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?

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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?