As a newcomer to Butte, Mont., and as a grassroots mapper, I've learned a lot about a neighborhood's memories of itself, and the role that mapping can play in reasserting a human-scale sense of place. My experience here has since led to a collaboration between Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science, of which I'm a founding member, and the National Affordable Housing Network, which is engaged in redevelopment in Centerville.
While mining still occurs in Butte, it's no longer central to the city's economic life. But it is, and will remain, the process that has most shaped the landscape. The future of this landscape has generated a conflict in identity between history and toxicity, cleanup and preservation. Butte has less than half the population it had during its boom years, but the population has stabilized, and more than 30,000 people still call it home. Very often, their memories of how people lived and worked with the landscape are often dwarfed by post-mining battles over controlling, preserving or changing the physical shape of Butte and involve local, state and federal agencies with overlapping concerns.
The human element in these battles is often lost through the desire for institutionally measurable quantitative outcomes that can be evaluated at a distance. A community's desired outcomes aren't easily measured, and get sidelined during bureaucratic processes because they will not lead to measurable institutional outcomes comparable with other sites.
CENTERVILLE The built environment of Butte is a result of workers arriving to inhabit temporary camps which later became neighborhoods around expanding mine sites on Butte's North hill. Many of the city's ethnic neighborhoods such as Meaderville and Mcqueen were consumed in the process of mining the hill, but the Centerville neighborhood has prevailed. Centerville, which is 6,000-feet up and within miles of the continental divide, looks out across Butte, Summit Valley, and the Rockies. Mountains 30 miles away are visible on a clear day. Historically, buildings in Centerville were built on skids so they could be moved around the expanding mineworks. Most of these mobile structures are now 75-125 years old, haven't been moved since the end of WWII, and most have foundations. Yet until residents successfully lobbied the city to change the zoning, Centerville was "trailer park" zoning, and ineligible for Housing and Urban Development funding.
The Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science has been supporting a grassroots campaign of redevelopment in Centerville that now involves coordinated efforts from HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development), the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) self-help program, Habitat for Humanity, and the National Affordable Housing Network through mapping.
At the time, I didn't know that Mary Carol Wohlman, Gene's wife, was one of the leading Centervillians campaigning to change Centerville's zoning. Mary Carol grew up in Centerville and has lived there most of her life.
However, keeping Centerville residents in control of these processes is not easy. The layers of bureaucratic control and intimidating technocratic processes in the overlap between the United States' largest Superfund site and its largest Historic Landmark District are legion. In a politically tense environment, it's sometimes important to formulate complete thoughts in private, before encountering the politics of the larger system. Neighborhood starts with neighbors, not announcements to the world.
DEFINING A NOTION OF PLACE
Centervillians had never had a neighborhood-specific map before, and multiple copies were requested for private spaces. Unlike our digital maps, Centerville's annotated paper maps aren't in our online archive. They don't reach beyond their location and remain semi-private to the neighborhood, on view at the volunteer fire department and the subject of discussion within Centerville. I myself haven't been particularly involved in data interpretation or coordination, as the maps are the community's tool. While residents are excited to see the new images we've collected of their neighborhood changes, they want paper copies. Their annotations will be similarly private, allowing them to develop their strategies for redevelopment among themselves.
There's still lot of untapped value on the analog side of the digital divide, and low-tech, situated processes with community at the center can trump new technology and the place-less data access of the Internet.