Open_Access_logo_PLoS_white.svg_-210x328For Open Access Week this year, I’ve finally found time to deposit copies of my articles in the institutional repository at George Mason University. Those copies are post-prints — the final version I submitted to the journal, not the published version. They are available online, for download, free to everyone.

Included are four articles on 1920s Harlem related to Digital Harlem:

Bryn-Mawr-conference-300x48On May 21, I am presenting a paper entitled “Putting Women on the Map: Gender and Everyday Life in 1920s Harlem” at the Women’s History in the Digital World Conference at Bryn Mawr College


This paper focuses on Digital Harlem, an award winning web-based geospatial digital history project on everyday life in the 1920s, to explore how visualizing evidence can provide a way of making meaning of the often fragmentary sources available to historians of women.

Digital mapping offers a means of visualizing historical sources that highlights the spatial dimensions of the past, and can offer a different perspective on particular places. It is not just that mapped sources are seen in their geographical context. Location provides a basis for integrating material from a wide range of disparate sources, and incorporating and organizing material that historians typically treat as ephemera, or pass over it as too sparse or fragmentary to support an analysis. Layers of different data, and hence large quantities of data, can be combined on a single map, providing an image of the complexity of the past. Examining those maps can reveal spatial relationships that prompt questions and facilitate comparisons that a researcher might otherwise not have considered.

Digital Harlem employs digital mapping to explore everyday life in the 1920s. It incorporates material from almost three thousand felony cases files from the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, and hundreds of pages of black newspapers, which were mined for every event or place for which an address was given. Men dominate those sources, but they also contain a rich range of fragmentary material on women. Women are less often accused of crimes, and thus the focus of legal records, than men, but they are present as witnesses and victims of crime. If you look beyond the major news stories and editorial pages, women appear far more often in black newspapers than in legal records: in reports of church and fraternal orders, on social pages, sports pages, and in advertisements.

Mapping these sources goes someway towards makes it possible to see the gendered nature of waged work, business, home life, leisure, and criminal activity and victimization, to juxtapose the experiences of men and women to highlight the distinctive aspects of women’s lives in Harlem.

Sawyer-300x138On April 24, 2015, I’m presenting a paper entitled “What Was Life Like in 1920s Harlem?” at the Sawyer Seminar on The Ghetto: Concept, Conditions, and Connections in Transnational Historical Perspective, from the 11th Century to the Present, hosted by the Center for African American Urban Studies and the Economy, at Carnegie Mellon University.

Look out for new blog posts using content from this talk, on topics ranging from childcare in Harlem, to the YMCA and YWCA, to social clubs, and summer camps!


Gilbert Osofsky’s classic study of the early years of African American settlement in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood bears the subtitle, “The Making of a Ghetto.” It offers an unrelentingly negative picture of overcrowded residences that fostered disease, juvenile delinquency and family dissolution, poverty resulting from limited employment opportunities and low wages, and violence and vice encouraged by police neglect. Osofsky views Harlem from a distance, in terms of aggregates and patterns: the average number of lodgers in a household; rates of disease; lists of occupations. By contrast, a subsequent and still growing generation of scholarship focused on the Harlem Renaissance offers portraits of the lives of a small group of writers and intellectuals and the cabarets and parties they frequented. These studies offer rich accounts of Harlem’s high culture, but offer little sense of the lived experience of the mass of residents, or of aspects of the neighborhood, such as streetlife, religion, and sports, that loomed large in their lives.

This paper will use the award-winning web site Digital Harlem to explore the lived experience of the population of Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s. I will focus in particular on the extent to which residents lives confined to the ghetto, and within its bounds, tracing the rhythms of everyday life on different times of the day, week and year, and examine how those experiences are reshaped the Depression. The map-based interface of Digital Harlem enables a multi-scalar spatial analysis, one which zooms from a citywide perspective into the neighborhood and down to the individual places, to see the relationship between places, and to trace movement through the city.

The sources for this project include more than four thousand cases from the files of the District Attorney and Probation Department, and hundreds of pages of black newspapers, supplemented with a range of other published and archival material, including the records of the anti-prostitution organization the Committee of Fourteen, the Bedford Hills prison for women, the WPA Writers’ Program, and census schedules. Working with a geospatial database makes it possible to include and organize material from these sources that historians typically pass over it as too sparse or fragmentary to support an analysis: material from newspapers such society columns, sports reports, news from churches and fraternal organizations, and advertisements; and every offense, not just a particular crime or group of crimes, from the legal records, and information on victims and witnesses as well as offenders, on the nature of the crime’s location, and on the circumstances in which it occurred, which ranged from card games to shopping trips.

With my collaborators Shane White and Stephen Garton, I have been analyzing interwar Harlem for almost a decade, producing, in addition to Digital Harlem, a book, four articles, three book chapters and thirty-seven presentations on life in the neighborhood. That scholarship focuses on particular aspects of everyday life – numbers gambling, interactions with whites, privacy, family life, and confidence tricks. This paper will weave those threads together with topics such as work, public transport, shopping, sports, parades and fraternal lodges, to highlight the movement of residents within and beyond Harlem, and to reconsider the relationship between residence and daily life in understanding lived experience in the ghetto.

