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Mapping Main Street

US politicians talk a lot about Main Street. But what does Main Street actually look like in contemporary America? That’s what Harvard PhD students Jesse Shapins and James Burns, and journalist Kara Oehler, along with public radio producer Ann Heppermann, are doing with their “collaborative documentary”, “Mapping Main Street“.

Shapins, Burns and Oehler are speaking at Berkman today explaining the nature of a documentary which is attempting to document what’s happening on the 10,466 streets named “Main” in the US. They’ve accumulated photos and videos of 400 of these streets – a little under than 5% of the whole set. Only 80 of those streets have been mapped by the project’s initiators – the others have been mapped through submissions from the public.

Why create a “new map of the country through stories, data, photos and video recorded on actual main streets”? There’s lots of political and artistic theory inspiring the work, Jesse tells us:

– Bruno LaTour’s idea of the crisis of representation. The images and turns of phrases in today’s networked publics shape political sensibilities, capacities for action, and therefore we need to closely consider those representations and their implications.

– Russian/Soviet avant-garde filmmakers and media critics. Jesse cites “Man With A Movie Camera” by Dziga Vertov, a provocative 1929 film that is a reflection both on modernity and on filmmaking, editing, the audience and the process of media itself as well as “Art as Technique” by Victor Shklovsky. Shklovsky warns us that we take aspects of our lives for granted, leaving them unquestioned. Art’s role is to bring the unconscious, the ignored into consciousness: “to make the stone stony.”

– Robert Frank’s famous 1950s photo series, “The Americans” and earlier series from the 1930s shot by photographers for the Farm Security Administration

– The idea of the “deep map”, put forward at the Stanford Humanities Lab, a map that overlays the historical and contemporary, the artistic and geographic, the multiple layers of geography.

James, trained as an economist, argues that a belief in causal relationships leads to a reductive understanding of data, data as a descriptor of cause. By playing with a data set “that no sane economist would ever be interested in,” James hopes to understand data in a more complex, less reductive fashion.

In practical terms, Kara tells us, this has meant that the researchers piled into a 1996 Subaru and started visiting Main Streets. The first trip took them from Boston to Chicago. Kara notes that street interviews – vox pops – usually yield one response out of three. “But everyone talks to you on Main Street.” From May to August, the team travelled 12,000 miles, stopping at hundreds of Main Streets.

They produced a series for NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday, which began with a focus on Chatanooga, whose Main street features both a small portion revitalized with galleries and restaurants, and a stretch used primarily for prostitution. The story follows a couple, one making a run to buy drugs, the other reflecting on her history turning tricks on the street.

Not all the media is a radio story – they’ve asked four songwriters to offer musical reflections on Main Street. Their site incorporates a set of main street photos contributed by photography students… and anyone can contribute a photo by posting it to Flickr, tagging it with “main street” and the location, and submitting it to the Mapping Main Street group.

If you visit the Mapping Main Street site and search for a city, you’ll see footage if the project has captured any. Otherwise, you’ll see a Google Maps view – the view the producers tell us they’re trying to move away from – and an invitation to submit your own media. The project serves both as a “relational navigator” (driven by similar tags) of this data and as an archive of professional and user-submitted media.

Questions include:

Q: How do you manage user contributions, authentication?
A: We’ve put the responsibility onto the media hosting sites, like Flickr.

Q: Is there demographic data included in your set?
A: Not yet, but we could incorporate it. But we don’t want people to encounter the summary statistics as much as we want them to encounter the impressions.

Q: Are you getting a bias of submission based on what Main Streets are popular and which are abandoned? Can we condition the behavior of content producers?
A: We’re using a simple algorithm for “interestingness” to push people towards unexpected places. If we’re getting a bias in submissions, we could use that to drive people to different locations for producing media.

Q: Is there a political output of the project? A path towards civic engagement?
A: A lot of people felt like Main Street was extremely unrepresentative of their town. (This was acutely felt in Chatanooga.) Others felt like Main Street focused attention on stories that we too often ignore. The project itself is a wedge to provoke debate.

Q: Given that the audio stories synthesize, while the user submissions are pontillistic, what decisions go into making media from Main Street?
A: The decision was not to have rules about what was submitted. Originally, the project suggested ten things to photograph on Main Street, but we ended up removing that suggestion after going out and shooting Main Street ourselves.

Q: Robert Frank’s work was very focused on people. Your project so far seems to be shooting architecture. Is that okay?
A: Actually, there are six hundred photos tagged with people thus far. But there’s an attempt not to look for the classic “small town America” photo.

Q: What do you do when “main street” isn’t your main street?
A: What’s interesting is the places where Main Street takes you to a part of town you normally wouldn’t go to.

Q: What’s the strategy for including the voices of youth in the project?
A: Teachers are already using the project without our intervention. And we’ve been approached by more people than we can actually respond to.

Q: There are at least two levels on which politics play into this: the national symbol of Main Street and small town America – this project may open up that meaning. On the local level, it might close down meaning – Main Street can define a town in unwanted ways. Is the project in opposition to itself?
A: Main Street can force us to look away from the monument, the other part of town, where we might usually look.

Q: How long do you keep going?
A: Perhaps until we get all ten thousand. Visualizing progress is going to be very important – looking forward to the moment where there’s one dot left.

Q: In most places, even if Main Street is now run down, the intention was for the Main Street to be the center. It might be nice to have that history included with the documentation.
A: We’ve had people share some bits of older imagery. You could develop a lot of subprojects within the project.

Q: You say you want to capture Main Streets at a particular place in time, but the project is evolving over time. Have you thought about visualizing the passage of time?
A: We’ve got data on the dates taken, at least on new photos. It’s a cool idea and a good point.

Q: What happens when the photos you have online aren’t representative of Main Street? Or represent one part and not another?
A: We could move towards a panorama or more geographic information. But thus far, we’ve been trying to make it as simple as possible, not taking into account geo-tagged information.

Q: What does it mean to curate the Internet as an archive?
A: We’ve got unbelievable amounts of information online, produced in different media formats. Archives tend to be closed, undemocratic institutions. But the internet is helping the archive transition to the database. This project is database-driven, taking bits and pieces of Vimeo and Flickr and curating them into an archive.