Reframing, Rethinking, and RememberingConsidering the Digital Harrisburg Project
The Digital Harrisburg Initiative, with its electronic resources and webpages dedicated to the city's early twentieth-century history, represents some of the best contemporary work in digital humanities. This study of Harrisburg highlights the power of place over time and emblazons the minds of modern people with important findings and models for action gleaned from the past.
Harrisburg, City Beautiful, Mira Lloyd Dock, public history, digital history
This issue of Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies unflinchingly adopts a variety of very modern aims. For one, many of the essays here explore the creation of digitally based history projects. The Digital Harrisburg Initiative, with its electronic resources and webpages dedicated to the city's early twentieth-century history, represents some of the best contemporary work in digital humanities. The technology employed is cutting-edge, yet the project's creative leaders do not shun traditional public history methodologies, which they weave together with their digital work. This exciting initiative exploring the urban history of Harrisburg has established strong roots and has made a significant impact on the metropolitan community. Uninformed critics cry that today's historians are unengaged with the world around them. In Harrisburg, historians, joined by students and involved citizens, are playing a vital role in the civic life of their communities and are defining the past to shape a better future.
The initiative has recently entered a new stage with the Commonwealth Monument Project, an endeavor focused on the diverse Old Eighth Ward, [End Page 233] the neighborhood surrounding the state capitol. As the webpages dedicated to the Old Eighth note, this neighborhood variously provided support for the Underground Railroad before the Civil War, witnessed encamped soldiers rioting over low pay and substandard accommodations during that war, and gathered to hear public speeches—an important community-building pastime in the era before radio and television. Civil rights activist Frederick Douglass addressed a crowd at the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1894 and poet and temperance advocate Francis Harper made appeals for women's rights and temperance on multiple occasions in the 1880s. Schools and churches provided institutional supports to neighborhood vitality.1 Although Harrisburg's commitment to physical beautification unfortunately led to the destruction of this well-established neighborhood, the webpages dedicated to its history offer compelling perspectives on Harrisburg's immigrant and African American communities.
This new facet of the Harrisburg project smartly combines digital technology with more traditional public history installations. Physical posters installed in state government buildings display the themes and biographies of twelve individuals from the Old Eighth Ward. Visitors to state offices can now scan a QR code with their mobile devices to connect to a website featuring information on the poster's theme and a biography of the historical figure featured in the physical space. In a similar way, this project has adopted both digital and physical media to tell the stories of 100 significant African American Harrisburgers.
In the last two decades, historians have proven that they can meld new technology with the study of the past to create a highly engaging new media form. Few have done so as convincingly and thoroughly as the project featured within this volume. This project allows interested parties all over the globe the opportunity to delve into American history via the Internet at any time. Those curious to learn more about Harrisburg can do so without traveling to several archives (which have never been highly accessible sites) or to museums (which have set physical locations and set hours).
Secondly, the essays here engage with a subject that has recently caught attention beyond historical circles: the concept of historical memory of place. The history of memory has civic uses as well as historical ones. Over twenty years ago Dolores Hayden launched a new era of careful and reflexive public history mindful of the power of place. Hayden contends that:
the power of place—the power of ordinary urban landscapes to nurture citizens' public memory, to encompass shared time in the form [End Page 234] of shared territory—remains untapped for most working people's neighborhoods in most American cities, and for most ethnic history and most women's history.2
Physical landscape can be used as a platform on which to present public history, reviving memories of the streetscape and empowering urban citizens to reclaim the stories of their urban contributions. Digital elements can enhance the power of public history.
My reflections on this volume come as someone who has written books on comparative urban history and has worked to think of the field of urban history in an overarching way. Coauthor Steven H. Corey and I have long contended that, in many ways, the story of the American city is the story of the United States. Looking at American history through an urban lens is a fantastic way of providing a framework to understand the evolution of US history for students and others.3
Too often we have thought of specific urban histories as local history of only minimal interest to those living in other regions. But American cities bear striking similarities to one another. Urban centers often share more characteristics with other urban centers—even those at some distance—than they do with the surrounding rural areas. Anyone who has learned to "read" an urban landscape and has traveled the United States knows first-hand how cities, particularly American ones, share many aspects. Albeit imperfect and dated, sociologist Ernest Burgess's 1925 concentric zone model proves very helpful in getting to know modern cities. Most American cities share many of the concentric zone model's important characteristics: the central business district (CBD), the residential zones divided by class and race, and the commuter districts.
