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.
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.
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.