Blogging at Baltimore 1814

Baltimore 1814 | Every Day is MonumentalNot much blogging over here lately but there is plenty of exciting material going up at Baltimore 1814. I’m also pretty excited about our new Battle of Baltimore site and a few other exciting project at Baltimore Heritage.

 

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19th century Maryland photographs from Photographicus Baltimorensis

Leo Beachy: The Cove, Garrett County, Maryland, photo courtesy Photographicus Baltimorensis

More tremendous photos, stereoviews, and cartes de visite from Baltimore and Maryland can be found on Photographicus Baltimorensis:

This blog is a product of my preoccupation with Baltimore’s many early professional photographers and the thousands of portraits they took of Baltimoreans between the 1860s and the early 1920s, when Kodak’s advances made amateur photography a viable mass diversion.

It is nice when private collectors share their passion in a way that allows for broader public participation.

Baltimore highlights from the Society for American City and Regional Planning History

I organized a tour of West Baltimore neighborhoods this past November SACRPH conference in Baltimore this past November so the organized comped me the registration fee for the meeting and I made the most of the few days to check out the sessions on Baltimore. Finding the time to take a look at my sketchy notes only came a few weeks after the meeting so may be a bit thin on details.

Managing Baltimore’s Post-War Decline

I was quite excited about this panel, with my own particular interest on dealing with the consequences of abandonment, commercial disinvestment and concentrated poverty in West Baltimore neighborhoods. The first two panelists– Lynette Boswell, University of Maryland College Park and Karen Beck Pooley, Allentown Redevelopment Authority– took a similar approach focusing on the succession of public policies, what Boswell referred to as “place-based” policies in her paper Historical Shifts in Place Based Policies: A Focus on Baltimore, Maryland, from the “Baltimore Plan” an early housing plan under then Mayor Theodore McKeldin (documented in the 1953 short film by the same name) to federal urban renewal policies, model cities and up through HOPE VI and even Healthy Neighborhoods with Pooley’s paper Planning for Vacancy: Baltimore’s Response to Vacant Properties from WWII to the Present. With both papers, however, I really wanted a deeper consideration of the political and racial dimensions of the public policies they reviewed, along with a more critical treatment of the government reports and press accounts that served as a basis for  both presentations. For example, Boswell used a 1937 HOLC Residential Security Map of Baltimore to identify historically “distressed” neighborhoods but did not address the widely acknowledged racism of the HOLC’s mapping practices. Similarly the Baltimore Plan, which Pooley discussed in detail, was later used by the National Asso­ci­a­tion of Real Estate Boards, the National Asso­ci­a­tion of Home Builders, and the Mort­gage Bankers’ Asso­ci­a­tion as the basis for a campaign to eliminate support for public housing. Using more diverse sources or offering examples of contemporary scholar critiques of Baltimore development and housing policies could have provided a more complete review of these same issues.

With these concerns in mind, Hayward ‘Woody’ Farrar’s paper The Devolution of the Black Community’s Physical Environment in Baltimore, 1950-2010 offered a dramatic counterpoint with a personal and dynamic presentation that started with a brief emotional reflection on the tragic character of Baltimore’s widespread abandonment. Farrar, the author of The Baltimore Afro-American, 1892-1950, continued to reflect on the dramatic changes to the segregated black neighborhoods of West Baltimore, where a class diverse community helped foster leaders such as Thurgood Marshall and Lillie Mae Carroll Jackson in the early 20th century. Farrar attributed the loss of these neighborhoods as they were in part to urban renewal, referencing Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About It by Mindy Fullilove.

The comments by Kelly Quinn, Miami University of Ohio were helpful in pulling the three papers together with an additional reference to How Racism Takes Place by George Lipsitz as a welcome addition to the issues raised in all three papers.

Making the Charm City: Planning, Tourism and Gentrification in Postwar Baltimore

Chaired by Edward Orser, UMBC, this panel touched on the real highlights of Baltimore’s 1970s urban renewal agenda from highways, to the Inner Harbor to the well known dollar house program. I came late and missed “Our Domestic Vietnam:” Baltimore’s Highway War and the Discovery of a New Urban Regime presented by Rob Gioielli, University of Cincinnati, Blue Ash College but I expect I could get a sense of it from the Baltimore chapter in his dissertation Hard Asphalt and Heavy Metals: Urban Environmentalism in Postwar America. The next paper, A Nice Place to Visit and I Would Want to Live There: Tourism and the ‘Liveable City’ in Baltimore’s Inner Habor Redevelopment from Aaron Cowan, Slippery Rock University (similarly drawn from his dissertation “A Nice Place To Visit: Tourism, Urban Revitalization, and the Transformation of Postwar American Cities”) was packed with interesting surprises on the early history of the Harbor Place development — most notably its role as an important gathering place for b-boys and MCs in the early 1980s. Cowan quoted from Bret McCabe’s 2009 City Paper interview with MC Labtekwon:

“In the ’80s, I grew up in Whitelock City in West Baltimore. I was a black kid on a skateboard that liked to rap. I would go to the Harborplace, Club Cignel, and Club Fantasy and meet up with kids from all over Baltimore City and Baltimore County. It was always an adventure.”

