Making Mapping Inequality


Since we launched in October of 2016, Mapping Inequality has received a good deal of public recognition. National Geographic named it one of the top mapping projects of the year and Slate’s Rebecca Onion put it on the list of the year’s best digital history projects. Justin Madron recently wrote a summary of the project that gives a good overview of the data resources. I wanted to augment that with an account of helping pull this together as a faculty member, in order to give other historians a sense of the process and what a project of this scope entails.

It was somewhere early in graduate school when I first read about the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation in Ken Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier. At the time, I was deep in coursework, barely starting on my graduate research and, while I was concerned about the practice and impact of redlining, it was not my first line of inquiry. Besides, I didn’t see this as a debate I could contribute much to. Jackson set the line of the debate that still dominates among historians, and Amy Hillier had just published her articles a year or two before, using GIS no less, which was totally beyond my grasp. Eventually I did develop some GIS skills with some intense summer work. It took me several years of thinking about the state of scholarship on HOLC and redlining, of developing a familiarity with the National Archives, and of getting a sense of big data possibilities before I began to think about a HOLC digital project. In fact, it was a set of trips to NARA and NARA II that was really eye-opening — how much material there was there and how increasingly friendly the institution was to digitization.
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Historian’s Road Trip

This summer my family took a road trip out to the western Chicago suburbs to support some research I have been doing on the creation of Argonne National Laboratory.

Argonne was located near Lemont along the Illinois and Michigan Canal because it offered large space for development and was proximate to Chicago by car owing to U.S. 66 nearby.

My interest was in getting a sense of this area when Argonne was being scouted and opened, and what the towns were like — particularly Lemont, Naperville, and Downers Grove. I decided we would take the Illinois WPA guide, produced only about a decade before the site selection, to help us understand what was there and appreciate what had grown. As you might imagine, there was quite a bit of growth, befitting communities described by historian Michael Ebner as “boom burgs.”

DOWNERS GROVE, 11.2 m (717 alt., 8,977 pop.), incorporated in 1873, was named for its founder, Pierce Downer, who emigrated from Rutland, Vermont, in 1832. He settled at the intersection of two Potawatomi trails, between what are now Oakwood and Linscott Avenues, and Grant and Lincoln Streets. The exact site is marked by the DOWNER MONUMENT, which consists of a bronze tablet imbedded in a granite boulder from the foundation of Downer’s barn.

Maple Avenue today

Downers Grove, a commuting suburb, has quiet shaded streets; Maple Avenue (47th St.) is bordered with century-old maples planted by settlers in hope of obtaining a sugar supply. The necessity for the local production of sugar had been overcome by the time the trees matured, and they were never tapped.

The Avery Coonley Experimental School

The AVERY COONLEY EXPERIMENTAL SCHOOL (visiting by appointment), 1400 Maple St., is nationally known among educators. Opened in 1911 with two free kindergartens, it now includes the elementary grades. Teaching methods are based on the theory outlined in Education Moves Ahead, by Eugene Randolph Smith, president of the Progressive Education Association.

The highway skirts the northern limited of NAPERVILLE 18.7 m (693 alt., 5,118 pop.). Shortly after the first settlers immigrated her in 1831 the Black Hawk War forced them to flee to Fort Dearborn. Returning with a company of volunteers, they built a stockade known as Fort Payne in June 1832. The settlement profited from the caravans of covered wagons rolling west from Fort Dearborn, and by 1833 its population numbered 180.

The first settler in Du Page County was Bailey Hobson, who staked his claim in 1830, returned the following year, and established a grist mill. In 1832 came Joseph Naper, who built the first saw mill and platted the town site. Naperville became county seat in 1839, a distinction it retained until 1868 when Wheaton ended a long legal dispute by forcibly removing the records.

Reconstruction of Pre-Emption House

The most famous of the old buildings in Naperville is the PREEMPTION HOUSE, northeast corner S. Main St. and Chicago Ave., a two-story frame structure of Greek Revival design built in 1834. For years it was the most renowned tavern in the region; it is now occupied by a saloon.

Former site of the Robert N. Murray House

Other buildings of Naperville’s early years are…the ROBERT N. MURRAY HOUSE (private), 215 N. Main St., a one-story frame structure with an excellent doorway of Greek Revival design…

Site of the old Bailey Hobson Town House

The richest historically of Naperville’s old houses is the BAILEY HOBSON TOWN HOUSE (private, except to teachers and students of history), 506 S. Washington St. Built in the 1840’s, the two-story frame structure, houses a large library and a wealth of early records and pioneer furnishings.

