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Taking Down Names
TAoN No. 81: Hunting for neglected namesakes; Austin Kleon's book club; a new icebreaker; and more
Back around the time when the Art of Noticing book came out — some months pre-pandemic — I got the opportunity to organize a TAoN-style tour of the Dallas Museum of Art. This was a blast, and included activities like looking out windows, taking time to people-watch, declaring routine objects to be art, scrutinizing security cameras, seeking advice from guards, and otherwise taking in the museum the “wrong” way. (We looked at some art, too.)
The idea, as ever, was to pay attention to the stuff we would normally overlook. And it was in that spirit that I made it a point to include on the tour a section of the DMA prominently labelled The Wendy and Emery Reves Collection.
My take: Never mind what was in this collection; who, exactly, were Wendy and Emery Reves? So our tour paused to consult Wikipedia. Emery was a writer and publisher. Wendy, a former fashion model, was his wife. They were quite rich, and donated their extensive collection of art and objects to the museum on the condition that it all be kept together in rooms that essentially mimicked their home. Additional fun facts: Emery was friends with Winston Churchill; Wendy reportedly dated Cary Grant and Howard Hughes, among others.
You can learn more about the Reves’ actual (impressive!) collection here if you wish, but the point I want to get at is that we run across or bump into these namesake figures all the time. Not just in museums, but in the form of The So-And-So Auditorium, Whoever Park, The Some-Name Memorial Wing, etc. Yet we rarely pay them much attention.
I’ve been thinking of this again lately because of one namesake building in particular. It’s kinda the opposite of a fancy museum space …
One of my current bike routes goes by this graffiti-covered and evidently abandoned structure. But it was several passes before I noticed it had a name elegantly carved into its facade: the Helen Adler Levy Community Center.
And I thought: Wow, what a bummer outcome for this structure’s namesake!
I looked into it a bit.
Helen Adler Levy was the wife of prominent New Orleanian and Navy officer Neville Levy; they had three children. She was an accomplished golfer and “active in civic affairs.” In 1952, she mounted a “nervous horse,” and the animal reared back and loosed a fence rail that struck her in the head and killed her. She was 52. The “freak accident” occured at the Levys’ country home, at a weekend party that included then-mayor deLesseps Story Morrison among the guests. As for this community center named for her: It was dedicated in April 1970; here is an undated photo of it when it was new. There is also an annual Helen Adler Levy golf tournament; according to the New Orleans Womens Golf Association, the winner in 2021 was Valerie Keller.
Maybe there’s more information out there, but obviously my goal here is not to educate you about Helen Adler Levy per se. (On a related note: all respect to her descendants.)
My goal is to suggest that the everyday namesake — a thing we often tune out — is worthy of attention, or curiosity.
Here in New Orleans, and elsewhere, we’re seeing a lot more namesake awareness as people realize how many streets and parks and schools and so on are named after unsavory or troubling figures. But in addition to correcting such embarrassments, namesake curiosity also offers a way to connect with our built environments. These are in some sense ghosts hiding in plain sight — and it is always worth scrutinizing the landscape for ghosts.
The Prompt: Learn about a namesake you’ve been exposed to but ignored, or just the next one you randomly encounter. Make this a habit.
Admittedly, I am perhaps now super-keenly interested in the sub-category of the namesake structure gone to seed. There’s something fascinating about it, something that makes me wonder about the downside of the namesake tradition. Often the whole namesake idea is — as in the case of the Reves’ bequest, with its insistence on recreating their lived environment — based on some kind of grasp at transcending mortality.
And perhaps that works, sometimes. But I’m drawn to cases where maybe that idea goes astray. It would be an interesting project to figure out how to reconcile the namesake instinct with the reality that even namesaked things fall apart . . . .
Noticing is about other people, too. The Icebreaker series aims to help with that. There’s a central collection spot for all the icebreakers to date, here.
This week’s icebreaker is from my wife, Ellen Susan.
“If you could erase from your brain one piece of knowledge (memory, or fact/set of facts) what would it be?”
A great one! Thanks so much, E.
As usual, I’m still working through the disorganized backlog of icebreaker submissions. But as always, I want more:
Please send your favorite icebreaker (whether you made it up or found it elsewhere) to firstname.lastname@example.org
I took last week off — and got a surge of signups! Not sure how to take that. :/
More seriously, thanks & welcome to you newcomers arriving via the Austin Kleon book club noted below, or via the very kind mention in The Magnet’s list of favorite newsletters! In any case it was exciting to pass the 15k mark along the way, felt like a real milestone. ;)
Coming in Thursday’s post for paid subscribers: Summer School Post No. 6, on the subject of savoring.
For the record, that 15k benchmark is for total subscribers. The paid figure is, um, substantially lower. So if you want more, or just want to support TAoN, your paid sub is super appreciated, and makes this newsletter possible!
In Other News
I could not be more thrilled that The Art of Noticing is next up for Austin Kleon’s Read Like an Artist book club! Regular readers know I’m a major fan of Austin’s work in general, and he’s been picking great books for this Literati club. More here or just sign up now.
“Revisiting the same poem every day is the antithesis of the attention economy.” Why you should read one poem over and over for a month, every month.
“What do you call those lil’ sticks that you use to push around model boats when planning an invasion or something?” Answered here.
Street art riffing on nature, via Street Art Utopia.
More pay phone news: Call a working pay phone at the Andy Warhol Museum? Intriguing.
Finding Silence In A Noisy World. (THX Pamela Barclay!)
Okay that’s it!
As always, I value your feedback (suggestions, critiques, positive reinforcement, constructive insults, etc.), as well as your tips or stories or personal noticing rituals, things we need a word for, and of course your icebreakers: email@example.com. Or use the comments!
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And thanks for reading …
All this by Rob Walker PO Box 171, 748 Mehle St., Arabi LA 70032
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