With another year coming to a close, and ushering in what will be the start of my fifteenth year at this blogging venture, I decided to attempt something that is mostly good for a laugh: a ranking list. A listicle, if you will. Since this is a blog whose most loyal followers are relatively few in number, but gets spikes of viewership when I post something spicy, I decided to reflect upon something substantive: what have been my five most controversial articles? I was prompted to make this list based on the recent, heated response to my first article on a fairly new topic (to me at least), which occupies a rank on my Top 5. And then there are four more, which doesn’t necessarily reflect the highest engagement…but I’d be the first to admit that contentious articles foster more discussion and thus almost invariably receive better engagement.
Honorable Mention: It’s just our skyline; pardon our dust. (December 2018)
This relatively simple rumination focused on a promotional photo of Indianapolis visible at one of the main concourses in Indianapolis International Airport (IND). The photo itself wasn’t intrinsically bad, but the photographer and/or design team made some surprising and sloppy choices: they didn’t remove unsightly power lines (a fifteen-minute task using Adobe Photoshop), and they chose a time when a construction team was engaged in repair work on the primary featured walkway.
I saw these oversights as rare examples when IND didn’t pay close attention to detail. Others more familiar with the airport disagreed vehemently; from their perspective, the airport has already skimped on details most people don’t notice, instead resorting to the glam features that help it earn national “Best Airport” accolades. I didn’t fully disagree with the two people most involved in the dispute; they use airports more often than I do. I simply thought they were hypercritically focusing on details that most people don’t notice, thereby compelling them to dunk on an airport that most casual users really, really like. Then again, “hypercritically focusing on details that most people don’t notice” is really just a little piece of my own heart.
5. Downtown revitalization: when every silver bullet proves nothing more than a blank. (September 2016)
To this day this remains my only blog post in Iowa, and boy did it get more than a few people’s dander up. I offered an assessment of the economic health of Sioux City’s downtown after meandering through it for a few hours, and my impression was not positive. I cannot say I saw many examples of investment that were likely to spur the sort of entrepreneurial interest that would compel individual investors to restore vacant or underutilized buildings.
Locals decided I was over judgmental and failed to account for obvious improvements. They could have been right: I was forming an impression with no historic context, of which they had plenty, which understandably makes my superficial visit among the most controversial. But I tried to account for my shortcomings by forming conclusions (and in some cases by researching) the relevant historic details that would have helped explain why Sioux City’s downtown seemed so lagging. While it wasn’t enough to appease the defenders of this mid-sized Midwest city, it at least prompted some folks to offer updates on other revitalization efforts that took place in the ensuing years. And, by being among the most controversial, it attracted a readership I didn’t expect to get since this was my first article in Iowa. I wish Sioux City the best and hope it can build momentum even against great odds in the economic climate of 2022/2023.
4. A vacant lot on the California coast: green activism or the color of money? (December 2018)
Two of the most controversial posts in a single month! What were they putting in my drinks in December four years ago? This one might have been among the most controversial even after the initial release, but it earned extra attention just a bit after publication because Facebook itself blocked my attempt to promote it with a very cagey explanation: that my humble little blog article on the coastal Hamlet of Mendocino, California (pop. 932) covered “issues of national importance”. Okay, Zuck; if you say so. Truth be told, it’s one of my proudest posts: I looked at this tiny unincorporated community’s use of a bare patch of land, Heider Field, which had no recreational or ecological function.
It was just a chunk of turf glass that could easily have hosted a minimum of six homes. But instead they preserved it. And in a state with such a housing crunch, any attempt to block new housing in a ritzy vacation town seemed more like NIMBYism than a heartfelt concern for the environment. And I believe elitist real estate protectionism disguised as impassioned environmental overtures is far more common than we care to believe. The anger that my post elicited only reaffirmed my suspicion that I had touched a nerve. Most controversial among Silicon Valley elites, that’s for sure.
3. Another defunct college campus, cleft in two. (October 2016)
This article, one of (if not the) most commented upon, mostly triggered a surge of nostalgia for Upsala College, a once-prominent Lutheran liberal arts school that folded in 1995 after decades of diminished enrollment. My lengthy article tried to piece together the sociological forces that explained the rapid diminution in demand for a school founded in 1893, much of which paralleled the economic decline of East Orange, New Jersey in the late 1960s, following quickly on the riots that took place in neighboring Newark.
I remain convinced that Upsala College could have weathered the turbulent 1970s if its leadership hadn’t fundamentally re-envisioned admissions, which involved reducing standards and the school’s prestige—an act that frustrated wealthy alums who used to donate generously. After all, plenty of schools sit in more distressed communities than East Orange but continue to survive or sometimes thrive. But, in an attempt to stem further enrollment decline, Upsala leadership radically shifted its academic basics and destroyed the brand. While the majority of my article’s responses are simply nostalgic and appreciative of my careful efforts to chronicle the school’s final years and the redevelopment aftermath (about half the buildings got demolished), a few former faculty quite vehemently challenged the conclusions that I drew. They claimed that Upsala closed prematurely on the cusp of a true revival. Their angry challenges to my narrative still rank this as among the most controversial posts. Time will only tell whether my conclusions are viable; I believe many other financially distressed universities are making similar decisions as Upsala in an effort to stave off their collapse. If they succeed, then I’ll admit that my analysis here was probably faulty.
