Exploring the Challenges of Representing Sites with Images

Sidney Maestre and Mayor Raymond Tucker on rooftop overlooking area of Mill Creek Valley slated for clearance.

Photograph, 1956. Missouri History Museum Photographs and Prints Collection. St. Louis Redevelopment Projects Collection. N20908. https://www.flickr.com/photos/mohistory/with/3662708885/

Jonathan Karp, Morgan Brooks on April 19, 2017

Welcome back to the Material World of Modern Segregation (MWMS) blog! In this post, we will hear from one of our contributors, Jonathan Karp. Before joining the project as a contributor, he participated as a researcher for MWMS, gathering sources for St. Louis sites, including the area of Mill Creek Valley, which was cleared for the construction of Highway 40. The perspective he gained through both of his roles in the project offers insights into some of the challenges of site-based study. Here Jonathan discusses the complications of using an image to represent a site by analyzing photos from Mill Creek Valley. How can a photo evoke the layered materiality and personal realities of modern segregation? What would such a photo need to include? Should the photo include people? The representation of Mill Creek Valley above features an aerial photograph of the area with St. Louis’s tangled, grey highways included in the frame. The history of mass transit in St. Louis is one of resident displacement and segregation, as is the story of Mill Creek Valley clearance, but the photo feels impersonal. Where are those who lived there? Where are those who moved them? Because the built environment dominates the visual field, it obscures the human experiences that built - and were built by - this infrastructure. The image also recalls the clearly established narrative of white flight, which the MWMS project hopes to complicate.

In the foreground of the photograph above, two men stand in profile on a roof. In the background is Mill Creek Valley, previously home to 20,000 African American St. Louisans, none of whom are in the photograph. In 1956, Mill Creek Valley had already been slated for clearance. Mayor Raymond Tucker and civic leader Sidney Maestre stand over vacated rowhouses that extend into the photo’s faded edges. We cannot see exactly what Tucker and Maestre are looking at, which inflates the scale of blight. If they are seeing what we are seeing, the blight is infinite.

The story of Mill Creek Valley is complicated. The NAACP endorsed its clearance. Displaced residents moved to the few and inevitably red-lined areas that weren’t holding on to restrictive covenants. Today, Mill Creek Valley is not a geographically defined area; there’s an Ikea, a highway, a mostly empty rail yard. The photo of Maestre and Tucker suggests a simpler history. It positions the men as visionary symbols of progress, the neighborhood as inhuman and inhumane. Like the photo of St. Louis’s highways weaving around and dissecting Mill Creek, this photograph presents a narrative. It is a narrative that the project will address and counter, one that does not capture the complicated story, and therefore would not be appropriate to represent the site.

The challenges posed by choosing an image to represent Mill Creek Valley bring to the surface a project-level inquiry: which images should represent the work of the Material World of Modern Segregation Initiative? Any individual photograph proves tricky, since the project seeks to bring places out of the temporal restrictions photography necessarily places them in. To counter this challenge, we should choose a series of photographs to represent each site. Together, they show decline, growth, and people in various and complex relationships with each other and their surroundings. Images should be provocative, and they should resist stable interpretations. The photos should open the viewer to the complexity of the project sites and the tangled narratives of racialized space.

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