The Digital Harrisburg Project, born in 2014, demonstrates how the exploration of a particular place, when undertaken correctly, provides us with a historical understanding that transcends that time and place and has real meaning for our communities. In his presentation at the American Historical Association meeting in Washington, DC, in January 2017, historian James LaGrand informed assembled scholars that the cumulative digital histories of Harrisburg embody:
social history, urban history, racial and ethnic history, local history, and public history. In many ways, local digital history projects like Digital Harrisburg are descendants of the first ground-breaking works [End Page 235] in what was called the "new social history" roughly fifty years ago. Historians then expanded their range of subjects and actors to include workers and women and then racial and ethnic minorities, especially African Americans. In the hands of different historians, it took on different casts and slogans: "people's history," "history from the bottom up," [and] "grass-roots history."4
Digital history projects like the ones detailed here are dynamic, continuously evolving pieces. While allowing the project to move and change in creative ways, I urge the leaders of Digital Harrisburg to keep circling back to basic questions: what is the goal of the project, who is involved, where and how are you sharing what you are learning, and how do these findings fit into and/or change what is known about urban history and the role of urban, American citizens and newcomers?
Comparing the findings of the digital project and these resulting essays with the narrative of urban history writ large showcases the important generalities we can learn from Harrisburg, and at the same time highlights specificities that make Harrisburg special. Faculty and students at Messiah College and Harrisburg University of Science and Technology have uncovered the power of urban history. This volume of essays calls out the themes embodied within the project—race, class, and gender—more prominently and deeply than the digital project has been able to do thus far. Race, class, and gender were vital themes and topics at the time social history was typified by the analysis of IBM punch cards; they remain so in our time of GIS projects. Additionally, the Digital Harrisburg project offers a fine-tuned practical model for other universities pursuing collaborative, cross-institutional efforts. Working this way maximizes support for the work and increases the impact. The field of history has been remiss in not embracing the teaching of collaborative work.
The Digital Harrisburg project is a model for other cities interested in learning more about their urban history, as well as a great work of urban history in and of itself, and an example of outstanding teaching. Putting students to work understanding the local world and producing projects that will have lasting influence allows for spectacular outcomes in the classroom. When students simply fill out a blue book or write one more routine paper, they may not be inspired to give their all. The products of the work are soon discarded, the hours of effort behind them lost except for the skills they [End Page 236] (hopefully) helped impart in their creators. In their Digital Harrisburg projects, the students have dug in deeply. In the photos of the working groups featured on the website, the intellectual energy resonates. Working on a digital history project for the city in which one's college or university is based also constitutes a new kind of service learning: what we sometimes refer to as hands-on history, active learning, engaged learning, or community-based learning. It is important to have students devoted to real history-making in class. Just as the digital sites bring history alive for the audience who enjoys the outcomes, the work of public history enlivens historical study for those behind the scenes.
As educators we cannot wait to get students in archives. Regrettably I did no archival work as an undergraduate, even for my history thesis. I did not work with documents in class outside of published excerpts inside textbooks or published works like memoirs. I make up for this in my own courses. Now I bring documents to every class I teach for in-class exercises and include hands-on history projects in class. As I am an urban and oral historian, this history creation often includes creating an oral history archive of local residents or contributing to an existing project.
Harrisburg is not a big city. Today it has just under 49,000 people. We need histories of smaller places, and we ought to stress that urbanity comes in different shapes and sizes. Too often we concentrate our formal studies of urban places on the largest cities, such as Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. As a graduate student enrolled in an urban history class at the University of Chicago, I was surprised to hear historical geographer Michael Conzen insist that we start our study of urban America with smaller urban models. We weren't ready to take on Chicago yet, he asserted. Instead the students confronted the smaller cities that grew up on the banks of the Illinois and Michigan Canal.5
The history of smaller cities demonstrates the power of local history and at the same time offers laboratories in which to study important national and transnational historical trends. James J. Connolly and E. Bruce Geelhoed wrote in the Indiana Magazine of History that:
the urban history of the United States is, for the most part, metropolitan history. Relatively few historians have explored the developments and human experiences associated with smaller urban settings. Yet it is in these smaller cities—particularly in states such as Indiana—that many Americans have experienced what they know as urban life.6 [End Page 237]
Connolly and Geelhoed go on to say:
New inquiry into the history of small cities does more than fill a gap in urban history. It helps us to understand more fully the localized social, cultural, and political impacts of such global phenomena as industrialization and urban growth. In recent years, urban historians have increasingly treated individual cities as distinctive entities rather than as interchangeable backdrops for the emergence of modern society. In doing so they… have emphasized the concept of "place": the history of the social, economic, political, and cultural interactions that create distinct identities for particular communities. As Charles Tilly has argued, urban history must show how local circumstances shaped the broad social trends associated with the rise of industrial capitalism. Studies of small cities offer especially manageable settings for such work.7
Local history allows us an opportunity to study what makes cities distinctive while at the same time heightening understanding of shared urban traits. The Harrisburg projects remind us how much history there is to write. There are many Harrisburgs, and they all need studying. Now we have great new tools at our disposal, including GIS and Ancestry.com, both of which are utilized here. We can combine these new tools with exciting ones like Sanborn Insurance maps, which have long been vital to urban historians.
