Inspiration: Mapping Chicago from Below

The history of cartography is often remembered as a legacy of white men.  With “imperial eyes” (Pratt, 1992), cartographers granted power to largely northern white nation-states through borders and names with the stroke of a pen. From the age of exploration to mid-twentieth century redlining, maps have shaped people, places, histories, and our identities.  Ultimately, maps visualize a particular subset of information at a particular moment in time.  When analyzed within their particular historical context through a critical lens of power structures, they collectively illuminate a quilt of information about the relationship between people and power.

CityLab’s (@citylab) recent post on “How Women Mapped the Upheaval of 19th Century America” offers a new perspective by evidencing how women engaged in map-making techniques that have been overshadowed.  This article is part of a series by Laura Bliss (@mslaurabliss) who interviewed New York Public Library map historian Alice Hudson who had names of more than a thousand women who had drawn, published, printed, engraved, sold, or traded maps prior to 1900 alone.  Bliss has also paired images with contextual information from Will C. van den Hoonardd’s book Map Worlds: A History of Women in Cartography.  [See this really cool image of maps drawn by Shanawdithit of the Newfoundland Beothuk tribe c. 1829. who plotted memories of her tribe’s movements and collisions with settlers nearly two decades prior.]

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This map by Agnes Sinclair Holbrook, “Nationalities Map No. 1,” from Hull-House Maps and Papers, 1895, (Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library), visualizes demographics of nationalities in the Near West Side of Chicago as part of Holbrook’s work with Jane Addams’s Hull House settlement house that served these populations.  From this image we can see patterns of immigrant aggregations in the neighborhood along with segregation.  We can see how immigrants are being categorized – along lines of nationality like German and Swiss and language, rather than along lines of skin color [which evidences historian David Roediger’s argument in his book Working Toward Whiteness that reveals processes of labor organizing and real estate policy that transformed Northern European new immigrants into “white ethnics.”]

If you zoomed out, you could see how close rail lines and the waterways were to the East.   As shown in this stylistically identical map by Samuel Greeley, families in this neighborhood earned an average of $7.50 per week working in nearby factories.

Do you know what a map of this area looks like today?

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It’s a tollway.  In the mid-twentieth century, politicians embarked on a massive urban renewal campaign to displace historic immigrant neighborhoods and communities of working-class people of color out of the city.  This demolition would make way for a new highway enabling middle-class whites to travel from the suburbs to the inner-city for work. Additionally, huge portions of the neighborhood were demolished as part of UIC’s expansion campaign.  For more on this read Amanda Seligman’s book Block by Block.

Although Holbrook’s work is significant (as well as fun and celebratory in light of Women’s History Month), focused narratives heralding the contributions of select middle-class women often read as more additive than revolutionary – at times reinforcing a liberal feminist discourse of “look, women were there” rather than re-examining how power structures have shaped the histories we hide, exalt, and define as part of our identities.

Ultimately, how can we excavate histories of mapping “from below”?  What can we learn from revealing map-making techniques of migrant farm workers, the enslaved, prostitutes, meth addicts, or Civil Rights Movement activists?  What would current folk cartography reveal about urban power relations today?

Teaching: Mind Mapping American Bodies

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A student in my course “American Bodies” thinks back critically on the class, arguing that American citizens are defined by group-specific stereotypes that create different experiences and further reinforce misconceptions:
“We discussed many different forms of bodies that have all had distinct social associations connected to them.  For the most part, white men have dominated society, always being in power and having authority over others. Those with negative social associations have always been at a disadvantage and often have been restricted, whether that be socially or under very specific laws created by those in power. We discussed how people in power have tried to regulate and restrict those below them often for nothing more than their skin color….”

In my American Studies courses I ask students to construct a mind map with an accompanying essay reflecting back on the course. The assignment aims to secretly get students to think about a structural analysis of power.

For this assignment, students were asked to reimagine the course structure by choosing a few of the course readings, films, lectures, etc. and lumping them into new categories and linking these categories and topics. It might sound a bit confusing, abstract, or a little hippie granola for you, but when executed correctly produces beautiful, thought-provoking images that evidence students reflecting critically on the course material.