The final paper of the panel — O Pioneers! Urban Identities in Baltimore’s Homesteading Program of the 1970s from Shana M. Gass, Towson University — was an effective introduction to what is often better known as Baltimore’s dollar house program. Gass’s interpretation of the dollar house program reflected some of the racial and class tensions emphasized out in contemporary press accounts.

Baltimore Highway Planning and its Effect on Planning Baltimore

I missed the introductions for this panel and did not initially realize that the panelists included a whole host of professionals who had been directly involved in the planning and partial implementation of Baltimore’s deeply misguided highway plans during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Chaired by William Chan, now an Assistant Professor of Architecture, Morgan State University, co-panelists included Sidney Wong, Assistant Professor of Urban Planning, Morgan State University, Art Cohen, Principal of Public Health Services, Martin Millspaugh, former Chairman of Inner Harbor/Charles Center Management and author of the The Human Side of Urban Renewal: A Study of the Attitude Changes Produced by Neighborhood Rehabilitation, William Hellman, a former Maryland Secretary of Transportation (1984-1987), and Al Barrie, former Deputy Planning Director of Baltimore.

With this large group, many of the panelists did not have a chance to say much but did offer a small window into the odd dynamics of the 1970s highway fights nearly 40 years ago. At one point, William Chan reflected on the impossible challenge of preparing a “sensitive” urban design for an elevated highway proposed to run straight through the Fell’s Point neighborhood, just a few feet from the front steps of late 1700s and early 1800s rowhouses. Art Cohen, who remains an enthusiastic transportation activist with b’more mobile, shared his own reflections on the unique conditions that led to the success of the highway revolts, including the role of the civil rights movement in enabling new interracial coalitions and a popular anger following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Additional Baltimore paper presentations

Of course, I could not make it to all of the sessions or catch all the Baltimore-focused papers. Here are the papers I wish I could have heard, along with any information I can find online for the paper–

  • Saving ‘City X:’ Citizens and Policy-Makers Prepare for the Unthinkable in Baltimore, Eric S. Singer, American University — of course based on the dissertation “Saving City X: Planners, Citizens and the Culture of Civil Defense in Baltimore, 1950-1962” (unfortunately not available online)
  • Corner Stores in Canton, Sidney Brower, University of Maryland (Brower’s 2007 paper on The Corner Store as an Element of Smart Growth is online as a PDF)
  • City Planning Through Land Tenure in Baltimore Maryland’s Ground Rent System, Garrett Power, University of Maryland Law School — Power is the author of the seminal study of Baltimore’s ground rent system Parceling Out Land in Baltimore, 1632-1796
  • Washington and Welch Talk About Race: Public Health and Residential Segregation in
    Early 20th Century Baltimore, Graham Mooney, Johns Hopkins University. Mooney teaches a course Life and Death in Charm City: Histories of public health in Baltimore, 1750 to the present with a thoroughly referenced syllabus.
  • The Machinery of Immorality: Entrepreneurs of Vice, ‘Vice Cranks’ and Disorder in
    Baltimore, 1900-1916, Dennis Halpin, Rutgers University (again not available online)

Race, Place and Civil Rights Bus Tour

Finally, my tour on Race, Place and Civil Rights, covered a handful of neighborhoods we walked through for last year’s programs on Race and Place in Baltimore Neighborhoods, including stops at PS 103, the old Frederick Douglass High School, and Lafayette Square along with a ride past the old Orchard Street Church and the lower stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue up to St. Peter Claver Church. This was actually the first bus tour I’d ever planned–we usually do walking tours at Baltimore Heritage as they don’t require any investment up front–and I did not realize how much time moving a group on and off the vehicle could eat up. While we covered the earlier period of civil rights activism in Baltimore, I missed my chance to bring the group out to Greater Rosemont for a discussion on block-busting and only took a handful (who did not need to get back to the hotel by noon) to see Read’s Drug Store. A lesson learned for me but I hope the tour-goers still had a good experience.

