11.016J | Spring 2015 | Undergraduate

The Once and Future City


Assignment 3: Your Site Over Time

Project Assignment 3: Your Site Over Time

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Framing Your Paper (PDF - 1.1MB)

This is the third part of a four-part, semester-long project. The first part consisted of finding a site; the second, to find evidence of its environmental history and ongoing natural processes. Now the task is to trace changes on your site over time by comparing its character at several points in time, using maps. You may find different kinds of changes: Land use, density of settlement, additions to buildings, ownership, transportation. The types of sources you will find helpful are historical maps, especially nineteenth and twentieth-century atlases, and may also include plans, prints, and photographs. The paper is due on class 17.

Start your investigation by locating your site on maps in several atlases of different dates. Include at least four different time periods in addition to the present, including at least one from the nineteenth century. By comparing your site at different times, you are likely to find that changes between some dates are more significant than others. Record the changes you think are important or interesting. You may want to modify your site slightly by shifting it a block or so to include interesting material that you have found or to make the site a bit larger or smaller. The site you end up with should contain four to eight blocks.

What changes do you find? How would you characterize them? Are the changes gradual or do they seem to happen suddenly? Do changes within a time period seem related? How about from one time to another? Can you find patterns in the changes? What might explain the changes you found? Were they merely an outcome of actions by individuals or do they reflect broader forces (social, cultural, political, economic, or natural processes and conditions at local, regional, national, or global scales; policies; events; technological changes)? Review Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier for material to test, substantiate, or revise your hunches.

Describe what you have found, the causes you have identified, and your reasoning. The text should be equivalent to about 2400 words, accompanied by illustrations (don’t forget to cite the source of each illustration!). Focus on what seems most significant and interesting; look for patterns. Don’t try to cover everything. This is an assignment that could occupy you for an entire semester. The objective of the assignment is to give you a sense of how cities change over time, to prompt you to question why, and to search for answers.

Successful papers are well organized, cite specific examples to make each point, put examples in context, make reference to required texts, and are illustrated. In organizing your paper, focus on the patterns of change you found and the important issues they raise; consider using subheadings to highlight your key points. Choose your examples carefully. They should be specific and significant, illustrative of the patterns of change you found. Illustrations (copies of maps, prints, photographs) should be apt and clearly linked to your reasoning; quality is important, not quantity. Include a map identifying the boundaries of your site.

Start on this assignment right away and bring historical maps of your site to class workshops. The assignment requires finding your site on old maps before you can even begin to puzzle out the changes and their possible causes. Some maps are online, but you may want to augment those with other maps. Map collections often have their own hours and may not always be open when the rest of the library is. Leave yourself plenty of time.

It is important to include copies of the illustrations used to analyze the changes on your site. If you use the atlases on microfilm, copies are easily made. If you use bound atlases, which may not be reproduced on a copy machine, you may need to make drawn copies or photograph them.

Basic Requirements

  • Compare your site at four different time periods (including at least three, detailed atlases) plus one from the present, at least one of which must be from the nineteenth century. You may adjust the boundaries of your site, but keep the size to 4–8 blocks, 10 blocks at most. Delineate your site boundaries on all maps.
  • Describe and analyze specific changes on your site during the periods of the maps examined. Your paper must include a copy of the historical maps you used to track the changes on your site.
  • Refer to the required reading to test, substantiate, or revise your hypotheses about the changes you observed on your site since its initial settlement and how, why and when they occurred. Your essay should explain how the concepts presented in the reading help to explain (and / or perhaps confound or complicate) your observations of mapped data.
  • Cite all sources, including maps, fully and properly. Abide by principles of fair use for images.

What Is This Assignment Asking You to Do (and Not to Do)?

This assignment is asking you to use historical maps as a primary source of evidence for determining how, when, and why your site has changed over time. It requires “close reading” of those maps, using your own eyes and mind, in order to identify, analyze, and explain patterns of change that are observable on the maps. It further asks you to use the required reading, Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier, to help explain your findings.

Note: This assignment does not ask you to describe the history of your site using secondary sources (e.g. texts on the history of Boston or Cambridge). Do not conduct secondary research at the expense of close observation of the maps themselves.

Start by Finding the Maps!

Maps, atlases, and surveys have been produced throughout the histories of American cities. Produced for various purposes, the offer invaluable information about a place. Fire-insurance Atlases, such as those produced by Bromley, Sanborn, and Hopkins, catalog the buildings and businesses that existed at a particular time and often show where the city may expand.

You will need to do considerable map research to write this paper. Maps, particularly nineteenth- and twentieth-century fire insurance atlases will be the basis for your observations about how and why your site has changed over time. Look for maps dating back as early as possible to fully understand the site’s development over time. Refer to maps at a larger scale, such as those in Krieger, Mapping Boston, in order to put your site in context.

Assemble your maps as soon as possible. They are the primary source for all your observations, so you cannot truly begin this assignment without them. Use the Map Guide (PDF) to begin your map research and for references to further resources. Use your journal to make initial observations of the maps and to try out some of your ideas. Be prepared to puzzle about or be surprised by what you find.

Tips for Using Fire Insurance Maps to Discover How Your Site Changed Over Time

Focus on the detailed fire-insurance maps (Hopkins from the 1870s, Bromleys, and Sanborns from the nineteenth- and twentieth centuries). Let them be your visual guide to your site’s history.

Gather more fire-insurance maps than you might need (more than the required four plus the present) in order to get a comprehensive overview of how your site has changed over time, then focus on the ones that reveal the most about the character of changes on your site.

Most maps have a legend. Find the legend in order to identify the significance of colors, symbols, or abbreviations. Consult the Guide to Sanborn Abbreviations (PDF).

