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Visual Memory and Urban Displacement

Ralph Louis Temple’s 1940’s painting of Minerva Street;click for a larger image (image courtesy Cecilia Boler and Reginald Temple).

Around World War II artist Ralph Louis Temple painted a series of oil studies of his Indianapolis neighborhood. Temple’s family had lived on Minerva Street since 1866, when Ralph’s great grandfather Carter Temple Sr. came to the Circle City. Ralph Temple’s painting featured the double at 546-548 Minerva Street, the neighboring corner home at 550 Minerva, and William D. McCoy Public School 24 in the background along North Street. Carter Temple Jr.’s granddaughter Cecelia was still living in the home at 550 Minerva Street in 1978, the last of a century of Temple family to live on Minerva Street. Her brother Ralph’s paintings of the neighborhood cast it in a quite different light than the dominant rhetoric and imagery that aspired to displace families like the Temples.

The house at 550 Minerva Street in the late-1970’s (Indiana Landmarks Central Canal & IUPUI Image Collection).

There are numerous images of the neighborhood in the postwar period, when it was one of many historically African-American urban communities that were gradually being displaced by a host of renewal schemes. The Temples’ home for more than a century would fall to the wrecking ball when Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis (IUPUI) was expanding in the late 1970’s. The city of Indianapolis was simultaneously razing a host of businesses along Indiana Avenue, and in the 1960’s the interstate was being constructed through the predominately African-American near-Westside while it sliced through much of the eastside and southside as well. As blocks of buildings fell along Indiana Avenue in the 1970’s the city also lobbied for the demolition of Lockefield Gardens, which closed in 1976. Lockefield was a segregated Public Works Administration community that opened in 1938 across the street from 550 Minerva Street, with School 24 in its midst. In July, 1983 demolition finally removed all but seven of the original Lockefield buildings.

Like numerous postwar American urban campuses, the neighborhood now lingers only in memory, with the Minerva Street homes falling to the wrecking ball in about 1980. Photographers documented much of the neighborhood in the postwar period, but the vast majority of those images were predictably ideological representations of the predominately African-American community: some images were in service to slum clearance programs by the state and university; others attempted to preserve a visual record of the neighborhood’s historic architecture; and a flood of subsequent images by the University documented the new campus that rose in the wake of mass clearances. In contrast, Ralph Temple’s painting, his family’s photographs, and their century-long story captured a much different imagination of the African-American near-Westside. Nevertheless, such African-American visual and historical representations of Indianapolis’ near-Westside are often ignored because of a deep-seated assumption that the neighborhood was a materially impoverished place.

Carr Hopkins’ 1863 enlistment in the United States Colored Troops.

Carter Temple Sr. was born in Virginia in about 1811 and came to Indianapolis immediately after the Civil War. Temple probably had been enslaved in Kentucky prior to Emancipation, and he settled on Minerva Street in about 1866. His son known as Carr Hopkins was born into captivity in Kentucky in 1843, and when he was freed in 1863 he volunteered for the 14th Regiment Company C of the United States Colored Troops in November, 1863 in Gallatin, Tennessee. He was appointed Corporal in April, 1864 before mustering out in March, 1866. Hopkins joined his father in Indianapolis and began to go by the name Carter Temple, Jr., using it as his name on his 1871 marriage license and on his military pension, which identified Hopkins as an alias for Carter Temple Jr.

Carter Temple Jr. posed for this undated image after he joined the Indianapolis Police Department in May, 1876.

In 1870 Carter Temple Sr. was living on Minerva Street working as a carpenter, and a year later his son Carter Temple Jr. was married in Indianapolis. In May, 1876 Carter Temple Jr. became one of the first four African-American police officers in Indianapolis, with the Indianapolis News reporting that “[Sim] Hart, [Benjamin] Young, [Carter] Temple and [William] Whittaker, the colored police appointees, were signed to Ward’s division Saturday night … . These men will do service among the Bucktownites” (Bucktown was a term often used to refer to the African-American near-Westside). In 1889 Indianapolis’ African-American newspaper The Freeman reported that the Indianapolis Police Department had six African-American officers, and “Carter Temple, who everybody knows and respects, joined the force in ’76 and has remained on ever since. He is a Kentuckian, but has lived here since ’65. He owns a good home and has an interesting family. He is one of the finest specimens of physical manhood on the force, standing fully over six feet and weighing over 200 pounds.” Temple served until he was struck by a street car in a 1900 election day accident.

