When Todd Samuel Presner was “drilling down” through the history of Los Angeles, he noticed something unusual in a 1939 map of the city’s eastern part.
In contrast to the surrounding areas, the entire Boyle Heights neighborhood was colored in red.
To real estate agents and mortgage lenders, the “redlined” area was a clear signal that this was no place for upstanding citizens to purchase a home or get an easy loan.
The warning signal came from the Home Owners’ Loan Corp., a federal agency established as a New Deal benefit and charged with assessing real estate values and rescuing imperiled mortgages.
It was the agency’s opinion that Boyle Heights was filled with “subversive racial elements” — meaning Eastern European Jews, Mexicans, Japanese, Greeks, Italians and Slavs — and, therefore, hardly a fit environment in which to raise a family.
The Boyle Heights project is part of a five-year study, “Mapping Jewish Los Angeles,” which combines old-fashioned archival research with advanced digital techniques.
Presner, the project head and the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies, labels the construct alternatively as digital archaeology, information navigation, hypermedia and time-space documentation.
“We can now truly travel back in history through four-dimensional mapping techniques, which add “time” to the three dimensions of space,” he said during an interview in his small campus office, crammed with books and computer equipment.
Presner, 38, is a self-described “techie-humanist,” who, besides directing the center, is professor of Germanic Languages and Comparative Literature, and also chairs UCLA’s Digital Humanities Program.
Working with teams of scholars and students, he has polished his techniques in the Hypermedia Berlin project, which dug into the city’s 800-year history and its interaction between Germans and Jews.
As in the Berlin study, the “Mapping Jewish Los Angeles” project, which started last fall, begins with a thorough research of available documents, photos, oral histories, archives, architectural drawings and maps of the city.
Akin to a stratified archeological grid, layers of maps from different time periods are superimposed on one another, allowing viewers to “drill down” and track changes in structures, roads and landmarks at a specific site.
In the Boyle Heights study, for example, the project team is using five maps, starting in 1884, one of the earliest years in which the name first appeared on a map as a distinct community.
The next map is dated 1939 and includes the distinctive redlined coloring, followed by 1946 (before freeways) and 1986 (after freeways), and, finally, present-day Boyle Heights, as viewed through satellite imaging.
When the mapping is complete, “We will be able to mix and match the past and the present by superimposing, for example, the original Canter’s Deli on Brooklyn Avenue (now Cesar Chavez Avenue) in Boyle Heights on the current site and compare it to the one now on Fairfax Avenue,” Presner said.
In future months, the project team will travel back to 1850, marking the arrival of Jacob Frankfort, a tailor and the first known Jew to settle in the rough frontier town, who was soon joined by seven other Jewish bachelors, six of them from Germany.
Subsequent explorations will focus on the lives and habitats of Jewish residents in the Fairfax, Pico-Robertson and Westwood areas.
A full-scale digital version of “Mapping Jewish LA” will be included in the exhibit “Jews in the Los Angeles Mosaic,” opening May 2013 at the Autry National Center of the American West.”
Playing key roles in the mapping project are Mary Enid Pinkerson, community affairs coordinator for the UCLA Jewish Studies Center; Kahn Research Fellow Karen Wilson, who is also the guest curator for the Autry exhibit; and David Wu, program and digital projects coordinator.
Further down the road, Presner hopes to expand his hypercity models to New York, Chicago and San Francisco, and probably to Jaffa and Tel Aviv. Jerusalem, with its almost infinite layers of history, might represent the ultimate drilling-down challenge.
Funds from the estate of Sady and Ludwig Kahn, who came as penniless Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany and made good in Los Angeles, provided the startup moneys for the mapping project and earlier endowed the directorship of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies.
Most recently, Presner and fellow researchers set their sights on catching history in the making by collecting Twitter feeds transmitted during the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt and Libya, and by Japanese citizens during the devastating tsunami in March 2011.
Egyptians sent 400,000 tweets during the uprising, of which nearly 10,000 came during the hour in which President Hosni Mubarak announced his resignation. The archive of tweets and more information about the “Mapping Jewish L.A.” project can be found online.
The UCLA Center for Jewish Studies was launched in 1994, with professor Arnold Band as the founding director, and has grown steadily under succeeding directors David N. Myers, Kenneth Reinhard and now Presner.
“One of our key goals is to apply Jewish studies to the important questions of the day. We seek to make community engagement and service, linked to a sense of social justice, defining elements of the center,” Presner said.
Currently, the center offers about 60 undergraduate and graduate Jewish Studies courses, with 1,875 students enrolled during the 2010-11 academic year.
Presner’s winter-quarter course “Between Memory and History: Interviewing Holocaust Survivors in the Digital Age” is another of the program’s innovative projects. For it, some 20 undergraduate students of varying ethnic backgrounds meet and interview survivors, then they create audio tours and digital maps of their life journeys for the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.
Students Patrick Tran and Andy Trang teamed up with survivors Richard and Engelina Billauer to create digital cultural maps pinpointing the major stations along each of the Billauers’ paths.
Richard was taken from his native Warsaw to a forced labor camp in Siberia, while Engelina started in Berlin and was sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
After the war, the two met in a displaced persons camp in northern Germany, then immigrated to Los Angeles.
The course relies on close cooperation with UCLA Hillel’s long-standing “Bearing Witness” initiative, as well as with Jewish Family Service and The 1939 Club.
One of the center’s most popular courses, “The Holocaust in Film and Literature,” is taught by Presner and has an enrollment of 351 undergraduates.
Presner estimates that more than half of the students taking the class are not Jewish, but, he believes, want to learn more about the Holocaust as a universal message addressing concepts of human rights and the struggles of minority groups.
Other courses focus on language and literature studies in Hebrew, Yiddish and German; history of Judaism; comparative and interfaith approaches to Jewish studies; Jews and cinema; and Italian Jewish history.
For the campus and general communities, the center each year organizes some 70 lectures, conferences and symposia with noted American and international scholars.