do straight, blackface, dance, sing duets.”

William and Margie Benbow in front of the Stormy Weather in 1943.

William and Margie Benbow in front of the Stormy Weather in 1943 (click for a larger image).

Like many other Black travelers, Benbow’s troupes faced a host of everyday racist humiliations and some profoundly serious dangers that would later fuel the need for the Green Book among fellow Black travelers.  In 1906, for instance, Jelly Roll Morton was part of a group of Benbow’s performers who escaped an attack after a show in Pine Hill, Alabama.  Morton observed that “Will Benbow was the kind of fool that never thought anything was the matter that he couldn’t talk his way out of.”  Morton himself witnessed two lynchings in Biloxi, Mississippi in 1908 and Greenwood, Mississippi a year later.

By 1927 Benbow had taken his “Black Bottom Follies” troupe to Cuba, Jamaica and Panama, and he eventually toured the Canal Zone and the Caribbean for much of 12 years.  In June, 1928 the Indianapolis Recorder reported that the “Get Happy Revue” was in San Juan “headed by William Benbow and Margie Cohne [sic].”  A month later William Benbow returned to New York City from Puerto Rico with Margie Cohen Benbow and one-year-old son Richard, providing a home address in Chicago.  By 1935 the family had moved to Cincinnati, and after being briefly jailed in 1939 for a shooting (PDF here), he and Margie moved to Indianapolis by April, 1941.

A 1944 ad for the Log Cabin Supper Club under the management of William Benbow.

A 1944 ad for the Log Cabin under the management of William Benbow (click for a larger image).

Green Book travelers stopping for Benbow’s spectacular performances at the Log Cabin Club would have been greeted with a show that was perhaps not designed for mild-mannered travelers.  In April, 1944 the Indianapolis Recorder celebrated that the club was “under the personal management of William Benbow, who is nationally known throughout the country as a topflight producer and promoter of theatrical productions,” and they noted that the Log Cabin was “currently presenting a sparkling floor show, [with] such outstanding performers as Bobby Lanay, strip tease dancer.”  The Log Cabin had opened its doors at 524 Indiana Avenue in 1939, when it was touted as “a brand new modernistic tavern” that would “specialize in Barbecued meats.”  Covered on its façade with logs and a neon sign, the first surviving Green Book with the Log Cabin came in 1947, appearing last in 1957 and standing vacant in 1958.

A 1947 ad for the Club Savoy featured its two managers, Samuel Lawrence and Ruby Goldstein.

A 1947 ad for the Club Savoy featured its two managers, Samuel Lawrence and Ruby Goldstein (click for a larger image).

Indiana Avenue was famed for its jazz night clubs, but the Green Book largely avoided the Avenue’s rich night life.  For most of the 1950’s the Green Book noted only three Indianapolis night clubs: the Savoy, the Blue Bird Inn, and the Blue Eagle Inn.  The Savoy opened in November, 1947 at 1325 East 25th Street, first appearing in the Green Book in 1950 and last appearing in 1955.  The eastside Savoy club was one of a handful of businesses in Indianapolis’ Black community managed by Jewish Americans.  One of the Savoy’s two managers was Samuel Lawrence, who migrated to the United States as a two-year-old with his mother Deborah in August, 1906.  Samuel and Deborah both were born in England, but her parents’ origins were identified as “Russia Poland,” and Samuel himself would eventually marry a Russian-born woman.  When Samuel and his mother arrived in New York they were accompanied by her brother-in-law Morris Goldstein.  The Russian-born Goldstein’s youngest son Ruby (Reuben) was Samuel Lawrence’s partner in the Savoy when it opened, but he was no longer managing the tavern by 1951.  Samuel Lawrence, in contrast, continued to manage the Savoy until he retired in 1975.  The club held events until at least late 1974, well after the Green Book had ceased publication.

In 1933 the Blue Eagle was already featuring its "Special Bulgarian Hot Stew."

In 1933 the Blue Eagle was already featuring its “Special Bulgarian Hot Stew.”

The Blue Eagle Inn also was owned and managed by European immigrants, but unlike the Savoy the Blue Eagle sat in the heart of the Avenue.  The Blue Eagle appeared in the Green Book between 1947 and 1963, but it opened in October, 1933.  Its first owner and manager was Joe Sarbinoff, a Bulgarian immigrant who arrived in New York City in 1914 as Pande Sarbinoff.  Sarbinoff managed a billiards hall and restaurant on Washington Street in the mid-1920’s, where he was twice arrested for liquor law violations by the prohibition police.  The Indianapolis Recorder noted in 1933 that the Blue Eagle was among the Indiana Avenue venues opening in the immediate wake of Prohibition “to do a thriving wine, whisky and song business.”