1012bThe September 2014 issue of the Journal of American History features an interchange on the history of capitalism, which includes this shout-out to Playing the Numbers from Peter James Hudson, an assistant professor in the Department of African American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles:

One of the more intriguing books to emerge is Playing the Numbers (2010). Examining the illegal lotteries organized by African Americans and Afro-Caribbean migrants in Harlem during the 1920s, the authors argue that such forms of financial organization were of such a scale and of such import that they need to be seen alongside the work of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. The authors also implicitly suggest the possibilities for thinking of the history of forms of economic organization and financial institutions on the margins of the formal market as economic and political forces.

Monographs such as Playing the Numbers suggest that we need to consider not only those modes of exchange and financial and economic organization that are outside of the formal market but also how they are often a necessary component of capitalist regimes of accumulation. Instead of trying to draw clear lines between precapitalist and capitalist forms or noncapitalist and capitalist forms of exchange and accumulation, it seems more productive to try to understand how, in many cases, the former—precapitalist modes of accumulation—are mobilized, used, and continued by the latter—especially in those regions where the transition to capitalism was contingent, provisional, and unfinished.

“Interchange: The History of Capitalism,” Journal of American History 101, 2 (September 2014): 528-29.

UHA Logo

I’ll be discussing Digital Harlem as part of my contribution to this roundtable:

Roundtable at the Urban History Association Biennial Conference, Philadelphia, October 10, 2014

Chair and Moderator: LaDale Winling, Virginia Tech


  • Colin Gordon, University of Iowa
  • Susan Lawrence, Ohio State University
  • Stephen Robertson, George Mason University, Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media
  • J. Mark Souther, Cleveland State University, Center for Public History and Digital Humanities

Since the 2008 publication of the Journal of American History’s Interchange “The Promise of Digital History,” the landscapes of print publishing, research methods, teaching resources, funding streams, and expectations of how to communicate digitally have changed dramatically.  Scholars have developed a robust ecosystem of digital history projects, especially in urban history, while digital methods and tools continue to gain traction within the profession.  Digital research and communication opportunities increasingly inform scholars’ interpretive frameworks, which reflects back on demand for digital tools, beginning to form an iterative feedback process between digital methods and scholarly inquiry in may seem an accelerating process.

Several urban historians, however, have been involved in the digital realm for significant portions of their careers.  This roundtable will draw upon the insights of some of the most experienced digital urban historians in discussion about digital topics increasingly central to the profession.   These will include the life cycles of digital projects, the changing value of tools and platforms, the role of digital skills and tools in training undergraduate and graduate students for research, and the value of digital work in building a career as a historian.

By offering the long view of the digital turn, this roundtable seeks to distinguish the signal from the noise, in the words of a recent work on data-driven analysis. What are the enduring values of digital research and publishing for historians, what are the greatest advantages and pitfalls of digital history for scholars of the urban realm?  What remains of the promise of digital history?

Featured Image -- 1860On April 25, I’m talking about “Putting Harlem on the Map: Visualizing Everyday Life in a 1920s Neighborhood” as part of the Mapping New York Symposium being held at the Bard Graduate Center.




New York has long fascinated image-makers in all genres of the visual and textual record. “Mapping New York” will be a symposium devoted to thinking and talking about visual representations of New York over several centuries and on into the future. The morning speakers will highlight several innovative new media projects–Hypercities, Digital Harlem, and Mannahatta2409. The afternoon will be devoted to presentations and discussion of the BGC Focus Gallery exhibit “Visualizing 19th Century New York” (Fall 2014) about the visual experience and spectacle of nineteenth-century New York City. The entire day will focus on spatial history, new media visualizations, digital history, and the history of New York City.

Also presenting: John Maciuika, Eric Sanderson, and Bard Graduate Center Students on the “Visualizing 19th Century New York” Focus Gallery exhibition, with comments by Joshua Brown and Barbara Clark Smith

On April 1, I’ll be giving two talks on Digital Harlem at the University of Pennsylvania.


Behind the Scenes at Digital Harlem

Tools-and-Techniques in the Digital Humanities, Digital Humanities Forum
TIME: 12:30-2:00pm
LOCATION: Penn Library

Digital Harlem is one of the earliest digital history projects to use Google Maps to visualize a range of historical sources, with the particular goal of exploring everyday life in the most famous black neighborhood of the 1920s. In this talk Stephen Robertson will discuss the process that produced the site, highlighting the contingencies, choices and failures that shaped the project, as well as the ways that Digital Harlem does not conform to the commonly held picture of large digital humanities projects.


The Differences Digital Mapping Made: Thinking Spatially about Race and Sexuality in 1920s Harlem

Richard Shryock Lecture in American History
TIME: 4:30pm
LOCATION: 209 College Hall

Digital Mapping, like the use of other digital tools, raises questions rather than provides answers. In the case of Digital Harlem, some of those questions concern the character of the neighborhood’s nightlife and residences, and where individuals spent their time. The answers to those questions reveal that homes provided more privacy than reformers recognized, allowing residents to engage in a wide range of sexualities. At the same time, outside the home, black residents regularly encountered whites, whose presence throughout the neighborhood made interracial encounters and conflicts an everyday feature of life in the nation’s most famous ‘black metropolis.’


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