Puget Sound Assistant Professor Andrew Gomez arrived at an Orientation session for first-year students this August with a tough assignment. The students had signed up for what was billed as “an immersive experience,” an opportunity to spend time learning about the food cultures of Tacoma. A historian, Andrew had the task of introducing students, most of whom are not from Tacoma, to the complex historical forces that shaped the city’s neighborhoods. To do so, he had an ace in his back pocket, or maybe a better description is a link up his sleeve.
It was a digital history project, led by fellow historian Rob Nelson ’95, capable of laying bare right before students’ eyes the prejudices and discriminatory practices that have shaped not only Tacoma’s fortunes but the trajectories of cities like it across the country. At the project’s core is a series of federal government-produced maps and paperwork from the 1930s and ’40s that Rob and his team have digitized.
Andrew began with a neighborhood labeled tract A2 on a map of Tacoma produced in December 1937 by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, or HOLC, a New Deal-era corporation set up in 1933 to stem the tide of home foreclosures during the Great Depression. As part of its work, the HOLC produced maps to rate the credit worthiness of neighborhoods in cities across the country.
Tract A2, which borders the northern edge of campus, is colored green, indicating it has the highest grade, “A.” A companion form to the map explains the reasons for the rating. It details, for example, rising home prices and residents’ income levels. On a line following the prompt “Trend of desirability next 10–15 yrs,” someone has typed “upward.” A section called “Clarifying remarks” at the bottom includes this line: “The location of the College of Puget Sound has definitely added to the attractiveness of the area.” Only 5% of Tacoma’s neighborhoods earned the coveted A grade.
Andrew likes beginning with this tract because he wants his students to understand that at the university, they are situated in a place of privilege. It was the most desirable location in the city when the map was produced, he says. “And one of the points of desirability is the College of Puget Sound,” he says. “So you get to see the long arc of how our university and our neighborhood, the North End, has been situated. And then you compare that to other neighborhoods in the South End and on the East Side that have been historically marginalized.”
One of these other neighborhoods was the go-to tract for Rob Nelson when, in 2018, he came to Puget Sound to talk to history majors about his work as director of the Digital Scholarship Lab at the University of Richmond, in Virginia. Digital, in that its projects are produced and consumed via computer. Scholarship, because its projects generate new knowledge. And Lab, because it experiments to find the best way to share what it’s generating. In his talk, he zoomed in on D1, a neighborhood that lies about a 10-minute bike ride northwest of campus.