Michael R. Allen
The Divided City Urban Humanities Initiative
Washington University in St. Louis
Center for the Humanities
Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts
Bruce Lindsey, Dean, School of Architecture, WashU
Larry Giles, National Building Arts Foundation
Wood River Historical Museum
Wood River Refinery Museum
St. Claire County Historical Society
SIUE, Institute for Urban Research
Few regions in the United States exhibit a social and spatial fragmentation as extreme as that of the vast flood plains of the East St Louis region. As a coherent geographic interval stretching from the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers down to the confluence with the Kaskaskia River, this flood plain-- known to geographers and anthropologists as The American Bottom--is site to the social and spatial aspirations of pre-contact Native Americans, 19th century industrial expansion, 20th century infrastructural consolidation, and 21st century ecological precarity.
Yet this region is currently defined less by its inherent ecological and geological continuities and more by the industrial patterns that have effectively fractured this region into closed parcels of extraction, production, and displacement. It is a territory where the Cahokia Mounds UNESCO heritage site abuts a Superfund site, where French Colonial settlement patterns shape 20th century urban forms, where the first incorporated African-American town in the U.S. abuts the site of this country’s most notorious race riot, and where a powerful Mississippi river flows disconnected from its still-vital flood plane. Through this rather compact region, then, an entire history of North American settlement and aspirations can be told.
It is our hope that people familiar and unfamiliar with this region alike will find something instructive in this project. As a specific geography, the American Bottom has seen a history of human settlement, ecological transformation, and social convergence that we truly find singular in the American context. At the same time, as a typical geography, the American Bottom picks up on patterns that might be recognizable at the divided urban periphery of every large American city at the beginning of the 21st century. And it is to both these registers—the specific and the general—that we hope this project speaks.
As a contribution to narrative geography and landscape curation, this project pulls equally from the legacy 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. A project such as this is as much description of a once well-defined geography as it is a recovery of that geography. Our goal, then, is to provide a framework for deciphering the irreducible landscape we find today.
Importantly, it is our hope that this website serves as an invitation that facilitates actual navigation of this region—a threshold between the world out-there and the world of the archive. Be sure to check back in! This is an in-progress website, with additional itineraries and sites added as we further reach out the community.
So dive in! And we hope to see you in the field!
American Bottom native Michael R. Allen is lecturer in Landscape Architecture and American Culture Studies at Washington University in St. Louis and Director of the Preservation Research Office. Allen's work integrates cultural geography, architectural history and historic preservation, and has included projects ranging from the Pruitt Igoe Now design competition to Building as Body, an architectural yoga project. In 2016, Allen is in residence at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation collaborating with Berlin collective raumlabor.
Jennifer Colten’s work focuses on ambiguous landscapes- sites at the margins of the urban environment, and spaces that reveal a resilience of ecological transformation. Central concerns within her photographic practice reflect questions surrounding the representation of landscape, and examine multiple issues revealing social, cultural, and environmental implications of land use. After receiving her MFA from Massachusetts College of Art in Boston, Colten relocated to the Midwest to teach photography at Washington University Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts. In addition to private collections, Colten’s photographs are included in institutions including The Museum für Fotographie, Braunschweig, Germany, Museo de Arte Moderno, Bogota, Museo de Antioquia, and Bellas Artes Institute, both in Medellin, Colombia, the Centro Colombo Americano Institutions in Medellin and in Periera Colombia, South America.
Gayle Fritz studies the deep historic and prehistoric roots of plant domestication and traditional farming across the Americas, hoping to learn lessons from the past that can restore sustainability to modern food production systems. Special interests include the rise of the Eastern North American Agricultural Complex and the centuries-long success of ancient Cahokia’s biologically diverse food-procurement and food-sharing strategies. Professor Fritz teaches archaeology and ethnobotany at Washington University in St. Louis. She lives in Collinsville, Illinois, resulting in a daily commute across the fields and wetlands of the American Bottom.
