City Sites

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http://artsweb.bham.ac.uk/citysites

Reviewed: December 31, 2003
Mounted: January 12, 2004
By William E. Doody

Introduction:City Sites Home Part of a larger project, funded by a generous six-year grant, the City Sites website is an effort to “explore the meanings and forms of American urbanism in New York and Chicago in the modern period.”(1) The finished product is an impressive collection of visual images, essays, and audio enhancements, put together by a team of international scholars based in the United Kingdom. The website is an excellent resource for established historians as well as for students and their teachers. The site is easy to navigate, and the user can determine for himself the level of detail he wishes to pursue. Thus, even the casual “web surfer” can find something of interest here. We should definitely hope that although the grant funding for the project will end with the close of 2003, the City Sites web project and the larger 3 Cities project will continue in the future. The 3 Cities project is an even more ambitious endeavor to profile literary and visual representations of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles in an “electronic book.”

Scope / Content: The apparent goal of the creators of this site and the mission of the overall 3cities project is to reach a universal audience of all those interested in and affected by the urban landscape. To this end, they have combined a variety of resources and approaches to make their site appealing to nearly any visitor. The purpose of the City Sites site in particular is to focus in a comparative and complimentary fashion on the two great urban areas of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: New York and Chicago. Even the casual visitor can easily see that this purpose is accomplished in a striking fashion. Simply from a visual aspect, the perception of the two cities is enhanced by the quantity and quality of the presentation. The in-depth essays on significant aspects of each city are perceptive and informative. Among the best essays are those on “The Skyline” and “Times Square” for New York City and “Chicago Gateways” and the “White City” (about the 1893 Columbian Exposition grounds) for the Chicago section. Architecture PathwayWhat may be the most impressive contribution are the comparative “Pathways” essays which span the boundaries of the urban areas to encompass a broader discussion of significant themes relating to the urban experience of the period. These four essays, on “Architecture,” “Leisure,” “Race,” and “Space” are each subdivided into several sections which offer comparative views of the urban landscape – both physical and intellectual. While the authors do not necessarily present a diversity of viewpoints, the visitor can still reach his own conclusions from the information being presented. The goal of the site is much more to provide the information to the scholarly community than it is to present a certain ideological viewpoint. Needless to say, the selections are well-written, presented in an appealing fashion, and are free from errors. The “scope and content” of the site are discussed in a detailed and comprehensive essay to be found at the “Overview” link on the City Sites homepage.

Authority / Bias: As noted above, the creators of the site are not interested in propagating a certain ideological or political point of view. Instead, their objective is to bring together scholars and other interested individuals to create an intellectual discussion about the urban landscape of the modern era, 1870-1930. The contributors to this site are some of the leading urban studies scholars from both sides of the Atlantic. Extensive biographical information about each is provided on the site itself, and each author is identified with his or her essay. The site is hosted through the University of Birmingham and the University of Birmingham Press. Interestingly, as this project has taken the form of an “e-book,” it is issued its own publication data – including an ISBN. Contact information is not directly available without a certain degree of searching, although there is a “feedback” form that can be used for sending comments to the editors.

Timeliness / Permanence: The site was launched in 2000, and while detailed dates are not provided, it does not appear to have been significantly revised since that time, although a major revision would probably not have been needed. The broader 3 Cities site was last updated in January 2003. While there are a few pictures that do not appear, each of the links functions properly and there are no “dead-ends” as one navigates through the site. As it is hosted through a significant university, one would expect City Sites to have a long lifespan. However, as noted, 2003 is the final year of the project’s public funding. We must hope that the Universities of Birmingham and Nottingham demonstrate a willingness to maintain the site available through their websites.

Value Added Features:Context New York This category illustrates the few significant drawbacks to be found in the City Sites project. The site does not include a search feature, and there is no index, per se. However, the navigation of the site is easy enough that such features are not all that necessary for most visitors. Similarly, there is no “links” page for visitors to look for additional information. The site does contain a very appealing “Contexts” section which provides a “virtual tour” of New York and Chicago. Combining brief descriptions, an interactive map, and recent photographs of each city, these “Contexts” features give the visitor an effective introduction to each city. Within each essay, a “clickable” table of contents makes navigation and selective reading easy. Several of the essays, for example John Walsh’s study of New York City’s Flatiron Building, feature multimedia enhancements. Each essay also includes a brief abstract. Bibliographical information can be easily accessed by clicking on a citation in the text, leading to the full information in a “pop-up” window.

Technical Aspects: The City Sites webpage is constructed in a very user-friendly frames layout which makes navigation of the site extremely simple. A helpful “Navigation” link provides the first-time visitor with a description of each of the links and the information to be found at each one. Functional arrows and clickable maps and lists are additional features which improve the site’s ease of use. A “Configuration” feature will run an automatic system check to ensure compatibility of the site’s features with the user’s browser and system setup. Most links open in new windows. Thus, although not mentioned in the “Configuration” check, visitors may need to turn-off any “pop-up” controls while using the site – especially if they wish to have the easy access to bibliographical data mentioned earlier. Information from the site prints easily and conforms to most printer setups – I made a hard copy of the extensive bibliography for my own files without any problem whatsoever. One possible drawback is the size of many of the pages and the resulting slow connection speed. Visitors without a broadband or similar internet connection will notice a definite tardiness in the opening of many of the pages – especially those which contain the most visual images.

