An Alternative Atlas for St. Louis

Sites of Wounding / Sites of Healing is the ‘first page’ of an Alternative Atlas for St. Louis, leading to new ways of thinking, seeing, being and thus making the city through fugitive mapping. It accumulates the violent injustices (red) and liberatory memory-work (yellow) and overlays them on the changing racial composition of the city to expose the palimpsestic urban landscape of St. Louis.

While traditional atlases may claim neutrality and objectivity under a veil of geographic “truth”, alternative atlases make explicit the social conflicts, present abscences, and unequal power relationships embedded in the practices of spatial production and reproduced in cartographic visualizations. Sites of Wounding / Sites of Healing is one page of an Alternative Atlas of St. Louis, produced as the summary of a cross-disciplinary, cross-university experimental course of the same title**.

The Broken Heart of AmericaAs Walter Johnson demonstrates in this foundational book for the course, the history of St. Louis – a history that is central to the national story – is distinctly shaped by racialized colonial violence and capitalist exploitation.

However, the city’s history is also inseparable from resistance and struggle against these violent processes. Histories – including Johnson’s – are typically told as a series of temporal events that relate to one another via their position in the unceasing march of time. But those events are also related spatially, interacting with one another to produce unique places whose situated histories often corrupt linear timelines and spill over into the present. Cities are palimpsests. They are accumulations of their pasts even as they project the future.

Microclimates of Racial Meaning We also build on Geoff Ward’s work on "Microclimates of Racial Meaning" where local historical geographies engender ‘microclimates’ whose lingering legacies of racial violence and struggles for justice shape opportunity structure, collective action, and resilience.

Sites of Wounding / Sites of Healing recovers and maps aspects of St. Louis as palimpsest, a site of multiple and layered histories and meanings whose traces constitute its present character. Each map layer, each event, might be read in isolation, but these historical threads refuse to be confined to their own strata and instead force their way into the present. Sites of Wounding / Sites of Healing illustrates how the history of St. Louis consists of more than just points on a timeline or locations on a map. By collapsing both the past and future into the present, this juxtaposition of sites of racial meaning shows how inheritances of violence, oppression, and pain commingle with the ever-emergent possibilities for liberation, growth, and joy. Sites of wounding – of racial violence and injustice – appear in red and sites of healing – of memory-work and resistance – appear in yellow. The reds seep into the background, persisting and structuring the experience of the urban landscape, whereas the yellows emerge brightly, reshaping the fabric of the city. Together, the juxtaposition of sites of wounding and sites of healing through time offers a glimpse of the entangled histories that give meaning to space in St. Louis. All are overlaid on demographic maps, updated each decade beginning in 1930, that indicate the changing racial composition of the city as a result of white flight, redlining, and other structural and ideological forces and events. While the specific modes of extraction operating in the city – e.g., racial covenants, zoning, policing for profit – change through time, the white supremacist ideology underlying them remains the same. The result is a morphing, unbroken and incomplete timeline of racial capitalist extraction countered by acts of resistance.

Fugitive mappingLinda Samuels' work and studios explore how maps are entwined with politics and possess powerful, enduring agency. The Alt Atlas of STL is a political intervention, countering traditions of normative mapping as an act of fugitive mapping.

Normative mapping is carried out in the service of systems of power and aids in their rationalization and reproduction; fugitive mapping serves to de-mystify systems of power and inequality, including exploitative processes of (racial) capitalist extraction and the narratives that sustain them. Fugitive mapping is a rejection of the accepted maps, and thus of the accepted social order. It is always a mapping towards freedom  – mapping as a recasting of dominant representations of space, history, and their relations to broader social arrangements – that evokes both a future and futures otherwise.By drawing attention to those places and experiences that are usually ‘left off the map’, Sites of Wounding / Sites of Healing documents the violent injustices and liberatory memory-work that have wounded and healed – and continue to wound and heal – the broken yet still beating heart of America. ‍

Sites of Wounding / Sites of Healing, finally, is itself a production of its own time, of its own perspectives, and with its own inclusions, exclusions, corrections, and errors. It may appear to be closed-ended, but it is instead meant to be a starting point, a ‘first page’ of an Alternative Atlas for St. Louis, leading to further fugitive mapping and ultimately new ways of thinking, seeing, being, and thus making, the city.


Map Credit: Bomin Kim
Text Credit: Jakob Hanschu

The Alternative Atlas: STL course and map were supported in part by a Washington University in St. Louis Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity & Equity (CRE2) Graduate Rotating Studio grant. The course was co-taught in 2020 by:
Walter JohnsonHistory and African and African American Studies, Harvard University Linda C. SamuelsUrban Design and Architecture, Washington University in St. LouisGeoff WardAfrican and African American Studies, Washington University in St. Louis

**This map is not intended to be comprehensive of every 'wound' and 'heal' in the City of St. Louis. Events shown are taken from the work of the original Alt Atlas course and we hope the map fuels conversations and collaborations that lead to a fuller account of the wounding and commitment to healing in our community.