Old Main at North Central

NORTH CENTRAL COLLEGE, School Ave. and Brainard St., a co-educational institution maintained by the Evangelical Church, was founded at Plainfield in 1861. In 1870 the college was moved to Naperville, occupying the north and central sections of OLD MAIN, a limestone structure of Italian Gothic design. The average enrollment of the college is 500.

Kroehler Furniture Manufacturing in Naperville

The KROEHLER COMPANY MAIN PLANT (tours arranged by application in advance), between Ellsworth and Loomis Sts., was established here as the Naperville Lounge Factory and is now one of the world’s largest manufacturers of upholstered furniture. [From Tour 13]

Downtown Lemont, IL

LEMONT, 26.9 m (605 alt., 2,582 pop.), an old towpath town, raises its hill-crowned head amount the trees. [From Tour 22]


At least since Ken Jackson’s 1980 article in the Journal of Urban History, historians have been fascinated by the security maps created by the security maps created by the Home Ownership Loan Corporation and the process of state-sponsored segregation in finance, better known as redlining.

It has always surprised me that these maps, which are so plentiful in the National Archives, and so important in the analysis of urban historians, are not more widely available and have been digitized only on a very limited basis. I recently went to NARA II and RG 195 was chockablock with HOLC maps. I have digitized a handful that are of interest to me, and so I might as well make these available to the public at large, as they are in the public domain.

Click here for digital (HOLC MAPS). Generally high resolution.

HOLC map of Chicago's north side.

HOLC security map for south side of Chicago, 1939.

Not only do the HOLC files have a lot of maps, but the files for each city have real estate professionals’ analyses of each neighborhood in the city, regarding demographics such as race, ethnicity, work type, and income level, as well as housing information such as quality of construction and building types. Finally, for many cities HOLC had information on the home lending landscape, including the financial condition of major lenders and their lending profile. It is clear that this HOLC information was put to problematic purposes, but this is a very rich and robust set of information that historians should draw upon more frequently.

See also Robert Nelson’s page on Redlining Richmond at URichmond and the Digital Innovation Lab at UNC.

Historic Aerial Photography – Soil Conservation Service

Next up in blogging the book project is a return to aerial photography.

Background: during the New Deal, agriculture was a key priority, and soil a specific component of that — see, for example, Don Worster’s The Dust Bowl. So the Department of Agriculture set up the Soil Conservation Service which photographically documented land coverage and usage through aerial photography across the country. The whole country.

Right now you’re already probably salivating at the thought of what this could tell historians, and especially urban historians. These still exist and are in storage in the National Archives (off-site I’m told, not at I or II). Some states and areas have been digitized, but it is hit or miss by state. They have been digitized for the State of Illinois, which is great. I came across these before, but the University of Illinois has actually done one better and made this a better, more accessible resource by making the interface and file management simpler. Find the county within Illinois, then use the schematic index to find the image. You can easily download the individual images. Here’s one.

Foregoing the cumbersome MrSID viewer can make these seem less accessible, but you can pull several images together on your own if you have Photoshop (access) or maybe Photosynth. Basically, take the image and trim off any black border with the crop tool — this is just an artifact of the film sheet in the holder from the 30s. Find all the images you want and do this with all of them. Then, using the Photomerge tool in Photoshop, select all of the images that are contiguous and run it. It takes a little while (5 to 10 minutes) and some decent computing power, but Photoshop pulls these together (and does the minor necessary warping of any images to make them match automatically) and puts out a composite image. So from the above, with about twenty-four images, you can get this:

The above is the area where Argonne National Laboratory is now. The small town at the bottom is Lemont, IL. Route 66 was just two lanes in this area and cut diagonally from lower left to upper right. The body of water is the Michigan and Illinois Canal. A good bit of the immediate area is now forest preserve, but there has also been much development, including I-55 and I-355, which would both be on-screen here, as well as Bolingbrook and places like Naperville, a little farther to the north. Either way, building these composite images from such a great resource is a wonderful way to get a sense of spatial change from the late 1930s.

Happy hunting!

Historic Photography

A photo project I’ve recently seen passed around Facebook is the Detroit re-photography project by David Jordano. A Chicago-based photographer, in 1973 Jordano was a Detroiter and conducted a photo survey of his city. He recently revisited those sites and worked to reshoot the photos. Some instances seem like a twist on the standard “ruin porn” of decaying Motor City landmarks — this one of the interior of the Michigan Central station, for example.