Creating local history is not easy, and the difficulty level is increased when the project spans institutions and involves community members outside the academy. I worked on a local history project and know first-hand about the butting of heads and the issues that arise with wide-ranging collaboration. In a very different urban project, the Worcester Women's History Project's Oral History Initiative, I assisted volunteers who worked in history as a hobby. Charged with bringing their idea for an oral history project to life, I taught residents correct oral history methodology and then recruited classes from area colleges, including Worcester State University, Clark University, Assumption College, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute, to collaborate. The project resulted in hundreds of oral histories archived at Harvard's Schlesinger Library, as well as two self-published Amazon books of oral histories, a plethora of local presentations, and a robust website.8
At the time of this writing, the Digital Harrisburg Initiative has reached a compelling juncture in the historical process. It is time to ask how long each [End Page 238] aspect can be sustained, who will keep on with the work, and who is moving on to other projects. The work on the Old Eighth Ward is indicative of a long future life for this important historical initiative. The city will benefit from this act of public memory. It might be fruitful to ask Harrisburg-area agencies to play a larger role. What might local agencies do to sustain this vibrant digital project? Could the digital collaboration involve formalized city-academy partnerships, as well as the current cross-university agreements? The publication of this issue of Pennsylvania History marks a true coming of age of the project, as each essay brings such deep introspection and detail to Harrisburg's unique past.
This special issue also offers an example of where the project can benefit by connecting more overtly to published urban history scholarship as it allows the scholars involved to dig into secondary sources of interest. The student scholars might also explore more of the extensive existing scholarship on the City Beautiful movement. Here, directly making the connection between local history and national history can produce results. The digital site and the essays of this edition should be careful to be critical of the City Beautiful movement. Over time, many have found fault with City Beautiful for celebrating aesthetics over true social change. New work on the Old Eighth Ward is beginning to ask these difficult questions. What was gained and what was lost with the commitment to beautification? The studies of the Old Eighth must not romanticize the neighborhood either, which faced the usual challenges inherent in centralized urban spaces. Urban residents, like those of the lost ward, found themselves displaced for the sake of beautification. At the national level, City Beautiful was seen as anti-poor and anti-immigrant. In too many cases, City Beautiful activists took functioning poor neighborhoods and destroyed them in the name of progress. As with the late twentieth century's urban renewal, African American and Jewish communities were uprooted without much consideration for where they would resettle and how community ties might be rebuilt.
Participants eager to make a greater connection between Harrisburg and the wider City Beautiful movement could compare Chicago's City Beautiful movement with that of Harrisburg. How did the writings of Daniel Burnham parallel that of Mira Lloyd Dock? Did Harrisburgers visit the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago? Burnham and other noted architects designed the uplifting white facades of the fair's buildings, which were set in visually pleasing landscapes designed by the noted landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. Fairgoers compared the real Chicago unfavorably to the fanciful fairgrounds, which they nicknamed the "White City." [End Page 239]
The Digital Harrisburg Project might offer more daring conclusions. Now that considerable data has been gathered and analyzed, additional participants might explore the site, collect new documents, and write more narrative pieces. This project demonstrates that Harrisburg should claim more space in the national history of the City Beautiful movement than it does. Of course, those who study local history must exercise caution concerning overtly celebratory language and any claim of "urban firsts" for their city of study. Many local histories claim ground-breaking status for aspects of local history without fully researching those assertions. However, Harrisburg may have the right to boast of significant firsts in urban design. To what extent was Harrisburg not just part of the City Beautiful movement but a leader in it? The 1900 speech in Harrisburg arranged by J. Horace McFarland and given by Mira Lloyd Dock predates the 1909 Plan of Chicago, so she is very much a pioneer.
