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May 12, 2017

Launching NorrisTown!

May 12, 2017 | By | No Comments

Welcome to NorrisTown! This work of love (literally) has taken a long time. This will be updated through the summer as I find and digitize more material, so I would really appreciate your feedback, especially if you know more than I do about the town of Norris!

The website is largely clean and accessible (I hope!) with pdfs housed together along with reflective essays. There images from the Farm Security Administration (from the Library of Congers website). In addition, there is a list of sources online and books that the website shall point you to.

While I was initially very, very afraid of having to code from ground up, in hindsight, it was easy as long as I was patient while I continuously tested the mock-up page. It took a while to finalize the mock-up page but it was well worth it. In the long run, it saved time and effort. It also made it easier to isolate issues that cropped up as I was inputting information. For instance, as I replace dummy text in the reflective essay boxes, there were alignment issues on the page as the pdfs were suddenly sent to the bottom of the page. In addition, the drop down navigational menu was going into the background. Given that I had written the code ground up, I was able to (relatively) easily isolate the problematic code and rewrite/edit it. It was small and big things like this that made the process annoying in the short run but extremely fulfilling because I learned so much.

The website was mostly created ground up, without any themes. I used iframes to house pdfs for easy access and readability. While I am happy about the project overall, there is one niggling aspect that needs some fixing. The home page does not have the originally envisioned geo-rectified site plan of Norris. Although creating the geo-rectified image was easy, there were some issues with Mapbox and I am still working towards fixing it. I would really appreciate any ideas about how to fix it. For now, the home page consists of a map I created on Googlemaps that has markers. Each of the markers is an important place on the site plan and the markers themselves have little information blurbs as well as images (when available).

For now, though, I hope the website is interesting!



May 2, 2017

Reflections on Earle Draper and the Making of Company Towns

May 2, 2017 | By | No Comments

In working on the website and uploading materials, it struck me that the houses primarily material authored by Earle Draper. Most of that was not by design but primarily due to the fact that most of the material easily accessible (both at the National Archives in Atlanta and the Rare Manuscripts Library at Cornell) is authored by Draper.  That having been said, it is striking the investment that Draper felt to the project. Draper embodied a particular kind of imagination. In reading essays by him, one is struck by this imagination. Norris was not just a planned town; it was experiment in peri-urban living. It also embodied the culmination of a process started by the TVA, a process that was, arguably, the raison d’etre of the TVA—electrification of rural homes. Electrification of the homes in Norris was an important aspect of the planning. It was seen as being distinctly ‘modern.’ Perhaps unsurprisingly, design became a means to modernize rural areas and usher development. Company towns were more than just housing for workers, through Norris, they became a conduit for a particular vision of the world. Bear in mind, this is a moment, around the world when ‘development’ becomes a rallying call. As I think about the summer, I am looking forward to examining more material authored by Draper on Norris, to better understand what modernity meant to men like Draper.

Working towards making a functional website also raised some technological issues. For instance, I thought I had worked out how to display pdfs as well as short reflective essays about the primary source pdfs on the website. When I actually began writing those essays, I realized that I had actually not worked out the issue. It made me realize that displaying a textbox and an iframe side-by-side is difficult! I was able to work out a solution eventually, that involved putting them both in one container that was able to recognize their differences and still let them be. In hindsight, it is probably the easiest and most straightforward solution but it was one I was avoiding because it would mean changing back-end code everywhere. Eventually, that’s what I had to do and it turned out well. Lessons learned: think about using CSS so as to avoid having to change lines in the html code of each page and second, create fully functional dummy pages!

The second big/bug issue I had was with Mapbox. My original plan was to georectify a site plan of Norris and use that on the home page, to create an interactive interface. However, whilst trying to do that, I realized that I did not have the right site-plan. After week of searching, I found the right version, right here at the MSU library! Having secured the right site plan, I set about trying to make my home page. However, mapbox was unable to handle the georectified image. So I was unable to create a tileset and get on with things. I am still working on resolving the issue, but for now, I am embedding a GoogleMap I created. It isn’t the ideal solution, but well… Lesson learned: find your sources before time!

Now, back to tinkering with the website! It launches soon!



April 11, 2017

Challenging times…

April 11, 2017 | By | No Comments

As my website is coming together, I thought it was a good time to reflect on the things came to be. When I first thought of working on Norris, I had grandiose plans about how the website would come together. Beginning to work on the website however, quickly brought these plans down to Earth. One of the first stumbling blocks was thinking of the home page. Originally, I had planned on georeferencing the plan of Norris in order to create a layered effect and a constant comparison between plan and reality as well as past and present. However, when I began georeferencing, I realized that that site plan that I had digitized, was, first, not the final one and second, that parts of the original plan were not built, which made said georeferencing challenging at best, and borderline impossible at worst. So, while I went back to the drawing board (so to speak) in trying to find an updated site plan for the town of Norris, I began piecing together other parts of the website.

