The premise of the Visualizing Cities Lab, centered on the different ways we as scholars can construct an image of a city, initially piqued my curiosity for its ties to my dissertation project. In my own research, I consider how performance-based art practices and community-building exercises can make visible the invisible histories embedded in the public spaces of a city. Though I was able to keep this interest in the back of my mind, the VCL actually challenged me to consider a very different way of visualizing cities, one that I was not entirely comfortable with (perhaps even apprehensive about) and that is, the use of digital tools for storytelling.
Initially, I only saw the use of online maps, in particular, for its limits, their imposition of spatial, temporal, and organizational limits on cities that are constantly in flux and whose stories cannot be told from an aerial point of view. As part of the VCL, I learned about tools that extended the narrative potential of maps via the incorporation of other modes of digital visualizations (virtual exhibitions, historical images, periodicals and other texts). I was able to confront that my apprehension towards this had to do with inexperience and a lack of access to supportive spaces within which to learn these tools and put them into practice in meaningful ways; the VCL provided me with both of these things.
As part of team Chicago, I was charged with the task of visualizing one chapter from the monumental work by St. Claire Drake and Horace R. Cayton, Jr., Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City (first published in 1945). In our case, the text dictated our spatial limits, as most of the chapters take place in the historically Black neighborhood of Bronzeville, and from the start we aimed to supplement Black Metropolis with articles from the Chicago Defender and images from various digital archives. This attention to text and image helped me acclimate myself to the assignment of building an online exhibition centered around a map. In this period of adjustment I was also helped by the questions and interests of the undergraduate fellows, whose research in business, public policy, and urban planning pushed me to put aside my own interests and fully contribute to a collective vision for an exhibition, a process that I found constructive and humbling.
The project was not without personal relevance, of course. First and foremost, I was introduced to a text I had not had the opportunity to engage with in an in-depth manner and connect it to a history of government investment in the arts. While pursuing my part of the online exhibit, focused on the social spaces of the wealthy inhabitants of Bronzeville (in reference to Chapter 19: “Style of Living –Upper Class”) I came across a treasure trove of digitized documents and images made available online through the Chicago Public Library. In one of those resources, the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature, I found an image of a 1939 exhibition on view in the basement of the Church of the Good Shepherd (5700 Prairie Avenue). The research on display included 23 studies by Drake and Cayton that would serve as the foundation on which Black Metropolis was built. The exhibition was funded by the WPA (Works Progress Administration), an initiative by the U.S federal government remembered largely, at least in some circles, for its attention to the employment of artists, musicians, actors, and writers. This photograph effectively ties together two ambitious projects, Black Metropolis and the WPA, and positions this intersection occurring in a church in Bronzeville, an institution and the neighborhood that played starring roles in the project of team Chicago.
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