Lansing Urban Renewal Project
John Aerni-Flessner, Project Director, Michigan State University
Students enrolled in RCAH 192 in Spring 2018 and Spring 2019, Michigan State University
Adina Langer, Kennesaw State University Museum of History and Holocaust Education
Lansing Urban Renewal is a product of classes John Aerni-Flessner taught (and will continue to teach) in the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities (RCAH) at Michigan State University. The content was created by the students as part of their research into the history of housing discrimination in the Lansing, Michigan area. The students conducted primary source research in local history archives, particularly relying on real estate records. From these sources the students documented the history of particular houses and the individuals who lived in Lansing’s historic African American neighborhood. The goal was to tell the stories of people subjected to housing discrimination in the early decades of the 20th century and then displaced by urban renewal projects from the mid-1960s to elucidate the long-term effects of housing segregation.
The students used a variety of sources from local history archives to translate real estate listings into human stories, and they digitized information to present the stories in more detail. Making use of in-class peer-review and feedback from the instructor, the students entered the metadata for the project and uploaded the narratives they had crafted into the public-facing part of the website. Thus, the website contains descriptions of properties; information on the life trajectories of individuals and families; the history of churches and businesses located in the neighborhood; and scanned photographs, obituaries, and other ephemera that help tell the stories of neighborhood residents.
This project is a teaching and learning opportunity for students to explore primary source research and storytelling in the context of a class on urban renewal. The material created was placed in a public-facing website so that the stories told better center the lived experiences of African Americans in Lansing in the hopes of reaching a broad public audience.
The students in Aerni-Flessner’s RCAH classes in Spring 2018 and 2019 conducted research in the Forest Parke Library and Archives in downtown Lansing. Using real estate records from the Stebbins Collection, the students documented properties that no longer exist and people long displaced from the physical space. Two students wrote longer narrative histories to help the website user better understand the overall argument of the project and the significance of understanding how housing discrimination shaped and continues to shape the city of Lansing and lives of its residents.
The project is built as an Omeka database using the Neatline plugin to plot the houses. The team stitched three different map layers together so that readers could toggle between the federal housing classifications for the neighborhood from the 1930s, the street layout in 1950, and the current street layout to show changes over time. Students will continue to add material and interpretations to the website in future iterations of the class.
Aerni-Flessner is the project coordinator, instructor, and editor, but the students are the primary authors of the content on the website. The students are Tylor Collier, Taylor Peterson, Claire Marks-Wilt, Jake Arens, Berkley Sorrells, Bonnie Bremer, Sonata Davis, Mary Hedges, Mary Shutty, and Gwen Winstead. The project received technical support from the team at the LEADR Lab (The Lab for the Education and Advancement in Digital Research), a collaborative venture between the Departments of History and Anthropology at MSU that hosts the website. Jen Andrella served as the technical consultant, and LEADR directors in 2018 (Brandon Locke) and 2019 (Alice Lynn McMichael) both supported the project. The RCAH provided funding for student transport, and local history archivist Heidi Butler welcomed us to the Forest Parke Library and Archives and provided research support.
Aerni-Flessner has given four public talks on redlining and urban renewal in Lansing using research from this project. He is also on the Advisory Board for a grant that the City of Lansing and the Historical Society of Greater Lansing received from the U.S. Park Service for an oral history project on the same neighborhood called “Pave the Way.” An article on the project and the history it has uncovered, co-authored with a student, is under review at the Michigan Historical Review.
As a digital humanities project, Lansing Urban Renewal makes excellent use of the Neatline plugin for the Omeka platform to showcase property photographs, deeds, and sales notes from the digitized Stebbins Real Estate Collection in Lansing, Michigan. These properties have been affected by the process of redlining and urban renewal. Geographic pins embedded in three-layered maps are tied to well-written property descriptions that link human stories to larger themes in urban social and economic history. Developed by students in Michigan State University’s Residential College in the Arts and Humanities (RCAH) as part of a course titled RCAH 192: Urban Renewal in 2018 and 2019, Lansing Urban Renewal focuses on areas cleared for the construction of Interstate 496 from 1963-1970, including the area around the Oldsmobile/General Motors Grand River Assembly Plant.
A particular strength of the project is the section of interpretive essays linked directly to sites on the map. The essays use hyperlinks to the primary sources documented on the website to support interpretive claims around histories of Syrian and African American communities in Lansing. They serve as living examples of scholarly work that can be done using digital humanities resources. The essays provide a narrative superstructure for assessing the asymmetrical impact of redlining and urban renewal on particular minority communities within the city of Lansing, and by extension, raise questions about the disproportionate impact of urban renewal practices on minority communities throughout the country. The property and family histories associated with the specific sites on the map are another strength of the site. These histories humanize a subject that might otherwise appear dry and statistical. The pins on the map represent more than places in the built environment. They represent people — their homes, businesses, hopes, and dreams.
The project would benefit greatly from an introductory essay framing urban renewal in Lansing and the governmental project that led to the construction of I-496 and the “clearing” of the neighborhoods featured in the project map. Additional primary sources associated with city hall urban renewal board meetings, public hearings, or newspaper articles could also be tied to the maps, providing necessary background for understanding the idea of urban renewal as it applies specifically to Lansing, Michigan. More background on the Stebbins Real Estate Collection would also benefit users to the site. What is the provenance and history of the Stebbins Real Estate Collection? How did it come to exist and to be housed at the Forrest Park Library? Also, what is the nature of the “urban renewal” map? What does it have to do with urban renewal, and where did it come from? At first glance, it does not appear to indicate the future trajectory of I-496 or the areas deemed “slums” and thus eligible for eminent domain usage and/or demolition. Filling these gaps would balance the site, which is much more clearly associated with the concept of redlining than it is with the history and implications of urban renewal.
With regards to the interface, pins on the maps would benefit from clarity in color-coding. The assumption is that the colors are based on the redlining map, but could there be differences in the colors that appear when a user highlights items to indicate whether they were actually bulldozed in the construction of I-496, whether they were demolished later, or whether they were still standing? Additionally, it would be helpful if the links were programmed to open in a new tab or if the instructions clearly indicated that users will need to use the “back” button if they want to return to the map after looking at individual images or at the Omeka metadata pages. This can be done using HTML coding in the Neatline backend.
As the project develops, users will benefit from the interpretive work based on this geographic showcase of primary source documents. If and when oral histories become available through the “Pave the Way” project, integrating them into the site structure will strengthen its impact even further.