When the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab (DSL; @UR_DSL) unveiled its ambitious Mapping Inequality project a few years ago, urban historians and others applauded. A collaboration of scholars at Virginia Tech, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Maryland and directed by Robert K. Nelson and Brent Cebul of the University of Richmond, Mapping Inequality starkly illustrated the highly structured nature of housing discrimination in 20th-century America. Forbes magazine designated it as one of a handful of GIS programs that had successfully reshaped the way Americans understand racism. “To the extent that you have a business publication engaging with the less-than-stellar history of business, it really is amazing how putting something on a map makes it so much more accessible for people to see,” Cebul told L.A’s KCET last year.
The folks at DSL have been burning the midnight oil while at work on a new project that focuses on urban renewal projects of the 1950s and 1960s. With help from undergrads who tirelessly digitized hundreds of maps and entered reams of data into GIS programs, Robert Nelson, Brent Cebul, Justin Madron, Nate Ayers, and Leif Fredrickson have constructed Renewing Inequality, which digitally documents hundreds upon hundreds of urban renewal maps across the nation. Lauren Tilton, Nathan Connolly, Dave Hochfelder, Andrew Kahrl, and LaDale Winling also provided critical feedback and thereby helped DSL refine and improve the finished product.
Considering that urban populations bestowed renewal programs with the nickname “Negro Removal”, it should come as no surprise that families of color were disproportionately affected; at least 300,000 households were displaced by the process as homes were seized and communities leveled. With a focus on cost and family displacement, notably the difference between white and non-white families—the latter term an admittedly blunt demographic tool which Cebul describes as “an administrative term of art at the time”—Renewing Inequality provides insights not only into already well-known metropolises of the era, but also smaller cities of 50,000 or less.
“The intimacy of the violence of displacement in cities at that scale really hasn’t been considered (largely because urban historians tend to focus on big cities),” Cebul conveyed to The Metropole over social media. “In short, I think this points to whole new avenues for research that might expand our conception of what counts as ‘urban’ history in the 20th century – a century of urbanization.” The project also includes a social history of urban renewal, which can be found under “The People and the Program” tab.
As Cebul noted in our back and forth, the project is far from complete. Technical kinks still need to be worked out and they continue to add data from federal, state, and municipal reports as a means to deepen its resonance for researchers and the broader public. However, it is undoubtedly a solid beginning.