Pokémon Go and the Sanctity of Heritage Landscapes

Soldiers' graves at the Kiiminki Church in northern Finland.

Soldiers’ graves at the Kiiminki Church in northern Finland.

One of Finland’s best-preserved wooden churches today sits outside Oulu, where the Kiiminki Church was completed in 1760.  The modest cruciform frame church in northern Finland was designed by church architect Matti Honka and is noted for its spectacularly well-preserved altar painted by Mikael Toppelius in the 1780s.  Like scores of other Finnish community church yards, the Kiiminki church is surrounded by a cemetery that includes the remains of local soldiers who fell during World War II.  Often referred to as “heroes’ cemeteries” or “hero graves,” these resting places are staples of the Finnish countryside testifying to the Finns’ concrete World War II losses—and at least implicitly underscoring the nation’s defense against global super powers.

In the midst of the Kiiminki cemetery a stream of visitors moves across the site in a very distinctive motion familiar everywhere in the world with wireless coverage.  In small groups shuffling forward, trading counsel, and studying their cell phone screens, Pokémon Go players hunt down virtual creatures in real-world surroundings including Kiiminki’s church and cemetery.  The augmented reality mode of Pokémon Go transforms prosaic spaces—neighborhoods, religious spaces, historic sites–into newly engaged landscapes populated by multi-colored creatures, Poké Stops to fortify your avatar’s supplies, and Poké Gyms to train and bond with other players. Read the rest of this entry

The Privacy of Style: Imagining Underwear

The anatomy of a $100 pair of underwear by Frigo.

The anatomy of a $100 pair of underwear by Frigo.

Last month the New York Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony joined 50 Cent to launch the rapper’s fashion line at Bloomingdale’s in New York City.  Observers attempting to fathom consumption are routinely befuddled by the apparently irrational expense consumers will devote to style, and 50 Cent’s endorsement will leave many of those observers once more scratching their heads.  The rapper has been joined by Anthony and Timbaland as investors in Frigo underwear, taking aim at the “premium” men’s underwear market with a line that includes a $100 pair with a patented “interior pouch”.   A surprising universe of companies appeal to this upscale men’s drawers market ranging from the likes of Versace (a pair of briefs at $175) and Derek Rose to upstarts like the Swedish firm Tani or Mark Mocy (which promises to protect you from an astounding range of personal offenses).  The pricey celebrity-endorsed undies illuminate the confluence of consumer desire, branding, and individual material imagination in what might seem to be the most prosaic of all things. Read the rest of this entry

The Security of Light: Streetlights and Criminal Darkness

Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett presides over a news conference at the installation of the city's first new streetlight in 35 years (image Joe Hogsett twitter)

Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett presides over a June 9th news conference at the installation of the city’s first new streetlight in 35 years (image @IndyMayorJoe twitter)

This month a new streetlight was installed in Indianapolis, Indiana to surprising fanfare.  Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett presided over a ceremony on Nowland Avenue, celebrating the city’s first new streetlight since 1981 and proclaiming that it and another 100 new lights would bring “light to neighborhoods that have been dark for far too long.”  Thirty-five years ago Mayor William Hudnut announced a moratorium on new streetlights that was continued by the three subsequent Mayors.  Hudnut’s policy was fundamentally a cost-cutting move to decrease the city’s electricity expenses and direct the city’s public works spending toward roads, sidewalks, and concrete infrastructure.

Streetlights were once prosaic objects we never contemplated, but now they have secured the status of things; that is, they have entered our consciousness because they are part of an urban fabric perceived to be malfunctioning.  Most of the civic material landscape is utterly outside our consciousness until it fails in literal terms:  for instance, a street is not part of our reflection until a pothole mars our motion, or only the absence of a maintained sidewalk compels us to articulate our pedestrian experience.  Yet street lights and luminosity itself address a host of breakdowns in cities like Indianapolis that reach well beyond the functional purpose of lighting streets for foot and auto traffic.  Light and visibility are viewed and experienced in distinctive social ways across the city: street lights are cast by various observers as symbols of government’s public service obligations, ideological mechanisms of urban surveillance, instruments of persistent racism and class prejudice, nocturnal pollution, and confirmation of apparently rampant criminality. Read the rest of this entry

Boredom in the Ruins of the Mall

A French Claire's shop.

A French Claire’s shop.

A host of observers repeatedly prophesy the death of the traditional shopping mall, disparaging the regional mall as an archaic spatial, material, and social experience.  Somewhat paradoxically, many artists, scholars, and explorers pick over the literal ruins of dead malls in an exercise that in various hands reflectively dissects materiality, transparently bemoans lost youth, or launches another attack on mass consumption.  Americans seem quite fascinated by the ruination of the enclosed regional shopping mall, fixated on its hulking material remnants, anxiously monitoring its demise in surviving malls, and acknowledging our boredom with much of the remaining shopping mall landscape.

A Claire's shopper in front of one of the shop's accessory walls.