2. Adult-oriented businesses in the burbs: a veritable lion’s den for innocent impalas. (November 2022)
My most recent among the most controversial posts, this one admittedly is what prompted this listicle, about an adult novelty store, Lion’s Den, that historically has located its operations in extremely rural stretches off an interstate highway. But this location takes a property in a busy shopping district is suburban Indianapolis, not far from a Target and Kohl’s, among other things. The former tenant was a drive-thru KFC, meaning that this Lion’s Den has plenty of windows and a drive-thru lane. It’s a weird replacement use.
The main reason it irked people, I believe, was my social media promotion referenced adult-oriented businesses like Lion’s Den as “places of moral laxity”, which, since that sounds highly legalistic and archaic (much legal language is archaic), I thought would be dripping with sarcasm. But readers didn’t see it that way and thought I was taking a dig at people who patronize stores like Lion’s Den. That wasn’t my intention: I’m pretty neutral on the topic and really don’t care how people spend their money if the activity remains confined to consenting adults. And I absolutely don’t like people trying to stymie businesses that have a legal right to operate, which is a common occurrence with adult-oriented businesses. But readers also thought I was making conclusions about adult novelty stores in general, reminding me about other chains like Cirilla’s, Lover’s Lane, Hustler Hollywood, all of which are in urban areas like Indianapolis and aren’t necessarily in disreputable industrial zones. They were right: I did neglect those, but my goal was to focus on one company’s business model—Lion’s Den in particular. And I never intended to imply that the presence of these sort of businesses was an indication that the areas themselves were trashy and economically unhealthy, though I can see how people might draw that conclusion, to which I apologized. But I remain firm that adult-oriented businesses nearly always face permitting backlash, which is a major reason I was so surprised that Lion’s Den choose an area rife with middle-class puritans when rural nowhere is often an easier alternative. If this Lion’s Den remains operative in two or three years, it’ll be safe to conclude that its supportive clientele outnumbers its detractors. My analysis may prove to be the most controversial aspect to Lion’s Den’s location in suburban Indy.
1. The exodus is complete. (August 2009)
My New Jersey posts are just a hotbed of controversy; two make the top five most controversial. Much like Upsala College, I rarely go more than a few months before someone else posts a comment. This one gets an edge in notoriety over the Lion’s Den post because of the inflammatory nature of some of the responses. See for yourself. I speculated on why Camden, New Jersey suffered such a precipitous decline—worse than all but a few other cities—even though it hasn’t faced nearly the population loss of, say, Cairo IL, Gary IN, or even St. Louis. I tried to be clinical and detached, but my reasoning wasn’t good enough for many old-time Camden residents who remember the social upheavals of the 1960s, which prompted such a rapid working-class and middle-class departure. Some of those upheavals even took place in the otherwise quiet Nifty Fifties, much earlier than the high-profile riots of the civil rights era. Camden also earns notoriety because it offers the best example of how naïve I was about my photography back then. I snapped a photo back in the mid 2000s of a 100% abandoned block in Camden that was demolished just a year or two later. But it was harrowing.
Anyone recognize this block? You just might. It has been used dozens (perhaps hundreds) of times by clickbait articles for “Worst Places in America”. Yes, it is my photo, and no I didn’t give permission. But I also didn’t copyright my photos then, giving opportunistic for-profit bloggers a chance to use it to lure people into chintzy, one-ranked-item-per-page listicles that make BuzzFeed look classy. Below is a screen shot I took from my own cell phone just a few weeks ago.
This is a teaser ad for one of those listicles. Sure, it could have been someone else who snapped a pic of Arlington Street at about the same time I did, when it was barricaded by a row of tires. But would it have been the exact same angle, with those power lines positions right at the right edge of that street sign? Not bloody likely. Advertisers use this pic all the time, making money for sleazy journos looking for a quick buck.
Oh well. It was never my intent to turn American Dirt into a moneymaker, and it was always my goal to form conclusions that don’t necessarily dodge controversy, even while they seek political neutrality as much as possible. May it continue well into 2023, and may the controversy keep me fired up!
9 thoughts on “Most controversial blog posts: a truculent top five (plus one).”
I remember the Upsala College article well. They had some pretty good DIII athletic teams back before their decline!!
Can’t thank you enough for directing me there, Chris. You prompted one of my most popular articles. To this day, every few months I get a (mostly) nostalgia-based post from an old alum, or a (rarely) angry critique from a former faculty member who said that my reasoning was all wrong. It’s all good to me.
I am always a sucker to read a list of rankings. Glad you decided to do this. You make me want to read the posts I missed. Good luck for controversial articles in 2023.
Thanks for reading! I don’t exactly court controversy, but when I confront it, I try to be measured and diplomatic as I explore the reason behind a broader cultural debate.
Great post! Tres meta to post a listicle about your photo fronting a bunch of nefarious listicles. 😊
yeah, I kind of sensed even back then that those Camden photos might create a small ripple in the pond. I think I took it back in 2004, and all those homes were demolished within a year later, so it was probably done long before those trashy listicle ￼articles even came in to being! Yet they’re still using them to this day to market “horrible places”.
Such much garden state content! I’m digging in!
The upsala one was great. I now live in the part of Newark that touches east orange. So I’m in the area a lot. I also know the developer that did that single family home redevelopment. East Orange’s reputation has really changed a lot in the six years since this article, now single-family homes are consistently in the 500 K range. No matter what neighborhood it is in.
yeah, it was pretty obvious to me even back then that East Orange had, to pardon the cliché, “good bones“. And that, though the crime most likely did rise in the 60s, scaring people away, it didn’t have the sort of massive exodus that Newark experienced, or Camden to an even greater degree. Hope I can make it back up there sometime in the spring.