Southern Biscuit Company

Writing about Richmond, for me, isn’t as easy as writing about Detroit. Detroit’s history is like a giant grab basket of easily reduced symbolism. Henry Ford. The UAW. Suburbia. Urban decay. The media passes Detroit around like an overeager groupie. It’s almost too convenient.

But Richmond? Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy. It’s big historic industry, tobacco, is vilified and flogged in our schools and in congress. For a time, it was one of country’s biggest slave trading markets.

This is touchy stuff. Just recently, a plan to build a new ballpark for the Double A Flying Squirrels caused a huge controversy when the site of an old slave jail was proposed as the location.

In Richmond, the old wounds may be healed, but the scars are still visible. Yes, Monument Avenue is still bedecked with statues of Confederate heroes. Yes, people wave Confederate flags weekly in front the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts because the Confederate War Memorial Chapel – on museum grounds – was forced to take down its flag.

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Like all things, however, Richmond has a bright side. (Edited. Original photo by Andrew Bain.)

As a northern carpetbagger, I feel unqualified to write about this stuff. What kind of statements can I make about Richmond? The people here are about the same people anywhere in America. At heart the city is charming, almost quaint. The food is tremendous. Old row houses with creaky porches, meticulous landscaping, and the occasional wrought iron fence recall the genteel image of the South held as incontrovertible by the rest of the country. You half-expect someone to offer you a complementary mint julep, until you realize that half the bartenders in Richmond have never heard of a mint julep.

downtown(Edited. Original photo by Will Fisher.)

And, really, that about sums up Richmond today. A city at odds with its past that’s moving very quickly into a bright new future, where all the strong southern accents have packed their bags and left for North Carolina. Downtown, today, is a typical modernist dead zone, eerily quiet even at lunch time. Failed streetcar suburbs ring the outer edges of the city, old and unfashionable, but not quite enough of either to be rehabbed. Past that are some of the most prototypical, auto-dominated suburbs you can imagine, outnumbering the people in the city by a factor of about 5 to 1.

It’s a brave new world, except without the Richmond Braves, the Triple A ballcub the city lost a few years back.

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(Thanks, Google Maps, for the building pics.)

One innocuous bit of Richmond past that always catches my eye and reveals the lingering nostalgia in Richmond for the time when it wasn’t just another Southern city, but one of THE Southern cities, is the Interbake Foods factory. Or, as Richmonders may know it, the Southern Biscuit Company. It just north of Broad, the old main thoroughfare, at the end of a long strip of multi-story commercial buildings dressed up with the occasional neon from the good ol’ days. HOME OF FFV [Famous Foods of Virginia) COOKIES AND CRACKERS reads Interbake’s own sign, though it no longer lights up at night.

Once the Southern Biscuit Company was the only commercial producer of Girl Scout Cookies in America, those cheap yet addicting cookies you’re shamed into buying yearly in a sad spectacle of child labor. The smell of the company’s “peculiarly Southern” fresh baked goods with “the amount of sugar which the Southern palate demands” (as the Richmond Dispatch-Times put it in the ’20s) filled the surrounding streets day and night. Certainly, a factory could smell worse.

Constructed in the late ’20s, the Southern Biscuit Company’s 6-story white stucco factory was state of the art. Raw ingredients were sent up to the top floor by elevator. “Gravity conveyors” brought the finished products back down to the first floor. Cookies and crackers were baked in massive gas ovens with rotating racks. The exterior had Beaux-Art touches, with fake columns, a concrete balustrade, and ample windows to allow natural light in. The iconic water tower on the roof adds to the buildings distinctive appearance.

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Now THAT’s a factory. I’ve noticed that windows aren’t as popular in modern industrial parks, and that’s a shame. Nothing is more depressing, more prison-like, than a workplace without windows.

