Spatial History: Digital Harlem

Digital Harlem is a GIS project which uses location services and mapping technology to pinpoint events in a specific neighbor, county, or town. The Digital Harlem project looks at everyday life from 1915 to 1930. It documents and places crimes, events, and buildings belonging to a certain year. The years that are able to be selected are 1920, 1925, and 1930. I find it fascinating to look at some of the crimes that were committed during certain time periods. For example, on January 1, 1925 the police raided a speakeasy and three people were arrested. The event also cites a newspaper source as evidence of the arrest. It is also interesting to see the number of prostitution arrests in this location. Another interesting component to the website is its link to “featured” blog posts. The blog posts have other GIS mapping projects that focus on several different aspects of Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s. For instance, basketball in Harlem during the 1920s, Catholics in the 1920s Harlem, and even the individual lives of several Harlem residents.

Digital Harlem contributes to digital scholarship by mapping events in a location during a time period in history. It is an interesting way to connect the past with the present through maps. Historians can look for trends within a specific community or compare trends in one community to another. We are able to recreate a vanished landscape to see what life was like in a specific area or to recreate major events in history. The GIS technology is another tool a historian can use to study trends. It is one thing to read a newspaper article about a series of crimes in a town but to place them on a map and recreate the exact locations to look for trends and to further answer questions related to time and place. It can also help to prove or disprove certain beliefs or studies. For example, one might think that prostitution was a frequently committed crime during the 1920s and 1930s; by using GIS services it would be proven due to the high arrest rate for prostitution in not just one neighborhood in Harlem but within the entire Harlem community and even outside Harlem’s parameters. GIS services allow historians to look at spatial history in a whole new way.

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