New England roundup #2

About this feature: Each week, I compile recent articles and other items relating to New England’s history, its regional identity, and its future.  If you come across something interesting or relevant, please submit it for inclusion in a future post.  Click here for previous roundups.

New England roundup

I plan to write more soon about the origins of my interest in contemporary New England and in the region’s history over the last century or so.  But in the meantime, I want to try each week to put together a post compiling recent articles and other items relating somehow to New England’s history, its regional identity, and its future.

Here, then, is the debut of the (unoriginally named) New England roundup:

If you come across something interesting or relevant, please pass it along for inclusion in a future post!

Remembering the Upstairs Lounge, at the border of art and public history

On June 24, 1973, thirty-two patrons of the Upstairs Lounge, a gay bar in New Orleans, died when the second-floor facility, with an unmarked emergency exit and barred windows, was consumed by flames.  The fire began in the entry stairwell, most likely set intentionally.  Here’s a good account of the incident published at the Huffington Post a couple of years ago, drawing from Dudley Clendinen and Adam Nagourney’s 1999 book Out for Good, that discusses the indifference and hostility of local police, politicians, and clergy in the wake of the fire.

Yesterday, I visited the artist Skylar Fein’s installation “Remember the Upstairs Lounge,” which commemorates the tragic event.  One enters through a long, low hallway featuring text describing the bar, the fire, and the aftermath; graphic photographs of the devastation; and images of the victims in earlier, happier days.  The hallway then opens onto a larger second space.  Here, one finds a series of large pieces inspired by the Upstairs Lounge, the New Orleans gay scene, and early-1970s pop culture, including a grouping of lighted signs advertising bars and other amusements, oversized images of gay lust objects (Burt Reynolds, Mark Spitz), and a peep show booth, which plays a CBS news report on the fire.  (Andy Towle has additional photos.)  I’m no art critic, but I found many of these pieces compelling.

As a historian, I’m grateful that the installation expressly aims to raise public awareness of these events.  But it also prompted a couple of concerns. Continue reading “Remembering the Upstairs Lounge, at the border of art and public history”

Kagan the single urbanite

I’ve found it hard to get particularly exercised by the ongoing debate regarding whether Elena Kagan is a lesbian and whether, if so, she’s obliged to say so.  I think I basically agree with Richard Kim’s take.  I’d also fully endorse Claire Potter’s post on the subject, especially for its invocation of J. Edgar Hoover and Roy Cohn.  (This called to mind a provocative question Glenda Gilmore once asked in a seminar: when we talk about queer politics in the 1950s, should those two be part of the conversation?)

What Elena Kagan is not: now-Chief Justice John Roberts and family, and George W. Bush, in 2005.
What Elena Kagan is not: now-Chief Justice John Roberts and family, and George W. Bush, in 2005.

I was frankly more interested by the fact that, with Kagan, Barack Obama has now nominated two single—or, at least, unmarried—women to the Supreme Court in a row.  Mary Dudziak was similarly intrigued, and delved into the apparently considerable history of unmarried male justices.

Marc Ambinder, meanwhile, notes perceptively that both Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor are, like Obama, creatures of the city.

Ultimately, I think, most folks along the progressive spectrum, including LGBT progressives, can agree that it’s a good thing if one doesn’t have to fit into a tableau like the one above in order to ascend to high political office in the United States.  Nominating Kagan—an unmarried, childless, lifelong urban-dweller who lacks a traditionally feminine personal style—advances that agenda.  How it bodes for the future of the Court’s decision making is a separate, and probably more consequential, question.

Lena Horne and the campaign against film stereotypes in the 1940s

Lena Horne at Committee for Unity in Motion Pictures reception in 1944
Rex Ingram, Jesse Graves, Lena Horne, Ben Carter, and Dooley Wilson at a 1944 reception hosted by the Committee for Unity In Motion Pictures. From the Afro-American, August 5, 1944.

Lena Horne died yesterday at age 92.  Most obituaries, as well as President Obama’s statement, mention her activism both outside and within the movie industry.  The lede of Richard Corliss’s obit at Time also highlights the barriers she confronted by offering a pointed counterfactual Horne filmography with MGM: White CargoPinkyShow Boat–all roles that actually went to white actresses, despite the long-term contract she won in 1942.

As I’ve learned while researching my dissertation and reading film historian Thomas Cripps’s pathbreaking Making Movies Black, Horne was both symbolically and personally central in the intense struggle African Americans waged during World War II to transform how they were depicted on film.  NAACP executive secretary Walter White was a friend–Horne grew up in a middle-class, activist family in New York–and he encouraged her movie career, seeing her as a talent who could break from the “comic and menial” screen roles he abhorred.  (Shortly after the war, White also sought to tap Horne’s uncle, Frank, a poet and New Deal “race adviser,” to head the NAACP bureau he wanted to establish in Hollywood.)  And to some black actors who had carved out a place in the film capital, often by playing such roles, and who were already suspicious of White’s tendency to meet with white executives, producers, and stars on his Hollywood jaunts while ignoring them, Horne seemed further evidence of a takeover by outsiders from the East. Continue reading “Lena Horne and the campaign against film stereotypes in the 1940s”

Retail in New England’s rising star

The Courant has an interesting article, seemingly based on a city report published in January [PDF], on the “retail vibrancy” of Hartford’s Park Street neighborhood, where storefront vacancies are dramatically fewer than in the city’s downtown:

The 2-mile-plus Park Street retail corridor — running from Main Street to Prospect Avenue — has an enviable mix of restaurants, clothing boutiques, bodegas, jewelry shops and grocery stores, partly the result of planning and support by the local merchants association.


