Accuracy and Authenticity in a Digital CityRoundup
tags: slavery, Baltimore, digital history, urban history, mapping
Anne Sarah Rubin is professor of history at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She tweets at @AnneSarahRubin.
Imagine strolling through Baltimore 200 years ago. The narrow, unpaved streets lead you past public markets and taverns, grand mansions, and tiny alley houses. The Federal Hill observatory towers over the harbor, its shipyards, and its wharves. As you leave the tightly packed streets near the water, the houses become farther apart, interspersed with the jail, a hospital, a seminary, an almshouse, long ropewalks. You pass fields and gardens, patches of forest and orchards. The virtual landscape in which you are immersed—because, of course, you have not traveled back in time—is beautifully textured and lavishly detailed, a Google Street View for the past.
This is the digital world created between 2012 and 2014 by Visualizing Early Baltimore. A collaboration between the Maryland Historical Society and the Imaging Research Center (IRC) at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), led by Dan Bailey, the project combines historical research with cutting-edge modeling and mapping technologies to build an accurate 3D model of the city and its terrain, land use, and buildings circa 1820. The BEARINGS of Baltimore (as this first phase is called) is a 2.5-billion-pixel bird’s-eye view of early Baltimore. IRC computer programmers have made this scene navigable online and by touch screen, allowing users to zoom into the details of the city. Developers built the scene on accurate topography, drawing on historic maps, architectural histories, historic documents, and period art, as well as consultations with urban and architectural historians. Extant and known buildings were modeled and textured, the landscape filled out with representative buildings placed carefully. The streets are carefully aligned according to period maps and descriptions. The team believes that this visualization is as accurate a recreation as can be made. It draws viewers into the past, allowing them to make easy connections with the present (for example, many of Baltimore’s public markets remain at the same locations).
I became involved in the project in 2014, when Dan Bailey showed it to me, and I was so enchanted that I insisted he include me in future collaborations. What I saw was, in Dan’s words, “a beautiful stage set.” But there were no people on the streets, no context describing early-Republic Baltimore in all its vibrant, problematic complexity, as described by historians like Martha Jones, Christopher Phillips, and Seth Rockman. There was no sign of the new immigrants from Europe and relocated country folk pouring into the city. The enslaved people who worked alongside free blacks and whites in the city’s shipyards and construction sites were similarly absent.
We decided to focus our expansion of BEARINGS on the lives of Baltimore’s free blacks and enslaved workers in a project called Slave Streets, Free Streets: Visualizing the Landscape of Early Baltimore. By highlighting the embedded landscape in which approximately 4,300 enslaved and 10,300 free African Americans lived and worked, users see how slavery was enmeshed in the world of early Baltimore, even though the city appears far more integrated than it is today. It reminds us of the degree to which racial slavery and early capitalism combined to limit opportunities for African Americans. Finally, it allows us to put faces and names to the largely anonymous ordinary people of the past. On a methodological level, we are making an argument about the power of visualization as a storytelling medium, to show how mapping can spatially illuminate relationships of power and place.
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