Local Digital History: Building a digital community of local historians and preservationists in the Mid-Atlantic Region

I wrote this post back in May as a proposal for THATCamp Prime.

After publishing a very specific proposal on the National Register nomination form a few days ago and then writing a whole new title up on the whiteboard this morning, I wanted to follow up with a second post to try to articulate a few of the broad questions that I hope we can discuss during the session on local digital history tomorrow morning. While I am excited by the many compelling projects presented by scholars at THATCamp, I am also concerned that many public historians and local historians–particularly in the context of small museums, historical societies, and preservation advocacy organizations–are not engaged in this conversation. Too many of these small institutions–institutions which I believe play a vital role in the interpretation and preservation of our shared heritage–are just struggling to build and maintain an effective online presence, let alone engage in more creative and innovative projects involving digitization, linked data, mobile technology, geodata, data visualization, augmented reality, etc. In addition, to the extent that a conversation between local historians and preservationists is taking place online at all, it is found largely on e-mail lists, e.g. H-DC, H-Maryland, and H-Local, rather than in the context of more public or accessible forums. The challenges for historic sites and heritage organizations seeking deeper engagement with digital technology include conservative institutional contexts, the limited digital literacy of many established local historians, and the pressing demands of programs and advocacy that might crowd out opportunities for innovation. If these barriers can be overcome, I believe there are clear opportunities for using digital media to develop deeper partnerships between scholars and practitioners, share best practices for low resource and limited capacity organizations, and experiment with new interpretive strategies linking multiple sites or themes.

I’m hoping that others are concerned with these same issues and we can have a discussion that might outline both the challenges and opportunities for local digital historians in greater detail. For the “More hack, less yak” aspect of this session, I’d be curious if others might be interested in starting a group blog for local digital historians working in (or on) the broader Mid-Atlantic region. I’m imaging a place where we can highlight a few of the many interesting projects that are taking place in our neighborhoods, cities, and regions, share tools and methods, and just talk about all of the awesome historic places, people, and events that make up our shared local heritage.

How do we share our knowledge of historic places?

I wrote this post back in January as a proposal for THATCamp Columbus.

How do scholars, activists, tourists, neighbors, city planners, and preservationists find and share information about historic places in their communities, in their cities, and in their regions? How do they identify relationships between places or understand the context within such places were constructed, occupied, or even destroyed? In most cases, anyone interested in these questions might rely on a wide range of tools and resources, such as calling a local historical society, finding a walking tour brochure at a local visitor center, visting the local history section of the neighborhood library, searching a web-based database provided by a State Historic Preservation Office, or simply searching online in the hope that someone might have already investigated the location. The latter is often productive but resources are currently fragmented both topically and geographically, as well as suffering from an absence of essential features such as mapping, sorting or filtering. If you are searching for information on historic theaters Cinema Treasures is indispensable, roadside architecture can be found at RoadsideArchitecture.com, the Labelscar retail history blog has documented hundreds of shopping malls but none of these sites allow the consideration of the unusual buildings within their local contexts. For example, what African-American neighborhood did the Comet Theater serve? What was located at the site of the Westland Mall prior to  its construction in 1969?

In addition, while a few websites offer a rich user experience, the web services provided by State Historic Preservation Offices are often severely limited by accident or by design (as some local and state governments license their data on historic places to private contracts if they maintain an updated database at all). Take a look at the National Register database provided by the Maryland Historical Trust or the basic PDF list provided by Virignia to get a sense of the limited services provided by government institutions in this regard. Even more effective examples, such as the Pennsylvania Historical Markers website or the National Register NPS Focus database, are often closed and provide few opportunities to even make comments, let alone access the underlying database for mashups or analysis. Regrettably, few preservation organizations even at a state or municipal level, let alone small museums, nonprofit preservation advocacy organizations, neighborhood and city historical societies, have sufficient technical expertise or capacity within their organizations to build and maintain new and effective web applications.

Even with the issues I’ve identified with both independent and publicly supported websites sharing data on historic places, the most serious issue is the great extent to which our knowledge of historic places is limited to the minds of a few individuals in our communities, in a box of documents sitting in a damp basement, or a drawer full of unlabeled photos at a neighborhood church. I’m curious to explore the potential of building websites that support sharing our knowledge of historic places, capturing new knowledge from those who hold it, and allowing scholars, activists, and interested citizens to explore this data at local, regional and national scales. Possible models for this approach may lie with smaller projects such as the Philadelphia Architects and Buildings Database, the North Carolina Architects & Builders project, the University of Berkley’s California’s Living New Deal project, Teaching + Learning Cleveland, the Community Almanac from The Open Planning Project, the Open Plaques website, and dozens of others.