Some of the success has to do with the smaller retail spaces and far lower rents on Park Street. Most of the storefronts have apartments above them, with well-populated neighborhoods close by, providing crucial, ready-made foot traffic of the sort that downtown still lacks.

The article then notes the other important factor at play: Park Street’s role as a center of regional Latino community life, which draws visitors from outside the immediate area.

I can’t claim to have explored Park Street much while living in Hartford.  There was a decent amount of  retail and dining on and around Farmington Avenue, another avenue spoking out from downtown, near where we (predictably) lived in the West End.  There, UConn Law School both fostered a high residential population and served to bring in regional visitors.  But it’s useful to remember that knowledge-industry-driven gentrification is not the only process capable of driving a revitalization of New England’s small cities.

The title of this post, by the way, refers to Hartford’s optimistic, and possibly erstwhile, marketing slogan.

“Colorful administrations”

A member of my dissertation committee advised me early in the project to watch movies from my period constantly, the better to develop a “density of authority.”  I’ve had mixed success at following this recommendation so far.  But it did recently lead me to watch—for the first time, embarrassingly—Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the 1967 Stanley Kramer film on interracial marriage starring Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy as a wealthy, liberal, white couple whose daughter returns from a trip to Hawaii with a new fiancé, played by Sidney Poitier.

About halfway into the film (a minute into the clip below), Tracy’s character grills Poitier’s about the latter’s prospective children.  Poitier reports that his fiancé “feels that every single one of our children will be president of the United States, and they’ll all have colorful administrations.”  Poitier, on the other hand, “would settle for Secretary of State.”

It’s an uncanny moment, certainly, when the president is the son of a well-educated black man and a younger white woman who met in Hawaii.  Some quick searching reveals that Ezra Klein and Frank Rich both noted it in the lead-up to the 2008 election.  (More often, commentators—most famously, BET founder Robert Johnson—drew a lazier comparison between Poitier’s character and Obama himself.)

The resonance is coincidental, of course.  But I wonder if it’s not accidental, on some level, that Hawaii was the launching pad for both the fictional Preston-Drayton and real Obama-Dunham marriages—that only in what Cokie Roberts assured us was a “foreign, exotic place” could such an interracial coupling occur, despite the favorable legal landscape across most of the Northeast, upper Midwest, and Far West even before Loving v. Virginia.  Deserved mockery of Roberts aside, Hawaii’s real and imagined status as a racial and political borderland had an obvious role in Obama’s narrative as a source of both possibility (the Dunhams went there “in search of opportunity,” his 2004 convention speech declared) and distrust (ask any birther).  Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner suggests a deeper history to such conceptions.  The resonance of this Hawaiian plot point with the 2008 election, in turn, underlines the intriguing centrality in that campaign of the legacies of nineteenth-century U.S. imperial ambitions: Obama’s Hawaii, McCain’s Panama Canal Zone, Palin’s Alaska.

Parenthetically, it’s also interesting to note that quite conservative gender and sexual politics of the scene above: Poitier assures Tracy that there will be children, because “it wouldn’t be a marriage” otherwise.

About this blog

It seems worthwhile to begin by outlining my reasons for launching this blog.

First, I hope to make this space an integral part of the research and writing of my dissertation: a place to share interesting finds from the archives, to test out new ideas before an audience (even if it’s largely a hypothetical one), and perhaps, eventually, to get feedback from colleagues and readers.  As I move full-bore into the research process, I’m eager to see how this arguably less-filtered form of writing, can serve these purposes alongside more traditional forums, like conferences, colloquia, and writing groups.  The idea is, as Lynn Hunt recently put it, that “writing leads to thinking.”  At the state-of-the-field panel on digital history at the OAH annual meeting in April, Dan Cohen argued that Hunt’s piece was an endorsement of blogging.  We’ll see if I think he’s right.

Second, I hope to use this space to explore existing interests, and discover new ones, that don’t—or don’t always—find a place in my dissertation project: U.S. politics, twentieth-century New England, gay politics and culture, digital history and humanities, and mass transit, for starters.  Some of these are academic, and some are less so.  Some I know quite a bit about already, but I’m a neophyte regarding others.  For these purposes, my blogging will, I expect, certainly involve collating and curating relevant interesting things I find in my online journeys.  But having a platform for frequent, short-form writing, will also, I hope, produce thought, reflection, and new ideas to expand on down the road.

At least at first, my modest goal is to post at least twice a week—routine, but not so frequent as to be a chore.