The Lansing Culinary Heritage Trail is a web-based map that is meant for entertainment as well as education and it is meant to be experienced both digitally and in person. “Tourists” on the trail are encouraged to stop in and patronize the businesses that are still operating. The Lansing Culinary Heritage Trail taps into the wide audience of people who are interested in such a history and experience. Building the Lansing Culinary Heritage Trail – and the corresponding digital archive – is important to me because I want to share and preserve stories from the local community. For me, the trail is a way of preserving the restaurant history of Lansing, Michigan while promoting its future. My research is primarily composed of oral histories I am collecting from restaurant and bar workers and owners in the Lansing area. I am also drawing from existing local archives including the Library and Archives of Michigan, the Capital Area District Library Local History Collection, and MSU’s own collections, including the Alan and Shirley B. Sliker Culinary Collection and the Robert Vincent Voice Gallery.

My Interventions -or- Why Lansing’s Restaurant History Matters

The trail is also a public-facing, digital manifestation of my dissertation research project, “Serving it Up in the Capital City: Restaurants, Labor, and Restaurant Labor in Lansing, Michigan, 1963-2008.” My dissertation is a labor and working class history that investigates how race, gender, and class interact and affect the lives of restaurant owners and workers. Following the work of labor historians like Lisa Fine, Stephen Meyer, Jefferson Cowie, and Steven High, I see deindustrialization in Lansing as a point of departure rather than an explanatory ending for the existence of Rust Belt woes.

There is a reductionist tendency to describe de- and post-industrialization as eras of absolute economic ruin; this is especially true for the automotive cities in Michigan. The City of Detroit, for example, has captured the attention of photographers and urban adventurers interested in using the backdrop of decay and ruin. Lansing’s restaurant industry, however, is indicative of what happens to the people who refuse to leave a city during economic downtown and instead seek creative solutions of revival and persistence. The restaurant industry as a whole is an under-examined sector within labor history, which is a disservice to scholars wishing to understand the economic shift in the United States from a predominantly manufacturing to service industry. Restaurants furthermore highlight a segment of the labor force who have a tenuous relationship with spaces meant for leisure versus spaces meant for labor.

Choosing the Locations

My decision to include the following restaurants was based on their physical proximity to one another and also on the story – or stories – the location tells about Lansing’s history. While the city is certainly making efforts toward becoming more pedestrian friendly, the city was not originally designed for walking so much as it was for driving. (Lansing further stands out because much of the city’s infrastructure is based on former automobile factories.) The locations included on the trail are all in relatively short distance to one another so that it is “doable” for visitors of a variety of abilities. If the Lansing Culinary Heritage Trail were to be primarily digital, I would have created an A-Z list of restaurants (which is completely possible). The restaurants and bars represented on the trail also exemplify the variety of cuisine offered in Lansing over the past century, an important turning point, or a central moment in Lansing history.

Technical Infrastructure

I built the Lansing Culinary Heritage Trail using Leaflet and Mapbox GL Javascript Libraries. I also challenged myself to build the site without a Bootstrap Framework. Building my own site is something I have always wanted to do and this project certainly challenged me, despite using the simple site building trio – JavaScript/CSS/HTML. When I was a CHI Fellow in 2019-2020, I felt quite intimidated by JavaScript in particular and did not think I would ever learn it. Now I understand it as a language enough to problem-solve, which is very empowering. Every step has taken me much longer than I expected. It has been important to remember that coding is a language and it becomes easier if you remain immersed within it.

This summer and fall I will complete my plans to incorporate near-frequency communication (NFC) tags into the physical experience of the Lansing Culinary Heritage Trail. Creating signs to go into the physical world is one way of building community partnerships and collaborating with local businesses and organizations. The NFC tags will “ping” to nearby personal devices, allowing users – or “tourists” – to access further information about the site that is only accessible via NFC tag.

Collaboration in DH

Digital Humanities is a largely collaborative field – an aspect that is emphasized through the CHI Fellowship – and my project would not have been possible without help from CHI cohort members both past and present. (If you are reading this, thank you!) This type of collaborative environment is very welcome in comparison to the copious hours spent alone in the archive, researching, or writing.