I chose to explore the Digital Harlem project for this week’s blog assignment. I lived and studied in New York this summer and found myself in Harlem a lot of my trip. Harlem has a distinct personally and palpable sense of its rich history. With rampant gentrification, Harlem’s past is in a noticeable clash with its unexpected future. When I was there, a Whole Foods was being built across the street from one of Harlem’s oldest churches. I thought the Digital Harlem project would be an interesting look back into the neighborhoods’ roots that I could compare to my summer experience.
The messages explains in troublesome language:
“Unlike most studies of Harlem in the early twentieth century, this project focuses not on black artists and the black middle class, but on the lives of ordinary African New Yorkers. It does so primarily by using legal records, which encompass not only hardened criminals but also first offenders, ordinary residents acting out of desperation, poverty or anger, and which reveal all manner of things that would not ordinarily be labelled ‘criminal’– streetlife, black language, music, family life – as well as evidence of the role of gambling, violence and confidence men in the black community”
Immediately after reading this description, I was confused that if by “everyday life” they actually meant everyday crime. While crime is a vital part of understanding the inner workings of any community, it should not be the filter by which “everyday life ” should be chronicled. When I think of everyday life, I think of families, work, school, neighborhood events, and church. If the projects primary source is legal records then the project will be skewed and colored by those crimes and wont include those positive parts of life. It is problematic for the creators of this site to purport it as an overall view of daily life in Harlem because it doesn’t actually encompass all of that. Not to mention the legal records were of those convicted and doesn’t provide the context of racial inequality of the time that led to many wrongful convictions and harsh punishments.
Besides the ethical problems I had with the site, it did have a lot of layers for usability. There are events, people, and places tabs that can be used to find specific incidents and people from 1915-1930. The map reveals exactly where incidents took place and as you hover over icons on the map it gives brief descriptions and links to related events. I did like the Featured section that linked to blogs on certain Harlem life topics. It was satisfying to see the daily life I Imagined illuminated with pictures and stories but this section was not included in the description of either the Welcome or About boxes.
I think an alternate version of this map, would use supplemental sources to add personal context to the legal records like the Featured section. I would appreciate if the entire map revolved around oral accounts from the past, present day interviews,videos, music, and artwork in conjunction with the legal records not just one section.