Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Discovering Our Own Neighborhoods

Atlas Obscura is always a trove of geographic insight; the geographically curious can spend hours perusing the online or print version.

A recent contribution by journalist Lauren Vespoli offers even more to the geographically curious (including hints as to how and why we should all be geographically curious). In How to Dig Into the History of Your City, Town, or Neighborhood, she describes how she has used newly-found down time to explore her own surround -- and to engage friends to do the same. This is very creative online bonding! As she makes clear throughout the piece, the history comes in many forms and so do the processes of discovery.
Geographic discovery involves inquiry about
the ordinary in our midst.
She describes several tools that are familiar to me as a professional geographer -- such as Sanborn maps -- and other fascinating tools I had never heard of. I am most excited about using the Archipedia, which has well over 100 listings in each of two cities I teach as honors colloquia -- New Orleans and Detroit. Sadly, none of the fascinating buildings of Brockton (about which I teach an honors seminar) are this database, but I have other resources for exploring that city formerly known as North Bridgewater.

Among the tools Vespoli introduces is another I learned about from a fellow geographer just recently. Mapping Inequality is an impressive online collection of the maps used by the Federal Home Owners' Loan Corporation to guide mortgage rate-setting. In the guise of managing institutional financial risk, these maps also imposed or reinforced geographic patterns of racial discrimination through the practice of redlining. For many communities across the United States, researchers can discover whether their own neighborhoods fell inside or outside of those red lines.

I will also use this in my course Environmental Regulations, because this kind of research -- while enjoyable in its own right -- is potentially quite useful in some of the detailed work necessary to protect us from environmental contamination. Because pollutants from the past can be just as dangerous as chemicals currently in use, searching for possible relict sources of pollution is an excellent application of geographic skills.

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