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.
This summer I was reading Louis Hyman’s Debtor Nation when I came across a surprising reference to the FHA Underwriting Manual developed in the 1930s advising mortgage lenders that college campuses were an excellent buffer for good neighborhoods against infiltration by lower class and racially diverse residents, so the presence nearby was a good factor in the security rating system (the “redlining” maps). I had never thought to look at the Underwriting Manual and so immediately tried to find one on the web. Being that it was a government-produced document I was also surprised to find that it was difficult to find one on the web. Google Books has only digitized a 1958 version of the manual and will only make it available in their Snippet View. This was aggravating. I went to HathiTrust and found a scanned document there I could look at, but it was in terrible shape.
This spurred me to action. I have always been very happy to find an easily accessible text/HTML version of the Port Huron Statement right here for the last 10 years or so, and I figured the historians of the world could use the same for the underwriting manual. As an assignment in my undergrad Digital History course I had students clean up the OCR’ed pdfs of the manual, then use an HTML editor to make the Web version look more or less like the book, but without the artifacts of the printed book, like page headers or forced text wrap.
Feel free to read or link or download the April 1936 version of the underwriting manual here.
An increasing number of historians are creating or accumulating digital archives and sources as part of their research. I think it’s incumbent on us to put all the stuff we can out on the web — the public domain stuff is a no-brainer and I think a good bit can be shared under fair use (e.g. with some interpretation). You don’t have to make a wiz-bang site to make materials available (though I recommend just about everyone develop their own professional/personal site). Maybe just a simple Omeka installation can do the trick.
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.
Recently I have been working on a chapter on Austin, Texas, and the relationship between higher education institutions (eg UT) and the federal government at mid-century. Prompted by this, I have gone back through some of my PWA research from the National Archives (map, images). You might know that New Deal programs were amazingly robust in documenting their own work and operations, in part to be able to issue promotional reports and other documentary materials to justify their continuation in the face of conservative criticism. These are now wonderful sources for historians to draw upon.
In the course of reading one report I found a quite striking project. Ohio Stadium, the famed Horseshoe football stadium at Ohio State University, included dormitories for most of the 20th century. During the Great Depression, a group of students set up cooperative housing with the help of OSU’s dean of men. Later, OSU applied to the PWA for a grant to expand and update the stadium, including the cooperative dormitory. In institutions all around the country, cooperatives sprang up or expanded during the Depression (like the Coops at Michigan, started by a socialist organization), but inclusion within a major public building like a stadium (though football stadia are often underutilized) seems like a quite innovative response.