Progressive reformer Dock, the first woman appointed to a state board (as a State Forest Reservation Commissioner) within Pennsylvania, draws interest in her own right. Her father earned a living as a coal executive, and her sister Lavinia became a leader in nursing education. Mira Dock studied botany at the University of Michigan after a period of caring for her family of origin during and after her mother's deadly illness. Dock was an early environmental activist, suffragist, and urban health advocate, as well as an early urban planner. Well traveled, Dock drew inspiration from European industrialized cities. She used her role as a woman to support what she called "better housekeeping out of doors." She produced lantern slides on her propositions for urban improvements and sought Harrisburg audiences for her novel ideas. Along with Harrisburg businessman Horace McFarland, Dock lobbied for an urban transformation that resulted in improved state capitol grounds, paved roads, a water-treatment plant, sewer lines, parks, playgrounds, and athletic fields.9
Dock's and MacFarland's advocacy and achievements in water and sewer are significant. These accomplishments could be connected to the broader history of urban infrastructure around access to clean water. Harrisburg's efforts could be overtly linked to the story of New York City and the Croton Aqueduct. Pennsylvania's capitol city has something important to tell national readers of environmental urban history. Additionally, it would be wise to consider the importance of Harrisburg's history of [End Page 240] physical infrastructure development as an urban achievement. This may be especially true today, when we struggle to understand the enormous work that went into these projects, and the considerable effort that we must commit to retaining and refashioning the urban infrastructure to meet twenty-first-century needs. Researchers might tell the Harrisburg story alongside that of Chicago, the original site of City Beautiful, which worked on routing traffic in a more aesthetically pleasing way with such initiatives as the Wacker Drive development. And as a postscript to these beautiful essays, I ask the readers to consider Harrisburg's present initiatives, City Beautiful 2.0 and City Beautiful H2O, for this movement is not just history, but action that changed the way in which residents of the capitol city move about and interact with public space and other residents today.
The historians involved with this special edition of Pennsylvania History, and those involved with the digital projects showcased online, have succeeded on many levels. They have revealed unknown information about a distinct and interesting American city. They have performed the art and science of history in a public way, so that we, as essay readers and site users, could be inspired by their processes and adopt them as our own. They have demonstrated that understanding history helps us better comprehend the contemporary spaces in which we live our daily lives, and that this public history may allow us to be advocates for the maintenance of our lived environment and infrastructure. This labor has fearlessly attested that public history is a necessary public good. I look forward to cheering Harrisburgers on as they imagine their next century. This study of one city highlights the power of place over time and emblazons the minds of modern people with important findings and models for action gleaned from the past. [End Page 241]
lisa krissoff boehm, Ph.D., is the Dean of the College of Graduate Studies at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts. Boehm is the author of Making a Way Out of No Way: African American Women and the Second Great Migration (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009); Popular Culture and the Enduring Myth of Chicago (New York: Routledge, 2004); with Steven Corey, The American Urban Reader: History and Theory (New York: Routledge, 2010 and 2020); and with Steven Corey, America's Urban History (New York: Routledge, 2014).
1. See "The Civil War and Emancipation," at https://digitalharrisburg.com/commonwealth/lookuplookout/lookuplookout1/ and at "Great Speakers of the Old Eighth Ward" at https://digitalharrisburg.com/commonwealth/lookuplookout/lookuplookout2/.
2. Dolores Hayden, The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995), 9.
3. See Lisa Krissoff Boehm and Steven H. Corey, America's Urban History (New York: Routledge, 2014).
4. See James B. LaGrand, "The New Social History after the Digital Turn" (presented at the American Historical Association annual meeting, Washington, DC, January 2018).
5. See Michael Conzen, Glenn M. Richard, and Carl A. Zimring, eds., The Industrial Revolution in the Upper Illinois Valley, Studies on the Illinois and Michigan Canal Corridor 6 (Chicago: University of Chicago, Committee on Geographical Studies, 1993) and others in this series, produced by Michael Conzen and his students at the University of Chicago, and articles like this one on his process http://chronicle.uchicago.edu/950309/conzen.shtml.
6. James J. Connolly and E. Bruce Geelhoed, "The Small-City Experience in the Midwest: An Introduction," Indiana Magazine of History 99, no. 4 (December 2003): 307–10.
8. See the Worcester Women's Oral History Project site at http://www.wwhp.org/activities-exhibits/oral-history-project. The project contains the Higher Education Collaborative, the Oral History Toolkit, fully transcribed interviews, and other user-friendly aspects.
9. Susan Rimby, "'Better Housekeeping Out of Doors': Mira Lloyd Dock, the State Federation of Pennsylvania Women, and Progressive Era Conservation," Journal of Women's History 17, no. 3 (September 2005): 9–34; Marci Mowery, "2017 PGS Distinguished Geographer Address: Ramblings from a Reticent Geographer," in Pennsylvania Council for Geography Education 55, no. 2 (Fall/Winter 2017): 4–5; and Ellen Stroud, review of Mira Lloyd Dock and the Progressive Era Conservation Movement by Susan Rimby, American Historical Review (October 2014): 1283–84.