Introducing The American Bottom Project

East St. Louis, at the base of a Cargill elevator and overlook; photograph by Jesse Vogler

[We are grateful that the American Bottom project has received a Divided City grant from the Center for the Humanities in Arts & Sciences, the Sam Fox School’s College of Architecture, Graduate School of Architecture & Urban Design, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. This generous grant will provide for an exhibition in the American Bottom and for continued engagement and publications — along with an interactive website on the American Bottom — which can be found at http://theamericanbottom.org/.  

We are also grateful to curator Nancy Zastudil and Bill Gilbert of the University of New Mexico Art and Ecology program for supporting an exhibition of photographs from the American Bottom Archive at the Central Features gallery.] 

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Few regions in the United States exhibit a social and spatial fragmentation as extreme as that of the vast flood plains of the East St Louis region. As a coherent geographic interval stretching from the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers down to the confluence with the Kaskaskia River, this flood plain–known to geographers and anthropologists as The American Bottom–is site to the social and spatial aspirations of pre-contact Native Americans, 19th century industrial expansion, 20th century infrastructural consolidation, and 21st century ecological precocity. Yet this is a region defined less by its inherent ecological and geographical continuities and more by the industrial patterns that have effectively fractured this region into closed communities of extraction, production, and displacement.

The American Bottom is a landscape of interruptions and strange adjacencies – but also a living landscape, where sites of the familiar and the extraordinary continue to shape the social and spatial processes of the present. This project — a collaboration facilitated by Middle Landscape and The Institute of Marking and Measuring, with The Center for Land Use Interpretation, Preservation Research Office, and the Husbandmen design group — seeks to tell a political, spatial, social, and ecological history of The American Bottom by focusing on the cultural landscapes of this region.

One only needs to a run a finger down the length of the Mississippi to begin to uncover the complexity and variousness of this story. Alton was a flashpoint in the abolitionist movement (when the eastern banks of the river meant the difference between freedom and enslavement), the site of the final Lincoln-Douglas debate, and also the birthplace of both Miles Davis and James Earl Ray. A long red line on the ConAgra grain silos mark the height of the 1993 flood that submerged blocks of the city.

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Holding grounds in National City for Interstate 64 renovations, November 2013; photograph by Matthew Fluharty

Moving south, we find the highest cluster of industrial suburbs in the country: a few include Wood River (built by Standard Oil), Alorton (formerly named Alcoa), Granite City (US Steel), and Sauget (formerly named Monsanto). While these company towns occur in great number, this region also features a number of municipalities that were dis-incorporated and subsequently razed when industrial owners withdrew. This appears most forcefully in National City, the former home of the National Stockyards; at its peak, this was the site of the largest hog processing facility in the world. All that remains now of National City is the National Stockyards Building and an abandoned playground (another spatial theme across the bottomlands).

These social and economic legacies converge in East St. Louis, perhaps the most misunderstood area in the midwest. Much of the political and economic challenges to the growth of East St. Louis are decades old, historically embodied in the most violent labor- and race-related riot of the twentieth century, in 1917, when white mobs infiltrated the city and murdered hundreds of its African American citizens. While the structural causes of the issues facing East St. Louis often go unexamined in the region, the city holds a rich cultural heritage stretching from the emergence of ragtime and jazz, through to modern architecture and innovative community projects sparking new forms of engagement.

As our finger might progress south, we find a transition from rural to urban already underscored by the rural diaspora who populated, and built, the industries and municipalities of places like East St. Louis. These connections stretch across cultures, geographies, and centuries. For instance, our finger might trace a line from Brooklyn, the first African American incorporated town in the U.S., to the Cahokia Mounds, once a city of 40,000 residents and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We might trace a line from the labyrinthine man-made cave system of the Rock City Business Complex (housing both the National Records and Archives Administration and, in the deeper cold storage facilities, the hops for Anheuser-Busch) to Valmeyer, a farming town submerged by the 1993 floods and subsequently rebuilt atop its neighboring bluffs.

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Display from the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site; photograph by Jesse Vogler

Though these points of connection and divergence can be overwhelming, we find that a whole history of America can be told here—through the beliefs, hopes, aspirations, and failures of five centuries of civilizations.  With the American Bottom project we will focus on the specificity of place and storytelling to access the what is at stake on a conceptual, historical, and local level.

Over the first twelve months of this project, we will reach out to new partners and audiences and deepen our engagement with the region, its people, and this cultural landscape. This autumn, in collaboration with the Center for Land Use Interpretation, we will create a project within their Land Use Database. Through this period we will welcome individuals and groups from the St. Louis area and beyond for guided tours and fieldwork excursions.

In concert with these collaborations, the project’s focus will turn to the production of publications, recordings, maps, and additional events to further connect disciplines, cultures, and forms of community practice. Along the way, we will regularly share online images from the American Bottom Archive alongside pertinent news, readings, and links from this river landscape.

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