Project Proposal: The Power of Place in Washington, D.C.

When people think of Washington, D.C., they think of the White House, Capitol, the president, Senators, Representatives, etc. People hardly think about the people who call D.C. home, so this project would center around Washingtonians and they think of prominent landmarks in the nation’s capital.

The questions I want to answer with this digital project is: How do Washingtonians view prominent landmarks in the city? What do these places mean to them, and what does that tell us about D.C. as a city instead of a federal entity?

For instance, when I conducted for my summer internship at the Dept. of Homeland Security. I was reading oral histories pertaining to St. Elizabeths Hospital from 1989, and I noticed a pattern: many residents in the area regarded the psychiatric hospital as the unofficial segregation line between the Black neighborhood of Anacostia and the white neighborhood of Congress Heights. It was fascinating to read how the residents in the neighborhoods thought of the then-prominent psychiatric hospital. This finding inspired the idea for this project.

For sources, I want to mainly focus on oral histories that show how D.C. residents think of landmarks, such as the museums, memorials, monuments, government buildings, and other historic sites. In this way, the project would compile the numerous oral histories into one place that have been conducted over the decades at numerous places in the city. Here is a list of a few sources that would be helpful for my research:

  1. The DC Public Library has numerous oral history collections that bring to light Washingtonian’s stories of their lives and experiences in the District. Collections include narrators discussing churches, neighborhoods, gardens, Soldiers’ Home, and other well-known landmarks and buildings in D.C., illustrating how they think of various places in D.C. These oral histories are more recent as they were conducted between 2013-present day.
  2. The DC History Center also possesses the Neighborhoods Survey Oral History Collection, which were conducted from the early 1980s-1990s. The collection would further illuminate how D.C. residents in those neighborhoods viewed landmarks in their own area and around the city.
  3. The Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project has numerous oral histories from Capitol Hill neighborhood residents. It would be fascinating to hear and read their oral histories as they are close to one of the symbols of American democracy, so their perspective of the area is highly enlightening. While the oral histories were conducted in recently in the 2000s, the stories that are told go as far back as 1886, which would be helpful in understanding how the neighborhood has changed.
  4. Lessons of the Sixities Oral History Project from George Washington University would also be fascinating to read as activists in D.C. advocated for a better, more equitable city.
  5. The Chevy Chase Historical Society has conducted oral histories since the 1980s. These oral histories would be helpful in showing how people who reside on the border between D.C. and Maryland view that border, as well as the capital and the state.
  6. Rainbow History Project conducts oral history interviews with LGBTQ+ D.C. residents. The collections include an LGBTQ+ walking tour of the city and the history of the D.C. High Heel Race.
  7. I will also search for oral history projects from local historical societies, neighborhood societies, and other historic groups in the D.C. area to see if they have oral histories in their repositories.

In order to display these findings, I want to create a map with pins located on the sites that are discussed in the oral histories. For instance, a pin would be placed at St. Elizabeths Hospital for every oral history that mentioned the site. The pin would include an excerpt of the portion in the transcript where that landmark is discussed, the narrator’s name, the date the oral history was conducted, the archive that the oral history resides in, and if possible, the link to the online recording and transcript. In this way, visitors can visually see on a map which sites have been discussed around the nation’s capital and can read about those experiences in one central place. As for the format I would like to use, Google My Maps and make the project publicly available so that anyone who is interested in D.C. history can learn more about the city and its residents.

When the project is finished, I would like to send the information to the DC Public Library and the DC History Center as a resource they can use for visitors and to spread the information about this project to their many visitors.

This project is important in shedding light on the history of D.C. that is often overlooked: its local, neighborhood history instead of federal history.

-Meredith Jackson

2 Replies to “Project Proposal: The Power of Place in Washington, D.C.”

  1. Hi Meridith,

    Your idea of working across oral histories from people who lived in DC and geographic space of the city in a digital map is exciting. I think it will be slightly complex to pull off, but it’s really interesting as a concept and I am fully supportive of working toward this.

    It’s great that you’ve already identified specific collections you want to work with and that ostensibly they all already have digital audio for oral histories up online. That sets you up with the work to then dive in on some of those recordings and identify which of them you can draw into your map.

    I think you can try to focus on putting a pin on the map for each mention of a place, which is what I understand your proposed project to be. That would give you a kind of heat map of the places most often mentioned in the interviews. WIth that noted, that could also be a lot of work and it might not end up connecting your users to the most resonant, or interesting locations and parts of the interviews. That kind of heat mapping would also lend itself best to taking a rather comprehensive approach to tagging the full set of oral history interviews which might also make the scope of this hard to pull off.

    With all of that said, I think you could also just as well be highly selective in what places and portions of the interviews you link to places. That is, you might listen to the interviews and try and identify the most interesting points in them that connect to specific places. That way you end up having a more curated set of points and parts of the interviews on your map.

    I like that you are already thinking about how to get the word out about this. Given that the project does bring together materials from both DC Public Library and the DC History Center I agree that they are great potential partners to help get the word out about your project.

  2. Hey Meredith!

    I think that this project idea is absolutely fascinating. I love the idea of a map that allows you to see how landmarks have been discussed through time and the evolution of how the people of D.C. have seen these places. I certainly think that would add a very interesting element to anyone’s tour of D.C. I think it will be really, really interesting to see how the ways in which residents views D.C. famous landmarks might differ from what those of us not from D.C. think of them/how we view them. I am also interested in potentially learning what D.C. residents see as landmarks that people who are not residents might not think of as landmarks. I think of my hometown and the things I view as “landmarks” and I am not sure if they are all what someone from out of town would necessarily immediately clock as a “landmark.”

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