In its heyday, the Southern Biscuit Company employed not just Richmond’s men, but its women, too. Not just as secretaries, but on the floor. A company VP told the paper in 1926, his heart bleeding: “The most distressing thing in this world is the dependent woman needing work and unable to find it, work that will help her to maintain her self-respect and very often to enable her to care for dependent ones.” Of course, it’s questionable how dignified boxing cookies for low wages was, but hey, a job was a job. When your no-good alcoholic husband laid himself up again with that fake back injury, someone had to pay the milkman.

The factory remained in operation for a shockingly long time, all the way until the 2000s, albeit with a few additions along the way. Yet over the decades, as mergers and buyouts changed the company’s identity, allegiances changed and the company – now known as Interbake Foods – bolted for the green belt pastures of Front Royal, Virginia. Now all that Richmonders have are assurances that one day the factory will be converted into… wait for it… lofts!

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Think of how cool it would be to live in a building with a sign like that, and how often your guests would ask for cookies and crackers.

Not that it’s all doom and gloom. Altria, parent company of Philip Morris, concentrated its operations in Richmond a few years before Interbake went Benedict Arnold, again placing the city at the forefront of the tobacco industry. To which I say, smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.

Posted in Virginia | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Let’s Hear it for Detroit: A Play

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A day not unlike this one. (Edited. Original photo by Lisa.)

December 2014, Downtown Detroit, MI: Another cold, damp, overcast afternoon. In other words, a pretty nice day for December. No snow and above freezing.

A real estate agent is on a street corner dressed like a carnival barker. Honest. He’s wearing the stiff old-fashioned hat, the white jacket with the red stripes on it, the whole nine yards. Yellowed, dog-eared deeds to properties bulge out of his pockets. He’s got a megaphone in one hand, the deed to the old county building in the other. The orange brick of the David Stott frames the bizarre tableau. And it is bizarre. Grungy buildings huddle around him for warmth.

Real estate agent: “Hurry, hurry!”

His voice is gruff, ravaged by tobacco. His ruddy, pockmarked cheeks and thin, oily black hair complete the picture of man that has lived a full life. Yet his blue eyes remain buoyant, youthful even. He’s a salesman, through and through.

Real estate agent: “Get your expired ticket to the American dream. Businesses! Homes! Factories! They’re goin’ cheap and they’re goin’ fast. Look at those big skyscrapers! Live where Henry Ford lived. Live where the Dodge brothers lived. All you need is a lil’ elbow grease and can-do spirit!”

Pedestrian ignore him, except for one sentimental sap that tosses some loose change in his direction, assuming he’s a beggar or street performer.

Real estate agent: “I’ve got Poletown deeds. Chene-Ferry Market. Max’s. Old Greektown deeds, Black Bottom. Whole blocks of Brightmoor. Walk to the park! I even got houses in North Rosedale Park. North Rosedale Park, with the community house!

“Folks, I believe in this city, in its renaissance, and you should, too! Heck, I’ll even sing you a song!”

The real estate agent puts out his cigarette and clears his throat. The hack is deafening, cancerous. A marching band in full regalia – plumes, brass buttons, and white gloves – materializes behind him in a puff of smoke. Or was it steam from a sewer? At any rate, they begin playing a fight song that sounds oddly familiar, but then, can’t quite be placed.

Real estate agent: “Why we’ve got fun and games,
Guns and blame,
Lots of real estate, it’s pretty great!

Yes, hear the motor’s ditty
In ol’ Motor City
Roar right through the 8 Mile door!

Let’s hear it for Detroit! [cymbals crash]
For Detroit! [cymbals crash]
Demolish it and they will come!
Let’s hear it for Detroit! [cymbals crash]
For Detroit! [cymbals crash]
They’re moving way out past the thumb!”

Just then, a young boy – maybe 12 years old – approaches. His jeans are faded from wear and have holes that clearly weren’t intended by the designer. On his back is an old Charles Rogers jersey his mom snagged at Salvation Army years ago. When he tugs on the real estate agent’s sleeves, his fingers leave grease stains.