Read More



February 27, 2017

Working out NorrisTown!

February 27, 2017 | By | No Comments

In the last month, I have begun putting the innards of my website together. Unsurprisingly it was difficult. But I am happy to report some progress! At this point, I am working towards making a page that whose format I would like to replicate in the other pages. In other happy news, I was able to procure some archival material (thanks to the internet and sagacious archival staff at Cornell University and the National Archives in Atlanta), seminal to my project.

In working out a page format I liked, I first went to a front end platform like Bootstrap. Unfortunately, what I wanted needed too many changes to the template. So I just began working ground-up. As someone new to JavaSript and CSS, I prefer to have everything at one place. It might be a slightly archaic way of working and definitely pedantic, but it’s the one way I am able to work on ‘website stuff’ without having to work again on a separate CSS file etc.

Broadly speaking the website will have five sections: about; ‘Norris: A Utopia’; ‘Understanding Norris’; ‘Photographing Norris’; ‘Company Towns in America’. Each of these sections will further have a drop down menu listing out sub-sections.

The section exploring Norris as a utopia will explore the imaginations that understood Norris as a utopia. It will explore the utopian nature of Norris through newspaper clippings, material generated by the TVA to justify Norris and extoll its virtues, press releases, and essays/commentary by architects and planners of Norris (this is where the Earle Draper papers would feature heavily).

Housing in Norris was based on typologies. The next section, ‘Understanding Norris’ will trace the rationale of the housing typologies, the housing typologies themselves and relating the typologies to plans, elevations and housing types.

As an important infrastructural project the Norris Dam was important for the TVA in many ways. As a project undertaken during the Great Depression, the Norris Dam and the town of Norris were photographed extensively by the Farm and Security Administration (FSA)- Office of War Information[1]. The photographs are available at the Library of Congress website. The next section then will showcase the FSA photographs, in addition to photographs of Norris from newspapers etc.

Lastly, Norris was company town. The last section will examine briefly, a history of company towns in the United States through essays and book sections. This section will also showcase further sources that readers can access on company towns.

On a personal note, I have begun to work in and through GitHub, a platform that has been giving me nightmares for many months now!

The page format I am veering towards is here . I would really appreciate any feedback you might have!

Also, I am really looking for a fun title. I welcome all ideas!!

[1] For more see



February 2, 2017

Making maps talk…

February 2, 2017 | By | No Comments

When I look at a map, I want to know how it relates to the reality of the terrain. One of the things I learned during my Master’s in Urban Design was to use AutoCAD. I enjoyed being able to created detailed figure-grounds, especially tracing over archival maps. The challenge however was, how would I ensure that they were projected properly? It was all great to have a really (what I thought at least) pretty map in 2D, a whole exercise to actually have to project the right way. I unsuccessfully tried to use Rhino etc to create maps that were projected right. It was only last semester that I found out that one could geo-rectify maps super easily (there is a list of tutorials you can use at the end of this blog post)! There are range of softwares and website that help with georeferencing.                                                                                       

The question I guess is why is geo-referencing important for my project? What will it add?

The simple answer is that geo-referencing a 2D map (especially a 2D map) spatializes it in a far more real way than looking at it and comparing it with a globe/3D map etc.  Especially when it comes a historical map georeferencing lets the viewer get a better sense of what used to be and compare it to how things have changed.

Geoferencing, simply put works like this: the user identifies anchor/control points on both the 2D map and the properly projected map (often times archival maps have contour data and/or labels that can be helpful in figuring out these points), the user then marks those on both maps and voila! The software/website actually stretches the 2D map to match the projected map. Depending on the accuracy of both maps, the accuracy of the corrections and distortions will vary.

Georeferencing a historical map requires a knowledge of both the geography and the history of the place you are studying to ensure accuracy. The built and natural landscapes change over time, and it is important to confirm that the location of your control points — whether they be houses, intersections, or even towns — have remained constant. Entering control points in a GIS is easy, but behind the scenes, georeferencing uses complex transformation and compression processes. These are used to correct the distortions and inaccuracies found in many historical maps and stretch the maps so that they fit geographic coordinates.[1]

In a sense this treats the control points as tack pins that pin the historical map to a three dimensional surface.  For a project such as mine, a georeferenced map makes it easier to see the ways in which the planners of Norris planned the town. It makes relationships with the nearby dam and urban areas more clear. And it also gives the user the ability to look at what has changed and/or the difference between planning and implementation. For a user, a well done georeferenced map also makes the experience a lot more interactive and meaningful.