However, Jordano’s efforts get somewhat more poignant when his 1973 images illustrate just what has been lost in the interim.

In Jordano’s depiction, the great hall really was a waiting room, with black and white Detroiters caught in moments of calm and repose between trains. His image is testament to the loss of an era of grand architecture, where private commerce could sustain a public good and enrich the lives of all the citizens residents and travelers.

But Jordano’s photos also illustrate the loss of modest structures, ones that made no list of architectural achievements or corporate headquarters. This photo from 1973 nearly makes me weep to think of the careful tending and modest but forceful design intended in the building. The top image could come straight out of an exhibit in Kelo v. New London or mid-century urban renewal pamphlets.

And now we’ve got a semi parking lot or distribution center. Woo chain link.

Also, I must note that, despite the talk of the affordability and quality of digital cameras, Jordano’s rig (likely an expensive large format view camera) from 1973 vastly outstrips his new camera. A better lens, better resolution, and more masterful lighting make the black and white images simply better on nearly every count. They seem like fine art pieces, far more so than the well composed but lifeless digital equivalents.

Together, this pairing of images from 1973 — nearly the apex of postwar prosperity — with contemporary versions tells a story, a narrative of loss and unfulfilling rebirth in a new neoliberal framework, where old-line retailers and their buildings are replaced by the hostile headquarters of computer software companies, and ramshackle but dignified homes are bulldozed for Pepsi bottling plants. Here we really see the cost of deindustrialization and the limited gains for places like Detroit, not simply imagining what must have been there before the parking lots. Being confronted with this reality is, in fact, much worse than our imaginations could conjure.

The Philadelphia Story

One of my friends and colleagues, Andrew Highsmith, has a review essay out in the newest issue of the Journal of Urban History. In it, he takes up several recent works on postwar American cities including Tombstone and Jerome, AZ; New Haven, CT; St. Louis, MO; Youngstown, OH; and Philadelphia, PA. The essay challenges the framework of urban decline that has such a strong effect on how we think about cities, whether visually, narratively, or economically.

Despite what Daniel Okrent and others have written, cities are immortal geographic and political constructs. Even if they could die, though, recent experience suggests that civic boosters rarely abandon their chosen cities. When renewers cannot lure new residents to declining cities, as was the case in Tombstone, “the town too tough to die,” enterprising locals reinvent them as ghost towns and heritage sites. And if those efforts fail, scavengers and urban explorers arrive to pick through and salivate over the ruins. Tellingly, even “lost cities” of antiquity—places such as Pompeii, in present-day Italy, and Mexico’s Chichen Itza—have become major tourist attractions many centuries after their supposed deaths. And this, in short, is why even the most nuanced narratives of urban declension remain problematic.

One of the aspects that’s most interesting for me, however, is Guian McKee’s research on Philadelphia — The Problem of Jobs: Liberalism, Race, and Deindustrialization in Philadelphia. McKee argues in his introduction that Philadelphia’s local flavor of liberalism was somewhat more activist and creative in addressing the problems of job loss for the industrial metropolis,

“[Drawing] on American liberalism’s rich legacy of policy ideas and experiments to develop a series of local industrial and employment policies that sought to arrest the decline of the city’s manufacturing sector…liberals in Philadelphia recognized the problem of deindustrialization at a very early date and used the resources they had available to shape activist, public solutions to crucial economic problems. While they did not always succeed, the vibrancy and ceativity of this local liberal response invites a reassessment of the role of urban political actors during this period…”

However, McKee notes,

“for all of its innovation, Philadelphia’s postwar liberalism suffered from a critical flaw. Its core economic strategy bifurcated along racial lines. The resulting division, into parallel, racially defined tracks of industrial and employment policy, ultimately limited the city’s ability to respond effectively to the challenges of economic transformation during the post-World War II period.”

These are salient points, and ones that I have found in my own research — it was not all state-enabled policy segregation and decline, though there was much of that. In higher education and health care, some urban actors found ways to overcome (if not drive) the transformation of the urban economy and the metropolitan landscape. In places like Philadelphia, where this also went on, there were significant efforts to arrest the flight of jobs to the PA/NJ suburbs, but these were tied up in the larger metropolitan order, in which race seemed an insurmountable barrier (or, in McKee’s telling following Gunnar Myrdal, a long term cultural and psychological problem).

