Monthly Archives: July 2013

Street Lamp Construction in Mexico City, 1952-1964


For my initial mapmaking projects on Mexico City during Uruchurtu’s tenure as regent, I plan to focus on the construction of new public works throughout the growing metropolis.   As an aside, in my descriptions of this project as well as in future projects, will I use the terms “Mexico City” and the “Federal District” interchangeably, as both terms are commonly used to describe the geographic territory composed of the actual capital and its twelve surrounding delegations (administrative divisions).  The greater metropolitan area composed of numerous municipalities adjacent to the Federal District remained outside the domain of city leaders and was administered by corresponding state governments.  This first project will focus on the construction of new street lamps for the city, part of Uruchurtu’s plan to modernize and moralize the urban landscape.

During Uruchurtu’s first two terms as regent from 1952-1964, over 81,000 mercury lamps and over 35,000 incandescent lamps were installed throughout the metropolis, actions which purportedly turned Mexico City into “one of the best illuminated cities in the world.”  The geographic placement of these two basic types of lamps revealed the dual function which illumination could serve for the production of power within the spaces of the city.  In the wealthier colonias near the city center, DDF engineers installed 250 watt, mercury “colonial-style lanterns” which sought to “add a touch of bygone elegance, suitable to this part of the city which is a product of Mexico’s illustrious past.”  Uruchurtu and the DDF used the installation of such softly lit, ornate street lamps to reveal the beauty of this sector of the city, the tree lined sidewalks and colonial architecture of these older neighborhoods symbolic of an idealized cultural past.  Near the Centro Histórico, structures inscribed with cultural and nationalistic meanings such as the Catedral Metropolitana, the Palacio Nacional, and the Plaza de la Constitución were especially well illuminated.  These ornately illuminated religious and civic temples were capable of inspiring intense loyalty to the imagined community of la patria and served as powerful political instruments for the ruling party.

In contrast, for the colonias proletarias, the DDF installed extremely tall, 400 watt incandescent lamps which cast a wide arc of intensely bright light.  These modern, industrial looking street lamps were not designed to illuminate the beauty of the neighborhoods they were installed in.  Instead, they were intended to penetrate the dark spaces within working class neighborhoods, areas which were considered a breeding ground for immorality.  Within the rhetoric of urban planners, the electrification of these “modest zones” of the city went hand in hand with modernization, the safety and security they provided a “necessary requirement for any modern city.”  In early 1955, Uruchurtu ordered the Department of Public Works to cooperate with the DDF police in identifying gaps in the illumination of the colonias proletarias, with the regent’s focus primarily on the security aspect of lighting for the city.  The electrical illumination of these neighborhoods increased the visibility of residents to police patrols, thus discouraging the potential criminal activities of residents through an expansion of the state’s surveillant gaze.

The map displays major roadways and neighborhoods with mercury lamps in blue and the incandescent lamps in red.  To create this map, I compiled data from the public works archives of the Department of the Federal District (DDF) which provided street names and the types of lights, but not the exact total of lights attributed to each street.  The DDF data provided the total number of street lights constructed during this time period, but no data from year to year or month to month.  However, as much as this mapmaking project is incomplete in some respects, it is a starting point for further investigation and just one of many layers I hope to overlay on top of the city’s landscape in order to partially recreate Mexico City during this formative time period.  To view a more interactive version of this map (something which I highly recommend), you can directly download the .kml file to be opened with Google Earth here.  Stay tuned over the next week or two for another project on market construction.


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Mapmaking tools, my experience thus far

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately tinkering with potential mapmaking tools, looking at existing projects, and getting frustrated with my lack of knowledge on the developer/GIS side of things.  Modest Maps, Polymaps, and R can produce some excellent results, but they all require a basic understanding of programming in order to use them properly, a skill which I simply don’t have time to learn during the remainder of the summer.  ArcGIS on the other hand, the industry standard for professional cartographers, doesn’t require any programming knowledge, but its interface is incredibly complex and requires a great deal of training to understand.  Therefore, I’m going to stick with using some simple mapmaking tools for my first few cartography projects.

There are a number of intuitive mapmaking programs worth mentioning which are capable of quickly producing high quality results, so picking the easiest/best one can be difficult. Tableau, Many Eyes, GeoCommons, Indiemapper, CartoDB, and TileMill can all be used to build maps by uploading layers from a wide variety of data sources.  However, the simplicity of use and the customization options vary greatly among these programs.  Tableau is one of the more versatile and highly customizable tools, but it is extraordinarily expensive.  The personal edition and professional edition cost $999 and $1,999, respectively, at the time of this post.  However, there is a “public edition” of Tableau available for free, but just like Many Eyes, users are required to upload their work and cannot keep it private/unlisted.  GeoCommons, Indiemapper, CartoDB, TileMill, and Many Eyes are all free, but each mapmaking tool has its own set of strengths and weaknesses in visualizing certain kinds of data sets.  I’d recommend giving many of these sites a quick glance to see which program works best for your particular project, the right program being largely dependent on the complexity of the data set you are trying to visualize.