Jonathan Hanahan is an artist and designer whose practice explores the cultural and social ramifications of experiences which transcend physical and digital occupations and the role technology plays in shaping, mediating, and disrupting our everyday realities. Through sculptures, videos, websites, and prints is interested in exploring and developing Thick Interfaces, interfaces which reveal the physical complexity and reality which exists under the thin veneer of our digital devices.He is the founder and creative director of Milieu, an anti-disciplinary studio focusing on developing tangible, speculative, and networked experiences with the Internet. In addition to his studio practice, Hanahan is an Assistant Professor in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis.
John Kelly is currently a Senior Lecturer in Archaeology in the Department of Anthropology at Washingaton University in St. Louis. The focus of his research over the last four decades has been on the central Mississippi River Valley and the cultural developments related to Mississippian culture, especially the Cahokia site. For the last twenty-five years, his research is centered upon landscape modification and the role of ritual, iconography, and kinship in the mix of ingredients that contribute to the emergence of urbanism at Cahokia and the greater Mississippian world.
After working twenty years as a librarian, Dr. Charles L Lumpkins returned to school in 1977 to earn a doctorate in American history, which he obtained in 2006. Lumpkins is the author of American Pogrom: The East St. Louis Race Riot and Black Politics (2008), which won the most scholarly book on Illinois history award from the Illinois State Historical Society in 2009. He contributed to edited collections of essays in Maine’s Visible Black History: The First Chronicle of Its People (2006) and The Making of an All-America City: East St. Louis at 150 (2010). Since 2006, Lumpkins has been teaching a variety of courses as a Lecturer at The Pennsylvania State University in the School of Labor Studies and Employment Relations and the Department of African and African American Studies.
Angela Miller is Professor of Art History and American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis where she teaches U.S. cultural history of the arts. She is a lead author, along with Janet Berlo, Bryan Wolf, and Jennifer Roberts, of American Encounters: Cultural Identity and the Visual Arts from the Beginning to the Present (Pearson, 2008), an integrated history of the arts from pre-conquest to the present. Miller’s 1993 book Empire of the Eye: Landscape Representation and American Cultural Politics, 1825-1875, won awards from the Smithsonian Institution and the American Studies Association. She lectures and writes on landscape in the context of the new environmental history. Her 1994 essay “The Soil of an Unknown America'” explores the 19th Moundbuilder myth of pre-Columbian cultures in the New World. This year she is the William C. Seitz Senior Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
MJ Morgan is Research and Curriculum Director at Chapman Center for Rural Studies, Department of History, Kansas State University. An undergraduate research center, Chapman Center is building collections of student work in an evolving, creative digital archive. The most vital collection, Lost Kansas Communities, features over 150 histories of vanished places that have never had a written history to preserve them. MJ is primarily an environmental historian specializing in the re-creation of changed environments and early settlement histories. She is interested in stories that have originated along rivers, rivers whose character and changeable nature have infused disciplines from folklore to GIS mapping to indigenous people studies. She received her doctorate from the University of Cincinnati and is the author of two books, one about the French along the Mississippi and one about Mexican and Tejano settlers along the Rio Grande. Her family history and connections to southern Illinois, as well as her research into the early wetlands of the American Bottom, made this project irresistible!
Andrew Theising is Associate Professor in the Political Science Department at SIUE, where he teaches urban politics and researches the plight of industrial suburbs. He has worked in East St. Louis for nearly 25 years. He is the author of the award-winning Made in USA: East St. Louis (Virginia Publishing 2003), he serves on the East St. Louis Charter School Board, and is the Board Chair for the Head Start program in St. Clair County.
Jesse Vogler is an artist, designer, and geographer whose work sits at the intersection of spatial practices, material culture, and political economy. Drawn to questions that attach themselves to the periphery of architectural production, his projects take on themes of work, law, property, expertise, and perfectibility. Vogler’s work has been supported by awards from the Graham Foundation, Mellon Foundation, MacDowell Colony, and the Fulbright Scholar Program, and has been exhibited at the Venice Architecture Biennale, the CLUI, the Center for Contemporary Arts Santa Fe, and the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts. Recent publications featuring his writings and work include [bracket], MONU, Ground Up, Artforum, Domus, and the Los Angeles Times. In addition to his art practice, Vogler is a land surveyor, co-directs the Institute of Marking and Measuring, and is an assistant professor of landscape architecture in the Sam Fox School, Washington University in St. Louis.