Wednesday, August 8, 2012

San Diego's East Village and SAA's LAGAR meeting

I'm in San Diego, California for Beyond Borders, the 76th annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists and will blog as much as I can during the next few days. 

I was initially dismayed to discover that the "bayfront" view from my room at the San Diego Hilton Bayfront features not only San Diego Bay and the San Diego-Coronado Bridge but also a massive Dole Food Company trucking facility, masses of railroad tracks, and a marine shipping terminal.  However, I find myself liking it more and more.  I find transportation infrastructure fascinating, and San Diego's deepwater harbor is its raison d'être.  Moreover, the Hilton -- San Diego's newest large hotel -- is adjacent a new Major League Baseball stadium, a new shopping mall, a convention center, and other recently built leisure facilities.  I would much rather look upon San Diego's unglamorous shipping facilities than upon a tourist fantasyland.

I had a little free time this morning, so I ventured into the city's East Village neighborhood in search of postage stamps and non-perishable breakfast food.  The East Village is the largest of San Diego's downtown neighborhoods -- it encompasses some 130 blocks -- and until recently was down on its luck.  Artists seeking modestly priced living and working space were drawn to the area, but many buildings were vacant and many social service agencies serving the homeless were also located there (sounds kind of like my neighborhood in Albany).

Completion of the new baseball stadium in 2004 led to redevelopment of much of the neighborhood, but it still retains something of its gritty character . . . and amidst all the new construction you occasionally find an older building that has survived.  This pair of structures located a stone's throw away from the intersection of 9th Avenue and E Street sits between two 21st-century apartment buildings.

The downtown branch of the U.S. Post Office, which spans E Street between 8th and 9th Avenues and is directly across the street from the Central Library branch of the San Diego Public Library, is another legacy.  It was built by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and opened in 1937.  I'm a sucker for Art Deco architecture, and I regret that I couldn't get a better picture of it; I simply wasn't up to standing in the middle of 8th Avenue or crossing 8th Avenue and dealing with the scary-looking guy who kept glowering at me as I took pictures.

The building features nine glazed terra-cotta panels that depict "The Transportation of the Mail." They were designed by Los Angeles sculptor Archibald Garner, who won a U.S. Department of the Treasury competition to create the facility's artwork and are tied together by a line of text:  "Through science and the toil of patient men thought traverses land and air and sea."

I'm particularly fond of the reliefs depicting air mail service . . .

. . . and marine transit of the mail.

Unlike many WPA-built Post Office facilities, the interior of San Diego's downtown Post Office doesn't feature any painted murals.  However, San Diego abounds in murals.  This mural decorates the 8th Avenue exterior of the restaurant Pokéz, which sits at the intersection of E Street and 8th Avenue.

And this mural depicting a group of musicians is located on a building just across 8th Avenue from Pokéz.

I headed back to the hotel to catch up on some work-related e-mail, attend the 2013 Program Committee meeting (yep, I'm helping to shape next year's annual meeting program), and meet with a Canadian colleague, and then I headed off to what for me is always an SAA highlight:  the meeting of the Lesbian and Gay Archives Roundtable (LAGAR).  LAGAR, which exists to promote archival documentation of LGBT people and communities and the interests of LGBT archivists, is one of SAA's most energetic and good-natured groups, and I always leave LAGAR meeting wishing that I could spend more time in the company of my fellow LAGAR members. 

I didn't get the chance to read the most recent issue of LAGAR's newsletter before heading to San Diego, so I was surprised -- and very pleasantly so -- to discover that pioneering lesbian historian Lillian Faderman was one of the featured speakers.  (The other featured speakers were representatives of the Lambda Archives San Diego, but I'm going to refrain from blogging about their presentation until after I visit the Lambda Archives this Saturday.)

Driven by the desire to help create something that was almost completely lacking when she came out in the 1950s -- a written history of LGBT people -- Faderman began researching women's romantic and sexual relationships as the gay rights movement began taking shape in the early 1970s.  Her talk contrasted the challenges she and other pioneering historians faced in the "bad old days" with the much changed situation that exists today.

Faderman learned quickly that one couldn't trust published sources.  Her research began with Emily Dickinson, who wrote forty poems that were obviously about a woman.  Faderman discovered that the woman in question was undoubtedly Susan Gilbert, who eventually married Dickinson's brother . . . and that Susan Gilbert Dickinson's daughter, who produced a book documenting the correspondence between the two women, exised many emotionally intense passages.  The letters were subsequently published in their entirety in a multi-volume collection of Dickinson's correspondence, but anyone seeking evidence of Dickinson's passionate attachment to another woman would have to wade through a ton of other letters.

Moreover, the archival profession hasn't always been particularly helpful. Harvard's Houghton Library holds the Dickinson-Gilbert letters, but neither the catalog record nor the finding aid describing this collection hint that scholars of LGBT history might be interested in them.  Other repositories have, for a variety of reasons, withheld materials:
  • Fear of shocking donors or, in the case of colleges and universities, parents and alumni.  Anna Mary Wells, who was writing a biography of Mount Holyoke College president Mary Woolley, discovered a trove of love letters between Woolley and Mount Holyoke professor Jeanette Marks in an unprocessed collection held in the college's archives.  Marks preserved these letters, donated them to the college, placed no restrictions on access to them, and quite plainly knew that the letters would be interpreted -- and correctly so -- as evidence that she and Wooley were lesbians.  However, when Mount Holyoke president David Truman learned of Wells's discovery, he tried to suppress the letters and to bar Wells from quoting them in her book.  He backed down only after the American Historical Association, the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians, and other scholarly groups protested, and Woolley's papers were eventually opened to "qualified researchers."
  • Misguided desire to "protect" prominent people.  The Minnesota Historical Society holds the papers of Henry Whipple, the first Episcopal bishop of Minnesota, and his wife, Evangeline Simpson Whipple.  For years, the repository refused to process of make accessible one of the fourteen boxes in the collection -- the box that held the passionate correspondence between Evangeline Simpson Whipple and Rose Cleveland, the sister of U.S. President Grover Cleveland.  Evangeline Whipple Simpson deliberately preserved these letters, but the Minnesota Historical Society refused to make them accessible until historians began pressuring it to do so.  Fifty years after the letters were first accessioned, they were finally opened to researchers.
  • Descendants' insistence.  When Jonathan Ned Katz, another pioneering historian of LGBT people, attempted to gain access to the emotionally intense correspondence between birth control activist Margaret Sanger and Dr. Marie Equi, Sanger's son barred him from doing so and asserted that only Sanger's activist career was of any interest to the public.
Noting that circumstances are quite different today, Faderman made an argument that I find quite sensible:  we need to have archives devoted to documenting the experiences of LGBT people and LGBT archivists planted in mainstream institutions.  Owing in no small part to "plants" who have gently educated their colleagues, Faderman can now readily find materials in mainstream libraries and archives, staff at these institutions can be counted upon to provide access to materials of interest to her, and finding aids often point her directly to collections of interest.  And as one of my fellow LAGARites pointed out, the process is reciprocal:  the existence of historians of LGBT people and communities enables archivists to make a compelling case for publicizing the existence of their LGBT holdings.

By the way, Faderman's own papers are held by the June L. Mazer Lesbian Archives in Los Angeles, which has entered into a collecting partnership with the University of California at Los Angeles, which has begun digitizing them.

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