Young boy: “Say mister, that’s quite a tune! Mind if I give it a try?”

Real estate agent: “My, don’t you look like a nice, young lad! Sure. Take ‘er away, kid!”

The band starts the tune up again, with gusto.

Young Boy: “Oh I love Detroit
A place to exploit
Without the streetlights the stars sure shine bright!”

Turns out the young boy can tap dance. Generic black basketball shoes noisily kick up loose gravel to the beat.

“I’m gonna work for Fords
I’m gonna pass the boards
And learn to read soon as I sell this weed!”

The band continues playing in the background.

Real estate agent: “Beautiful, kid. Beautiful. Now I want everybody to sing on the chorus!”

A lady shouts from the window of a far off, featureless office building: “But we don’t know the words! How can we sing along if we don’t know the words?”

The real estate agents smirks and rolls up his sleeves, revealing a beat-up gold watch.

“Then we’ll learn ya somethin’!”

The real estate agent, young boy, hipsters in matching pea coats, Quicken Loans office workers, homeless people, and Robert A. Ficano lock arms and being marching down the street. Cars swerve out of the way, crashing into fire hydrants, trees, and other cars. A mad collage of blinking lights, shaking fists, and honks builds behind the marchers.

Marchers: “Let’s hear it for Detroit! [cymbals crash]
For Detroit! [cymbals crash]
Factory loft space and tons’a slums!
Let’s hear it for Detroit! [cymbals crash]
For Detroit! [cymbals crash]
Long enough and you will go numb!”

Abruptly, the beat slows to a boozy half time.

“Let’s hear it for Detroit!
For Detroit! (A drunken man, off-beat and excessively loud: ‘Fhur Daytroy!’)
It’s the Paris of the Midwest!”

Water from a broken fire hydrant gushes into the street as the marchers draw out the last note. Though a strong breeze blows down the street, Robert A. Ficano’s hair doesn’t move an inch. Not even a millimeter, actually. He flashes a smile somewhat like how cement cracks.

Robert A. Ficano: “Everyone! I’m pleased to announce that we have some new taxpayer-funded megaprojects in the pipeline for downtown. This time, Detroit really is saved. The Feds are even kicking in. And I promise, no graft! Scout’s honor!”

As the marchers cheer, a single, beautiful snowflake hits the ground.

Posted in Michigan | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Outer Banks, NC: Pelicans and Wright Brothers

The drive to North Carolina’s Outer Banks can be awful. Visit when I did, midday Saturday on muggy July afternoon, and you just might consider bashing your brains out on the steering wheel once and for all. The stop and go traffic on the Wright Memorial Bridge – the slim barrier islands that make up the Outer Banks in plain sight – was like Chinese water torture.

Of course, just when I’d finally crossed the bridge, the car behind me was rear-ended into my car. Cranky, tired, we got out of our cars, saw the minor scratches on our bumpers and the witless teenage culprit, shrugged, and drove on. I was beginning to regret the whole trip, almost wished I’d hit Virginia Beach instead. The main drag, Croatan Highway, was choked with endless low density sprawl modeled halfheartedly after the quaint cider-shingled cottages of yesteryear. Try My Nuts. I Got Your Crabs. All winners, and even better as aerial advertisements.

Only the cool breeze promised relief from the hassles of the everyday world.

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Holy sprawl, Batman! And the scary thing is, it looks a lot more interesting in this picture than it is in real life. (Edited. Original photo by James Willamor.)

I parked in one of the cramped public lots, between two obnoxiously large SUVs. The scent of a thoroughly abused Port-A-Potty wafted in the humid air. And they told me this was better, less developed than Virginia Beach…

Yet my sneering cynicism quickly turned to unbridled enthusiasm as I ventured across the tall beach grass. The coast of the Outer Banks remains as beautiful and entrancing as ever. No amount of development can take away from the mystical sense of isolation it imparts upon the mind and soul. It’s worth the hell.

