Site Review: “Digital Harlem”

Digital Harlem: Everyday Life, 1915-1930” is a web-based project that aims “to produce an ethnographic study of everyday life in Harlem as it became the black capital of the world.” The research project of four University of Sydney historians— Stephen Robertson, Graham White, Stephen Garton, and Shane White—the project has garnered critical praise throughout the scholarly community. “Digital Harlem” is the recipient of the American Historical Association’s 2010 Roy Rosenzweig Prize for Innovation in Digital History and the 2011 ABC-CLIO Online History Award.

Through a dynamic, multifaceted search interface, Digital Harlem provides an engaging, user-oriented research environ through which scholars and enthusiasts alike can access the project’s archive of ethnographic data. I believe the success of Digital Harlem is largely due to the simplicity of its layout, the ease and specificity of its search query form, and, of course, the unique implementation of its geo-spatial overlays. The site was created by the Arts eResearch team of the University of Sydney, programmed in XHTML and CSS and utilizing the Google Maps API.

At the  center of the Digital Harlem site is a reference map of present day Uptown Manhattan. The boundaries of 1915-1930 Harlem, shown in purple, appear as a large region within the central map. This is in fact a vintage map overlay of individual buildings made up of plates from the “Atlas of the City of New York, Borough of Manhattan,” Vol. 4 & 5, published by G.W. Bromley & Co. in 1932 (detail shown below). The actual boundaries are based on maps in Gilbert Osofsky’s, “Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto” (1971) and James Weldon Johnson’s, “Black Manhattan” (1930). The overlay’s function, in a sense, is to provide a historically accurate portrait of the neighborhood; it also juxtaposes the historical boundaries of Harlem (as evidenced in the vintage map) with the present-day boundaries of the neighborhood (as evidenced in the Google-provided basemap), bringing to light spatial insights that might not otherwise have been recognized.

Perhaps the most interesting function of the Digital Harlem site lies in its faceted search query form whose three top level categories—Events, People, Places—can be searched across using a variety of inputs, including date, occupation, race, gender, and street intersection. Before the search results display on the map, the user is asked to name the layer. Upon doing so, graphic nodes representing the queried data appear on the map. Each map layer is temporarily saved, and able to be toggled on and off in the “Layers” viewer (shown below), housed in the Content Sidebar on the right of the central map. This unique function of the search query form allows for the almost instant creation of overlays specific to the user’s queries, in essence allowing users to finely curate their own nuanced data sample from the larger dataset and potentially glean insight into previously invisible relations amongst people, events, and places.

However, a map can only ever be as accurate, effective, or useful as the data it represents. Digital Harlem’s creators have utilized a wide variety of sources, though criminal records and legal files from the Manhattan District Attorney’s office comprise the majority of the information in the database. I strongly question the site’s considerable use of criminal records to describe African-American life in Harlem, as it problematically frames the people of Harlem in terms of their legal standing or criminality. The cultural activities or impact of a community cannot be determined by that community’s crime rate; thus, the map unintentionally skews our understanding of the community and its constituents.

Leave a Reply