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Field study helps Blugolds understand relationships among history, race and place

| Judy Berthiaume

As a senior geography major at UW-Eau Claire, Zachary Fischer can easily define the term gentrification, an often-used word in his field of study.

However, he says he did not really understand its meaning until he spent time immersed in urban areas in the South as part of a 10-day geography field seminar.

“A major highlight was being exposed to social issues, such as gentrification,” Fischer says of the field study that took him to cities in Ohio and Tennessee. “It is easy to define it, but it is another thing to understand it.

“Even today, I can’t say I completely understand the impact gentrification has on individuals. However, I am now much more aware of the issues.”

Fischer, from Ashland, was among the 17 Blugolds in a geography course who traveled to Cincinnati, Ohio, and Chattanooga and Knoxville, Tennessee, to study aspects of gentrification, race and history.

“Geography is basically the study of everything in a spatial sense,” says Dr. Ryan Weichelt, an associate professor of geography who taught the field study class. “Often underappreciated are the relationships between history, race and place.”

Through visits to museums, interviews with local residents, hands-on projects, and conversations with professionals and local experts who know the history and aspirations of the cities, the students were able to better connect what they learn in their geography classrooms to the real world, Weichelt says.

As a result, they have a better understanding of everything from urban planning to history to race and technologies, all facets of the field of geography, he says.

Seeing the Southern cities through the lens of a geographer was an enlightening experience, says Shannon Rose, a senior geography and biology major from Mount Pleasant.

“As geographers, we learn about the earth humans inhabit,” says Rose, who hopes to pursue a career in conservation geography after she graduates in May. “Only living and experiencing one location, Eau Claire, does not do our discipline justice. Geographers can benefit and learn so much by traveling to new places and seeing different cultures and landscapes.

“I wanted to experience southern landscapes and cultures, and expand my knowledge of United States geography by experiencing a new place firsthand.”

Rose says she got more out of the field study than she imaged was possible.

“I was surprised at how much I learned in such a short amount of time on such a wide array of topics,” Rose says. “We learned about history, culture, gender, urban development, tourism, industry and more in 10 short days.

“Reading about something only provides you so much information. Sometimes you need to see and live something yourself to fully understand and appreciate it.”

The group began their immersion in Cincinnati, a city often referred to as the Gateway to the South.

In Cincinnati, they saw firsthand the impact of gentrification, specifically in the historic Over-the-Rhine neighborhood.

“The Over-the-Rhine neighborhood is seen as the quintessential example of gentrification,” Weichelt says. “In the early 2000s, a young unarmed black man was shot and killed by police, leading to days of riots. Through globalizing forces, officials began an expensive public-private effort to gentrify the neighborhood.

“This was done by making downtown Cincinnati more appealing to tourists but also residents, mainly young white professionals. Slowly, homes began turning over and African-American residents were forced out through higher rents. These processes are still happening there.”

To better understand that reality, Weichelt had students do a content/transect analysis of the various streets running through the neighborhoods.

“I also asked students to talk with people,” Weichelt says. “During this assignment, they actually talked to people being evicted due to high rents. This experience gave them a much more personal understanding of what gentrification is and of its impact. We could read books or watch movies, but without actually experiencing it in person, it is less powerful.”

Seeing the direct impact of gentrification on individuals was an eye-opening experience, Rose says.

“We walked the sidewalks and noted how the urban landscape changed,” Rose says. “There was a very distinct cutoff between the under-construction areas and the disinvested neighborhoods. Low-income families in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood were being kicked out of their apartments so new development could occur. They were told they could move into the renovated apartments, but the rent would be so high they could not afford to move into the same apartment.

“We witnessed this gentrification and spoke with people being removed from their apartments so the renovations could begin. It was very powerful to see firsthand.”

In Cincinnati, the class also visited the National Underground Railroad Museum, which reinforced what they already had learned about gentrification, race and history, Weichelt says.

Information shared during the museum visit helped students put into context many things they saw or heard throughout their immersion, Weichelt says.

For example, in Chattanooga the students examined urban redevelopment or, more specifically, gentrification.

“Simply put, gentrification is the process of renovating or improving areas for higher income,” Weichelt says. “Yet without historic context to the development of Chattanooga, it is hard to see controversy for the present and future. Place becomes key. Due to its presence on the Tennessee River and railroads, Chattanooga was a major center for the Civil War.”

While in Chattanooga, students met with a National Park Service historian, who pointed out areas in the city, some visible and some not, that were important to Chattanooga’s past.

The historian talked with students about the Civil War and its connections to race, the South and urban development in Chattanooga today, Weichelt says.

“The Civil War still contributes to Chattanooga’s identity through the use of memorials throughout the city and area, but also for urban development,” Weichelt says. “Similarly, the intersections of race are highlighted by present forms of gentrification, but also through other incidents.”

Visiting Civil War battle sites in Chattanooga was among the highlights of the field seminar, Rose says.

“It was helpful to be situated on the battlefield and see exactly which directions opposing troops came in from and where people retreated to,” Rose says. “It was powerful to see battles that we had read about in class come to life on the battlefield.”

Students also were in Chattanooga for the unveiling of a monument for Ed Johnson, a Chattanooga man who was lynched in 1906 on the Walnut Street Bridge.

Among the highlights of the event was seeing an actual photo of Johnson that was shared for the first time as well as the release of a new documentary about the memorial, and hearing from the artist selected to create the memorial. 

During the dedication, the mayor stated the memorial was an important reminder that Chattanooga would not run from its racial past, Weichelt says.

“As the mayor told us, it would be wrong to turn a blind eye to past racial problems, so this memorial will remind everyone what happened and help to heal the long history of racism in Tennessee,” Weichelt says. ”It is a prime example of how place can help define and understand history, but also how history can help define and understand place. Our students took all this information in.”

In addition, the group spent a day in Chattanooga with the Tennessee Valley Authority learning about TVA programs that utilize geospatial technologies and geography.

“It helped us see value in some of our coursework,” Rose says. “The TVA demonstrated how geographic technology is involved in installing power lines, which uses some of the main software and skills that we learn at the university.”

Students often wonder how the skills they learned in the classroom will equate to real-world employment, Weichelt says.

“This class did an amazing job connecting classroom material to the real world across many facets from urban planning, history, race and technologies,” Weichelt says. “It put students at ease that they have the skills to be competitive upon graduation.”

That certainly was true for her, says Rose.

In addition to the knowledge she gained during the field study, the people she met inspired her in ways that have her more excited than ever about her future career, Rose says.

“We were surrounded by people who are passionate about their jobs and what they are doing,” Rose says. “It makes me want to be as passionate and knowledgeable as these people in my work.

Fischer says the immersion also has him thinking a bit differently about his own future.

“It has me thinking about my place in the world and what role I have in it,” says Fischer, who hopes to find a job after he graduates in May that has a strong cartography component. “It was easy to think about my future in terms of job, location and salary. But now I am thinking less about myself and more about how I can aid others using the knowledge I’ve gained at UW-Eau Claire.”

Photo caption: Geography students spent 10 days studying urban development in cities in Ohio and Tennessee.