Interview with Jonathan Karp: Here Jonathan discusses his research on the Eads Bridge, a site typically understood as connecting segregated spaces (St. Louis City and East St. Louis) but not one of segregation itself.
How did you choose your site? What intrigued you about this particular place?
As a student at WU I took a course with Heidi Kolk and Michael Allen. In our final project we were asked to choose a site and design a memorial. I knew that in the aftermath of the 1917 race massacre in East St. Louis many people fled across the Eads Bridge. I looked more into the bridge and found that material for the bridge came from a Civil War ship that had been torpedoed, and eleven people died building the bridge. The Eads Bridge is an overlooked history of trauma. I was interested in the theoretical questions that come up in studying a bridge, rather than the places it connects.
What kinds of questions are you asking about the site, and how are those questions shaping your exploration of the place?
What does the bridge represent? Can I find cases where the bridge is the focal point? What does the bridge represent in people’s imagination? How did thinking about the bridge and the act of crossing the river evolve over time and along patterns of segregation and discrimination in St. Louis? One difficulty in studying the site is finding out people’s views about the bridge itself. At the time it was built it was in the newspapers and featured in other ways, but over time the focal point became what was on either side of the bridge.
What challenges are you encountering with site-based study?
One challenge was scale. I could write about anything over its long history, so how to narrow down? And it’s in constant use, defined by motion and allows for transience. People don’t spend much time on it as a bridge. It’s transitional, and there isn’t a lot of time for things to happen there. And unlike other sites, where you can see segregation and its histories (like the built landscape), it’s not as though some people were walking on one side of the bridge and others across it. So, it’s a theoretical challenge, and, materially, it is difficult to find specific cases and sources.
What were your expectations about the project and site, and what have you found that surprised or even shocked you, and forced you to revise those expectations?
I thought the focus would be on the 1917 race riot, but it’s been flipped. I’m putting two events against each other – the 1917 race massacre and the bridge closure of 1987, both on July 4th weekends. In 1987 the police closed the bridge during the Veiled Prophet Fair due to reports of crime the previous year (they closed the bridge every day from 3pm until early morning). Purportedly to prevent crime, the racism was transparent. I thought I’d spend a lot of time on the 1917 event, then look at 1987 as a counterpoint and trace themes connecting them over time. But I found 1987 really fascinating, and it took much of my time and energy to tease out that moment. So now my argument is that to understand 1987 you must know about the 1917 riot, rather than arguing the opposite and moving from 1917 forward in time.
How has collaboration played a part in your research process?
Collaboration has been very helpful. Josh Aiken, a good friend from our time at Washington University, also lives in Massachusetts. It has been very helpful to pass drafts between us. You spend a lot of time in the archives, and it’s easy to get lost in them. When you read your draft, it makes sense to you but it might not make sense to others who have not been so deeply involved. So having that feedback is valuable. I’m looking forward to later collaborations, and to see how others are thinking about ways in which the histories of sites make up their presents.
How do you plan to incorporate visual content into the publication?
I’ve found fascinating photos that I’m excited to use, like the one accompanying my project description on the website. It is striking: it shows the sign about the closure, the bridge, the cracked sidewalk with weeds coming through, and a group of four black kids getting ready to cross the bridge to the fair. The caption says “returning back” – it is a powerful photo. I found another one of black East St. Louisans crossing the bridge after the 1917 riot. Putting the two into conversation is a fraught mental exercise but revealing – it speaks to the same historical and material forces that continue to shape our lives. It is provocative beyond the scope of the essay.
How do you see your research going beyond an academic contribution?
This year is the centennial of the 1917 massacre. There have been efforts this year – and this is recent – to memorialize lives and homes that were lost at that time. I see my work engaging with that, and extending the sites that are involved in that project, and this also means looking at St. Louis where the refuges from the riot ended up. I think the meaning of these sites are up for grabs in and outside academia. You could focus on the building of the bridge, the tornado that hit it, fights over ownership, the extension of the Metrolink through it, but you can also tell a story that involves racial violence and racism and how this shapes the interrelated fates of East St. Louis and St. Louis – and to do so you need 1917 and 1987, and 1987 is largely forgotten. So it’s really important for this story to be in the public sphere.
*Black East St. Louisans attempt to cross the Eads Bridge during the 1987 Veiled Prophet Fair. “4 Jul 1987, Page 5 - St. Louis Post-Dispatch at Newspapers.com.” Newspapers.com. Accessed January 16, 2017 http://www.newspapers.com/image/142332505/?terms=ea