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October 28, 2016

Changing Gears

October 28, 2016 | By | No Comments

When I first began thinking about a prospective CHI fellowship project, I wanted to map the Underground Railroad between Detroit and Windsor, specifically spatializing where and how people escaped. In the last few weeks however, I have begun to think about fundamentally changing my project. My primary reason for this is that I am studying 20th century US and Canadian history and feel that I would not be able to do justice to a project that is temporally so removed from my doctoral research.

Although the alternative has not fully germinated in my head, at this point I am gravitating towards understanding the impact of photographs on architecture and built form. Let me add a little context to this: I have been researching the Farm Security Administration’s photographs from the Great Depression era, in specific photographs that relate to the Resettlement Administration in their effort to relocate sharecroppers to other locations and break Poster of the Resettlement Administrationaway from land tenancy. Often criticized for being ‘socialist’ in its mindset, the Resettlement Administration made way for the Farm Security Administration.  Before that however, there was a proliferation of ‘company towns’ throughout the Unites States, thanks to the Resettlement Administration. At their peak in the 1930s, company towns housed about 2 million Americans, including as many as one in five adults in places like South Carolina. But most made way for the post World War II suburban sprawl.

These company towns embody a certain kind of welfare capitalism, in form and philosophy. Often built and designed in conjunction with large infrastructural projects such as the Tennessee Valley Authority’s dam projects. Often these towns claimed to use local materials, and embody a vernacular architectural form. For my CHI project then, as a preliminary thought, I would like to map these company towns in the South, especially in Tennessee. The company town, in the early decades of the 20th century, especially, represents a specific moment American history when welfare capitalism was able to dictate every aspect of life.Often, these company towns were a response to a certain kind of industry, and thus supported specific kinds of industries and transport infrastructure. I think digital tools, provided through open-source platforms Github, Leaflet, and Mapbox, and enhanced through JavaScript programming will help spatialize these company towns in novel ways. Specifically, I think an interactive map of these company towns placed in a larger regional context will help tease out relationships of these urban forms with other New Deal infrastructural projects, such as large dams. In specific, it might help us question the model of the company town itself. Refreshments concession inside the Norris visitors' building

Some of the projects that guide my evolving project are:

  1. How can digital tools be used to spatialize historical data? Specifically, how can we use digital mapping to tell an effective story of company town planning and form?
  2. How might it be possible to integrate the FSA photographs with the plans of company towns? What will this tell us about the ways in which the Great Depression was represented in popular culture?
  3. How might we re-think the suburban sprawl in relation to these company towns and big infrastructure?

While the specifics of my project are still being worked out, I would like to point out the ways in which I think digital tools are especially useful in redefining scale and impact of my project:

  1. Digital tools, especially GIS have helped re-open spatial questions across disciplines, but especially in History. Indeed, by scraping spatial data from archives, researchers can address a variety of questions. These tools help researchers ask old questions anew with greater analytical depth and context.
  2. Through spatializing and visualizing data, these tools help tease out connections that might have otherwise seemed latent. Visualization of data is an underused tool, in my reading, especially in the humanities. Just being able to see things on a large canvas often times makes connections far more explicit.
  3. Interactive interface. To me, the most exciting part of the project is the ability to design a user interface that lets the user interact with historical act in tactile ways. In a sense, a well thought out and designed interface can help the archival material speak for itself.

And now, I will go back to figuring out the specifics of my project. Any feedback/inputs/comments are always welcome!

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