Digital Project Proposal: Mapping the History of DC’s Alley Dwellings

Alley dwellings between Pierce Street, L Street, First Street and North Capitol Street. Washington, D.C. (1935). Source: Library of Congress

Washington, D.C. is home to an abundance of historic alleyways and alley dwellings that are evidence of a rich urban and social history.  In 2014 the D.C. Historic Preservation Office (HPO) completed a survey of the city’s alleys to get a better picture of their history and current conditions. For three years, HPO staff members and volunteers traversed the city’s historic districts to study and document these historic alleys and the buildings within them.  What they created was an in-depth report that described their findings, including recommendations to help protect and revitalize these sites. One of these recommendations was the idea of creating virtual tours to help educate the public and encourage them to learn more about this often overlooked history- and that is what I will be doing for this digital history project.  

By learning about these alley dwellings, users will explore the physical and cultural landscapes of the city’s built environment. To accomplish this, I will create a tour using HistoryPin to not only identify where alley dwellings can be found in D.C., but to present a more in-depth story about this important history. This tour will also encourage users to compare what these alleys looked like in the past and how they appear today using historical images. The Library of Congress has a collection of city insurance maps and photographs taken of these dwellings and the communities that lived in them. By including these visuals in this tour, users will be able to see how much the city and its community has changed over time.

The Audience

The potential audience for this project would be Washingtonians, or anyone else interested in learning more about the history of the city’s community.  This project might also attract the attention of preservationists in offices like HPO or in neighborhood historical societies, like the Capitol Hill Restoration Society (where many of these alleys are). I am hoping that this project can be a useful educational tool for anyone looking to learn more about this local history.

Comparison to Existing Projects

There are quite a few examples of public history projects creating geo location-based content to tell stories about the past.  For example Curatescape and Omeka host quite a few public history projects for organizations across the country. For D.C. specifically, the DC Preservation League runs a website called DC Historic Sites that allows users to explore the history of the city’s built environment.  I was unable to find a project that deals with alleyways specifically, but the projects mentioned above are resources that I am finding very helpful. I have also been exploring tours that users on HistoryPin have created. These existing projects are good models for what I plan to create.

Outreach and Publicity

In order to get the word out about this project, I will use different social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter.  I will also try to reach out to local historical societies in the city to talk to them about my project, which will hopefully lead them to advertise this tour on their social media accounts as well. In addition to that, I will also try and get into contact with HPO, considering they were responsible for the survey on alley dwellings in the city.

Evaluating the Project

HistoryPin includes two features that are important when gauging public reception on their site. First, there is a simple counter on each collection’s page that allows anyone to see how many views they have. This feature is beneficial when trying to see how many people a tour has reached. The second feature I find important is the ability for users to leave comments. I’m a big proponent of public historians engaging in conversations with the public to discuss what they have learned. I am hoping to not only present this history to the public, but to continue a conversation with them after they have finished the tour as well. By using the commenting feature, users and I will be able to continue a discussion about this topic.

3 Replies to “Digital Project Proposal: Mapping the History of DC’s Alley Dwellings”

  1. Not sure if you’ve looked into James Borchert, but he released a book in 1980 that explored the difference of life between those who lived in alleyways and those who lived on the streets. I think it’s a great look at classism, race and how segregation exists in D.C. even if residents of different classes/races live in close proximity.

  2. Melysaa, I love this project idea! Another great source that could help you get a feel for the history of DC and alleyways is “Historic Capital” by Cameron Logan- it provides a look into the history of preservation, race, and real estate in Washington.
    As I am also doing a digital project associated with the community we currently reside in, Washington, DC, I feel as though our projects can go beyond the limits of this class. We have the resources and connections right at our figure tips…(if we choose our digital proposal for our final project) the finished products could turn into something very valuable for the DC community!

  3. A digital mapping project focused on DC’s Alley dwellings is a great idea. The Ally spaces are really fascinating, and generally slightly hidden and obscured. So creating something that encourages and opens the possibility of exploring them could be a real hit and a great chance to explore issues around race and class in the history of the city over time.

    You’ve got a great starting point with the report you referenced.

    Historypin is a great tool to think about using for this. I would suggest considering that you might also make some print brochures with maps on them too. That would help to give your tours a life beyond the historypin platform and at the same time serve as a basis to create a promotional tool for your tours.

    A key thing to consider with historypin is to think through and try walking the actual tours you would create. You can also try plotting them out on Google maps to get a sense of how long the walking part of each tour would be. Remember that a tour needs to have a nice cadence and rhythm to it. So you want to get the right number of stops and try and get a story that flows across the spaces that someone would traverse in the course of the tour. To that end, your focus on the Capitol Hill neighborhood and the Capitol Hill Restoration Society is really great. I would encourage you to think about reaching out to them as a potential stakeholder/promoter of the results of your project. If you could get their input and buyin they would likely both have great ideas about your project and about how to get the word out about it.

    As far as evaluation, I would encourage you to think about trying to pilot the tour with one or two people at some point, and then potentially use their feedback to tweak it and then get one or two more people to try it out. You could then follow them along and get their reactions to the project. That would give you specific user feedback that you could then reflect on and report on.

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