Place, Time, Maps

Made of Stars

The stars and city lights melted together. At the top of the stairs, the lights looked like an urban model of spacetime, with the million twinkling spots bending and warping with the gravitational pull of life. The soft lights bent, rolled, and traveled across the contours of hillsides, valleys, and canyons that San Diego State University looked across. There were many beautiful buildings on the campus to take in the views, but the top of the stairs leading up from Parking Lot 16 remained my favorite vantage point. I had many evening conversations here, overlooking Mission Valley. This is perhaps one of my favorite places in Mission Valley.

In Place, Out of Place

Place is something that I keep returning to in my academic work. I am learning that my interest lies in exploring and understanding the experiences of those who lived before me, those whose feet tread the same place as me.  Logically, maps and mapping play a large role in that exploration. I have mused before about my curiosity about place. In a positionality statement for a mapping project I worked on, I wrote:

“My relationship with “place” is complicated. I am a first-generation student who is of a “non-traditional” age, so I often felt out of place on college and university campuses. I was adopted through an agency that provided social services to those in need, so my lineage does not have a tidy narrative that some need to “place” people. My hometown is a place marked by the joys and complications of being on the Mexico-United States frontera. So, if one subscribes to the belief that research is “me”search, then it may be easy to understand why place and space interest me.”

This week, I got to indulge my interest in place, and how maps can be used to explore lived experiences and lives of those who were there before. Of the digital history maps provided by Dr. Dan Cohen for exploration, two really inspired me. Photogrammar by Taylor Arnold, Ken Panko, Stacey Maples, Lauren Tilton, and Laura Wexleras and The Getty’s 12 Sunsets are exceptional models for the type of “experience” I would like to create for users of digital maps that I may create in the future. 

What I like about both mapping projects is the relative simplicity of their interfaces and functionality. Both allow for the maps to be explored in interesting graphical ways, utilize faceted searching with a relatively simple minimal interface, and provide background to the projects which include either digital archival or source code access. These projects are interesting, searchable, and explorable. That is a win-win-win in my book. 


I got lost in Photogrammar, and it was a delightful experience. If you did not already pick up on it, dear reader, I have a strong affinity for my hometown of San Diego. I suspect it is due to the fact that my personal history starts the day I emerged into this world (well, really a month after when baby-me moved from foster care to my adoptive parents), but that is another long story for another day. After poking around the maps and exploring other places I have lived (Durham, North Carolina) and where I currently live (Boston, Massachusetts), I immediately began exploring San Diego. The history of the city as a wartime boom town meant there were a lot of photos to explore. So much struck me. But the photos of tent-cities and “shanty-towns” in Mission Valley really got me. The Mission Valley I knew buzzed with nightlife, high-end condos, and traffic.

But the photos themselves did not lead me to the delightful state of “lost”, the relationships and similarities between photos of other places and lives is what sent me on my way. I especially appreciate this aspect because Programmar was born from more digital heavy programming work, yet the metadata is used to emphasize the human connections and relationships that span time, space, and place.

Below is a video of how a photo of tent-dwellings in Mission Valley took me across the country to photos of folks living in similar situations. This is a powerful example of how maps can enhance the humanities and public history specifically. 

12 Sunsets

What a sensory use of a map. This project immediately brought me to the many times I’ve driven in Los Angeles and Sunset strip, seeing the buildings go whizzing past at night (and crawling by during day time traffic). Using this map made me think of the smells of LA traffic- the exhaust, hot dusty sunshine (it has a smell!), and a faint ocean breeze. Of the digital maps I have interacted with, this came the closest to communicating the experience of being in those places. Further, this map is sneaky in how it is “scaled” to different audiences. It can be a fun, whimsical, drive down memory lane for casual users. It can be a resource for historical research and an ingress into the archival holdings. It is creative, a brilliant use of photography, and a thoughtful presentation of history.

Reaching Across Place

What I enjoy most about digital and public history is the connections and curiosity it can foster. Had I not flipped through photos of people living in tents in the very valley that I loved looking over (despite the million dollar condos that dominate the space), I would have not stopped to reflect on my time perched at the top of the stairs over Mission Valley.

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