First I’m going to give you the assignment basics and then I’ll share some of the best mind maps and their essays from my Spring 2015 course I designed, “Blood, Bones, and Brains: 20th Century History of American Bodies.” (You can see the syllabus for that course on my Academia.edu page.)

Assignment Basics

I show them this mind map as an example and tell them that the center of the mind map should be their overarching argument — each branch shooting out from the center should be a main theme, and then the smaller lines attached to those main theme branches should be their evidence to prove their argument. I use that mind map example because many others that you can find through Google are not intending to evidence an argument and, therefore, tend to be more descriptive brainstorming maps than a tool for visualizing a thesis.

However, unlike that mind map example linked above, students are asked to build off the main theme branches with evidence from the course. These offshoots from the main themes can be organized in whatever fashion they want. Sometimes you’ll find clear linkages and in other cases huge messy clouds of connections. A brief 1-page explanatory essay accompanies the image in order to articulate the student’s argument and evidence why those themes, offshoots, and connections/linkages were selected. Students can create these mind maps whatever way they’d like — via 3D model, video, Powerpoint, drawn by hand, or using some of these programs.


Results

Student 1:

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“My mind map is divided into the three units (Turn of the Century, World War Era, and Postwar) that made up our semester.  Each unit is then divided into the topics of each class.  Lastly, I added the distinct topics and concepts that we learned in class and discovered in the readings.  In the middle of my mind map I drew a person to represent the common theme of our class, American bodies.  I made him look kind of like a super hero because I feel like everything we learned throughout the semester makes the American body; no matter skin color, shape, class, race, a superhero….”  


Student 2:

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“It is not everyday when you think about people and their mindsets/values as “bodies”. When we start to think of bodies and how they are shaped and characterized by society, I realized how we start to perceive them. Bodies such as women, people of color, or those who are poor are seen as “weak”, “disabled”, and even not worth “saving”. These perceptions lead to the image they have on society. They are viewed as these things with the help of racism and sexism. Are these bodies really “free” in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave if they cannot even be seen as equal?

It was interesting to see that the typical “white, middle class male” wasn’t even deemed glorious if they were not muscular and well behaved gentleman of society. The actions that were/are taken on these people include laws, internalized/externalized judgments, and discrimination. Society chose to oppress those who weren’t fit for society. Women, people of color, and even “weak” men were oppressed without question and still are today. The progression of these topics led to dire consequences for society. Society was divided and there was a lack of trust for other groups and the government as a whole. This begs the question: “why?”. Why did we oppress and continue to oppress different groups of bodies?”


Student 3:

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“The concept of the ideal body came from the readings: Modified Bodies, Bodies on Display, Regulating Bodies, and Bodies in Crisis. Each of these readings spoke about wanting to achieve the perfect or ideal body or of not having that ideal body (Regulating Bodies). Another strong theme was race. The race factor was in almost every one of our readings. It was what I would almost venture to say the main theme was of our class. It was everywhere which is appropriate since it is everywhere in everyday life….”


Student 4:

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“Something that I came to understand is that the theme of Bodies on Display is perpetual, for ‘the gaze’ as you called it, is and will always be present. In this course, I was able to look at bodies from a new perspective. With my mind map I aimed to visualize essentially, how the themes we covered are interconnected. For example, a modified body is equally a body in pain and a body in conflict. Women who would change their images whether through make up, breast implants, or vaginal reconstruction (a topic covered in another class), would initially be bodies in a state of conflict, torn between what they believed to be true beauty and ugliness. Simultaneous they would be a body in pain, for just about all the modification process that we talked about came at some cost or risk….”


Student 5:

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This student divided their mind map into quadrants: “When I went to first create my mind map, I knew I definitely wanted there to be certain divisions of demographics and then I wanted to place the readings, that related to that aspect of the body, into that category. I chose to divide the course into four different categories: race, class, gender, and able-bodies. Although these are just a few of many demographics, I feel like the readings fit nicely and evenly into those categories. While I have placed all of these readings into specific categories, they definitely, without question, overlap with one another in more ways than one. After dividing the readings into their corresponding areas of concentration, I then wrote a phrase arrowed off of the reading that explained one prominent aspect of the reading….”


