Interactive Crown Street is a project by Professor Elihu Rubin in conjunction with the Instructional Technology Group at Yale
Architecture, Urbanism, and American Studies
Interactive Crown Street is an ongoing research and pedagogical project that aims to produce an interactive, multimedia, web-based armature for telling stories related to the making and meaning of urban spaces, using Crown Street as a demonstration. Combining public scholarship (bringing university-based research to a broader audience) and digital humanities, Interactive Crown Street seeks to amplify Yale’s educational mission and to enrich faculty and student engagement with New Haven.
From the Italianate mansions characteristic of New Haven’s high tide as a mercantile power to the monumental parking garages of the urban renewal period, the built environment of Crown Street is a rich source for historians interested in the conflicting forces that have contributed to urban change over the past two centuries. Today, Crown Street is a vital and diverse place with several distinct nodes of activity, including a popular entertainment zone that floods with revelers on Friday and Saturday nights. There are many stories about the city’s social and physical environment that may be told through the prism of Crown Street. Begun as a pedagogical experiment, Interactive Crown Street seeks to engage those narratives by constructing a series of studies that describe the street’s development over time and its current conditions. Carried out as a physical installation (we occupied an unused storefront in May 2013 and have plans to do so again in 2014) as well as a web-based tool, these reports serve as a framework to be fleshed out by local participants who contribute their own observations, narratives, and interpretations. In this way, Interactive Crown Street models urban research as a tool to cultivate public conversations about the making and meaning of places.
Uniting Teaching and Scholarship
Interactive Crown Street began as a pedagogical strategy to introduce my students to an array of urban research and representational techniques and to heighten their awareness and appreciation for New Haven. This project has also provided a forum to explore my own scholarly interests in the history and theory of urban representations.
Students in my graduate seminar at the Yale School of Architecture, “Urban Research and Representation” (ARCH 4219) conduct a series of fieldwork assignments that utilize photography, video, maps and diagrams, observation, wandering, and written reflection, both prosaic and poetical. Historical research methods involve reconstructing a physical and social history with Sanborn fire insurance maps, city directories (they provide the names and, often, professions of occupants), archival photographs, individual accounts, urban planning reports, and prior investigative efforts, among other sources. These visual and textual narratives of the street furnish the armature for new contributions from a wide group of participants.
Urban research has too frequently sought to simplify the city, to reduce it to an abstraction and to flatten-out its physical and social nuances—a tactic that has sometimes led to disastrous proposals. Imagine, then, interactive techniques that embrace, not deny, the complex and diverse meanings of the city. The goal is to render the street, for example, as a plural and not a singular place, one that is shared as well as contested. Interactive Crown Street questions the authoritative narratives favored by urban planners and professional historians in favor of a collaborative and unfinished rendering of place.
I have begun to share this endeavor with my professional colleagues. I gave a talk in Toronto to the Society of American City and Regional Planning History (Oct. 2013) called “Interactive Crown Street: Participatory Methods in Planning History” that described the goals, methods, and work to date. I’ll deliver another paper in April 2014 at the annual conference of the Society of Architectural Historians. This talk is called “Palimpsest and Memory: Rethinking the Architectural Tour” and suggests a user-generated tour of Crown Street that calls attention to multiple and sometimes divergent perspectives. I have enjoyed speaking about the project and would be happy to make additional presentations.
Impact Beyond Yale
Interactive Crown Street goals include: teaching research and representational techniques, exposing students to New Haven’s built and social environments, and sharing the work with publics outside of Yale. We hope to make archival material (from Yale and the New Haven Museum) as well as original work available to students, scholars, and other interested audiences. As an example of multiple-authored, digital, and public scholarship, I hope the project encourages future researchers at Yale and beyond.
The project advocates architectural and urban research as civic engagement and promotes the built environment as an integral part of storytelling about the pasts and futures of places. Public installations have been crucial to the task and they anticipate digital interactivity. In 2012, my students and I hosted a table at the May Day festival on the New Haven Green and last year our “pop-up” urban field office was covered by the New Haven Independent, which increased visitation. This Spring I am collaborating with two teachers at Coop High School—it is located in a new building at the corner of College and Crown Streets—to develop short assignments for their students will contribute to the project. In all of these ways, I see Interactive Crown Street playing a positive role in Yale’s ever-evolving relationship with New Haven and amplifying the University’s educational mission.
Directions say: “Fill in places, memories, stories, ideas, and free associations”
There is nothing more interactive than physical presence. For a long weekend last May, a handful of students and I installed Interactive Crown Street at 198 College Street and opened the doors to passersby to view and contribute to our studies. The centerpiece of the exhibit—the “Crown Street Collective Memory Palimpsest”—invited participants to physically inscribe place-names, prior uses, commentaries, anecdotes, itineraries, and commentary (sometimes dialectical) on a large and schematic image of Crown Street. Our aim is to deliver a web-based and, ultimately, mobile tool to enable this kind of interactive storytelling. The digital application could mimic the physical experience of the palimpsest, with participants adding their own data points to a map. Prior studies (photo/video, archival maps, building histories, interpretive diagrams, etc.) will appear as layers that could be tuned in and out with varying opacities.
I am planning a physical installation of Interactive Crown Street for the first days of May 2014 in a Crown Street storefront or second-story space. Participants will be able to use a mobile device to facilitate fieldwork.
Interactive Crown Street represents an innovative pedagogical program; it is a public humanities project that seeks to link Yale students to the New Haven community and vice versa. The project itself is a model of the functions and benefits of geospatial scholarship.
This site is a working prototype for a content-rich, crowd-sourced, geospatially-oriented and -aware tool. Without the digital curation of this crowd-sourced content, the information rooted to this specific time and place would be lost. The project reinforces Yale’s mission to preserve and disseminate knowledge, and facilitates the construction of new insights using an emerging technological interface.