In 1888 Temple Carter Sr. died, leaving his estate to his wife Amanda. Among the people receiving benefits in the will was his son Frederick Hopkins, who was a police officer living in Vicksburg, Mississippi. When Hopkins himself died in 1898 The Vicksburg Herald indicated that Hopkins “was one of the few colored men who drew a pension for services on the Confederate side from the State appropriations.” Hopkins probably was enslaved by a Confederate soldier and traveling with the rebel army as a captive. Mississippi was unique for sponsoring a pension program beginning in 1888 that extended benefits to African Americans as well as former Confederate foot soldiers.

By the time of Carter Temple, Sr.’s death many of his relatives were living along Minerva Street. They included his son George W. Temple, who began a career as an actor, musician, and comedian in about 1880. George was among the city’s earliest generation of African-American performers. African Americans had sporadically performed to White Indianapolis audiences since the Civil War. Brooker’s Georgia Minstrels was probably the first African-American managed troupe to perform in Indianapolis, with the self-described “simon pure Ethiopians” playing three nights in August, 1865 at the Masonic Hall. An African-American theatre and musical performance tradition had emerged in the wake of Emancipation, but in 1880 only one African American in Indianapolis appeared in the census as a musician, and George Temple was the only Black actor.

At the turn of the century nearly all of the city’s African-American musicians were in traveling troupes that performed throughout the country, which certainly included George Temple. In 1907 the Indianapolis Recorder noted that “George Temple, the famous comedian, is off the road and is preparing to give ’`Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ here in the City.” Like many turn of the century performers, Temple apparently performed “In an old-time cake-walk at Tomlinson Hall,” with the Indianapolis Star reporting in 1909 that “Wesley Thurman and George Temple, who essayed a woman’s role, were close competitors for the large white cake and a $25 prize.” The “woman’s role” indicates that Temple was performing dressed as a woman, a staple of both White and Black theatrical comedy in the late-19th century. After about 40 years of performing, Temple probably toured with Harvey’s Greater Minstrels, a 40-50 person African-American ensemble that played throughout the country and Canada between about 1918 and 1925.

In 1920, George and Edmonia Temple’s sons George Isaac and Walter Temple were both working as musicians. George I. Temple was probably playing with Harry Farley’s orchestra around 1920, and the Batesville Indiana newspaper described “Harry Farley’s Garden Park colored jazz band, of Indianapolis, the grandest colored jazz band in the Middle West. Hear them sing and see them dance—the greatest endurance orchestra in America.” In the 1920s the family moved to New York City where George and Walter joined their parents and were working as orchestra musicians. George Isaac Temple married Fredonia Stewart in 1928 and lived with her in New York until 1949. Stewart’s family had established and owned the Indianapolis Recorder, and after moving back to the Circle City she co-owned the newspaper for 36 years while George would work as an advertising manager.

In the late 1920’s, Carter Temple (left) and Ralph Temple (right) posed in a car parked on North Street, with McCoy School in the background (image courtesy Cecilia Boler and Reginald Temple).

The family had a distinguished record of military service beginning with Carter Temple Jr.’s service in the Civil War. In 1898 his son Carter Frederick Patton Temple became the second generation to serve in the military when he served in the Spanish-American War. Born at 544 Minerva Street in 1879, Carter FP Temple would live on Minerva Street until his death in 1941, when he was living a few doors away at 550 Minerva. Carter FP Temple became an Indianapolis police officer in 1900, but he resigned a year later and spent the remainder of his career working in construction and served in the Indianapolis Street Commissioner’s Department. Temple and his second wife Lucy Paris Temple had 11 children. One son died as an infant in 1930, but the remaining 10 grew up on Minerva Street, including three sons who served in World War II. Arthur Temple and his brother Carter Paris Temple both served in the Navy, and Ralph served in the Army.

In August, 1942 a Pennsylvania newspaper reported on Ralph Temple’s painting in St. Phillip’s Church in Indianapolis.