The Blue Eagle sat at the corner of Indiana Avenue and California Street, offering up “sandwiches, chili, and chop suey” roughly a block from the main north-south thoroughfare of North West Street.  The tavern’s advertisements featured a “special Bulgarian hot stew” until December, 1957.  Within a year of opening Sarbinoff was operating the tavern with Greek immigrant Vasel Christ, who managed the space until 1960, when the club moved to 701 Indiana, remaining there until 1971 (after which it became Billy Mac’s Lounge).

A 1945 ad for James and Rosetta Green's Barbecue Castle, which featured oysters, frog legs, and even Kentucky oysters in addition to its famed barbecue offerings.

A 1945 ad for James and Rosetta Green’s Barbecue Castle, which featured oysters, frog legs, and even Kentucky oysters in addition to its famed barbecue offerings.

In addition to the Blue Eagle’s Bulgarian offerings, Green Book diners stopping in Indianapolis could choose from a host of cuisine.  Certainly no food was more common than barbeque, which was offered up in a number of places like Green’s Barbecue Castle (in the 1947-1948 Green Books).   James and Rosetta Green’s barbecue restaurant opened in the early 1940’s, though in December, 1944 Rosetta stabbed her husband with a smoking pipe; the consummate business person, James “Green delayed going to the City Hospital for more than an hour, the pipe stem still sticking from his skull just above the left eye, while he attended to the business of securing provisions for the Barb-B-Cue restaurant which he operates at 701 Indiana Avenue.”  The Greens apparently reconciled and ran the barbecue together several more years.   Yee Lie Sen’s restaurant at 545 Indiana Avenue was one of a handful of Green Book venues offering up chop suey (as did Blue Eagle Inn and the Oriental Café).

The close relationships among African-American restaurateurs are illuminated by the Green Book.  Barbara Edelen’s daughters Ella Crabtree, Lizzie Lasley Hambric, and Ophelia Welch Herron all ran long-lived restaurants along Indiana Avenue, and their brother Aratha worked at some of the same places.  One of these restaurants, the Mayes Café, appeared in the 1939 Green Book.  Susanna Mayes began operating a restaurant at 503 Indiana Avenue with her husband James in about 1919, and he had a neighboring barber shop until his death in 1938.

A 1949 ad for sisters Ella Crabtree and Ophelia Welch's Royal Grill.

A 1949 ad for sisters Ella Crabtree and Ophelia Welch’s Royal Grill.

By 1943 Susanna Mayes was living at the property but the restaurant was managed by one of Catherin Edelen’s daughters, Ophelia Welch.  Her sister Ella Crabtree joined Ophelia running the café into the late 1950’s.  Susanna Mayes died in 1945, and while Ophelia Welch and Ella Crabtree managed it as the Royal Grill the Green Book continued to list it as the Mayes Cafe until its final appearance in the 1955 Green Book.  Welch married Freeman Herron in 1955, and in 1957 Ophelia Welch Herron owned and managed the Panama Tavern Restaurant, the Speedway Restaurant, and the Royal Grill.   The Mayes Café and its successor the Royal Grill were among the longest-living businesses on Indiana Avenue, with the Royal Grill in operation until its last appearance in the city directory in 1981.

The 500 block of Indiana Avenue in 1991.

The 500 block of Indiana Avenue in 1991 (image Indiana Historic Architecture Slide Collection).

More Indianapolis entries appeared in the Green Book in the mid-1950’s than any other moment.  In the waning moments of Jim Crow segregation, the popular Green Book continued to have a practical value to many travelers, and the simultaneous expansion of car culture put ever-more travelers on the road.  But the 1954 Brown versus Board of Education verdict striking down separate-but-equal facilities spelled the gradual decline of Jim Crow travel.  While shifts in roadside equality eventually doomed the Green Book, the African-American Indianapolis neighborhoods it once focused on were transforming quite dramatically.  By 1960 fair housing practices allowed increasingly more African Americans to move into other neighborhoods, and urban renewal took aim on the neighbors left behind, effacing many of the neighborhoods that had flourished for more than a half-century.

Increasingly more scholars have begun to examine the Green Book as a mirror for the realities of life lived along the color line in the most public of spaces.  The highway would seem entirely outside racism, yet it was for that very reason that so many White observers were wary of Black drivers and travelers.  The Green Book provided a distinctive literal and symbolic road map to Jim Crow America, charting both the ambitious reach of racism as well as the persistent resistance from African-American entrepreneurs seeking to make their little consumer spaces refuges from racism.

The Log Cabin Inn consumer nearly half a page with an advertisement heralding its opening in November, 1939.

The Log Cabin Inn consumed nearly half a page with an advertisement heralding its opening in November, 1939 (click for a larger image).