Start with the earliest detailed map that you can find (Hopkins or Bromley may be the earliest nineteenth-century maps). Identify patterns of streets, types of buildings and land uses, ownership, size of properties, and transportation.

  • Is there a predominant land use on your site (e.g. residential, commercial, industrial, institutional) or are the uses evenly mixed?
  • Color land uses on the map as a way to help you identify patterns and anomalies and to ask and answer questions of the map. Use standard colors for the various land uses:
    • Single-family residential: Yellow
    • Multi-family residential: Orange or brown
    • Commercial: Red
    • Institutional: Blue
    • Industry: Purple
    • Transportation and utilities: Grey
    • Parks and recreation: Green
  • Are the different land uses unrelated or related, and if so, how?
  • If there are residences, are they occupied by a single owner or are they rental apartments? Do the names of owners suggest that they belong to a particular ethnic group?
  • Is there a pattern of ownership (many different owners, one or more owners of multiple properties; corporate or institutional ownership)?
  • Are the sizes of properties similar or quite different?
  • Browse the timelines on the class website and start reading Kenneth Jackson’s book, Crabgrass Frontier. This will give you ideas as you make observations on the maps.

After observing the earliest detailed map of your site that you can find, proceed to the next map, chronologically, and repeat the process, asking the same questions. Have there been changes? If so, what are they?

Compare maps of successive periods to identify changes and to determine which periods of the site’s development were most significant (during which period the initial settlement took place or when important changes happened). In comparing maps of different periods, use multiple approaches to discover patterns of change over time.

  • Trace changes in streets.
  • Look for changes in property boundaries and size of parcels to help decode how land use and social use changes from map to map.
  • Look for changing land use: Residential to commercial, industrial to commercial, or from one type of commercial use to another. Has the predominant land use on your site (residential, commercial, industrial, institutional) changed?
  • Look for how / when space is filled or emptied, when buildings appear, disappear, or are replaced.
  • Look at names as reflective of change: Look at labels, such as names of owners, of churches, cemeteries, and commercial or institutional buildings on your site.
  • Look for continuity: Few or no changes can also be significant. Why might part of the site stay the same over time? Does land use stay the same but demographics shift (look for names of churches, schools, hospitals, prisons, etc.)?

Another approach to exploring change is to use reverse chronology. Are there elements of your current site you are curious about and want to track back in time? For example: Start with a specific land use or feature of your site and ask, “How did that get that way?” This may be an anomaly or interesting feature that you drew attention to in the first assignment.

Finding Explanations for the Changes You Observed

Use the succession of maps to help create a chronology of changes and patterns of change. Identify types of change to help pose hypotheses about change over time.

What might explain the patterns of changes that you found? Were the changes the result of idiosyncratic decisions by individual property owners? Were the changes peculiar to your site or were they examples of local or national trends? Do they reflect broader forces, such as technological innovation in power, transportation, or communication? Do they reflect local, regional, or national policy and / or economic conditions? Do they reflect cultural changes, such as changes in fashion and ways of living?

Consult Crabgrass Frontier for ideas about how to explain the changes you found at particular times and how and why they were significant.

Formulate questions that remain unanswered. There will be an opportunity in class to try to find answers.

Starting to Write

You will need four kinds of material to write your paper:

  • The maps themselves. Annotate the maps to point to significant features. Use the maps as an aid in writing; you should also integrate the maps into your paper.
  • Your insights and observations, captured in notes and maps that you have annotated. Prioritize and organize the changes you have observed. Which seem most significant? Which are explained or complicated by the concepts discussed in class and in Crabgrass Frontier and events documented on the timelines?
  • Concepts drawn from the required reading, specifically the social, economic, political, and cultural history presented in Crabgrass Frontier and in class, which help to explain or raise further questions about your site and the maps that depict it at different points in time.
  • Notes on how your observations and hypotheses relate to larger issues of urban design, planning, and policy, in Boston and elsewhere, as discussed in class and in the required reading.
  • Review your reading notes, class notes, and journal entries: What elements of these three sources of information are applicable to your site and your questions of it? Look for concepts in the reading and lectures that help you decode or read your site. Explore these in your journal entries.

Structuring Your Paper

  • Your paper should have a thesis. Your thesis will directly answer the central question of this assignment: How have social, political, and economic processes shaped your site? What broader issues about how cities are shaped are raised by your findings? Your thesis should aim to explore the implications and significance of your findings.
  • Provide specific evidence, in the form of examples, to support your thesis.
  • Explain, support, and develop your thesis by applying concepts from Crabgrass Frontier and from class. It’s important that the concepts and ideas you draw from the reading illuminate your site and are chosen with a purpose. Before you start to write, you will have decided what concepts help you read your site and why (perhaps in a journal entry).
  • Organize your paper so that it explains your thesis and your significant findings in a logical and readable sequence of paragraphs. You could consider tracing from the present back in time or beginning with your earliest map and tracing the site’s features forward. Much depends on the particular qualities of your site.
  • Consider using chronology to help organize your paper. To do this you’ll need to understand and analyze historical periods, which will help establish the context for important changes on your site.
  • Consider organizing your paper around what has changed and what has stayed the same in your site, in terms of its build environment (such as changes to streets, property boundaries, buildings, and land use) and ownership (as depicted on maps), or which changes have had a catalytic effect (i.e. triggered much subsequent developmental change to your site).
  • Consider using subheadings to help organize your draft, and potentially keep them for the paper and website presentation of your work. Subheadings whelp you when you are writing to be clear about what you are describing and arguing; in the final work it helps the reader follow your line of interpretation.

Course Info

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Spring 2015
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