Learning georeferencing:

I must admit that at first I didn’t think I would be able to do it. So I test-tired a low-resolution map of Norris and it worked really well! Heartened by that, I am currently finishing up the high-res map georeferencing. My next hurdle is putting it on to the website (I am still figuring that out!). I shall share the link as soon as its done.

Some of the links I found particularly useful and easy are listed below:

Happy georeferencing!

[1] Jim Clifford et al,  Georeferencing in QGIS 2.0 (2013). Accessed December 25, 2016.



December 2, 2016

Naughty Norris

December 2, 2016 | By | No Comments

While my project has changed, I am still trying to figure what the UI of my website will be. City plans tend to be static and insipid unless you are a city planner/architect/urban designer in which you start critiquing it. But I am getting ahead of myself. Currently as it stands my project will try and understand the connections between cities and infrastructural projects such as dams. My test site is the town of Norris in Tennessee built by the Tennessee Valley Authority. Today, parts of Norris are on the National Register for Historical Places. In trying to bring out connections between cities and infrastructure, I think it is important to bring out human stories. I anticipate using photographs (from the Library of Congress FSA collection) to think about the urban form. One of underlying aspects of my project is to try and analyze Norris for what it is — a model company town that embodied a certain utopia.

So then what is the story? Simply put the story is to try and think about the relationships between cities and infrastructure through people’s lives.

Meet Norris!

Town Plan of Norris


The chief architect of the Norris idea was TVA Chairman Arthur Morgan. On paper, Earle Draper, was the town planner. The immediate purpose of the town was to house the workers building Norris Dam about four miles away on the Clinch River. The second subliminal goal might have been to show America that how cooperative living might work.

The houses in Norris were supposed to be built on a modest and tasteful scale, with an eye to community as much as comfort. In design, they were to balance the traditions of the Tennessee Valley (building materials of natural stone and native cedar, and a porch on every house) with modern conveniences. It is important to remember that at the time of its construction, the region around Norris was less than 10 percent electrified. Norris on the other hand was to be fully electric, with ceiling heat and refrigerators in every home.

Norris Town Center

Norris was also supposed to be a completely walkable town. Modelled around the garden city concept, the town would be surrounded by a buffer zone of protected, undeveloped forest that would keep the ugly outside world at bay. Thus the people of Norris would in theory be able to visit their neighbors, walk to school, the grocery store etc—all without getting into a car.

As I research though I am beginning to think about the user experience. Right now my idea is to create a website where users can use the city plan to navigate the lives of the people who lived in the town through clickable icons. In addition, longer essays would be cross linked. One of the ideas I am kicking around is to create a 3D model of the city plan that users could interact with on the website.

However, I am looking for new ideas, so any ideas would be most welcome!







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!



September 30, 2016

Introducing Ramya

September 30, 2016 | By | No Comments

Hi! I am Ramya, a first year graduate student in History at Michigan State. I am broadly interested in borderlands history, urban history and environmental history (specifically water). I come to history from an inter-disciplinary background in Journalism, Political Science, Science Technology Studies and most recently, Urban Design. I recently completed a Master’s thesis positing the idea of a political border as infrastructure (most of my thesis is available at here), using the case study of the Detroit River

 DSC_0463My proposed doctoral project aims to understand the relationship between a political border and urban form. I view the urban and environmental history of the US Canada border along the Detroit River as a critically under-researched topic. Through an exploration of the relationship between urban history and the political border, I want to explore a more bottom up way of envisioning and analyzing the border. Extant work on the US Canada border has analyzed the changing relationship of the two countries (especially post 9/11). However, there is little or no work on the Detroit Windsor border linking city growth with the formation of the US-Canada border.

My proposed project for the Cultural Humanities Informatics Fellowship aims to map the Underground Railroad vis-à-vis changes in urban form on both sides of the Detroit River border between the United States and Canada through the 19th century. Thus far, scholarly work on the Underground Railroad has been focused on important actors and events. In relating growing urban areas on both sides of the Detroit River with the Underground Railroad through the 19th century, I aim to spatialize the operation of the Underground Railroad.  By tracing the relationship of infrastructure (i.e. technology, people and places) of the Underground Railroad to the growth of urban areas on both sides of the Detroit River, I aim to move beyond traditional scholarship on the subject. I see this project folding into my larger dissertation that aims to examine the relationship between city growth and border making, particularly of Detroit and Windsor.

One of my motivations in applying to MSU is the tremendous support offered to digital humanities. I am very excited to be a part of such an inter-disciplinary cohort and look forward to learning from my peers!