U.Va. Students Present Visualizations about Vinegar Hill Urban Renewal

December 8, 2009 — To open the Neighborhood ReGeneration exhibit at the Charlottesville Community Design Center on the Downtown Mall, students in a University of Virginia digital history seminar on Friday presented visualizations of their research on Charlottesville's Vinegar Hill – a once-thriving African-American neighborhood that was demolished for urban renewal in the 1960s.

The presentation, "VisualEyes Vinegar Hill," highlighted primary research done by students in spring and fall 2009 seminars.

Students used archival records – deeds, land books, maps, appraisals, city directories and oral histories – to explore a range of research questions: Who owned property in Vinegar Hill, and what was their relationship to the community? What were Vinegar Hill business and residential properties worth in the eyes of the city's appraisers? How did property values divide along racial lines? Where did the residents of Vinegar Hill, displaced and dispersed by urban renewal, find housing?

Co-taught by historian Scot French and Bill Ferster, a visualization specialist, the undergraduate seminar combines technology, historical research and academic community engagement. Students are introduced to new ways of thinking visually and making evidence-based historical arguments through computer-based visualizations, the professors said. They learn about the history of urban renewal and public housing, attend public meetings, immerse themselves in primary source materials, develop research questions, gather evidence, interpret the results and produce their own visualizations for public display through VisualEyes, a highly interactive Web-based tool developed by U.Va.'s SHANTI Initiative.

"VisualEyes is a tool that makes it easy to author graphically rich and interactive Web sites using primary sources and data to support inquiry and argument," Ferster said. "We have been impressed at the quality of the student-generated work and its ability to contribute to the community."

This visualization by student Kate Wellons looks at where the residents of Fourth Street moved after urban renewal. The red lines are homeowners, while the tenants are drawn in blue.

The digitization of materials for the "VisualEyes Vinegar Hill" project originated in 2002 with a grant from the Ford Foundation to the Carter G. Woodson Institute's Center for the Study of Local Knowledge. The project is sustained through the institutional support of the Virginia Center for Digital History, directed by French, and SHANTI's "VisualEyes," directed by Ferster.

Community partners include Our Legacy, Charlottesville's Public Housing Association of Residents, the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority, the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society, the Jefferson School African-American Heritage Center Advisory Committee and the Charlottesville Community Design Center.

French, an associate professor of history who has co-directed the Vinegar Hill project since its origins, lauded the collaborative spirit that brought students and community together through the exhibit.

"The Neighborhood ReGeneration exhibit opening has given our students a wonderful opportunity to present their findings to the Charlottesville community and solicit valuable feedback on their work," he said. "It's rare for students to get such valuable – and immediate – feedback on their work, based on lived experience and local knowledge."

Neighborhood ReGeneration: The Evolution of Public Housing in Charlottesville is a compilation of work developed by the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority and students at Charlottesville High School and U.Va. The exhibit reflects the transformation of Charlottesville's public housing community over the last several decades as it looks toward the future.

Currently in the process of evaluating redevelopment options for the city's aging public housing stock, the housing authority faces a unique challenge in preserving the integrity of residents' existing social networks while creating communities that better integrate into surrounding neighborhoods. Neighborhood ReGeneration traces the history of physical and social change in Charlottesville's Vinegar Hill neighborhood and its influence on today's public housing redevelopment process.

The exhibit will be displayed until Jan. 29 at the Charlottesville City Design Center on the Downtown Mall at 500 East Main St. "VisualEyes Vinegar Hill" is online at www.vinegarhillproject.org and www.viseyes.org.