Aesthetics / Visuals: This is one of the definite strengths of the City Sites project. Nearly every one of the essays within the site is enhanced by images from the period under study. Whether post cards, photographs, or early movies, the images help the reader to visualize and better understand the themes under discussion in the essays. Additionally, the authors effectively weave the images into their narrative to incorporate the visual image into the overall context of the essay. Technical aspects of the visual appearance of the site are all appropriate – readability, layout, and overall appearance are all excellent.

Interpretation of Materials: The developers of the site have done an excellent job creating a finished product which will appeal to a variety of audiences. The detailed and sophisticated essays are written by several distinguished scholars and provide a comprehensive study of various aspects of the New York and Chicago landscapes. Similarly, the “Pathways” articles examine various issues and themes from a comparative and even more interdisciplinary perspective. Within both categories of essays, primary and secondary sources are used extensively and are cited appropriately. As mentioned before, by simply clicking on a citation, complete bibliographic information appears in a “pop-up” window. At the same time, a “jargon-free” environment is available in the “Contexts” section which provides non-academic audiences with a virtual tour of each city. Interactive MapThe interactive map allows visitors to see contemporary images of various sites in each city and to read brief historical descriptions of those locations. Introductory material, both on the City Sites website and on the 3Cities project site describe the process of creating the finished product and give excerpts from some of the project reviews. The authors do not specify, however, if these reviews were completed as part of a formal peer review process. Furthermore, aside from the quite extensive bibliography, there are no “links for further information” or similar sections on the website. And, while the site does not attempt to steer readers to a specific conclusion, but rather provide them with information and analysis, there is no real effort made to help visitors form a viewpoint concerning the themes of the site.

Primary Sources: This site uses a variety of primary sources both as illustrations and as evidence to support analysis. However, the primary sources are not specifically identified as such and are not set apart in any way in the overall bibliography for the project. Similarly, while the “Credits” section provides an extensive list of individuals and groups which gave permission for original materials to be included in the City Sites website, there is little information as to the actual location of many of the items. While the focus of the site is to create a better understanding of visual and literary representations of the urban landscape, it seems odd that diaries, letters, and the like would not play a role in discussing the perspective of individuals who lived during the formative years of those same landscapes. Unfortunately, there is no search feature available on the site. Thus, one must either skim page by page through the various links or scan the lengthy bibliography to find a particular item.

Education: There are few, if any, curriculum resources specifically included in the site. However, the creative instructor could certainly design a lesson plan which would incorporate the City Sites website into his or her class activity. While the sophisticated level of the individual essays would be beyond that of most high school students, college students could definitely be called on to respond to the authors’ conclusions. High-achieving secondary students could most likely deal effectively with the “Pathways” essays. Regardless of achievement level, high school and even middle school students would benefit from exploring the virtual tours of the two cities. I will definitely seek to incorporate this web project into my lessons next year when I teach units on the Gilded Age, the Rise of Cities, and the Progressive Era. Students will already be familiar with Jacob Riis and similar authors; this site provides a greater opportunity to appreciate the environment about which Riis and his contemporaries wrote. Still, the authors could do more to tailor their site to the needs of educators.

Community of Interest: As part of the larger 3 Cities project, the City Sites website reflects the specific desire of the organizers to create a “community of interest” and to foster greater interest in diverse representations of the urban landscape. To this end, the developers have held a series of international conferences, have organized several graduate seminars at various universities, and have published a number of volumes. However, since the majority of contributors and developers are located in England and Europe, their direct connection with the contemporary New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles (the “third” city of the 3 Cities project) landscapes seems remote.

Overall Impression:Chicago Contexts Overall, this is an impressive site which has provided scholars and curious visitors alike with an excellent resource for improving our understanding of the urban landscape as perceived through visions of New York City and Chicago. Moving urban history beyond a mere preoccupation with streets and buildings to develop a better appreciation for the city and its inhabitants by exploring the creative visions of both great cities, the creators of the site have created a framework through which historians can more fully understand the modern era in American history and the rise of the urban center within that context. The developers of City Sites should be congratulated on their accomplishments.

Endnotes

1. “Overview” of CitySites project at http://artsweb.bham.ac.uk/citysites/. Accessed 31 December 2003. (return to text)

Point Assessment for City Sites
(more information on PHRC's rating system is available)

Basic Criteria
Scope/Content13/15
Authority/Bias11/15
Permanence and Timeliness12/15
Value Added Features10/15
Technical Aspects12/15
Aesthetics/Clarity15/15
Overall Impression8/10

Public History Specific Criteria
Interpretation of Materials36/40
Primary Source Documents12/20
Education5/20
Promotion of a Community of Interest18/20

Total: 152 points -- 4 Earths

William Doody (WilliamEDoody@aol.com) teaches Twentieth Century American History and Modern World History in the Indiana Area School District in Indiana, Pennsylvania. He holds a Master of Arts in Teaching degree from the University of Pittsburgh and is a candidate for the MA in History at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

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