Consumed / Rob Walker December 2012 Newsletter: Two Places At Once

--> Well hello there. It's a special year-end Consumed/Rob Walker newsletter.

Lots of pleasing developments in 2012: The Significant Objects book was published; The Hypothetical Development Organization was included in the U.S. presentation at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale; Time named Unconsumption one of 30 Must-Read Tumblrs; and "As Real As It Gets" had an action-packed run at apexart in New York.

How to follow up all that in 2013? Um, with a renewed focus on actually making a living! Wish me luck.

Meanwhile, for the last newsletter of 2012, I'd like share the account below of an interesting intersection of two powerful brands — CBGB, and Paula Deen — right here in Savannah. It's a newsletter exclusive, y'all; I hope you enjoy it. (Ever since E and I moved here, people have asked if there would somehow be a sequel to Letters From New Orleans, and this may be the closest I get!)

Your news and feedback, of course, are always welcome at

Happy new year!



‘CBGB’ to film on Paula Deen’s block, says the headline over the lead story on the front page of the June 22, 2012, edition of the Savannah Morning News, which has been sitting around my office for half a year.

Possibly I’ve kept it as amusing evidence of what a slow-news town we live in: Press coverage of local film shoots is invariably extensive, and often embarrassingly boosterish. (The various tour outfits weaving through Savannah’s historic district always point out sites used in Hollywood movies.) But really, this news was a bit different. The Savannah aesthetic — oaks draped in Spanish moss, meticulously preserved homes around James Oglethorpe’s pleasant squares, statues of Confederates, etc. — is mostly useful to filmmakers seeking ye olde backdrops for period pieces, or to connote some stereotypical version of the genteel South. The place does not immediately call to mind the Bowery in 1976.

Thus (in fairness to the local media), the CBGB-makers’ decision was noted elsewhere, although usually it was considered from a different angle. Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York: “Before we know it, the real New York will be a Synecdoche New York, existing only on sound stages and recreations in other cities. What will remain in the real New York? As our vanished culture reappears across middle America, middle America sets up camp in the city — pieces of Brooklyn become Nantucket, the Village turns into Wisconsin. With the suburbanized city looking more like Anywhere, USA, we'll have to leave the city to get a glimpse of New York.”

Well, okay, maybe, but to get back to the local angle, someone connected to the film told the paper: “This production was interested in Savannah, because Savannah could play New York.” Oh?

Soon I headed to “Paula Deen’s block” to look around. Deen, the celebrity chef, does not actually own a block of downtown Savannah. But I understood that the headline writer meant the section of Congress where people line up to eat at her restaurant, The Lady & Sons, which is at the corner of Whitaker. (And as it happens, the paper reported that the vacant building at 112 W. Congress really does belong Deen’s sons.)

Actually I made the trip twice, a few weeks apart, both times early on a weekend morning. This meant I would be unlikely to see any filming, but I’d be able to walk around. The recreated version of the iconic CBGB awning, sensibly, was not in place, but you can get a sense of the dummy façade here, at left. (The “Palace Hotel” sign to the far left is a prop.) At center, a pricey restaurant called the Sapphire Grill is disguised with a 1970s Bowery retail sign.

And to the right, the sign for the Paula Deen Store has been covered with a sort of generic “faded sign” skin. I guess the Paula Deen Store is where you buy your Deen memorabilia? There’s a big cut-out of Deen in the window, with her usual glassy-eyed, insane-smile expression. (The Lady & Sons is the next door down, not visible here.) Apart from me, the only people around were some fleshy tourists, peering into that Deen Store window, and sneaking suspicious glances of me as I took pictures of an empty building of no evident significance.

Later, many pictures of the actual film shoot emerged, and those are better for judging verisimilitude: Here’s a slideshow at the Village Voice’s site. My verdict/prediction is that the exterior shots for which this building and its neighbors were temporarily made over will be convincing enough.

Most of the CBGB interiors for the movie were shot on a sound stage, west of downtown, in an area that looks less like Savannah’s historic district than like some formerly industrial stretch of Brooklyn. Here the filmmakers (it was reported) built a meticulous recreation of the club using a variety of artifacts provided by CBGB owner Hilly Kristal, including a section of the physical bar itself. So this was a simulacrum built from wholly authentic components!

That was possible because while CBGB stands for a certain idea of New York, powerful enough to fuel a “festival” and assorted merch, it no longer stands at 315 Bowery or anywhere else in the real world, having closed several years ago. What you will find at that address today is a John Varvatos store.

I’ve now lived in Savannah for more than six years. The only place I’ve lived longer, as an adult, is New York City. I have one specific memory of a show at CBGB: My friend Kim and I saw Rasputina there, in about 1994. I have one or two other memories, which I’m less certain I can defend, of going to CBGB because it was a famous place I thought I should see in person, or to see a friend-of-friend’s band. But maybe I just thought about doing those things. In any case, while I enjoyed Rasputina, I don’t recall the club as a particularly appealing venue. Even in the 1990s, CBGB seemed more like a symbol than a place to be.

Eight or nine years after the Rasputina show, when E and I were living in New Orleans, I went to Las Vegas for an event called Magic, which is an immense trade show for the apparel business. As you may know, it is at such trade shows that retailers large and small browse forthcoming lines and designs and make the deals that determine what their stores will stock in the coming season. There was an area for “alternative” or “independent” clothing brands — streetwear and surf stuff, signifiers of goth or tattoo culture, and so on — and one of the biggest booths in that section was the CBGB booth. The club was still open at the time, but there were already rumors that even though the brand was clearly more potent than ever, the physical place in New York that it advertised really couldn’t last. In fact, there was a rumor that it would close there, and re-open in a facsimile version in Vegas itself. Perhaps that will happen some day.

If CBGB symbolizes a particular idea of New York, Paula Deen could be considered a symbol of an idea of Savannah. Savannah’s nickname is “The Hostess City,” and Deen’s persona is that of the exuberantly cloying Southern hostess, oozing buttery hospitality.

In both cases, the symbol is more powerful than, and only indistinctly connected to, reality. On any given day that line on Congress Street outside The Lady & Sons is made up not of Savannah residents, but almost entirely of tourists; any locals are there, most likely, on account of out-of-town guests. E and I have eaten there: once. It wasn't bad, but we direct visitors to Mrs. Wilkes (even though there's always a long line there, too).

One day while CBGB was filming, and the editor of the local alt-weekly was hanging around taking pictures, the shoot moved a block or so east. A truck made over to advertise “Hilly’s Piano Movers” parked at the edge of Johnson Square. The truck, according to a caption in the last slide in a show on the alt-weekly’s site, served as a backdrop prop and an actual conveyance for pianos used in the movie.

And what should happen by at this opportune moment? The Google Street View car! Apparently its driver was informed that this stretch of street was blocked off, and Google would be unable to View it. More recently, I used Street View to make the short virtual journey on Congress from The Lady & Sons to Johnson Square. "Traveling" east, and paying close attention, one can just glimpse from the corner of Congress and Bull the salmon-colored truck a half block away. One more click and it’s slightly closer – but on the next click, it vanishes, along with other trucks, bikes, and trash bins that were not present when Google's special camera-car returned to document the area.

It’s a weird techno-geography moment, and, in my opinion, a real shame. In a more perfect world, Paula Deen herself would have been visiting the set, handing out fried chicken to actors dressed in 1970s punk regalia, in this square preserved from the 18th century. Google’s camera would have captured the whole scene, and laid it all down in its vast digital photo-map of the world as pure, objective reality — or something that's close enough to pass for it.