I was sufficiently intrigued to buy McKee’s book for my Kindle. Now to figure out how to cite the dang thing.

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory

Another great feature from the Lens blog at the New York Times — newspaper front pages showing the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911. The factory occupied the top three floors of the building and dozens of women jumped to their deaths in attempt to escape the fire. Some of the exit doors were locked to prevent non-employees from entering.

My own contemporary image of the Asch-Brown building, which still stands. It is now part of NYU and houses the Center for Developmental Genetics and the biology and chemistry departments. For me, this illustrates the transformation of New York and the American urban economy and cities more broadly, where manufacturing sites (and in this case, one of the most infamous industrial sites in U.S. history) are now rehabbed and repurposed for high tech scientific and entrepreneurial activities, catalyzed by institutions of higher education. Greenwich Village is no longer an immigrant, industrial neighborhood.
Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Building

Creative Destruction

Furness 316-20 Chestnut

One thing about the federal government: they’re thorough. Doing some archival research on Independence Hall I came across a set of appraisals for all of the land the National Park Service acquired to create the national park. Part of the appraisals were photos of the properties and among them was this Frank Furness bank, one of possibly three Furness buildings demolished for the creation of the park. Ouch. But the feds document everything so thoroughly all you need to do is open a page to find evidence of their crimes.

If you’ve ever seen a Furness building you know that black and white photos cannot possibly do it justice because he was so flamboyant in his coloring and detailing. So you might as well head over to the Frank Furness group on flickr and, if you live near one of his buildings, take some photos and add your own.

Can’t Let That Go By

An interesting error from Ezra Klein:

An interesting thesis from Ed Glaeser:

Ford, Durant, David Dunbar Buick, the Dodge Brothers, the Fisher Brothers, Henry Leland – it seems as if Detroit once had an automotive genius on every street corner. … But while their great invention made Detroit wildly productive for decades, it also sowed the seeds for the city’s decline. Cities work best when they are filled with smart people and small companies that innovate by exchanging ideas. Huge automobile plants, like Henry Ford’s River Rouge Plant, were highly productive, but they were isolated from the rest of the city.

This is not Ed Glaeser’s thesis. Jane Jacobs, whose work Glaeser knows well, argued this more than 40 years ago in The Economy of Cities.

Blogging Education

The New York Times runs something of an odd story knocking Harvard under the guise of a story on national trends, Slump Revives Town-Gown Divide Across U.S

The rats are out in spades this spring in North Allston, a gritty neighborhood wedged between the Charles River and the Massachusetts Turnpike, and residents are blaming Harvard.

Harvard had big plans to expand its campus into Allston with a science complex. But last winter, the university announced that the recession would force it to slow — perhaps even halt — the $1 billion project. Now Allston residents are living with a gaping hole and a bunch of vacant buildings instead of the prospect of a revitalized neighborhood.

We do get this tidbit, though:

Some cities and towns — including Ann Arbor, Mich., Durham, N.C., and Princeton, N.J. — have renewed calls for local colleges and universities to make voluntary payments to the communities because they have tax-exempt status.

Others have proposed levying taxes on dorm rooms or even on students, whom they say use municipal services at the expense of property taxpayers.

In Providence, R.I., Mayor David N. Cicilline has proposed charging students at the city’s four private colleges and universities, including Brown, a “municipal impact fee” of $150 per semester.

And in Worcester, Mass., one elected official has gone so far as to propose a tax on dorm rooms, an idea that is gathering support as layoffs take place.

“Police, fire, all the city services that colleges use are being cut,” said City Councilor Michael J. Germain, who proposed the dorm tax. “So now is the perfect time to go to the colleges and say, ‘Hey, we need a little bit more.’ This is a way to force their hand as far as I’m concerned.”

First, I don’t think these calls are serious, as Amy Goodenough couldn’t wring a quote out of anybody from Ann Arbor, Durham, or Princeton. This reads to me like name-checking top institutions where Times readership is fairly high. Second, I’d like to read some legal analysis of a municipal impact fee arbitrarily imposed on a group of residents who are basically indistinguishable in a legal sense from any other resident of a city. You remember Wilkins v. Bentley and Symm v. Walker, right? The state and U.S. court cases on voting that declared that excluding students from voting was a violation of 14th Amendment rights. A grad or undergraduate resident is no different from any other resident for voting purposes and I’d wager such residents are legally no different from other renters or homeowners for “municipal impact purposes,” either.