Using Local History in the Survey: City Streets

digitalmapsofphillyrecent conversation with Joe, Ken, and Michelle Moravec has me thinking about ways to use local history in a US survey course. Right now, Michelle and I have it easy; we’re both teaching in greater Philadelphia. It doesn’t take a lot of creativity to find ways to call out local attractions in class. (I can even display a map showing my campus smack in the middle of the Battle of Germantown.) But what about local history in general? How can we demonstrate that history is experienced in particular places, and that every place, at least potentially, has a history?

I found one promising way last semester, when I developed a writing assignment that might work, in some form, for a lot of urban areas. It challenged students to write a brief essay about how their city changed over two centuries.

First, I set up a folder on Blackboard with a list of high-resolution online maps. These maps covered the span of Philadelphia history, from the Revolution (represented by a British map from 1777) to the present day (via Google Maps). At the heart of the collection, though, were three wonderful interactive tools: the Free Library’s Digital Maps of Philadelphia and Historical Images of Philadelphia, and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s PhilaPlace. The first of these makes it easy to switch between different historical maps of the same location or neighborhood; you can zoom in on one address in Philly and see what it looked like in maps from, say, 1843 or 1862 or 1934. The other two make it possible to view street-level photographs and sometimes stories about that same area.

Not every city, of course, has such powerful tools available. But it’s becoming easier and easier, thanks to institutions like the Library of Congress as well as local historical societies, to find collections of simple high-resolution maps for other American cities, maps that make it possible to explore blocks and neighborhoods.

I used the classroom’s computer station and projector to show my students how these tools work. Then I handed out a detailed essay prompt. It directed students to play around with the tools until they found a suitable location to write about—perhaps an address where they had lived or a landmark they found interesting. They were to explore any relevant maps, noting what the area around that spot looked like at different times. They were then to write a two-page essay about how that area has evolved since the Revolution.

I suggested that students ask themselves questions like these:

  • How long did your location remain forest, fields, or farmland?
  • Were any of the streets in the area today once country roads?
  • Have any features like streams, ponds, roads, or hills disappeared from the area?
  • What kind of homes and businesses were in the area at different times?
  • How wealthy were the people in that area at different times?
  • Were any of the buildings that exist there today built to do something else?

I also provided an idiosyncratic guide for citing sources. (I gave each map or historical layer an acronym to use in parenthetical citations.) And I gave them a sample of how their essay might look:

In 1797, the neighborhood around the intersection was mostly forest and farmland, with no major roads (CIE). Fifty years later, several roads connected the neighborhood to the city, including the street that is now called Old York Road (ELT).

After they got over the shock of seeing a prompt that was longer than the assigned paper, my students seemed unusually engaged in the project. Several of my students were able to pick locations that they knew intimately—in some cases the neighborhoods where they had grown up, where they had relatives, or where they spend their weekends. (Interestingly enough, no one chose the university they were attending.) Several produced truly beautiful and original reflections on how certain buildings had appeared and disappeared, how the natural environment had changed, or how economic changes in the area had shaped their own experiences there.

The exercise wasn’t perfect. Some students were much more comfortable interpreting the maps than others. It was easy to make minor interpretive missteps—drawing the wrong conclusions about why certain kinds of buildings were close together, for example, or assuming the maps were more complete than they were. Some essays were repetitive because they were based on series of very similar maps. But almost everyone, on the day the assignment was due, handed in a piece of original history—and a piece of original history in which she had a personal stake.

I’m trying to figure out how to design such an assignment for a less urban setting or for a group of students with less local experience in common. Is there a way to adapt this for a region where students know highways instead of streets? For a cluster of small towns? For an area that was settled only a few decades ago? Or is this an assignment that really only works in an old, large city? I’m not sure.

3 comments on “Using Local History in the Survey: City Streets

  1. Brian Bixby says:

    The assignment could be used in other areas, though you’ll often be looking for different things. Two possibilities:
    1) The Library of Congress has panorama maps from the late 19th century for many communities; obviously a comparison with what one sees today would not only offer a comparison, but would be an entirely different kind of map reading.
    2) In rural western Massachusetts, street atlas maps from the 1870s, along with later maps, can show the declining population through road abandonment, and then the suburbanization of these same communities through a different pattern of road construction.

  2. Denise Rayman says:

    What an interesting project! I think it is very adaptable to non-urban areas — when I was a young undergrad volunteering one summer at my hometown community archives I remember being particularly taken with an old map that showed all the coal mining tunnels under what were currently residential and commercial areas. There could also be some good cross-over potential with census records, which are easily available, and old city directories, which any community archives should have. Plat Books would also be invaluable to students trying to do this in rural areas, as they show the history of farmland.

    The real problem here is that most of these items are not digitized in smaller communities, forcing students to physically go to an archives, which they can sometimes be pretty grumpy about! (But it’s good for them, builds character.)

  3. This is a great assignment. I teach at a rural midwestern liberal arts college and most of my students come from small towns. I have them write hometown histories across a semester, using a variety of different tools. One digital map source that is useful for tracking late 19th and early 20th century changes in small towns and big cities are the Sanborn Fire Insurance maps, which note every single structure in a town. Most midwestern towns will have two to five different Fire Insurance maps, each drawn in a different decade. Most midwestern counties also have published county atlases from the second half of the 19th century, but I don’t know of a digital database for these. In addition to dilineating roads, property boundaries, and towns, these atlases are often illustrated with (idealized) pencil sketches of the farms of some of the county’s more prominent residents, showing orchards, grain fields, herds of sheep or cattle, etc.

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