A Claire’s shopper in front of one of the shop’s accessory walls.

Those people forecasting the mall’s demise may have felt their pessimism confirmed by last week’s news that the ubiquitous mall chain Claire’s is fighting off bankruptcy (a decline marketers have been watching for over a year).  Claire’s decline may indeed confirm malls’ fundamental design liabilities and reflect broad economic and demographic shifts, but our fascination with the declining mall almost certainly risks pronouncing their death sentence too soon.  While shifts in consumption and settlement patterns have transformed the contemporary shopping landscape for malls, our sheer boredom with the homogeneity and predictability of malls may be more dangerous to their survival than factors such as our attraction to online shopping or the decline of department stores. Read the rest of this entry

Abhorrent Bodies: Burying Evil

Rudolf Hess' grave was the scene of neo-Nazi pilgrimages until it was moved from this plot in 2011 .

Rudolf Hess’ grave was the scene of neo-Nazi pilgrimages until it was moved from this plot in 2011.

The Wal-Hamdu-Lillah Cemetery hails itself as California’s first Islamic cemetery, a 20-acre mortuary and burial ground established in 1998.  The cemetery adheres to Sharia burial rites, which include the ritual washing of the corpse, shrouding of the body, and burial without a casket, usually with little or no burial markers.  In January it was confirmed that the more than 1000 people buried in Wal-Hamdu-Lillah include Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, fundamentalist extremists who killed 14 people in a December 2015 attack in San Bernadino.  The two were themselves killed hours after their attack, and it apparently took a week to find an Islamic cemetery that would accept their remains.  Local observers soon suspected that the killers were interred in the cemetery in Rosamond, and the Mayor of neighboring Lancaster theatrically directed his City Attorney to prepare legislation that would outlaw the local burial of participants in terrorist acts.  The anxiety sparked by the couple’s burial reflects their status among the most repugnant of the dead, people so evil that their physical remains threaten our common values after their death.  Such figures’ literal corporeal remains hold a persistent grip on our collective anxiety, their memories firmly planted in heritage discourses even as we attempt to efface their human remains from the landscape. Read the rest of this entry

African-American Heritage in the Post-Renewal City

Bethel AME Church

Bethel AME Church

In the wake of World War II planners, developers, and elected officials spearheaded urban renewal projects that transformed Indianapolis, Indiana’s material landscape and depopulated its central core.  Yet over the last 20 years the descendants of those ideologues have been gradually repopulating the Indiana capital city’s core and constructing a historicized landscape on the ruins of the post-renewal city.  A relatively similar story could be told in nearly all of postwar America, where urban renewal, the “war on poverty,” and a host of local schemes displaced legions of poor and working-class people.  Some creatively re-purposed structures have survived urban renewal in Indianapolis, but much of the near-Westside’s historical landscape has been erased, remains under fire, or only survives in radically new forms.  It may be pragmatic (or unavoidable) to accept such a transformation of the historical landscape, but urban renewal’s material effacement of the African-American near-Westside—and the way it is now reconstructed or evoked on the contemporary landscape–inevitably will transform how that heritage is experienced.

The Bethel AME interior features a massive pipe organ.

The Bethel AME interior features a massive pipe organ.

The most recent target in Indianapolis is Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, which has sat on West Vermont Street since the congregation purchased the lot in 1869.  The congregation’s origins in Indianapolis reach to 1836, and the church members were vocal abolition supporters and orchestrated movement through Indianapolis on the Underground Railroad.  Bethel was among the African-American city’s most prominent institutions, hosting myriad people for worship, leisure, education, and activism alike: in 1870, residents gathered in the church to celebrate the passing of the 15th Amendment (securing African-American voting rights); in 1904 the first meeting of Indiana’s Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs was held at Bethel; in 1926 African Americans gathered at Bethel to protest a wave of segregation laws reaching from racist neighborhood covenants to high school segregation; and neighborhood residents gathered at Bethel throughout the civil rights movement. Read the rest of this entry

Race and the River: Swimming, Sewers, and Segregation

Belmont Beach Aug 8 1936

In August 1936 the Indianapolis Recorder included these images of the newly opened Belmont Park beach.

Last week Indianapolis’ tourism agency Visit Indy proposed building a beach along the White River, the waterway that meanders through the heart of Indiana’s capital city.  The idea modeled on temporary beaches in Paris (where swimming is not allowed in the Seine) was greeted with some skepticism: today, much of the river has a well-deserved reputation for pollution reaching back over the last century.  The river and its urban tributaries have long been fouled by combined sewer overflows, industrial discharges, and upriver farm wastes, and many stretches of the river are inaccessible and unappealing.  The Indianapolis press seem unable to imagine the White River as a tourist spot with something akin to a beach, but the river has a rich history of waterfront leisure that has included beaches from Ravenswood and Broad Ripple south to the edges of present-day downtown.  Some of the most polluted stretches of the White River also wind through predominately African-American neighborhoods and attest to how segregation shaped African Americans’ experience of the river.

