Iterative Mapping: local history as process

by Emily

Making a neighborhood history walking tour map is not something the newest person in the neighborhood should do on her own. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been working with a local history group this fall to make the map for a public planning event tomorrow, called a charrette , and for the group’s website and interpretive materials in the future. Yet while I have access to historical resources and technological tools, there is one necessary ingredient I don’t possess: local knowledge.

Initially it seemed simple to ask the neighborhood historian which sites should be included on the tour, add historical information from my research, and identify them on the map. That turned out to be very wrong. It turned out to be an effort that would take multiple drafts and much revision to find a consensus. But in the end, we couldn’t have made the product without the process, and thinking of that process as its own form of unfinished oral history has made it even more valuable.

Iteration one

How do you think of places that hold memories in your neighborhood? Do you think of them from the perspective of someone flying over, picking out houses from an aerial view? Do you separate houses based on when they were built, or the dates of important events? Almost certainly not. You probably imagine them as though you are standing outside the front door, or walking up the steps. You probably envision them in the consecutive order of travel, whether by foot, car, or bicycle. What almost nobody does is think of the place they live in terms of a mapping product that doesn’t exist yet.

First, we tried doing a digital walking tour to identify sites, an idea inspired by I thought that looking at houses on Google street view, then zooming out to see where they were on an aerial photograph, would bridge the historian’s and my knowledge: she knew places from the ground, and I could only make sense of them on historic and aerial maps. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. The street view was difficult to navigate as though we were walking along the road, the foliage sometimes obscured facades, and the historian found it hard to see the screen in general; this was partly a generational difference between the two of us and partly due to a lack of practice on my part, but it turned out to be easier to simply go out and walk the route.

Walking, and going home later to spend some quality time with existing maps (and even Google street view), helped in terms of location, but we had to do it again later to check that the historical maps, the new map, and the historian’s knowledge all matched up.

Iteration two

The first map attempt I made identified each site by family names, but checking on the location of each site raised questions as to those names. Members of the society referred to historic houses as, say, the “Smith house,” referring to an early or important family who lived there. Yet many families in the neighborhood in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have been closely related. Sometimes there were multiple Smiths at the same time. Sometimes descendants remained in one house or moved around the area for generations. Sometimes the Smiths the historian considered important were tenants, not owners, so their presence is less well documented. Sometimes I didn’t understand why we were talking about the twentieth century Smiths when the nineteenth century Joneses who lived there were so interesting. So…which Smiths?

I tried to fix this on my map by giving the houses or house sites names of the families who lived there in chronological order: the Smith house might become the Jones-Smith-Carter house, for example. This became confusing and difficult to read, however, and still didn’t answer the biggest question: what made these families important?

Iteration Three

The next round of revision really dealt with the question of significance, and I asked many more annoying questions about why specific places mattered to local history. This was a great way to elicit information about why people today think history matters.

The society director helpfully  suggested that there are three themes for three time periods in the neighborhood’s history: its early history as a racially and ethnically mixed, working class whaling settlement; its twentieth century reinvention as an African-American vacation community with strong connections to Harlem; and its identity as the home of several prominent African-Americans within a famous resort area today. (This is clearly anonymous in name only, because that’s a lot of clues.)

The historian, on the other hand, identified some early houses in terms of the whaling history, others because of their Native American occupants, and others in more personal anecdotes, as the homes of descendants of settlers and people who helped her reconstruct neighborhood history when she founded the historical society in the 1980s. Her knowledge isn’t structured in terms of time periods, it is structured by place. More on that next entry.

Iteration Four

I tried to combine these different perspectives on local history by numbering each site and creating a separate booklet for the key, doing away with the site names completely. For each number, I named key themes in local history that it tied into so future tour guides can simply say, “today we’re doing the whaling tour,” and go to the sites identified as relevant. Then I structured the content by year or time period, adding information about which families lived there and what they did.

This met everyone’s approval, and then the corrections to text began. Others noted entries where more local knowledge would help flesh it out, where names were confused, or where the significance wasn’t clear. We went through several more drafts of the text before it met everyone’s approval.

Iterations five and beyond?

We’re finished with the map for the tour tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean we’re finished. I hope that at the event tomorrow, local residents will give us more information to flesh out our history. My research is ongoing and I am already finding more relationships between different households through time.

More importantly, focusing on the process by using a map to spark memories, call on local knowledge, and gain input about what is important about this neighborhood has been a “product” in itself. It has been such a useful exercise that I would gladly do it again, rather than calling the picture and text a finished product. Local history is a living thing, and in a way, remembering history is making history.