Ralph Louis Temple was the sixth of the eleven children born to Carter FP Temple and Lucy Paris Temple. Born in 1922, Ralph graduated from Crispus Attucks High School in July, 1940, indicating his hobby was painting. In August 1942 a Pennsylvania newspaper reported that Ralph painted “a mural of the Last Supper” in Indianapolis’ St. Philip’s Episcopal Church (the 702 Martin Luther King, Jr. Street church was razed in the 1970s). The newspaper reported that Temple “is a student at the John Herron Art Institute. He is an Assistant Scout Master, a swimming instructor at the YMCA, and a teacher in the Saturday morning art classes of the YMCA.”

An undated image of Ralph Temple painting (image courtesy Cecilia Boler and Reginald Temple).

Temple had not finished his Herron training in January, 1943 when he enlisted in the military. Temple was stationed initially at Mississippi’s Greenwood Army Air Field, where the The Greenwood Commonwealth reported that Temple painted a “colorfully descriptive mural, entitled `A Soldier Dreams of the Duration.’” The newspaper reported that “Muralist Temple’s dreaming soldier sees Pearl Harbor avenged, the suffering of allied soldiers, return of the soldier to `home sweet home,’ and an ultar-modern [sic] postwar world.” Temple told the newspaper that “`I’ve been painting ever since I was old enough to hold a brush,’ says the quiet corporal. `When I was small I used to drive my mother nearly crazy by painting all over the walls, starting at the bottom of the stairecase [sic] and working up. Mother thought there might be method in my madness and she never discouraged me.’” In April, 1944 the Indianapolis Recorder reported that Temple had executed a bas relief of the European theatre at the base with the motto “Not just the best trained soldier in the world, or the best equipped, but the best informed soldier in the world.’’

Ralph, Jane, and Carter Temple (left to right) posed for a picture on the bumper of a car on North Street in the late 1920’s (image courtesy Cecilia Boler and Reginald Temple).

Ralph was living at 550 Minerva Street and identified as a student between 1949 and 1951, when he may have been completing his Herron coursework. He appears to have left Indianapolis in late 1952 or 1953 for New York, and he was living in Manhattan in 1957. Ralph lived in New York for the rest of his life, passing away there in 2011. Much of his family continued to live on Minerva Street into the 1960’s. In 1960 Carter FP Temple’s widow Lucy was living at 550 Minerva Street with her daughters Cecilia and Jane. Jane worked in a neighborhood institution, Berky’s Market, which opened on West Michigan Street in August, 1948. Max Berkowitz had operated a meat market on Indiana Avenue beginning in 1928, and Jane probably began to work in Berky’s from the time it opened. She would work for Berky’s until 1960, when she began working at Western Electric and moved to West 28th Street.

Cecilia and Lucy were still living in the home in 1970, by when IUPUI had opened just two blocks south of their home. The Indiana University Hospital had been acquiring property around the former City Hospital since the 1920’s, and by the early 1960’s Indiana University was acquiring properties for the undergraduate institution that became IUPUI. In 1978 Lucy and Cecilia Temple appeared in the city directory at 550 Minerva Street for the final time. Lucy Paris Temple had been living in the home since the eve of World War I, but in about 1979 she was compelled to move out of the 550 Minerva Street home to a northwestern Indianapolis suburb, where she died in 1984. In 2017, her son Robert Ricardo Temple died, the last of her 10 children who had lived to adulthood.

Photographs of the neighborhood after 1960 tended to support the notion that the community was a universal “slum,” less a visual description of the neighborhood than an ideological rationalization for the displacement of its residents. A photographer took pictures of 550 Minerva Street sometime around the moment the last Temples moved out of the home, and it remained a sound structure, but the University was intent on securing the properties along Minerva Street, which would be the heart of the IUPUI campus. After the Temple home was razed, the Lincoln Hotel and University Conference Center opened in the same space in July, 1987 for the Pan-American Games; when the Lincoln firm went bankrupt five months later the hotel began to be referred to as the University Place Executive Conference Center and Hotel, and it is today known as University Tower. The North Street doors to the building stand where the Temples’ home sat for more than a century.

