- Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the American City
Mapping Decline provides users with an in-depth look into racial segregation and the severe urban decline of St. Louis, Mo over the past sixty years. Historian Colin Gordon provides information on these topics through four interactive maps, each of which touches on a major theme from Gordon’s [End Page 131] book of the same title.1 Gordon’s four themes and maps are titled: “White Flight,” “Race and Property,” “Municipal Zoning,” and “Urban Renewal.” Aside from the interactive maps, the website also includes several links showing sources used in the study, as well as links to other historical projects that use geographic information system (gis) mapping.
Mapping Decline’s scholarship is current and exceptional, and its form stands as an effective example of a hybrid digital history website. Gordon uses a new media format in order to present his findings to users in an interactive medium, and the website has characteristics of both an online exhibit and an online archive. Mapping Decline undeniably fits into the mold of an online exhibit because Gordon made the maps for the web and has a specific argument with his four themes. At the same time, the website also stands as an example of an online archive through links to the primary documents that Gordon used in his research. Regardless of how Mapping Decline is classified, a visitor may experience the decline of St. Louis through the interactive maps or peruse the documents Gordon used in developing his findings.
On the main page, users are presented with the option of either going to the maps or choosing one of three other tabs that provide background information about the maps and Gordon’s sources. Although it takes an hour or so to read through all of this material, the navigation of the website itself is relatively easy. Visitors will have no trouble exploring Mapping Decline, as Gordon has done an excellent job of taking a complex subject and simplifying it through gis analysis. Herein lies the potential of gis maps, which make complex data accessible to people with average computer skills. Before gis technology, Gordon’s maps would have been presented in a traditional analog format. Although a viewer could grasp the findings from a traditional map, the interactivity would have been impossible without the gis, which makes patterns visual.
Gordon’s intended audience is clear. He wants to attract scholars from multiple disciplines, as the themes found in Mapping Decline have implications for several academic fields. The maps provide the basis for arguments about race, property, zoning, and urban renewal programs in St. Louis. In addition, the website could target another audience: people interested in gis. Mapping Decline serves as an example of the future of gis in the study of history. Anyone interested in exploring the possibilities of gis mapping should start their search by browsing the Mapping Decline website and then following Gordon’s links to a diverse selection of other web-based historical [End Page 132] gis projects. Aside from scholars and gis-interested researchers, post-secondary educators also could use Mapping Decline as an educational tool. The interactive maps do an excellent job of showing how St. Louis has spread from the city center, as well as the effects that municipal zoning and urban renewal programs have had on the urban decay in St. Louis. Clearly, a broad array of educators and researchers potentially could use Gordon’s site, including historians, geographers, political scientists, economists, and public administrators.
Overall, Gordon does an excellent job of making the scholarship of his study available to the public. Users are able to search all of the documents Gordon drew upon while conducting his study and creating his maps. The openness of Gordon’s sources allows Mapping Decline to serve as a guide for future studies on urban decay and racial issues in other midwestern cities. For instance, by considering the Mapping Decline exhibit in relation to locales throughout the Midwest, interested scholars might discover that Gordon’s findings are regional in...