In 1916 the Indianapolis News delivered an alarming report that the White River from Washington Street south “is devoid of natural fish life and birds.”  Below the West Washington Street bridge the State Board of Health’s John C. Diggs pronounced the river “a malodorous, septic stream, bearing on its surface floating matter of sewage origin,” concluding that the river “was of the same character as ordinary household sewage.”  Two years before he told the American Chemical Society conference that “White River is a comparatively small stream, yet it is used as a source of public water supply and sewage disposal for over 300,000 people.”  The 1916 study had already recognized that certain stretches of the river were more polluted than others.  At Broad Ripple “the river is free from floating matter or objectionable odor”; at Crow’s Nest just south of Broad Ripple “water is clear, free from floating matter”; and at Emrichsville Bridge (just south of the present-day 16th Street Bridge) the “water is clean but has a slightly weedy odor.” However, the African-American near Westside lay directly north of the industrial pollution wreaked by companies like the Kingan and Company meat packing plant, near which “the surface is a black scum” and “bubbles of gas rise to the surface.”  Their neighbors Van Camps were responsible for “pieces of tomatoes…on the surface of the water.” Read the rest of this entry

The Archaeology of Nothing: Grand Challenges and Everyday Life

Seinfeld and the "Grand Challenges" project both illuminate how we narrate human experience.

Seinfeld and the “Grand Challenges” project both illuminate how we narrate human experience.

In 2014 a panel of 25 senior scholars developed an ambitious array of “grand challenges” for archaeology (PDF), the “most important scientific challenges” that the discipline could or should address.  Their report published in American Antiquity includes a host of fascinating if astoundingly broad subjects that confidently aspire to structure how archaeologists frame a grand narrative for the archaeological past.

This month archaeology bloggers are examining the “grand challenges” in their own corners of the discipline, many of which are not addressed by the American Antiquity paper (see the hashtag #blogarch).  Inevitably such an ambitious project cannot hope to address all the questions that matter to various scholars and public constituencies, so bloggers are suggesting some questions that remain outside the panel’s grand challenges.

Much of the NSF project was greeted by a chorus complaining that the respondents to the paper’s “crowd-sourced” online surveys was demographically problematic: 79% of the respondents were from the United States; two-thirds were age 50 or older; and 62% of the respondents were male.  Observers dissatisfied with the grand challenges in the American Antiquity paper argued that the questions reflected the survey respondents and scholars who authored the final “big picture” research questions (compare Diggin’ It and SEAC Underground). Read the rest of this entry

Repressing Repugnant Heritage: Place, Race, and Memory in Shockoe Bottom

lumpkin-jail dig

Excavations at Lumpkin’s Jail in Shockoe Bottom (image James River Institute for Archaeology)

Richmond, Virginia’s Shockoe Bottom is on first glance a prosaic if not unappealing void.  The checkerboard of parking lots and deteriorating buildings became home to a farmer’s market along Shockoe Creek in the 18th century: the core of Richmond’s earliest urban plan, Shockoe Bottom’s 17th Street marketplace was ringed by food wholesalers, Tobacco Row warehouses, restaurants, manufacturing, Main Street Station, and residences, including the city’s oldest surviving structure, the circa 1740 Old Stone House now home to the Edgar Allen Poe Museum.  But much of the farmer’s market business has declined and food wholesaling transformed since World War II; in 1958 the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike (Interstate 95) sliced through the middle of Shockoe Bottom; the cigarette companies abandoned Tobacco Row in the 1970s; and most trains stopped running in 1975. Read the rest of this entry

Silence and Civility at the Talking Wall: Race and Public Art

The December 18, 2015 dedication of Talking Wall (image from author).

The December 18, 2015 dedication of Talking Wall.

This week artist Bernard WilliamsTalking Wall was installed on Indianapolis’ Cultural Trail.  Williams’ work sits along Blackford Street on the IUPUI campus, sandwiched between two parking decks in the midst of what was once an African-American neighborhood.  Talking Wall collects a series of symbols representing that African-American heritage, emerging after a long discussion over African-American public art stewarded by the Central Indiana Community Foundation (CICF), Arts Council of Indianapolis (ACI), and the Greater Indianapolis Progress Committee (GIPC).  On an otherwise non-descript stretch of the trail the work aspires to illuminate African-American heritage and evoke a historical landscape lost to most people’s memory.  For a piece that ambitiously celebrates its aspiration to promote conversation, though, it remains somewhat unclear exactly what sort of discussions a phalanx of planners hope to secure from Talking WallTalking Wall emerged from a tortured ethnographic failure of planners to fathom African Americans’ investment in public artistic representations of African America.  That failure and the subsequent effort to cast the subsequent Talking Wall community art project as reconciliation and civil discussion may frame a more interesting insight into privilege and the color line than any artwork. Read the rest of this entry