St. Louis Map Room

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.

Maps in the St. Louis Map Room

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?

Emily Catedral

Various World Maps

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.

Redlining map from early 20th century

Income by zip codes in the early 21st century

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.

Interior entrance to the Map Room

Stevens Middle School exterior

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.

Map by University City High School Students

Migration Map

Homelessness and its History in St. Louis

Trails Map

Redlining Map including on home at the center of the Shelley vs. Kraemer Supreme Court case

Diversity Awareness Partnership Map

Map from St. Louis Children’s Hospital

Foodbank Map

The St. Louis Map Room, located at 1033 Whittier Street, St. Louis, MO, is open until April 11, 2017.

Walking the Divergent City: on Euclid Avenue in St. Louis

murals-on-page

Murals on Page Ave by Christopher Green

As our bus turned right—east—onto Page Avenue, a major thoroughfare, we saw single-and multi-family homes alongside boarded up ones. Something (unexpected to some) adorned the latter: murals upon murals upon murals full of images of famous black St. Louisians. There was one of Jamala Rogers, activist, author, and columnist for the St. Louis American (black-owned weekly newspaper), and another of J.B. “Jet” Banks, former Missouri State Senator, who served for three decades.

After a stretch of Page, our bus turned left—north—onto Kingshighway, a heavily trafficked major thoroughfare. We continued north and approached the next major intersection at Natural Bridge, where White Castle, McDonald’s, and Rally’s stood as the places to eat. A right turn on Natural Bridge, and then another right turn on Euclid led us to our first destination: Euclid Avenue near Greer. We exited the bus and stood briefly on Euclid, near North Side Community School, a charter school. Across the street from us: Handy Park, named after W.C. Handy, the black composer and musician who wrote “St. Louis Blues.”

From our post on Euclid Avenue our charge was simple: walk south until Maryland Avenue, some two miles away. The only other directions: be mindful and observe. These observations formed the assignment due days later: jottings with initial impressions and composed fieldnotes about the experience of walking along Euclid Ave.

This assignment was part of “Urban Ethnography in St. Louis,” a course I am teaching this semester at Washington University in St. Louis. My charge: train students in ethnographic field methods and the important work of observation, field research, interviewing, and documentation; and teach genealogies of urban ethnography especially related to Anthropology and Sociology as well as to American Studies, Performance Studies, and Urban Studies. Do this all situated within St. Louis with particular attention to how spatial racism, segregation, poverty, processes of displacement, gentrification, neoliberalism, and cultural and expressive practices have shaped culture in the city. The walk south on Euclid Ave. would bring students from and through majority black St. Louis neighborhoods to a majority white St. Louis neighborhood.

Two homes on Euclid Avenue

Two homes on Euclid Avenue

Salvation Army, Church, and Homes on Euclid in North St. Louis City

Salvation Army, church, and homes on Euclid in North St. Louis City

On the first part of our walk, students observed buildings and businesses including Salvation Army, Dollar General, and Family Dollar. Much was much boarded-up like Euclid School, a former public school now for sale by the city, farther along our walk. One student observed a run-down brick house with a beautiful structure that he assumed could be easily, if not inexpensively, rehabbed. As he got closer to it, he heard the sound of what seemed like 100 birds chirping inside of it. But much was also inhabited and cared for, like lawns where residents lived or immaculately cared for churches.

Euclid School

Euclid School

"For Sale" sign at Euclid School

“For Sale” sign at Euclid School

Falling down home on Euclid Ave.

Falling down home on Euclid Avenue

They observed streets and sidewalks, often full of litter. Many spoke about the tactile feeling of walking on the uneven sidewalks made more so by shards of broken glass and an array of litter—some which moved slowly in the wind—of different sizes and weights. One student named the objects she saw on sidewalks and grass—empty soda cans and fast food wrappers—as indicating someone’s past consumption.

They observed the people: initially mostly black. Residents entering or leaving homes; children whizzing by on schools buses; the rare passerby who would sometimes say hello; the group of black men elevated on ladders, moving bricks from a boarded up home onto a pallet; the one white woman, who many students ascribed a role other than resident, talking with a black man on his porch. They observed sounds of school children bantering, men talking, cars driving by and blasting music, birds chirping, the gentle wind.

Along Euclid Avenue

Along Euclid Avenue

They observed themselves: a group of 18 mostly white undergraduate students at the top research university in St. Louis, and their professor (me, a black woman), walking in a clump on the sidewalk initially in mostly black neighborhoods. Many had smartphones in hand and backpacks on their backs. (Washington University has garnered negative attention for having the largest share of students whose parents make incomes from the top 1%.)

After the fieldtrip, I explained where we had walked. We started in Kingsway East, a North St. Louis City neighborhood bounded by Kingshighway, Natural Bridge, Marcus Avenue, and Dr. Martin Luther King Drive.

I cited demographic information from Mark Groth, whose excellent St. Louis City Talk blog documents most of the city’s 77 neighborhoods. According to Groth:kingswaye

4,322 residents of Kingsway East were counted in 2000.  That is a 14% decline from the 1990 census count.  It’s 98% black.  There were 2,162 housing units, 80% of which were occupied, 52% renters, 48% owners.