Reflections

Ultimately, the assignment worked pretty well in getting students to explore the relationship between group identities and intersectionality. Having recently spoken with Julian Chambliss about his use of infographics in the classroom almost as research reports, I’m determined to find new ways of incorporating visual and experiential modes of communication and critical thinking into courses that moves beyond strictly reading and writing. Have other ideas?  Share them with me!

Teaching Spotlight: Maps of American Food

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I’m in the throes of organizing a course for the American Studies program at Purdue on food studies – a class exploring the connections between food, identity, and place.  Today’s visual inspirations are maps I’ve found trying to embed certain recipes within US regions and cities.  What could you add to these maps?  How would your map of US food culture differ?

For me, these are missing a fundamental food from my youth: pecans. I was raised in Leesburg, Georgia – a city with mostly suburbs that were rapidly created after nearby Albany was integrated to meet the demands of white flight in the 1960s.

My family moved there after our home (and thousands of others) were flooded during Tropical Storm Alberto in 1994, fueling new housing development in the largely rural Leesburg.  When we moved to Leesburg, our middle-of-nowhere suburb was surrounded by pecan orchards.  Miles and miles of pecan trees about 20 feet tall, in rigidly aligned rows as far as you could see.

But this landscape changed in the 10 years I lived there from about 1995 to 2005.  Food culture shifted – nuts became more expensive and too caloric and fatty for mid-1990s diet fads.  The price of land spiked – the push for new housing developments made pecan orchards prime candidates for new suburbs.

When I left for college, few pecan farms remained.  Identical houses were built equidistant every 3-4 trees.  “Who would want to live in such a maniacal grid?” I thought from our largely wooded suburb (woods that would be demolished to build more houses in the coming decades).

Needless to say, I would add pecans and walnuts to Georgia on my map.  When I was young, I could find them raw in snack bowls on my grandma’s dinner table, sprinkled atop the sweet potato souffle on Thanksgiving, and forming the crunchy crust of a pecan pie…not to mention, right outside the kitchen window.

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Research Spotlight: Skid Row and the Great Wall of LA

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Photograph by Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times – This is a photograph of a mural in LA called The Great Wall that highlights the experiences of communities of color in America’s history.

In November of 2015 I presented my research on Berkeley’s People’s Park at SACRPH – The Society for American City and Regional Planning History.  Because the conference was based in LA, many panels that put theorists, practitioners, and historians in conversation addressed local concerns over the right of the masses to the city.  One of the most engaging panels included presentations by Cathy Gudis and Eric Avila who, in different ways, evidenced a public visual culture “from below” with rich examples of people staking claim to urban space in LA.

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Eric showed his own photographs of The Great Wall – a mural painted on a concrete barrier trailing  2754 feet on Canyon Ave by artist Judy Baca – which offers vivid snapshots in America’s history and experiences of communities of color.  More than just acknowledging their existence, the mural captures struggles over power embedded in urban space, such as this segment that portrays how local and state governments backed with federal funding seized land owned by people of color to build highways, universities, and more.  This segment shows how the state demolished Chavez Ravine, a Mexican American neighborhood in LA, to make way for a new highway and the Dodger’s Stadium that divided the barrios and fragmented the Mexican American community.

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36 portraits of Skid Row visionaries by street artist Mr. Brainwash.

Offering a contemporary lens, Cathy shared her own experiences working with the bi-annual Walk the Talk parade held by the LAPD (LA Poverty Department) in Skid Row – home to the largest homeless population in the US.  My own experience staying in Skid Row for the SACRPH conference was eye-opening.  I was absolutely stunned at how many people were living on the street in clumped tent cities.

