Mapping LGBTQ St. Louis, a cross-disciplinary project involving the Washington University Libraries and campus and community partners, is bringing attention to an important facet of St. Louis history. Through the creation of a digital map plotted with locations related to LGBTQ culture, the initiative aims to increase awareness of the history of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer communities in the region. The interactive tool is available online for public use. A pop-up exhibit relating to the project will be on display on the first floor of John M. Olin Library November 4-10.
Miranda Rectenwald, curator of local history at the Washington University Libraries, is co-director of the project. In anticipation of Geography Awareness Week (November 11-16), Dorris Scott, social science data curator and GIS librarian; Jennifer Akins, art and architecture librarian; and Andrea Degener, visual materials processing archivist, caught up with Rectenwald for a Q&A on the GIS-driven initiative.
How did Mapping LGBTQ St. Louis get its start? The project started through the Department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, with guidance from Andrea Friedman [professor of history and women, gender, and sexuality studies] and the WashU Libraries with Makiba Foster [former library staff member]. The community partners who stepped in to help support it are the Missouri Historical Society and Steven Brawley of the St. Louis LGBT History project. Andrea Friedman and I are co-directors of the continuing project.
What GIS tools did you use? We used ArcGIS Online and ESRI StoryMaps.
Why was it important for you to explore a geographic perspective with this project? The project started through the Divided City Initiative, which looks at how our city is divided along the lines of race, gender, and economic background. One of the ways we wanted to look at that division for LGBTQ history was by plotting those places on a map and hoping that would allow us to see which parts of the city were commonly associated with LGBTQ culture, like the so-called “gayborhoods,” and to maybe break up that narrative, which we feel it did.
Once we looked at them on the map, we realized that there are spaces all through the city and county, and Metro East and Illinois. It’s not simply one neighborhood. The geographic plotting made it possible to do that analysis.
What makes the project unique? We plot a lot of locations of things where there’s no building or historic site anymore. A lot of things that are mapped don’t physically exist, and that is one of the big differences about this project. There’s a fairly similar project that’s going on in New York. They’re only looking at historical preservation, and so they only map sites that still exist. If we did that in St. Louis, we would have like nothing on the map, because of the rapid urban planning and urban redevelopment and just wholesale grazing of blocks and buildings. We felt that doing the geographic markers shows that this history occurred, and it happened here, even though there’s not a building still standing.
What is the future for Mapping LGBTQ St. Louis? We were funded by an initial Mellon Foundation grant, which has ended. We received a small extension grant which we’re working on right now to do some upgrades to make the landing page and the initial pages more orientated to a general audience and less of an academic audience. We also received some grant funding to do a series of programs with local groups to have some kind of discussion sessions on how queer spaces in the past can inform queer spaces in the present, because there’s a lot of contemporary concern over gentrification in the Grove district, which is the current entertainment district, and also Soulard, and the on-again-off-again nature of having a community center. We’re planning those for 2021.
Why do you think it’s important for people to be more geographically aware? In our region, we often think of there being artificial divisions: Northside/Southside, county/city, rural/urban. Through this project, we’re looking at how those boundaries don’t necessarily hold true. Another reason we wanted to look at this history on a map and to be geographically aware about it is that it’s one thing to think of an abstract story that happened in 1950 or 1982; it’s another to think about how that happened in this particular part of Forest Park that you go to, and you’ve been to, and you’ve been familiar with it. Connecting it to the places that we all live in today makes it a lot more real.
Go here for more information regarding the project.
This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.