Old Maps, Modern Influences

May 21, 2021
IMA Research Team

What historical maps leave out and how it impacts our perceptions

By Zander Bamford-Brown

Deanwood is an exceptional working class Black neighborhood on the edge of Washington DC. In spite of structural racism and a lack of infrastructure and material wealth, Deanwood was a relatively prosperous community in the early 1900s. Deanwood had a robust autonomous economy in which many residents grew and processed much of their own food. I am working with professor Kate Brown from M.I.T.’s Department of Science, Technology, and Society to better understand this community and what made it so successful. We have been using census records and deeds to help us quantify Deanwood, but unfortunately, we have limited information to help us visualize this neighborhood before the 1940s.

In order to get a sense of the neighborhood as a whole, I turned to the Baist Atlases. The Baist Atlases (like the Sanborn Maps) are detailed real estate maps of cities. They include the location, shape, and construction material of every building in the city along with street material, train and tram lines, property lines, lot numbers, and the names of some property owners. I wrote a separate post talking about my experience with these little known maps.

The atlases, one from 1907 and another from 1921, provide the most detailed neighborhood-wide information we have about Deanwood during this period. In order to better understand the community we were researching, I used the atlases to take imaginary Google Street View-esque walks through historic Deanwood. However, I was walking through a very distorted version of Deanwood.

The trap I fell into was forgetting just how much information was left out of the Baist Atlases. Take this section of the 1921 atlas, it shows a subdivision in Deanwood called Linwood Heights. From the map, this sub development looks like a classic early American suburb complete with a crescent shaped precursor to the cul-de-sac. It is easy to imagine the low white picket fences that the residents of Linwood Heights might erect along the lines dividing their properties. Their gardens may look like the victory gardens of World War 2, a few raised beds with rows of vegetables surrounded by children playing on a well trimmed electric green lawn. But, as you look for the yellow, pink, and gray squares that represent houses, you may notice that the subdivision is barely inhabited.

Not only does this map make Linwood Heights out to be much more populated and developed than it was, it also projects (sub)urbanity onto a place that was far from it at the time. The photographs below were taken in 1948 at the intersection of 53rd St. and Clay St., directly in the middle of the map above. John P. Wymer captured the neighborhood 27 years after this atlas was published when the number of houses had increased by about 800% and the neighborhood had been almost entirely developed. 

From the John P Wymer Photograph Collection

The stark contrast between the empty gridded subdivision of Linwood Heights presented in the Baist Atlas and the verdant semi-rural community shown in the photographs taken a quarter century later serve as a reminder of how limited a perspective maps alone can provide.

Even when it came to property lines, which was the main focus of the Baist Atlases, the maps produced a distorted picture of life in Deanwood. By looking through the original deeds we found that households in Deanwood tended to buy many consecutive lots (six was not uncommon) which often neighbored undeveloped and unoccupied lots owned by the developer. This made most of the property boundaries that were so central to the Baist Atlases meaningless in the everyday lives of people in Deanwood. Similarly, the plants like tomatoes, greens, corn, sweet potatoes, peanuts, and fruit trees, which were meaningful to the residents (and to our research), were not mapped at all.

A map like those in the Baist Atlas, which presents itself as an objective survey of the area, is not neutral. How information is simplified and represented as well as what information is not included impacts how we conceptualize the areas represented on the map. Since so much information must be left out of any map, the user will generally fill in the gaps in a way that perpetuates their preconceived notions of what they are studying. For example, many Deanwood residents were only able to afford to build a home because they built it themselves from cheap and salvaged materials. However, the atlas lumps all wood frame houses together making it impossible to determine the cost or state of repair of the houses. Since the map is so crisp and professionally done it gives the impression that the houses it mapped could be categorized the same way. In doing so, the atlas covered up a central part of what made Deanwood prosperous.

This experience served to remind me of how suspicious we must be of historical documents. Both the biases of the author and our own biases can greatly impact how we interpret documents. So even apparently benign sources like the Baist Atlas can end up obscuring the pivotal aspects of a community. The task is then on us to be aware of our prejudices and make the effort to reach a more informed conclusion.

Linked In YouTube
Subscribe to our newsletter! SUBSCRIBE