 

Image

550 Minerva Street image courtesy Indiana Landmarks Central Canal & IUPUI Image Collection

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Gates, Place, and Urban Heritage

The most prominent “gateway” to campus will be a 52″-tall column at the corner of West and Michigan Streets that is expected to be in place in Fall 2018 (click for a larger view).

This week Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) celebrated the impending construction of five “gateways” to campus, architectural features designed to identify the campus boundaries as students, staff, and visitors enter the near-Westside university. The most prominent gateway will be at West and Michigan Streets, a 52′-tall limestone and steel monolith that will be lit at night and be neighbored two blocks south by a more modest marker at New York and West Streets. Alongside these gateways a “series of landscape mounds along West Street between the two gateway markers also will visually distinguish the campus from the surrounding city.” This exercise in placemaking takes its aesthetic inspiration from the campus itself, invoking the architectural forms of the University Library (designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes, completed in 1994), Campus Center (SmithGroup JJR, 2008), and Eskenazi Hall (Browning Day Mullins Dierdorf, 2005). The gateways aspire to fashion a material landscape stylistically consistent with these existing buildings, though the media coverage of the gateways has featured the sheer scale of the monoliths, which are “large enough to be seen from an airplane.” Chancellor Nasser Paydar exalted that “anyone on a plane approaching Indianapolis, we want them to see this is how proud they are with this campus.” Read the rest of this entry

Color and Conformity: Race and Integration in the Suburbs

This post also appears on Invisible Indianapolis

In February 1961 Indianapolis, Indiana’s Jewish Community Center held a public discussion panel on “The Negro as Suburban Neighbor.” The surrounding northside community was home to several of the city’s earliest African-American suburbs, but many of those neighborhoods were resistant to integration. Despite its open membership policy, the JCC also did not count a single African American among its members.

Reginald Bruce appeared in the August 19, 1944 Indianapolis Recorder (click for expanded view).

Dr. Reginald Bruce was among the guests asked to speak on behalf of the northwestern suburbs’ African-American residents. In November, 1960 Reginald and Mary Bruce reached an agreement to purchase a home at 5752 Grandiose Drive. The Bruces were the first to integrate the newly built homes along Grandiose Drive. Bruce told the group at the JCC that since moving to Grandiose Drive “his family has been harassed by threatening phone calls and gunshots through the window since moving into the predominately white area.” Some White audience members vigorously opposed integration of the neighborhood, and one complained that the meeting had been rigged by the NAACP.

The Bruces’ experience integrating the northwestern Indianapolis suburbs would be repeated all over the country. That story of suburban integration—long acknowledged in African-American experience but unrecognized by most White suburbanites–is beginning to be told in popular cultural narratives. The suburbs have long been a staple of mainstream cinema, variously painted as disabling assimilation (The Stepford Wives), emotional repression (American Beauty), creative boredom (Grosse Point Blank), profound sadness (The Virgin Suicides), or the prosaic magnet for inexplicable phenomena (Poltergeist, Coneheads, Edward Scissorhands, etc). However, the story of suburban segregation has rarely been told in films.

A 1955 image illustrated the ideological vision of a typical suburban family (Getty images).

Last weekend Suburbicon debuted at the Venice Film Festival, and George Clooney’s movie (which opens in the US in October) is distinguished by its ambition to tell the story of racism and integration in suburbia. The film takes its inspiration from the integration of Levittown, Pennsylvania, one of William Levitt’s seven suburban communities. The Levittowns were the model for interchangeable, assembly-line produced housing on the urban periphery, so they are often rhetorical foils for suburban narratives in popular culture and historiography alike. The most unsettling implications of Clooney’s film are that it is an utterly commonplace historical tale: the story of the integration of the Levittown outside Philadelphia in 1957 could be told in any American community. 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

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

“Our Succulent Middle Class”: African-American Country Clubs and the Black Bourgeoisie

Sportsmans Golf July 18 1970

In July, 1970 Sportsman’s Club supporter and pro football player Leroy Kelly joined a group of golfers at the club’s nine-hole course.