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Photo by Jabin Botsford/ Los Angeles Times: Makeshift shelters crowd San Julian Street in the skid row area of downtown Los Angeles

The parade functions as an affront to cultural norms and policies discouraging citizens and tourists from venturing into Skid Row and talking with its itinerant residents.  Marchers carrying musical instruments and posters showing the faces of dead and still surviving homeless residents process through the neighborhood. The parade is part of a series of events facilitated by the LAPD that engages the community in discussions to identify initiatives and people who have made positive contributions to Skid Row.

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Photo by Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times, Walk the Talk parade participants march from Gladys Park led by the Mudbug Brass Band and stopping for sketches celebrating local activists.

What events and places in your community highlight the experiences of people of color in American past and present?

Reblog: SACRPH 2015: The Politics (and Non-Politics) of the Unplanned City in the US, UK, and Germany

Tropics of Meta

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Panels at conferences often feel like a hastily assembled mishmash of different things, like a fruit salad made by Mr. Magoo. Scholars who do not know each other and know less about each other’s research work together over email to try to slap together panel proposals that seem just plausible enough to pass muster with weary conference organizers, who have papers to grade, toddlers with runny noses, and annoying emails from students to answer. (In my best John Oliver voice: If the reading is listed next to the class date on the syllabus, you read it BEFORE CLASS on that day Jeremy!)

But occasionally you get to see a panel where all the papers interlock in meaningful and intellectually intelligible ways. In just this fashion, the session “The Unplanned City: Occupation and Creative Reuse” at last week’s SACRPH conference in Los Angeles offered an invigorating and rich perspective on different approaches…

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Identity + Citizenship

The central thread through all of my research is my analysis of the relationship between identity and citizenship — or how we know who we are and how that who we are is regulated.  In my dissertation I research how postwar activists understood this relationship as rooted in practices of police violence and urban renewal and histories of colonialism.

Two undergraduate courses I’ve taught in American Studies focus on this relationship between identity and citizenship.  My spring 2015 course “Blood, Bones, and Brains” examined twentieth century US history through the lens of the body, and focused on how the body became a canvas for self-definition and regulation.  My summer 2015 online course “Youth Cultures” used Tumblr to facilitate discussion about how American youth identity is continually constructed as both youthfully beautiful and immaturely undeveloped.

A graphic I made as part of the end-of-the-course “mind-mapping” assignment that asks students to rethink the organization of the course and connect class topics and readings in a new order. In this graphic I depicted the two core oppositional yet connected themes of youth culture — conformity and rebellion. To see more mind maps from the course, check out my Tumblr: http://amstyouthculture.tumblr.com/

Additionally, I’ve conducted research on the high school women’s liberation movement between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s. My paper, “Girls Are Equal Too: Education, Body Politics, and the Making of Teenage Feminism,” published in the academic journal Gender Issues, analyzes how teenage girls began to articulate how their age shaped their unique experience with sexual discrimination.  Another version of the article was published in Black Perspectives, the online journal of the African American Intellectual Historical Society.

In particular, in this paper I focus on how teenage girls articulated feminism through their own perspectives and bodies. Letters and essays written by teenage girls during this time demonstrate how girls saw feminism as a tool to challenge gender role socialization and build a supportive and collaborative community of girl activists within this revolutionary context. Ultimately, by challenging age divisions between the adult-dominated face of the Second Wave and the girl-focused Third Wave, this paper uses the voices of teenage girls to shed light on an earlier movement of “girl power” that has yet to be excavated.

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This poster was created by See Red Women’s Workshop – a British women’s liberation graphics collective.  See this poster and more of their work by clicking on this image.

Urban Studies + Design

As an extension of my dissertation research, my project proposal for the 2015-2016 National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fulbright, awarded semi-finalist, focuses on the relationship between space and power. The project, titled “Grass/Roots,” compares and maps spatial and environmental power by analyzing how people occupy, reclaim, and create public green spaces in South Africa, New Zealand, and the UK.  The project combines ethnographic interviews, site and event documentations, weekly self-produced informational graphics, and a cumulative cultural atlas illuminating connections among my case studies and their intertwined colonial histories.