We continued our walk through Fountain Park, a neighborhood centered by a beautiful park with a fountain and a statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. According to Groth:fountain-park

The 2000 census data counted 1,804 residents (down 23% from 1990’s count) of whom 99% were black. There were 1,010 housing units counted, 75% occupied (32%/68% owner/renter split).  2010 census data counted 1,484 people, another 18% loss, down to 17 white people, 1,445 black people, 7 Hispanic/Latino and 1 Asian

As we crossed Delmar Ave, we entered the Central West End. From Mark Groth:cwe

The 2000 census counted 14,144 residents (4% decline from 1990s count) of whom 56% were white, 36% black, 5% Asian and 2% Hispanic/Latino.  9,572 housing units were 89% occupied, 26% by owners and 74% by renters.  The Central West End was one of a handful of central corridor neighborhoods that actually gained residents in the 2010 Census count (2% increase).  Racial counts from the 2010 Census yielded 58% white, 28% black, 11% Asian and 3% Hispanic/Latino.

Most of my students had previously visited the Central West End; a metro stop connects the neighborhood with Washington University’s main campus.

But numbers tell only part of a city’s story. Walking allowed students to observe affect. Some said they initially felt uncomfortable walking along Euclid, visibly out of place. For many, comfort set in for many after we crossed Delmar Ave. At Delmar and Euclid, many-spotted Lofts @ Euclid, a six-story warehouse turned renovated apartment building. Images of healthy, beautiful black models graced advertising on the building; some commented a pleasant shock seeing black rather than white faces in the advertisement.

Lofts @ Euclid

Lofts @ Euclid

But for some, crossing Delmar produced a new discomfort. Shiny, exciting Central West End now seemed dulled as students had just experienced a plethora of litter and neglect blocks away. The walk animated what we’d studied: the effects of a century of racist policies in St. Louis that displaced and dispossessed black residents, invested in white neighborhoods, and produced St. Louis as a highly racially segregated city. The walk attuned some of my students to how St. Louis could be more equitable. At basic levels, a lot of students wanted better trash clean up in North St. Louis City.

As we walked further south, now in the Central West End a majority white neighborhood familiar to most, we also saw the unofficial trademark of St. Louis: the private street. We saw little to no litter on the sidewalks. We observed restaurant upon restaurant and shop upon shop including Pi Pizzeria and Mission Taco, two local gourmet St. Louis chains, and Left Bank Books, arguably the city’s best bookstore. When we finally ended our walk at Starbucks, artisanal restaurants surrounded us.

Private Street

A private street in the Central West End

A shop in the Central West End

A shop in the Central West End

Mission Taco, a popular restaurant, in the Central West End

Mission Taco, a popular restaurant, in the Central West End

St. Louis is often called the divided city. Delmar Ave. slices St. Louis City into two halves, North and South. Many refer to the “Delmar Divide,” that is between North St. Louis City, which is 98% black, and South St. Louis City, which is 70% white. The next week we read J. Rosie Tighe and Joanna P. Ganning’s 2015 article in Urban GeographyThe divergent city: unequal and uneven development in St. Louis.” They frame St. Louis not as the divided city but as the divergent city. They evidence how displacement and dispossession in majority black North St. Louis City are very much linked to investment and growth in majority white South St. Louis City. The walk animated this: how dispossession in majority black St. Louis is linked to growth in majority white St. Louis, and how policies of dispossession and alternatively investment influence the experience of walking and being in various parts of the city.

The idea for this walk developed from two past experiences. First, in October 2016, I participated in Neighborhoods United for Change, a St. Louis Association of Community Organizations (SLACO) program that pairs residents from a North St. Louis City neighborhood with residents from a South St. Louis City neighborhood. Residents meet each other and tour each other’s neighborhoods as a way to breakdown structures and cultures of segregation and inequity. (I wrote about the experience here). After participating, I knew I wanted to have students engage North and South St. Louis City in dialogue especially as Washington University’s main campus is on the very western edge of St. Louis, and feels palpably different from much of the city. Second, later in October, I participated in Bob Hansman’s tour. Hansman, an artist and Wash U professor from St. Louis, offers monthly tours centering St. Louis and racial inequities. The tour goes to where Mill Creek Valley, a thriving black and white neighborhood, once stood and was torn down in the 1950s; the forest in St. Louis where the Pruitt Igoe housing project, torn down in the 1970s, once stood; and the Ville neighborhood and Sumner High School, where Arthur Ashe, Chuck Berry, and Tina Turner attended. During the tour, Hansman mentioned how he often has students walk along Euclid Ave to observe how the city changes.

Many undergraduates at Washington University experience the “Wash U bubble,” rarely leaving campus or merely exploring the nearby “Loop” neighborhood, the unofficial hangout for Wash U students full of fast casual restaurants, cafes, and bars. (A new, expensive residential development in the Loop marketed to Wash U students offers a shuttle directly from the apartment to campus). The walk animated lives in St. Louis beyond what many of them know and led them to ask questions about how policy frames the lives of others as well as their own lives.

I write this all to offer an imperfect methodological exercise with questions about race, ethics, and impermanence. What does it mean to bring a majority white group—headed by me a black professor—into a majority black neighborhood? What does it mean to bring a majority white group into a majority white neighborhood? How do we respectfully observe and document, and enter and exit another’s space? What does it mean to experience, observe, and document space produced by policies of dispossession and alternatively policies of investment? I’d love to hear thoughts about how others teach about urban ethnography in respect to processes of spatial racism, dispossession, and inequity. What are best practices for walking, observing, and engaging cities?