For now, Google’s toolset should work just fine to get me started.  Google just recently granted access to Google Maps Engine Lite, which allows you to create clickable layers (a much needed feature unavailable in Google Maps), but limits the size of the data sets to 100 rows.  Unfortunately, nearly all the projects I have in mind are much, much larger than 100 rows.  Therefore, to visualize the street lighting data, I plan on exporting my data from Google Maps into Google Earth as a .kml file, a task which isn’t as simple as a click of a button, but not hard to learn how to do.  From Google Maps, just click on the create a link button, which gives you a copy/pastable url for your map.  Paste that url into an empty address bar and type (without the quotation marks) “&output=kml” at the end of your url.  Hit enter and that should create a downloadable .kml file which you can then open with Google Earth.  So far, my data looks great superimposed over Google’s 2013 map of Mexico City, giving the viewer a good sense of the rapid growth of the city over the last 50+ years.  I should be able to finally publish the data in the very near future, so stay tuned.

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Inspirations for future spatial visualizations

The most significant motivating factor for my entrance into the world of digital humanities is my interest in spatially visualizing historical data sets.  I am especially interested in exploring cities and the flow of everyday life through the urban environment.  As French sociologist Henri Lefebrve articulated in The Production of Space, such cityscapes represent “the spatialized production of ideas, values, and memories that individuals and the state attach to them.”  By visualizing the city and the ways in which people interact with the physical, social, and cultural landscape of the urban environment, hidden patterns and anomalies emerge to be used for further investigation.

Many inspirations for my own future work in this medium come from Stanford’s Spatial History Project, a project which has produced dozens of visualizations on topics ranging from: immigration, disease, crime, economics, literature, and the environment, among many others.  Most relevant to my own historical interest in twentieth-century Mexico City is Zephyr Frank’s multifaceted works on nineteenth-century Rio de Janeiro.  My favorite Rio visualizations include: transaction information on 408 slave sales during the spring of 1869, a heat map of the yellow fever outbreak of 1850, and a cartographic survey of residents’ occupations.

The University of Richmond’s “Redlining Richmond” which examines real estate trends and Emory University’s “Atlanta Map Project” which examines the racial history of the city are also excellent examples of the use of computer-based visualizations to further understand the complex social, cultural, and economic relationships within an urban space.  These visualizations allow researchers to pick out larger patterns of change which otherwise might be lost in an ocean of data.  Such large data sets, when visualized through the use of such programs as ArcGIS or even Google Maps/Earth especially provide insight into change over time.  An example of such “big data” transformed by a spatial visualization is the very recently published “Portland, Oregon: The Age of a City” that not only provides incredibly detailed data on housing construction and the spatial growth of the city over the last two hundred years, but also functions as a beautiful mosaic of color and form.

These projects inspire me to create similar (albeit far cruder and smaller) works of my own on Mexico City during the 1950s & 60s, which hopefully can serve as a small but lasting contribution towards the creation of a larger body of knowledge about what I believe to be one of the most fascinating cities in the world.

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Historical background for upcoming research projects

So prior to rolling out a number of spatial visualization projects which revolve around my dissertation research, let me provide a bit of historical background which should help provide some context.  My dissertation, which I defended in the spring of 2013, is entitled “Flowers and Iron Fists: Ernesto P. Uruchurtu and the Contested Modernization of Mexico City, 1952-1966.”

From 1952-1966, Mexico City underwent a process of modernization and moralization within the context of an economic boom period known as the “Mexican miracle.”  Known for both his emphasis on the beautification of the public spaces of the city as well as his draconian crackdowns on poor, rural migrants to the capital, Uruchurtu is Mexico City’s most famous regent and an icon of the political and social history of the city during this time period.  His attempts to modernize Mexico City through innumerable urban renewal and construction projects represented attempts by the state to reshape the built environment as a means of controlling the social behaviors of the population by inscribing new meanings into the places and spaces of the city.  In response to the implementation of such modernization and moralization projects on the city and its residents, many members of the population increasingly took action against the power of the state.

Significant social confrontations with the physical manifestations of state control took place in the daily, lived experiences of city residents. Through the inscription of their own values, memories, and ideas onto the urban landscape, ordinary citizens sought to culturally reappropriate the city for their own ends.  These conflicts between the state and the people situated on the built environment of the city had transformative political and social consequences for the shaping of the history of Mexico City and the nation.  Uruchurtu and this period of Mexican history stand apart from the periods which preceded and succeeded it, a time of intense contradictions and transformations for life in Mexico City. His attempted modernization of the capital stands as a pivotal turning point for the nation, the monuments, buildings, and streets of the city carrying with them to this day powerful inscriptions of memory brought about by the struggles for power between the state and the people during Uruchurtu’s tenure as regent.

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First post

Welcome!  I started this blog to provide a venue for sharing my research projects and teaching ideas with a wider audience.  As I finally take the plunge into the digital humanities and begin working in earnest on visualizing data sets from my dissertation research, I hope that in coming weeks and months this blog will showcase a number of projects I’m working on.  I hope these projects are interesting but I also greatly hope that the visualized data can assist other scholars in further historical research.  

This fall semester I also plan on using this blog to showcase a number of student projects I’m overseeing at Colorado State University, where I’m entering my second year of teaching as an adjunct instructor.  I don’t want to give anything away, but I am very excited about the potential outcomes from this experiment I’ll be running.  Thanks for visiting and if you’re interested, you can also find me on Twitter at @rjordan_csu.

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