Renewing Inequality and Mapping Inequality
Two decades of historical scholarship have deftly examined the racial underpinnings of urban history, exploring how residential segregation was constructed around federal policies and funding purported to support cities. But two digital projects, Mapping Inequality and Renewing Inequality, add another important and stunning way to understand these policies: through their visualization in time and place. Together they provide an excellent overview of urban federal policies and their impact on American families between 1930 and 1970. While the histories of these policies are well covered among urban historians, the two projects helpfully combine a broad overview of these policies and their implementation's effect and provide an ease of moving among scales that allow researchers, students, and teachers to fully engage with the historical argument and material.
The two projects are part of the broader initiative American Panorama, a digital atlas of American history emerging out of the partnership of the University of Richmond's Digital Scholarship Lab and San Francisco's Stamen Design. American Panorama is edited by the historians Robert Nelson and Edward Ayers, and funded through the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the University of Richmond. These two projects are the most ambitious among the seven that American Panorama has created.
Mapping Inequality seeks to examine how the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) underwrote residential segregation through its urban development programs. The project offers several ways to explore wealth disparity in New Deal America, from the 150 redlining maps to curated and digitized "area descriptions" to visualizing how inequality was placed. [End Page 721]
Users coming to Mapping Inequality for the first time are presented with a list of states and their respective cities positioned along the right side of the screen, with a nation-wide map of all HOLC cities taking up the remaining two-thirds of the screen. The list of cities helpfully provides a horizontal bar chart of HOLC's neighborhood ratings (A through D) to visualize the number of neighborhood grades per city. Selecting any one of these cities, either from the list or on the map, zooms the reader to the city-level. Here users can compare 1930 and 1940 Census figures in cases where those data are available (total population, foreign-born white, native-born white, African American, and Asian American). Zooming to a particular city overlays a high-resolution, georectified HOLC map on top of a present-day basemap. Clickable polygons are drawn on top of the neighborhood areas, allowing readers to interact with a particular neighborhood and read the area descriptions—the primary source neighborhood reports created by the HOLC surveyors.
The project also dispels the concentric-circle pattern of urban development first posited by the sociologist Ernest W. Burgess in 1925 by visualizing the distribution of HOLC ratings. Replicating the concentric circles as an interactive visualization, users can mouse over each concentric "section" to see the HOLC grading breakdown; hovering over a grade highlights the corresponding neighborhood areas on the map. The concentric circle visualization, then, doubles as a donut chart to illustrate the grade breakdown of cities as it radiates out from the urban core. The point is not to reify the ideas of Burgess but to illustrate, concretely, that his theory does not hold up to reality.
Renewing Inequality picks up where Mapping Inequality leaves off by exploring the urban renewal policies of the post–World War II era. The project explores how funding provided by the federal government to raze "blighted" urban areas displaced families from their homes, often disproportionately affecting families of color. Like Mapping Inequality, Renewing Inequality provides several avenues for exploring the historical processes at work: by indicating, through circle diameter, the number of families displaced (shaded in color depending on whether the majority are families of color or white families); providing project boundaries and type, poverty and racial data, and the number of families displaced by year; and offering specifics about project type, duration, displacement, and funding. The project focuses on families, not single adults displaced under renewal. Nor does it look at state-funded projects or displacements caused by interstate construction or public housing construction.
As readers enter Renewing Inequality, they are presented with a similar view to Mapping Inequality: a map on the left occupying two-thirds of the [End Page 722] screen, with narrative or visualizations appearing the right. The map defaults to a cartogram, sizing cities by the number of families displaced but aligned in roughly geographic space. Users can also select a "Map" view to situate these data in place, but the cartogram allows for slightly easier comparison, since the circles do not overlap. Along the bottom right-hand side of the project is a bar chart showing the number of white families and families of color displaced over time. The bar chart is interactive, allowing readers to select an individual year and examine federal funding and displacement for that year.
While Mapping Inequality contains a multitude of interactive components, Renewing Inequality takes this even farther—influenced, perhaps, by the larger span of years but also from the detailed amount of historical information relating to urban renewal projects. As mentioned, the cartogram view contains a map view to situate data in space, but also includes a chart that visualizes how most cities disproportionately displaced families of color relative to a city's overall population. This is, again, interactive: selecting a single year or information from the right-hand view updates information in the chart, allowing readers to focus on specific years or places.
Readers can also select urban renewal project boundaries within individual cities to see two scatter plots, one comparing a project's displacement to other displacements of comparably sized cities and another comparing the amount of federal funding among all federal funding distributed. At the city level, readers are presented with a visual overview of urban renewal through a listing of project names, the type of project (residential, open land, disaster areas, etc.), and a diverging bar chart of white families and families of color displaced as a result of each project. These elements are all interactive: hovering over a project name reveals the project on the map; selecting a project presents readers with the details noted above. Furthermore, each project view provides a primary source and, when available, a link to a digitized copy. The amount of interaction within Renewing Inequality is simply astounding: the ability to explore urban renewal policies at different scales and relate disparate historical data on displacement and project funding is unparalleled.
