Human Geography

On a sunny Saturday, amidst the live music, water balloon fights, and petitions at Woodlawn’s Art in Action festival, four University of Chicago students were manning a table, armed with markers and blank maps of Chicago, and encouraging passersby to make their own maps. Their idea was to produce a collection of maps that would chart people’s impressions of where the neighborhood of Hyde Park begins and ends. The mapping society provided three blank maps: one of Hyde Park, Woodlawn, Kenwood, and Washington Park; another of the greater South Side, extending south to 95th, further west, and north through Bronzeville; and a map of the entire city of Chicago.

The actual result of the mapping experiment at Art in Action, however, was much more free-form than its organizers had envisioned–rather than a chart of the physical or political geography of the city, the maps gave subtle hints at how different people understand the same environment. One impressive twelve-year-old submitted a detailed map of the El, while another participant mapped out good South Side coffee spots, explaining in a note, “I added Powell’s because it’s nice to browse books after you’ve had coffee at Istria.”

Mark Hopwood, a third-year UofC graduate student in philosophy from northern England, started thinking about common University perceptions of the neighborhood when he, like so many UofC students, was cautioned against walking from campus to 65th and Cottage Grove. Being the “kind of person who’s always been curious about my local neighborhood,” he did it anyway. In February of this year, Hopwood attended a presentation by the Counter Cartographies Collective (3Cs) from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where they displayed the alternative maps they’d created of their campus. Hopwood cited the 3Cs as the impetus for the Chicago project and found maps particularly appealing for this kind of experiment because, as he noted, “representing something visually lets people find their own entry point.” Because they are visual tools, maps present multiple perspectives and allow viewers to interpret and form their own impressions. For this reason, maps have an incredible potential to influence social consciousness. Hopwood references both the Mercator Projection and the iconic London Tube map as examples.

The ultimate goal of the project is to visually represent different sides of the local community and challenge the assumptions behind them, with a particular emphasis on life at the UofC. Hopwood’s vision of the project is fairly nebulous, and he hopes that in time, an organizing principle will arise through the project.

An incredible number of people from both the University and the broader community around it have expressed interest in the mapping project. Commenting on the impressive response, Hopwood says, “I love maps, and it turns out I’m not the only one.” The participants bring diverse perspectives to the project, and include both campus and local residents, activists from the Southside Solidarity Network and Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation (SOUL), geography majors, and artists, who have come together as a group of people that Teddy Kent, a first-year at the UofC, describes as “absolutely passionate.”

During a mapping brainstorm session, the group proposes ideas for maps, such as foreclosures on the South Side, where StreetWise vendors sell and stay, and the extent of the University’s land ownership. During these discussions, the group grapples with the issues of access to information and controversy. Particularly with regard to the land ownership map, Kent has had trouble locating in public records the information necessary to create the map and anticipates pushback from the University if he pursues the subject further. Hopwood concedes that controversy might be inherent to this project because these maps could serve as an alternative to the image that the University of Chicago presents of itself and the surrounding community. He elaborated, “The University produces…perfectly accurate, perfectly serviceable maps of Hyde Park. What’s also true is that they produce a narrative of the community that’s not exactly false, but it’s not exactly the whole picture, either. All of us have the sense that our community is healthier when people have a wider range of perspectives to draw.” The first major project Hopwood hopes to put together will consist of several physical maps that will assist incoming UofC first-years in interpreting the many sides of their new home.

More than controversy, Hopwood wants to encourage residents of the South Side, particularly students, to learn about the community around them and reevaluate their impressions of neighborhoods that are–and in some ways are not–their home. As Hopwood says, “Maps are never just maps–they’re stories, they’re landscapes, they’re histories. They’re a way of accessing those stories.”