Reviewed December 2019
Lisa Conrad, Digital Scholarship Librarian
Meyer and Simpson Libraries, California College of the Arts
Charting the American Bottom is a website developed by an interdisciplinary team of artists, designers, geographers, landscape architects, researchers, archaeologists, and historians associated with the Sam Fox School, Washington University, in St. Louis, Missouri. It maps, both geographically and over time, “The American Bottom”— the flood plains in East St. Louis that stretch from the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers to the confluence with the Kaskaskia River. It combines the tropes of “illustrated County Atlases of the late 19th century, the ‘tour’ structure of the 1930s WPA American Guides, and the evolving ubiquity of online frameworks.” The project tells stories of sites along the Mississippi River and in the flood plains in a manner the project directors describe as “narrative geography.” They argue that the history of the American Bottom, in its transitions from pre-contact Native Americans through to its current 21st century “ecological precarity,” serves equally well as a microcosm of North American history in general, and thus offers value to those familiar as well as those unfamiliar with this section of the United States.
The website is rather beautifully conceived and executed, with a bold, clean sans-serif font style, clear navigation tools, and integration of Google maps. The maps and images fill the screen immersively, with no unnecessary headers or footers. Dozens of sites that flourished within the flood plains of East St. Louis are examined, through maps, photographs, text, and extended multimedia essays referred to, winningly, as “Itineraries.” From the landing page, you can either select a site icon on the map or select the ‘hamburger icon’ in the top left to navigate to one of four sections: About, Map, Archive, Itineraries. Hover over a site and its name will appear, for example, “Chain of Rocks Canal Overlook.” Select a site to zoom into a photograph of it, view the area through Google streetview, get directions to visit it, and read a short description of it. The project looks good on mobile devices, too; this reviewer’s only quibble is with the scroll bars on the About page, which feel awkward and unnecessary.
The views of each site in close proximity to one another prompts reflection on how a framework can define a place; for example, the artist Jennifer Colten’s evocative photographs next to the utilitarian Google streetview (although streetview does allows the viewer to ‘wander’ the area surrounding a site, within certain parameters, namely, following a road). In addition to wandering online, one is invited to visit the actual places identified: for every site there are directions to it, underscoring the atlas format of the project.
The material on the website appears well-researched, with the Itineraries providing the most in-depth portraits of selective human histories in the flood plains, grouping multiple sites together in meaningful and surprising ways. This reviewer only encountered a couple of glitches while viewing it — a link to a YouTube video that no longer worked (this reviewer loved the focus on the aural of Matthew Fluharty’s Itinerary “Nothing’s Free in this Country, and there’s no Place to Hide…” but wished the links to the songs were from a more authoritative source than YouTube), and a placeholder for the “info” on one of the maps that unexpectedly — and ultimately delightfully — opened with several books viewable through the Internet Archive book reader.
The form of Charting the American Bottom is not dissimilar to the scholarly online publishing tool Scalar; Cecilia Wichmann’s Master’s thesis on Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s site-specific artwork Pandemonium, in particular comes to mind for its content and integration of Google Maps in addition to other media. This resource takes a selectively qualitative rather than a quantitative approach, which differs from many (though by no means all) mapping projects which utilize GIS and digitized archives, for example, the University of Richmond’s Mapping Inequality, the University of California at Berkeley’s The Living New Deal, and the African American Trail Project from Tufts University.
Charting the American Bottom would be a wonderful addition to high school and college American Studies courses, as an example of an interdisciplinary project for digital-scholarship students, for people local to East St. Louis, and artists interested in geography and/or whose work otherwise crosses disciplines.