Myra B. Young Armstead

2005 Revisiting Hotels and Other Lodgings: American Tourist Spaces through the Lens of Black Pleasure-Travelers, 1880-1950The Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts 25:136-159.  (subscription access)


The Carolina Times

1937 Travel Expert Sees Advance in BusinessThe Carolina Times 24 July:3.


The Crisis

1936 Guide for MotoristsThe Crisis 43(7):221.


Michael Ra-Shon Hall

2014 The Negro Traveller’s guide to a Jim Crow South: negotiating racialized landscapes during a dark period in United States cultural history, 1936–1967Postcolonial Studies 17(3):307-319.  (subscription access)


Preston Lauterbach

2010 The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock n’ Roll.  Norton, New York.


Day Monroe, Dorothy S. Brady, June F. Constantine, and Karl L. Benson

1941 Family Expenditures for Automobile and Other Transportation, Five Regions.  Miscellaneous Publication No 415, United State Department of Agriculture.  The Bureau of Home Economics, Washington, D.C.


John Henry Mueller

1928 The automobile: A sociological study.  PhD Dissertation, The University of Chicago.


Bernard L. Peterson

1997 African American Theatre Directory, 1816-1960: A Comprehensive Guide to Early Black Theatre Organizations, Companies, Theatres, and Performing Groups.  Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut.


Lara Putnam

2013 Radical Moves: Caribbean Migrants and the Politics of Race in the Jazz Age.  University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.


Arthur Franklin Raper

1936 Preface to Peasantry: A Tale of Two Black Belt Counties.  2005 Edition.  University of South Carolina Press, Columbia.


Cotten Seiler

2006 “So That We as a Race Might Have Something Authentic to Travel By”: African American Automobility and Cold-War Liberalism.  American Quarterly 58(4): 1091-1117.  (subscription access)


Gretchen Sullivan Sorin

2009 “Keep going”: African Americans on the road in the era of Jim Crow.  PhD Dissertation, State University of New York at Albany.


Thomas J. Sugrue

ND Driving While Black: The Car and Race Relations in Modern America.  Unpublished online paper, Automobile in American Life and Society.


David Leander Williams

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


Amy H. Wilson

1996 The Swing Era on Indiana Avenue: A Cultural History of Indianapolis’ African-American Jazz Scene, 1933-1950.  Master’s Thesis, Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis.


Leo Wolman

1929 Consumption and the Standard of LivingIn Recent Economic Changes in the United States, Volumes 1 and 2, eds. Committee on Recent Economic Changes of the President’s Conference on Unemployment, pp.13-78.


Clifford M. Zierer

1922 Geography and the AutomobileThe Journal of Geography 21(5):190-198.



500 Block Indiana Avenue, 1991 image from Indiana Historic Architecture Slide Collection (

1956 Negro Traveler’s Green Book image from University of South Carolina Digital Collections Library

Indianapolis Recorder images are taken from the Indianapolis Recorder Collection, IUPUI University Library’s Center for Digital Scholarship.

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


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

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

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

The Elevated Eye: Drones and Gaze in Ruins

A host of photographers, community historians, and self-styled urban critics have produced a fascinating visualization of the architectural detritus of cities, industry, and various failings of modernity.  That flood of so-called “ruin porn” has unleashed a complex breadth of artistic creativity as well as anxieties about the social implications of gaze and how we see, photograph, and imagine architectural remains.  Much of the uneasiness with ruin photography laments the camera’s gaze as a selective and seemingly distorted representation of our visual and physical experience of an objective reality: that is, the implication is that a photographer frames landscapes in selective ways, and the realities confirmed by our eyes are somehow corrupted by digital filters, High Dynamic Range imaging (HDR), and camera lens filters that toy with color balance, light intensity, and nearly every dimension of a photographic image.  This somewhat awkwardly ignores our fascination with ruins and ruin images; it suggests that we should privilege how our eyes and bodies experience ruin landscapes; and it perhaps implies that the only “authentic” representations of ruins can come from residents and people who can somehow lay claim to ruined places’ narratives.

The visual and physical gaze on ruins is now being further complicated by the emergence of drone videos documenting ruin landscapes.  For instance, in 2014 British filmmaker Danny Cooke visited the Chernobyl exclusion zone to film the remains of the 1986 nuclear accident for a 60 Minutes report.  Chernobyl is one of the world’s most intensively photographed ruin sites, a uniquely captivating abandonment in which a whole community apparently dropped everything in place.  The site is used by various observers to evoke the resilience of nature, underscore humans’ consequential impact on public health and the environment, and illuminate a state’s enormous arrogance, so it is an enormously magnetic dark tourism site (nearly 10,000 people visit the exclusion zone each year, see a really interesting analysis of this tourism on The Bohemian Blog). Read the rest of this entry


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