On technical merits, both projects are well designed and executed. They were built with the most up-to-date technologies for web-based visualization, architecture, and interaction—Node.js, React, D3.js, Flux, and Leaflet—which should give the project a long lifespan. But what about scholarly merits? Most studies of inequality tend to focus on specific cities or regions, such as the recent work by Margaret Garb, N. D. B. Connolly, and Andrew Highsmith.1 These two projects attempt to shift the lens to take in a broader view of inequality [End Page 723] while allowing the reader to focus on specific cities and gather more details. Renewing Inequality in particular draws attention not just to the large cities—New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia—but also shows how these policies played out in smaller cities like Jasper, Alabama, and Coos Bay, Oregon. Indeed, as the project notes, nearly two-thirds of the more than six hundred municipalities that displaced families had populations under fifty thousand in 1960. These small towns are largely overlooked by historians, who have tended to focus their attention on large and midsized cities. An example noted by the project narrative: people of color make up 8 percent of Lubbock, Texas, but the 1,300 families displaced were all families of color. These stories have largely been absent from most accounts by historians, and by surfacing such places, Renewing Inequality gives a more complete picture of the social costs of urban renewal policies.
Both projects include narrative elements to explain the historical context of the visualizations and data presented to the reader. These narratives helpfully place the visualizations into historical context while guiding users on how to read the maps. Mapping Inequality, for example, explains Burgess's "concentric zones theory" and provides an introduction to HOLC and bibliographic notes. Renewing Inequality takes this a step farther, providing not only rich media (video and audio) but hyperlinks that surface particular visualizations within the project itself. Selecting individual years reveals to readers an additional narrative element by displaying an overview of urban renewal policies and their effects for the selected year. Also overlaid on the maps are interstate highway systems, which appear on the map only if construction was completed in the selected year.
Not surprisingly, both projects work well together. Since they deal with housing and urban development, using them together charts an overarching history of urban change between 1930 and 1970. But the projects also share data. The map view of Renewing Inequality allows for a layering of data, for example, the 1930s and 1940s Census data on race; the footprint of HOLC maps from Mapping Inequality are used to illustrate how patterns put in place in the 1930s continued to shape urban segregation in the postwar era.
Urban historians may not find much surprising with Mapping Inequality or Renewing Inequality. The historiography on housing, race, and displacement is vast. The policies, politics, and culture surrounding the segregation of American cities is well trod, and the two projects do not stake out any major new claims. Nevertheless, they are a fantastic resource for researchers seeking primary sources. High-resolution HOLC maps in Mapping Inequality are [End Page 724] viewable on digital base maps, but are also available for download, though not all locations appear in the project. Omaha, Nebraska, for example, was visited by HOLC surveyors in 1935, but that map and its area descriptions are missing from Mapping Inequality. These sources are difficult to track down, however, and the absence of locations must certainly represent a limitation of time or labor among the project team. Likewise, Renewing Inequality includes links to many of the primary source documents used to compile the data included in the visualizations. These features grant access to primary sources that might otherwise be difficult or time-consuming to track down.
A challenge with both projects—and digital history generally—is how to surface the possible interactions within complex visualizations. Both projects handle this well by explaining to readers up front the possible interactions they can engage with in the maps. This is helpful for pointing out features of the maps that might not be apparently interactive.
While the project is successful at aggregating the effects of urban policies nationally, lost in this bird's-eye view are individual stories of families whose lives were disrupted. The addition of another scale—the individual family—could be surfaced when readers explore single cities. This additional layer of narrative could make a forceful point about how policies affected households and what such disruption meant to individual lives. Glimpses of these individual stories do emerge in the projects, particularly among the yearly narratives that appear when selecting a single year. But narratives of families affected would add another level of understanding on how these policies played out on the ground.
That aside, Mapping Inequality and Renewing Inequality are stellar examples of how digital history can be used to delve into complicated topics through visual, textual, and interactive methods. The quality of the design, the amount of historical data, and the narrative elements together result in highly interactive scholarship exploring the history of federal policies in cities. Students, teachers, and researchers alike will find the projects useful.
Jason A. Heppler is the digital engagement librarian and assistant professor of history at the University of Nebraska Omaha. He is a historian of the United States specializing in the North American West, with particular interests in politics and political culture, urban environmental history, and digital humanities. He is currently working on his first book, which explores environmental politics in Silicon Valley and how communities confronted the challenges of urban growth.
1. Margaret Garb, City of American Dreams: A History of Home Ownership and Housing Reform in Chicago, 1871–1919 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005); N. D. B. Connolly, A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014); Andrew R. Highsmith, Demolition Means Progress: Flint, Michigan, and the Fate of the American Metropolis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).