Driving down Interstate 70, headed west toward St. Louis, Jesse Vogler looked out the window and was shocked to see a giant mound rising from the earth. Excited, he mistook a large landfill for The Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, which preserves the remains of a prehistoric civilization.
That was 20 years ago. Now an assistant professor of design at Washington University, Vogler looks back at that moment as one of the first experiences to develop his interest in The American Bottom, the name some gave to the flood plain of East St. Louis and the surrounding landscape.
On Friday, he’ll launch a website titled “The American Bottom” that combines landscape photography, historical research and Google Maps that will allow users to learn about the area Vogler once thought was something else.
“It’s something that’s really somewhat embarrassing,” Vogler said of his mistake in the mid-1990s. “But I also take pleasure in this fact that I mistook and sort of misread this landscape so completely in sort of my 20-year-old naïve state.”
Vogler took that experience of “misreading the landscape” and used it as inspiration for the collaborative multi-media project, which attempts to gather local histories about changing economies and industries and show the effect these human elements have on the geography and natural environment of Metro East. It makes a very specific claim about the region.
“Essentially the story of St. Louis can’t be told without telling the story of the flood plains on the east side of the river,” Vogler said.
The locations range from The Cahokia Canal to Horseshoe Lake, Sauget to Wann River. Although the language surrounding the project may seem complex, the idea isn’t. The website was launched with the goal of answering one question: How has a human presence in the area changed the Metro East landscape over time?
According to Vogler, The American Bottom was a colloquial term for the region just east of the Mississippi River, much as Chesapeake Bay refers to a specific geography along the Mid Atlantic. The location is a floodplain bordered by the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers to the North, the confluence of the Kaskaskia River and the Mississippi to the south, the Illinois bluffs to the east and the Mississippi on the west. Historically, the area was thought of as a land of inexhaustible soil fertility and high farm yield.
Vogler said he hopes the website helps highlight the identity of the region as a coherent place.
“The project is an attempt to find the best way of discovering or uncovering the landscape and geographic boundaries,” he said.
Vogler developed the idea with his friend Matthew Fluharty, executive director of Art of the Rural, an organization dedicated to preserving and furthering rural art. The two spent many months out walking around the flood plain trying to find historical points and drawing out patterns of architecture and land formations. Together they met with local institutions and individuals, scaled the levees and wandered wetlands, traveling to many nooks and crannies in search of what gives The American Bottom geographic and historical coherence.
Along with historic images and Google Maps imagery, the site features photographs by Jennifer Colten, who has been documenting the area for more than two decades. Her images often capture the intersection of man-made elements and nature.
Colten said the project was a natural fit for her aesthetic as she’s interested in things that are both “beautiful and destructed.”
“Nature will really, literally march on in spite of us,” she said. “And I find that a very to be a really hopeful thing.”
Colten, a Boston native, shot images [link] that document the interaction of wetlands and oil refineries, the Mississippi and coal waste, trucking and the broad plains of southern Illinois. The new endeavor helped renew her love of the region and its surroundings.
“It’s beautiful and it’s destructed, these are the kinds of things that I’m looking for,” she said.
Photographs from several of the participants can be found on the site.
Vogler hired another Washington University professor, and local design firm founder, Jonathan Hanahan to build the project’s public face, a website with multiple functions. They wanted the site to reflect the expansive and multimedia nature of the project so they built the site with multiple features. The site acts as a map, visual archive and a set of “itineraries” — maps that people can explore online while reading about the area Hanahan hopes his design gives people the impression/sensation they are physically present at various locations in the area.
He also wanted to build a website that could be used to plan and map visits to various locations, while also providing a virtual tour to people outside the region. So, he built a platform that integrates Colten’s imagery, Google Maps, and text descriptions of locations and relevant history. He said using Google’s open source coding and trusting the ubiquity of the internet giant’s search capabilities provided a backbone for the site while allowing for creative freedom.
“A huge percentage of our users already have that built into their brains so there’s no point in us trying to reestablish that,” said Hanahan, “and what that allows us to do is distort in ways that create new experiences.”
The designer integrated the map functionality with writing by various intellectuals to create suggested journeys through The American Bottom called “itineraries.” This writing suggests various routes and organizational strategies for visiting different locations throughout the area.
These itineraries range from Gail Fritz and Angela Miller’s investigation of the relationship between land-use and agriculture in the area to Charles Lumpkin’s writing on the race riot of 1917 in East St. Louis and the influence of race on the area’s appearance.
An in-process version of the The American Bottom website will go public Friday.