Mapping History Project: Intro & Entry #1

Maps fascinate me. Anyone who's ever used a map knows that it's basic function is to show us the geographical and spatial relationships between physical places, which provides us with useful knowledge for getting from one place to another. In today's modern world of smartphones and computers, most people interact with maps in a very different way than people have for millennia. We can type in or tell Siri our destination and starting point and then be told--without even looking at the map ourselves--how to utilize the streetscape of our world to get to our destination in the most direct route. This is useful, sure, but we miss something when we let Siri tell us the way, and that something is the very thing about maps that fascinates me most.

When we pull out a paper map or zoom out on Google Maps to view more than just where the GPS reminds us we are at that moment, we can learn so much about a place through its spatial organization. Culture, history, natural features, politics, and so much more can be learned by using maps. Maps are made by people, and the streetscape that we traverse almost every time we we look at maps today--unless we're backpacking--was designed by people. Even when backpacking, we're following a trail that has a history. Humans leave behind clues in everything we make about the context of history and culture in which those things were made, and so by looking at a map, we can learn much more than just how to get from A to B. We can travel back in time, as well.

The small table in our kitchen has a glass top, so when we moved here I placed a 1992 AAA map of Santa Cruz and Santa Clara Counties beneath it so we can look at where we've been and where we are. I often study the map when eating at the table, trying to piece together more spatial awareness of the place I live. Because it's 24 years old, it's missing some of the development that's happened since then--such as some of the housing in Gilroy.

Maps can show us how we got from the past to the present, especially when we overlay a standard map with other details, such as what happened in a particular place that might have influenced the human-built landscape, where particular demographics of people live or have lived, where the soil is most ideal for agriculture, etc. In some ways, this is what we do with our minds when we learn something new about a place. We file away that information as an overlay to the physical landscape that we have painted in our minds. When we walk down a street and notice an old tree or a vestige of history in an old storefront, we acknowledge that there is more to know about place than what can be seen at first glance. We learn new things over time about places we might have been visiting our entire lives, and once we have that knowledge, it becomes second nature to associate that place with that history. Or at least, that's how I imagine my mind keeps track of what I know and experience about places I've been.

I bring up maps because I've decided to do a blogging project about history that will weave together various snippets--photographs, old maps, quotes, historical facts, etc.--so that I can better understand the map of my life, where I live, who I come from, where I come from, and what this history can teach me. By telling and exploring my own history at the same time as I learn about the history of the places where I've lived, I also hope to better understand the connections that I have to my community.

This map project will not produce a map that you can see, but one that can be added as an overlay to the map of the world that we each have in our minds. It will zoom in on details, as well as connect them to a larger narrative. I will share what I learn as I learn it, rather than trying to organize it. I want you to discover history with me as I come across it and join me on the journey to understanding the connections. Ready?

Mapping History, Entry #1: Willow Glen
The other day as I biked from UC Santa Cruz to downtown Santa Cruz after work, I realized that despite living in San Jose for a year, I still know very little about its history. Knowing that the Santa Cruz Public Library has a Californiania section, I biked there and went directly to the aisle with books on Santa Clara County.

I went home with five books, and the idea for this project began as I started reading one of them: Santa Clara County California, published in 1887 by the Santa Clara County Board of Trade. It compiles articles about Santa Clara County's climate, society, agricultural land, and places of interest that were sent to the East Coast to try and bring more people to the area. What struck me about this book is its significant emphasis on the success of agriculture in the valley as one of the main reasons people should move to Santa Clara County. Given my own explorations into gardening since last summer in San Jose, I found myself personally connected to this aspect of the region's history.

Here is one of the quotes and images that I especially connected with:

"Upon the Los Gatos and Guadaloupe [sic] Rivers are some hundreds of acres, formerly dense willow thickets, but now in the highest state of cultivation. These lands are regarded as the most desirable in the valley. The soil is a sedimentary deposit, easily cultivated, requiring but little irrigation, and producing every variety of fruit and vegetable" (11).

Although the author doesn't include a map of the particular area he's talking about, I'm fairly certain that Willow Glen, the neighborhood where I live, is included in the area that he describes as "the most desirable in the valley." I imagine it's not a coincidence that Willow Glen is also one of--if not the most--wealthy parts of San Jose. Those who lived here at the time this book was written had an advantage agriculturally over others in the region due to the soil, and the wealth that they accumulated way back then is still evident in the Willow Glen neighborhood. Although agricultural land is not the reason any more, Willow Glen is still an incredibly desirable place to live--the neighborhoods are beautiful with tree-lined streets, well-kept yards, and older, well-maintained homes. We have a comparatively quaint "downtown" area with parades, street festivals, and all kinds of shops and restaurants. There's a strong sense of community and connection to place that I felt immediately when we first visited this neighborhood.*

 This map of Willow Glen from ~1853 is on page 15 of Old Willow Glen by Elizabeth Giarratana, published in 1978.

Green Guy and I are moving on the first of June and are incredibly lucky to have been able to find another place, even farther into the heart of Willow Glen. To know that the history of this place and its desirability can be traced back to the desirability of the soil is really fascinating to me. The fact that this neighborhood is where I finally became a gardener makes me feel even more connected to this history.

 My thriving Willow Glen garden today.

I'll save more quotes from this book for future entries that will demonstrate what I meant by agriculture being a significant topic in the history of this region. Agriculture and gardening are likely going to play a large role in this mapping project, as well, given my own family's history and the history of the three places I have lived in my life.

I welcome your thoughts and comments below, as well as suggestions for future posts!

Thanks for reading!
Green Gal

*There's a lot more that should be said about the lack of inclusion in the Willow Glen neighborhood, as well. I won't go into this too much today, but I need to acknowledge that from what I've experienced, this is a wealthier, predominantly white neighborhood surrounded by a variety of demographics, including less wealthy areas inhabited by many people of color from diverse backgrounds. We have a large homeless population living just nearby along our creeks and freeways. San Jose is a place that encompasses both wealth and poverty along stark lines, and the inequities that exist are complex and unfair. In future posts, I'll write about the ways in which food access is being addressed through urban agriculture projects, and the ways in which the region needs to prioritize safe transportation access in lower income communities. I will also examine in future posts the violent history of the missions and displacement of native people that is so often romanticized when white people write about the history of California. I'll do my best to understand and learn about these inequities--past and present--and illuminate these less pleasant aspects of history because they are central to understanding everything else about this region.


  1. What a beautiful post about the value and importance of being connected to the land and history of where we live. Thanks for sharing what you have learned about Willow Glen!


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