By Katrina Henn
This semester was one of many tumultuous twists and turns. No duh. But seriously, this semester was incredible, obvious COVID-19 happenings aside. It was one long film reel, where each scene fit perfectly in some way with all those preceding and all those to come. Sometimes they would melt together in a wonderfully confusing mess of academic discovery and crossover episodes: my thesis project was going to include an historic African American neighborhood in Athens, and I was beginning a small pilot study for it to fulfill a requirement for one of my classes. My other 2 courses involved working alongside and learning from other African American residents and neighborhoods, both those gone by and those still here. I learned about blatant racism and classism in the past and discussed with classmates a shared unease of its existence today in the present projects. One thing I learned this semester: we (as in UGA, Athens, other communities, the state, and the country) still have a long way to go.
The Community GIS class was no exception in providing these strings of discoveries and realizations. Like everything else this semester, it was serendipitous given that I had to come up with some community mapping exercises for the neighborhood I would be working with for my thesis. To risk sounding borderline cliché, the course swept away so many of my previously held notions on cartography. You think maps are scientific and objective? Wrong—they can portray a myriad of perspectives on the same topic and make an argument for or against anything. You think maps are only good for orienting yourself? Wrong again: they can be a statement on a community’s identity. You believe the mapmaking process is a lone routine on your individual computer? Think bigger and more collaborative. Sometimes, it is the process that empowers the community and that matters more than the actual product.
This paradigm shift extended its grasp even further to the way I simply thought about our class project and my thesis in relation to the residents. Indeed, it felt strangely (and humbly) akin to having to learn about manners and respect in grade school again. One afternoon when seeking Dr. Shannon’s counsel on my thesis, no sooner did the phrase “help the residents” roll off my tongue than when he stopped me to prove a critical point: I/we are not swooping in to “help” people and save the day. I/we are not just coming in and providing much needed education or information and changing everything. We each bring something different to the table, with each thing being just as valuable as the last. We may bring a level of academic knowledge or computer literacy skill, while some residents offer community knowledge and history. Some might bring other technical skills or a refreshing perspective. The point is everyone has something to offer.
What I thought the Linnentown residents really brought when they stepped into our classroom, however, was the beating heart and life of a community we never knew. My classmates and I had spent many hours digitizing parts of Linnentown and creating maps of the place. We had read some documentation on its removal and gotten to visit the archives with Joey and Rachelle, both part of the Linnentown Project. Those were good first steps to becoming acquainted with the neighborhood, but nothing made the place feel alive like the residents themselves that day. Stories of the good and the bad abounded, of childhoods spent traveling the neighborhood paths and organizing ball games to fearful nights listening to the neighbor’s home being destroyed. Of how only one resident had a phone, so everyone shared it. Of an uncle with multiple sclerosis who carved steps out the mud on a hill so one person’s mother could walk more safely to and from work at UGA. These were stories of a tight-knit community so many of us wish we had today. These were stories of resilience which made Linnentown that much more alive. I believe it is these stories that really motivated the class to pour our best into the project. And, I believe it is these stories that humanize the neighborhood to others. Now we know the people whose homes were ripped away. Now we know the people whose tight-knit social networks were disrupted. All of this arose from simply trying to map a community. We were experiencing truth in what we had read: that the process itself is actually meaningful. I think the residents felt similarly, as one explained:
Linnentown residents are continuing to seek redress from the city of Athens and UGA. When you feel like you actually know someone or even a whole neighborhood, you feel that much more strongly about it. I hope they get the outcomes that they are asking for, and perhaps some of our work will aid their mission. The process, however, was full of lessons and experiences I will be taking with me wherever I go. Not only will I be more aware of the continued presence of our past ghosts and grievances, but I hope to become a more active, empathetic, and responsible citizen in bringing these issues to the forefront.
Reflection on Community GIS: Aidan
By Aidan Hysjulien
In this post I reflect on my experience working to map the history of Linnentown’s existence and destruction to explore how maps can become part of the historical narratives they tell. The overarching goal of this project was to create a geographic dataset of Linnentown and begin using it to tell some of the stories that make up Linnentown’s history. In many ways, the history of Linnentown tells a far too familiar story of 1960s Urban Renewal used as a tool for private capital, municipal governments, powerful institutions to dispossess and displace black Americans. Linnentown is somewhat unique as an example of an Urban Renewal project undertaken by a public institution of higher education, the University of Georgia.
Mapping a historical narrative presents the additional challenge of working with and against the existing historical record. Throughout the course of this project I felt a nagging tension between a commitment to ‘countermapping’ Linnentown and the necessity of often relying on historical documents created for disassembling Linnentown. These included removal records, maps used to document parcel/building ownership (Image 1), and correspondence between university officials involved in the project.
In working on this project I began to recognize four ways of engaging this uncomfortable tension. First, a critique of the historical records themselves. Second, repurposing the record by highlighting something it contained, but was never intended to show. Third, to animate some dimension of the history by bringing into dialogue multiple records. Fourth, by incorporating historical accounts of those whose voices, perspectives, and experiences were never included in the historical record.
Analysis of maps as a tool of power has a long history if critical/qualitative cartography. The image below is one of the historical maps we used to build our dataset, but it is also a map created by UGA to facilitate the acquisition of the territory. The information these map makers chose to include show what was most important to UGA -- who owns the property, the area of land that will be acquired, when/whether a property had been acquired, and the race of property owners. All property already acquired by UGA was associated with no information beyond stating UGA as the owner. This map was very clearly a tool for the dispossession and displacement that our work with Linnentown seeks to counter, but it was also one of the few records we have of Linnentown. By understanding this map as a tool of power used to translate space into an object of action, I could more carefully glean information from a troubling historical record. The story of the map as a tool of Urban Renewal can then become part of the story ‘countermaps’ can tell.
As our data set began to take shape, I started to see how problematic records contain stories of the past that do make themselves readily apparent. These stories must be teased out by highlighting and recontextualizing some aspect of the data. An example of this can be found in the map above by looking at how vacancy was used as a tool of erasure. For most of the vacant properties there is minimal information beyond the parcel owner. Once determined to be vacant, the property loses its street address, thus breaking one of the paths for building an historical. For many of the properties in Linnentown it was possible to use data from the 1940 census to extend Linnentown’s history by linking people based on address. For vacant properties this link is ruptured. While erasures of the past can involve omission or exclusion, erasure can also involve obscuring the connections that allow us to accurately reconstruct historical narratives.
While there were challenges bringing the 1940 Census together with our data set, bringing these historical records together on the same map provided opportunities to uncover aspects of Linnentown’s history that no single historical record could show. One of the most striking examples of this involved shifts in homeownership between 1940 and 1960 in Linnentown. By visualizing owners/renters for these two datasets it was possible to see a rapid increase in black property ownership in Linnentown between 1940 and 1960s. This finding helps to problematize the characterization of Linnentown by UGA officials as a ‘total slum’. By bringing together unconnected historical datasets the stories of the past can be illuminated in new ways.
In the end, these strategies for destabilizing historical records remain constrained by what they contain and how they can be brought into relations with other records. What continues to be missed here are stories from the people who lived this history, but whose voices and perspectives were never included in historical documents. When we spoke with some of the Linnentown residents still in Athens it became clear their lived experience was a glaring blindspot in the historical documents we had so heavily relied on. It is through community engagement with people affected by the histories we seek to make visible that these stories long left out can be heard and told.
I close this post by taking a step back to reflect on the importance of mobilizing the framework of community GIS to enable an institutional auto-critique by engaging communities affected by the practices of the institution. Community geographers have argued that it is possible to “leverage university community partnerships to facilitate access to spatial technologies, data, and analysis” (Robinson, Block, and Rees 2016). For some qualitative cartographers, the goal is to empower non-specialist communities to use GIS as a political and/or narratives tool. This project has shown me what there is an oft missing dimension to community GIS. Institutional partnerships with local communities can become part of a project that can put forth critiques of institutional practices, past and present, from within the institution. By telling stories about the past that disrupt the present and call for a better future, Community GIS has the potential to be a powerful tool for challenging Universities to recognize and address the problematic practices in their past and present.
Robinson JA, Block D and Rees A (2016) Community Geography: Addressing Barriers in Public Participation GIS. The Cartographic Journal 54(1): 5–13. DOI: 10.1080/00087041.2016.1244322.
By Jerry Shannon
Related posts: Aidan's reflection | Katrina's reflection
Many southern universities have faced increased calls to deal with complicated histories of racial exclusion. At the University of Georgia, pressure for the institution to explicitly address the historical legacies of slavery was increased by the 2015 discovery of 105 remains near Baldwin Hall on campus, unearthed during construction of a building expansion. Subsequent testing revealed that many of these individuals had African ancestry, and given the historical period of use for the adjacent city cemetery, this implied that most were likely enslaved. These bodies were reinterred by the university at a nearby active cemetery, but without consultation with leaders from the local African-American community, which caused further tension.
In response, the university has made efforts to acknowledge its historical complicity with enslavement, creating a memorial that honors those buried at the Baldwin Hall site and sponsoring two related research initiatives. The first resulted in the online Athens Layers of Time portal, which provides materials about the Baldwin Hall burials specifically and the historical expansion of campus. The second, currently ongoing, is examining the role of enslaved people in the university’s life from its founding through 1865. UGA also joined the Universities Studying Slavery consortium in December 2019. Both efforts are the result of advocacy by community members and faculty for the university to address historical legacies of enslavement.
Still, the university’s relationship with the local African-American community remains fraught. Only 7.5% of undergraduates and 5% of faculty identify as African-American, while nearly half of service and maintenance staff do. The numbers for student and faculty are far below rates in Clarke County (29%) and Georgia (32%). Specifically, there are rising concerns that new student housing is displacing low-income African-American residents, raising property taxes and putting upward pressure on rents.
The Linnentown Project is one local effort to call attention to these issues. It focuses on the Linnentown neighborhood, a historically black area just west of campus that was demolished in the early 1960s to make space for new student dormitories.Residents of this neighborhood--many of whom were home owners--were most often forced out through the use of condemnation findings and eminent domain. Through public forums and public protests, residents have told the story of their forced removal from the neighborhood, advocating for compensation for financial losses, and further research around the university’s role in slavery and displacement.
Joey Carter, who has helped lead the Linnentown Project, had previously identified multiple records about this redevelopment in special collections at UGA Libraries. These included maps of the neighborhood used to plan property acquisition, correspondence from UGA administrators and legislators about the urban renewal funding used for construction, and detailed records about each property acquired. While he was able to do initial analysis of some of these data, the scanned records had more data than the group could easily enter and analyze.
This spring, students in the Community GIS course offered by Dr. Shannon sought to support this effort through digitizing and analyzing these archival records. More specifically, students in the class focused on the following tasks:
The goal of this project was to crowdsource some of the data entry aspects of this analysis as well as to build a database that could supplement residents’ existing narratives of their displacement. As former resident Hattie Whitehead noted at the beginning of the project, Linnentown was for decades a neighborhood that existed primarily in the memories of those who lived there. By putting it literally “on the map,” our class aimed to provide materials that preserved those memories and provide visual representations that could be used for future education and activism. To adapt Baudrillard’s famous quote, our mapping helped “engender” the territory of Linnentown--giving physical representation to an already existing social reality.
This was, of course, an especially challenging semester for all university classes. In addition to the already existing challenges of coordinating this work among a class of 18 students, we spent a full third of the semester communicating only digitally through Zoom and online discussion boards. Digitizing records for neighborhoods and streets that no longer exist was also a challenging task for the class.
Two graduate students in this course--Aidan and Katrina--have written blog posts about their experiences in the course. In final reflections, other students were clearly impacted by learning about this history and being part of the larger project. Many students have lived in the dorms built on this land, which made it especially personal, and talking with former residents about their experience gave life to the archival data they had been working with. Overall, the goal of our work as a class was to make this chapter of the university’s complicated history more legible and help amplify the experiences and perspectives of Linnentown residents. We hope to further refine these records in the future in coordination with the Linnentown Project.
Jerry Shannon is an Assistant Professor at the University of Georgia in the Departments of Geography and Financial Planning, Housing, & Consumer Economics. He is the director of the Community Mapping Lab.