How do maps reflect a place and its culture? How do maps inscribe meaning into place? What do maps conceal about a space and its culture?
This week, my class engaged these questions at the St. Louis Map Room. The Map Room is a temporary exhibit located at Stevens Middle School, a shuttered St. Louis Public School in Vandeventer, a North St. Louis City neighborhood. We entered the school, walked down a hallway, and then turned right into the gymnasium. There we saw dozens upon dozens of huge maps (about 15’ by 15’), most of them hanging vertically in two rows. On a platform at the center of the room, another huge map rested. Another smaller map appeared on the t-shirt of a staff member. All maps were of St. Louis.
We met Emily Catedral, a teaching artist and site coordinator for the Map Room. She led our engagement, first giving a pointed lecture about the role of maps in history and culture. She displayed, via a top-down projector, various world maps. There was the version seen by most Americans that centers the Atlantic Ocean. There was a version often used in non-Western countries that centers the Pacific Ocean. There was an “upside down map” created by an Australian high school student sick of being told he was from “down under.” Catedral asked us questions about each map: What countries did each map center and decenter? What colors were apparent? What places were included and what places were missing?
From this display, Catedral presented her thesis: maps are subjective. They do not reflect universal truths. Rather as constructed representations of space they do not and cannot accurately portray everything a space has. In what they do portray, they influence readings of space and of the world. (I could not help but think of last week’s news, that Boston Public Schools dropped the Mercator projection maps, which have for the last 500 years drastically diminished the representational size of South America and Africa).
After displaying world maps, Catedral continued her talk on topics including “Borders and Names,” “Politics and Biases,” “St. Louis,” and “Personal and Community Mapping.” She gave examples of how politics—international, national, and local—influence maps. When using Google Maps, for example, the border of Crimea changes based on whether one is in or outside of Russia. More locally, she asked our group about the most popular places in St. Louis. We responded: the Arch, Forest Park, and Blueberry Hill. These places often appear on St. Louis maps but not wholly reflect places meaningful to St. Louisians.
Her talk led us through maps used in St. Louis past and present, such as redlining maps from the 1930s that marked certain white areas as non-risky and ripe for bank loans and investment, and marked black areas as risky and thus prevented substantial loans and investment. She toggled between redlining maps from nearly a century ago to current demographic and income maps to reveal the racial, economic, and infrastructural impact of those past racist zoning policies.
A description from the Map Room’s website reads: “The Office For Creative Research, in partnership with COCA, is taking over a shuttered school in St Louis to make the St. Louis Map Room: a community space for creating and exploring original, interpretive maps of the city that reflect the personal stories and lived experiences of its residents.” COCA, the Center of Creative Arts, a non-profit arts organization, serves St. Louis City and County with arts classes, exhibitions, and performances. The Office for Creative Research is according to its website a “hybrid research group, working at the intersection of technology, culture and education,” based in New York City and co-founded by Jer Thorp, a former COCA artist in residence. According to COCA, “During his 2014 visit to St. Louis, Jer was struck by the city’s divided geography and began to explore the role that map-making has on the identity of communities and its residents.” St. Louis Public Schools loaned the space of Stevens Middle School, which closed a few years ago, to the project.
What are the functions of maps? Many use maps everyday for navigation and also for discovery. But maps often do not reflect one’s personal experience in a city—meaningful places, routes taken, names (official and otherwise) assigned (many from the St. Louis region call the major interstate “40” rather than its official name “I-64/ Route 40”). The Map Room seeks to counter this: Catedral closed her presentation discussing the maps hanging in the room, maps made by local community groups. From COCA’s website:
The St. Louis Map Room combines theatrical set design, sophisticated interactive experiences, and facilitated workshops to bring members of the community together. Over the course of a month, a diverse set of community groups–spanning students, activists, historians, artists, public servants, and more–will convene to make large-scale maps that express their experiences in the historically divided city of St. Louis.
To make a map, each group picked the geographic area of St. Louis they wanted to focus on; using digital mapping software, Catedral imprinted canvases with a basic map reflective of those chosen boundaries. Upon that, each group gathered to draw places meaningful to them.
We viewed, displayed in images below, maps from University City High School students (University City is a St. Louis County inner-ring suburb city adjacent to St. Louis City); a migration map; a Homelessness and its History in St. Louis Map; a trails map; a redlining map including the home at the focus of the 1948 Shelley vs. Kraemer Supreme Court Case that made racial covenants unconstitutional; a Diversity Awareness Partnership map; a map created by those from St. Louis Children’s hospital; and a Foodbank map, created by the St. Louis Area Foodbank. Each is an example of community maps made by community mapping.
The St. Louis Map Room, located at 1033 Whittier Street, St. Louis, MO, is open until April 11, 2017.