Neighborhood Historical Research: Some Initial Thoughts on a Grand Forks Micro-History

The intersection of 2nd Avenue North and North 9th Street in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Photo from June 12, 2013.

The intersection of 2nd Avenue North and North 9th Street in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Photo from June 12, 2013.

Last week I had some historic preservation detail that took me up to Grand Forks, North Dakota, this along the Red River of the North which in turn is within the Hudson Bay watershed. While I tended to one project, I also found a bit of down time to engage another project.

Some months ago friends Bill Caraher and Bret Weber (professors at one of my — ahem — alma maters, this the University of North Dakota) asked if I would be interested in making a contribution to their Neighborhood History series in Grand Forks. Even before Caraher finished the sentence, I remember saying, “Yes, yes. I’ll do it. I would love to.” So after paying my research location a second visit, I started thinking about how I would outline my research area. The primary area concerns 824 2nd Avenue North, and this falls just a few blocks beyond the boundaries of the Grand Forks downtown historic district.

During the actual field work visit, I not only took photos of this primary area of focus, but I also decided it would be good to saunter around the entire area. So I walked up and down the street a few times and then around the block, photographing each structure and taking in a lot of the overgrown foliage. The northwest side of this block has gone really green (perhaps more-so out of owner neglect than owner ethos — of course, not mistaking

The foundation of 824 2nd Avenue North is brick.

The foundation of 824 2nd Avenue North is brick.

that neglect could be an ethos). The primary area of focus, the southwestern side of the block, tends more toward the concrete jungle. The southeastern portion of the block remains commercial and industrial (Cole Papers), and the northeastern portion of the block has a few residences amidst vacant lots with manicured lawns.

After this fieldwork, and once home, I pulled up Google Earth, and organized three areas I would study with different intensities. Then I decided I’d just approach these areas with the first three criteria laid out by the National Register of Historic Places (no sense in trying to re-invent the NRHP). But instead of cobbling a micro-history together in the otherwise clunky National Register Nomination or Site Form format, I decided to use a hybrid combination of a blogging voice and academic narrative complete with the rigors of U of Chicago footnoting and see how that goes (everything has shortcomings).

I’ll be able to draft architectural descriptions of exteriors and façades, and secondary local, regional and national sources will contribute to showing how this neighborhood reflected broader, national themes. But the true grunt work, as I see it, will be tracking the various chains-of-ownership within each structure. I’ve done this numerous times, and the only way to go about it is within a County Courthouse. I’ll be sure to track the primary residence (824), and from there I’ll see how much more data would be needed for a simultaneously thorough but concise micro-history.

The research boundaries for a micro-history of a neighborhood in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

The research boundaries for a micro-history of a neighborhood in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

So with that said, here is the research triage model I imposed on this neighborhood. Don’t worry: historians impose on the historical record all the time — we wouldn’t be humans if we did not consciously or subconsciously impose on any data set. Just remember to be very suspicious of anyone who says they have found some kind of research design or reporting scheme that ensures absolute objectivity. This is why I tend to use the phrase “subjective objectivity” or “objective subjectivity,” but only in conversation.

Within Google Earth I outlined three areas. The first is of the residence in question, which is outlined in blue. The second is more peripheral, an area outlined in neon green, and the third is (yeah) outlined in neon purple. No doubt, depending on what I can track down during the research process, the study areas may shift a bit here and there. But the idea this last weekend was to delineate some kind of research boundaries so I’m non trying to herd historical cats. More updates as they come in.

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