This is nature.

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Every carrot has its stick. Every rose has its thorn. (Edited. Original photo by James Willamor.)

Ghost crabs poked their eyeballs out of tiny holes in the sand, pelicans flew above me in V formation, and dolphins surfaced for air. Wave after wave pounded the shore, leaving elliptical prints in the soft sand. We were all – perhaps without realizing it – at one with its steady, hypnotic beat. The oceans is limitless, expansive, humbling.

Stamp a big fat rainbow permanently on the horizon and you’d have paradise.

The pelicans, in particular, captivated me. On land or water, they’re homely creatures. Sporting s freakishly long beak, fleshy “throat pouch”, bugged out eyes, and unkempt feathers, the pelican is a bird only its mother could love. But in the sky – yes – the pelican becomes majestic, soaring effortlessly on its long, outstretched wings, inert but mobile.

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So wait, that’s what Gene Simmons tongue is for! It’s a throat pouch. (Edited. Original photo by Vegan Feast Catering.)

I couldn’t help but think that such sights inspired the Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, as they worked tirelessly on their gliders in Kitty Hawk, a small “soundside” village also located in the Outer Banks.

As per usual, turns out I was right. The brothers, toiling away on windswept dunes in their overly formal city duds, frequently looked to their wild feathered friends for clues.

Wilbur wrote in a letter sent from Dayton, Ohio in May, 1900:

“My general ideas of the subject are similar to those held by most practical experimenters, to wit: that what is chiefly needed is skill rather than machinery. The flight of the buzzard and similar sailers [sic] is a convincing demonstration of the value of skill, and the partial needlessness of motors. It is possible to fly without motors, but not without knowledge & skill. This I conceive to be fortunate, for man, by reason of his greater intellect, can more reasonably hope to equal birds in knowledge, than to equal nature in the perfection of her machinery.”

The brothers believed the science of aerodynamics contained the mysteries of flight. The engine was almost secondary in their opinion.

And a few months later, the brothers took a trip to Kitty Hawk to finally put their wild-eyed ideas into practice. In a letter written by Orville almost two decades after the fact in typical “wall of text” fashion, it’s evident the birds of the Outer Banks had left quite an impression.

“The most remarkable example of soaring that I have ever seen was witnessed by Wilbur and myself near Kitty Hawk in 1900. The remarkable feature of the flight was in the intelligence or the instinct of the birds which led them to create for themselves a soaring condition where it did not already exist. One morning after a cold night we saw a number of buzzards, probably fifteen in number, and several fish hawks, begin by flapping their wings vigorously and flying together in a small circle, not more than fifty or seventy-five feet in diameter, at a height of twenty-five or thirty feet from the ground. They all kept well together in the circle, gradually working upward. When at an altitude of approximately fifty feet they suddenly quit flapping and then rose rapidly on stationary wings. As they rose higher they spread out into larger circles. When they reached an altitude of about one thousand feet they began to separate, each gliding off in a straight line. After leaving the circle they all lost altitude. In fact the gliding angle of the buzzard is not better than that of an aeroplane. The warm sun had no doubt created a warm stratum of air immediately above the ground, which was a sand plain.

The birds through concerted action made an opening through the cold stratum above and started a rush of warm air upward, and then used this upward rush of air to gain altitude.”

For the famous Wright Flyer – you know the one, the first real airplane  – a byzantinesystem of cables and pulleys was devised to allow the pilot of the plane to bend the wings at will, a concept known as “wing warping”. Wing warping enhanced lift and maneuverability and was modeled after the way birds curve their wings to sustain flight. It was like something out of Will Smith’s Wild Wild West, and proof that bird watching can be more than just a hobby for elderly oil tycoons.

Heck, it can help you write a nice blog post, too. But hey, what do I know?

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A model of the 1903 plane.

Posted in North Carolina | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments