Digital Chicago: #DH As A Bridge To A City’s Past

Emily Mace (mace@lakeforest.edu), Lake Forest College, United States of America and Rebecca Graff (graff@lakeforest.edu), Lake Forest College, United States of America and Richard Pettengill (pettengi@lakeforest.edu), Lake Forest College, United States of America and Desmond Odugu (odugu@lakeforest.edu), Lake Forest College, United States of America and Benjamin Zeller (zeller@lakeforest.edu), Lake Forest College, United States of America

1. Panel Overview

The Mellon-funded grant project “Digital Chicago: Unearthing History and Culture” represents the fruits of three years of collaboration and digital humanities learning by faculty and student researchers at Lake Forest College, drawing on work by faculty from across the humanities and humanistic social sciences. Our work has centered on a particular theme: the history of Chicago, as explored through diverse digital humanities approaches and tools that tell stories of Chicago’s forgotten or at-risk past. Our full project draws on work done in several disciplines, and through this approach, the city of Chicago becomes a bridge between disciplines, traversed by means of digital humanities tools, even as Chicago’s river is itself connected by many bridges.

We have selected several representative projects and one overview presentation from the Digital Chicago’s collaboration to share with attendees at the ADHO 2018 conference. These specific projects include a mapped timeline of racial restrictive housing covenants in Chicago’s Cook County; a set of 360° immersive, educational tours of Chicagoland sacred spaces, a history of Shakespeare in Chicago as reflective of the city’s cultural development, and a map reflecting points of origin for artifacts from an archaeological dig.

A final presentation links together the themes of the Digital Chicago project as a whole, and will emphasize scaffolding to meet the capabilities the small liberal arts college environment, which often presents challenges in terms of staffing, student support, and scope of research.

2. First Panelist: Desmond Odugu, “Restricted Chicago”

This presentation explores the history of educational inequities in Chicago through the lens of Chicago and Cook County's history of discriminatory housing practices such as racial restrictive covenants. This presentation will focus on the archival and digital work that undergirds the project, as well as research conclusions drawn from the project.

The digital project represents the results of archival research into official housing records, which provided ample evidence of restrictive practices. Student research assistants, working with the faculty member, located over 200 affected “subdivisions” on a Neatline map, aligning those locations with a Neatline timeline to indicate when each restriction was enacted and eventually removed. Accessible for a broad scholarly and general audience, the timeline and map permits the user to visualize the changing shape of Cook County’s housing practices during the twentieth century.

These restrictive housing policies had a strong effect on the educational disparities that still characterize schools in Chicago and Cook County. By aligning subdivisions with United States government census tracts, this project reveals the connections between racial restrictive covenants and their consequences in terms of socioeconomic status, school rankings, and educational outcomes. The presenter, a professor of education, will also discuss how the fruits of digital humanities research such as this can be used to inform local citizens about their own history.

3. Second Panelist: Ben Zeller, “Sacred Spaces in 360°”

This panel presentation features a project creating educational virtual reality walkthroughs of three churches in the Chicago area, all of which have historic, architectural, and religious value. The tours are intended to be used by high school or undergraduate students in lieu of in-person field trips to the sites, and the paper addresses the process of creating tours using tools such as the Ricoh Theta S camera, Panotour software by Kolor, and student research assistance.

Two of the tours utilize historical digital images overlaid on digital images of the contemporary structure. This method proved particularly relevant in the case of a Baptist church and former synagogue which burned in 2006. Photographs of what is now the burned-out shell of a historically significant building becomes a device for travel through time.

In particular, this project reveals the potential for readily available tools and software to create informative, educational, and scholarly tours of historic sites. Because the tours are optimized for desktop as well as smartphone (and therefore Google Cardboard, etc.), they translate easily to classroom experiences, and offer users a way of touring sites that might be otherwise inaccessible.

The presenter will also address the incorporation of 360° digitalization projects into the undergraduate curriculum. After an initial pilot project, the instructor extended the creation of these tours into a class about sacred spaces, which presents some pedagogical advantages and disadvantages, but nonetheless serves multiple learning goals and their assessment.

4. Third Panelist: Rebecca Graff, “Mapping Historical Consumerism through Urban Archaeology”

This presentation reveals how historical archaeology coupled with digital tools can disclose historic patterns of consumption and consumerism in a mixed class neighborhood in of turn-of-the-twentieth-century Chicago. The project locates the manufacturing or point of sale origins—Chicago and worldwide—of artifacts excavated from the area surrounding a well-known historic Chicago home, using historical and anthropological methods to identify the origins of specific items. The student-faculty team created two digital maps that trace the fragments to their points of origin, alongside images of the historical advertising and other textual records that help to identify an item.

The Charnley-Persky House was designed by architect Louis Sullivan, with architect Frank Lloyd Wright serving as Sullivan’s chief assistant. Completed in 1892, it offers an important example of American architecture, and the House is now a museum as well as the headquarters for the Society of Architectural Historians (SAH). Extensive renovation and construction work at the site revealed a rich deposit of nineteenth-century refuse which excavated in 2010 and 2015.

The digital maps allow for bridges between the architectural scholarship about the Charnley-Persky House to that which was found archaeologically. By clicking through the digital maps of products eaten, worn, used, and ultimately discarded adjacent to the Charnley House, site visitors can engage with the globalizing tastes and trends of American urban dwellers at the turn of the twentieth century.

5. Fourth Panelist, Richard Pettengill, “Shakespeare in Chicago”

Shakespeare’s plays have been an integral part of Chicago's history ever since the city’s incorporation in 1837. This project traces the history of Shakespeare in Chicago as part and parcel of the history of the city itself, with a particular focus on the city’s cultural development.

The project uses several digital tools to present this historical narrative: first, a timeline suggests the ubiquity of Shakespeare on the American frontier, detailing the shift from “low-brow” to “high-brow” culture (as described by Lawrence Levine) by the end of the nineteenth century, and leading to Chicago’s world-renowned twentieth and twenty-first-century theater scene.

Second, photographic time sliders suggest the dramatic changes that have taken place in Chicago’s built theatrical environment. These demonstrations rely on historic imagery and modern digital photography to overlay images of Chicago’s theaters of the past onto the hustle and bustle of their contemporary locations.

Finally, a map plots the locations of Chicago’s now-vanished theaters on the contemporary streetscape of the city, highlighting which areas of Chicago’s former incarnations brought stagecraft to the city’s scene.

Taken together, this collection of digital tools informs both a public and scholarly audience about the forgotten history of Shakespeare as representative of the city’s theater scene. The three tools are eminently accessible, and will appeal particularly to a non-scholarly audience. They offer a way of engaging with history that bridges that gap between public and scholarly users of the site.

6. Fifth Panelist: Emily Mace, “Building a Small-Scale Bridge via #DH”

The Mellon-funded grant project “Digital Chicago: Unearthing History and Culture” represents the fruit of three years of collaboration and digital humanities learning by faculty and student researchers at a small liberal arts college, drawing on work from across the humanities and humanistic social sciences.

Our work has centered on a particular theme: the history of Chicago, as explored through diverse #DH approaches and tools that tell stories of Chicago’s forgotten or at-risk past. The project as a whole supported digital humanities work in many disciplines––including theater, English, religious studies, anthropology, music, communications, history, education, and politics––and with this cross-disciplinary approach, the city of Chicago becomes a bridge between disciplines, traversed by means of digital humanities tools, even as Chicago’s river is itself connected by many bridges.

Although the Digital Chicago suite of projects is Mellon-funded, we nevertheless faced the challenges of doing digital humanities on the smaller scale of the liberal arts college. To this end, this final presentation will reflect on the value of scaffolding our understanding of “digital humanities” to meet the capabilities of individual faculty as well as of the institution. Our projects relied on undergraduate student research assistance, usually with one research assistant per faculty member. We relied, also, on pre-existing digital humanities tools as vehicles for our projects, and focused on finding the best tool to present each project to a broad audience of scholars and non-scholars alike.

Taken together, this approach outlines a scope of work attainable at smaller schools which also bridges the gap between scholarly audience and the general public, through the creation of an engaging and broadly useful digital humanities website.