Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Mapping Literary DC

Mapping Literary DC

Literary mapping projects in Washington, DC bring together several of my obsessions in one place: my love of maps as beautiful graphic objects, my interest in the built environment (architecture, parks, roads, etc.) and how it changes over time, the history of DC in particular, writing that emphasizes setting, and the lives of writers. 

It has been my honor to have been involved in several DC mapping projects, which I’ll enumerate here.

DC Writers’ Homes
This project, which I co-edit with Dan Vera, was inaugurated in November 2011 and we’ve been adding to it ever since.  But our obsession started about five years prior to that, as we began to research the private homes, most unmarked, of writers we admire.  The web exhibit, now covering over 225 locations, photo documents the former homes of novelists, poets, playwrights and memoirists from the greater DC area.  We’ve tried hard to include authors from the full range of the city’s history, from the founding to the present.  We only include authors who have passed away, but whose houses still stand.  (As I usually say to school groups, the writers must be dead but their houses must be alive.)  The site includes a map, a bio on each author, photos of houses (masterfully taken by Dan), and an elaborate cross-reference system that encourages browsing.  Readers can search by neighborhood, a writers’ race or ethnicity, the time period in which they were active, their jobs (other than writing) and other affiliations.

Beltway Poetry Quarterly, “Mapping the City” Issues
I have published two issues of place poems in the journal I edit—that is, poems that mention by name specific streets, neighborhoods, parks, monuments, or businesses in DC.  The first of the two, co-edited with Andrea Carter Brown, was published in Summer 2006, the second (which I edited alone) in Fall 2010.  They are linked together by a single map, designed by Emery Pager.  On the map, readers can click on push-pins to read the poems associated with each location.  Together, the 92 poems provide a unique tour of the city.

DC By the Book
Sponsored by the DC Public Library, this web site shows where books of fiction take place in DC.  Readers can search by neighborhood or theme—and are encouraged to add more excerpts from their favorite books.  I was one of two subject matter experts, along with Michon Boston, for the project’s inaugural year.

“Wide Enough for Our Ambition: DC’s Segregated African American Schools (1807-1954)”
I researched the history of DC’s dual school system as a project for the Big Read DC in 2010, sponsored by the Humanities Council of Washington.  It was a fascinating project!  Working with talented photographer Sam Vasfi, I travelled to every Ward of the city, documenting those institutions that remain.  In addition to schools, I also included some private houses and other relevant places to fill out the history of the fight for the establishment of public schools for students of color, the segregated system’s proud heyday (from approximately 1890 to 1930), and the city’s role at the vanguard to end segregation in education.

The Poetry Foundation’s “DC Poetry Tour”
I served as a consultant to this project, launched in 2009.  DC is one of three cities the Foundation has mapped so far (the others are Chicago and New York City).

Walking Tours
I regularly lead literary tours for schools and nonprofit groups, and have presented some at conferences as well (notably for the DC Historical Studies Conference and Split This Rock).  I’ve developed four tours: a Walt Whitman tour of downtown, a Harlem Renaissance tour of the U Street neighborhood, a Paul Laurence Dunbar and Alice Dunbar-Nelson tour of LeDroit Park, and a Henry Adams tour of Lafayette Square.  These tours highlight some of the city’s most eminent writers.  While nothing can match the experience of actually standing in front of a historic site while hearing its story, there are a few online versions:

Two versions of the Whitman tour are available online: a map of Whitman’s residences and work places appeared in Beltway Poetry Quarterly in Fall 2003:
and a brochure co-written by myself and Martin G. Murray was published by Rainbow History in 2005, as part of their Gay DC Walking Tour series:

A version of the Harlem Renaissance tour, focused on Zora Neale Hurston, was published by the Humanities Council of Washington for the Big Read DC in 2007:
Another version, focused specifically on Langston Hughes, was published in Beltway Poetry Quarterly in Winter 2011:

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