In April, 1969 James Saint Clair Gibson reported on the opening of the Sportsman’s Club, a country club being built by African-American investors in the city’s northwestern suburbs.  Gibson contributed columns to the Indianapolis Recorder from 1936 until his death in 1978, often writing under his pen name of “The Saint” and dispensing acerbic commentary about life in African-American Indianapolis.  Gibson’s report on the Sportsman’s Club  inventoried its promised offerings of swimming pools, tennis courts, and golf links, but Gibson could not pass up a comment on the club’s apparent exclusivity, observing that memberships cost “$$$$ (hundreds) per year, and according to what we hear—they are being gobbled up right and left by our succulent (?) middle-class.”

The Sportsman’s Club aspired to provide a cross-class, multiethnic social club.  However, Gibson perhaps captured his readership’s wariness of exclusive country clubs, which were segregated along class lines and had historically been places where African Americans performed service labor.  The caricature of White hyper-wealthy clubs may have made the notion of a predominately Black club seem especially archaic at a moment when many once-segregated citizen rights were being transformed.  Perhaps the most unsettling implication was that the club illuminated the reaches of American life that remained utterly segregated.  Country clubs would indeed be one of the last bastions of segregation long after other spaces and citizen rights were effectively integrated. Read the rest of this entry

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

The Ruins of Music

The Grande Ballroom in Detroit in 2009, which remains in ruins today (image from Albert duce).

The Grande Ballroom in Detroit in 2009, which remains in ruins today (image from Albert duce).

Music has a rather ephemeral materiality rendered in tangible things like CDs, cassettes, records, and perhaps even digital playlists, but its more compelling archaeological dimension is probably the historical landscapes of clubs and music districts that dot nearly every community.  Local grassroots music tends to be relatively dynamic, but live music holds a tenacious if ever-transforming grip on the landscape: most communities can point to a distinctive soundscape of clubs, impromptu spaces, and places from churches to schools where music was the heart of local experience.

Music has had a profoundly consequential hold on youth culture for most of the last century, but many places’ local musical heritages are in ruins or razed.  The musical landscape is exceptionally dynamic: a parade of fringe styles continually step forward in nearly every place, articulating a host of local, generational, and social experiences.  Most musical circles seek some modestly satisfying measure of relevance, creative community, and profitability, and some express broad if not universal anxieties and sentiments while others are simply more ephemeral sounds. Read the rest of this entry

Imagining the Black Suburbs: Homogeneity and African American Suburbia

levey family

The Levey family posed in front of a Levittown home in New York in 1949.

The postwar suburb seems painted in our collective imagination as a White nuclear family standing proudly in front of a standardized tract home and a chrome-accented American car.  Fortunately a rich scholarship on postwar suburbia has complicated or utterly unraveled that and many other suburban stereotypes, underscoring the material, social, and historical diversity of suburban landscapes: we know suburbia included a multitude of architectural forms beyond the interchangeable Levittown box; the roots of the suburbs reach well into the 19th century; working-class families predominated; and we are paying increasingly more attention to the suburban experience along the color line.

Henry Greer advertised his Northwest Street liquor store in December 1935.

Henry Greer advertised his Northwest Street liquor store in December 1935.

In 1946 Henry and Della Greer were among Indianapolis, Indiana’s first African-American suburbanites, and in many ways the story of the Greers and their neighbors might be told in many more places.  Henry was a former hotel porter who worked as a salesman and real estate agent before opening the Demi-Jon Liquor Store on North West Street in December, 1935 (and eventually selling life insurance).  His wife Della was an art teacher at Crispus Attucks High School, where she taught for 20 years beginning in 1936.  The Greers blazed a trail into rural Washington Township by June, 1946 that would find them neighbored within a decade by a series of African-American subdivisions. That suburban African-American story has been untold in many communities, swept aside in a broader moral narrative that decries suburban conformity and material homogeneity and seems unable to fathom how the suburbs have been so alluring to so many Americans.  There is no shortage of outstanding scholarship on Black suburbanization (for instance, Andrew Wiese’s Places of their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century), but as these communities transform and in many cases deteriorate their histories risk being ignored and lost on the contemporary landscape.  Despite some wonderful preservation projects in communities like Addisleigh (New York), Berkley Square (Las Vegas), and Conant Gardens (Detroit), many communities seem slow to comprehend the consequence of Black suburban life in the postwar American experience. Read the rest of this entry