Being ASSERTive

In his 2013 book Interactive Visualization: Insight Through Inquiry, digital scholar Bill Ferster defined a method to help those aspiring to develop their own digital projects, abbreviated in the acronym ASSERT.

ferster book
(MIT Press: 2013)

Ferster challenged these digital hopefuls to:

  • Ask a Question
  • Search for Data
  • Structure the Information
  • Envision the Answer
  • Represent the Visualization
  • Tell a Story Using Data

This blog post will outline my own plans to be ASSERTive this semester, and hopefully in doing so will convey the question I’ll ask, and the answers I seek, and the method by which I will search for insights.

Asking a Question

My question draws from my thesis research, broadly asking: How does the planning and construction of the Orlando Arena in 1986,87,88, and 89 represent an intersection of race, politics, economics, sport enthusiasm, and urban sprawl? Perhaps the question can also be asked another way: What sociopolitical and cultural elements developed leading up to the Orlando Arena’s construction, and how did the intersection of these elements influence the location, planning, and design of the structure.

The original Orlando Arena: Note the strategic layout of gardens and fountains. These are referenced by local media and citizens as ways to
The Orlando Arena, circa 2007

The question will seek to engage with urban historical theory that analyzes physical structures as mediums for cultural expression. What did the Orlando Arena express for and by different communities within the city?

Specifically, the question seeks to answer: Why was the arena placed in the African-American neighborhood of Parramore, and what happened to the neighborhood and its residents as a result?

Parramore overhead map
The Parramore Historic District. Note the sizable amount of land taken up by the arena and its parking lots (upper right corner, just below Lake Dot). Also note the highways which intersect through and shape the neighborhood – this will be explored in the “Why Parramore” aspect of the question.

Searching for Data

The search for data thus far has been mostly successful. My thesis is largely a discourse analysis, in which I analyze discursive sources with an intention to interpret their meaning. In a way, this approach represents a branch of intellectual historical theory, in which the words and thoughts of people (not necessarily elites, but anyone whose thoughts have been recorded) are interpreted for meaning. In regard the Orlando Arena, and the franchise it hosted — the Orlando Magic — the best available source is ProQuest. ProQuest is a digital newspaper archive (and also archives other documents, like dissertations, theses, periodicals, etc.) that hosts archived issues of the Orlando Sentinel dating back to 1983. At least for those sources related specifically to the Orlando Magic and the Orlando Arena, both of which came to fruition in the late 1980s, ProQuest offers plenty of discursive sources relevant to the topic, including “Letters to the Editor” columns, which collect the direct words of ‘the people.’

A snapshot of ProQuest's Database List. Note the Orlando Sentinel -- a bit odd to see the Sentinel as one of 26 databases, next to the New York Times and LA Times -- good luck for me, I suppose!
A snapshot of ProQuest’s Database List. Note the Orlando Sentinel — a bit odd to see the Sentinel as one of 26 databases, next to the New York Times and National Newspapers Core , but I’m not asking any questions!

I then compare this discourse with historical fact: When did the arena begin construction? Where was it ultimately located? How many people did it dislocate? How many people did it employ? How much of an “economic impact” did it make? These sources are largely governmental, and are a bit harder to come by. Some of the hard facts are also in the paper — several articles discuss urban dislocation, total cost, economic impact, etc. However, I much prefer to go directly to the source — what governmental records exist that can tell me such information?

To my surprise, some of the governmental documents exist in local history centers and in libraries across the state. For example, I was able to procure the “Orlando Arena Development of Regional Impact Report” series from the University of Florida’s library. These document detail the estimated outcomes and implications of the arena on the local economy, residents, and built environment.

Cover page of the
Cover page of the “Development of Regional Impact” report submitted by arena planners to the city in 1987

However, dealing with the City of Orlando has been quite difficult to this point. From my discourse analysis I can tell that there are a number of documents that must exist somewhere, and my feeling is that, because many of them were city initiatives, they must be in the city’s archives and records. However, my feeling is the city is giving me the run-around a bit. Regardless, the project should sufficiently answer the proposed questions even drawing only from sources already procured.

More data is needed on Parramore’s history, and especially the development of Interstate 4 and the East-West Expressway, both of which were precursors to the kind of ‘urban bullying’ represented later by the arena. I have seen this data in local history centers, but need to make appointments to scan PDFs and develop this aspect of my personal data bank.

Structuring the Information

The structure of the information will most likely develop into three categories, serving to differentiate certain elements while also allowing them to intersect and influence each other the way they did in real-time. These categories will represent the three categories used in a multi-layered timeline. They are, broadly:

  • What was happening in Parramore
  • What was happening with the Magic/Arena
  • What was happening in city/county political circles

All of these categories will be driven by the discourse found in newspaper articles. The story will follow what historical actors wrote (and in turn, thought) about the Parramore neighborhood, the Magic and Arena, and the politics surrounding both.

As I write this, I can tell the structure may need work and will most likely develop over time — but this is the preliminary structure as of now, and it at least serves to propel the project forward.

Envisioning the Answer

While I will do my best to remain open and let the research continue to influence me up to the very last word of my thesis is written, I must be honest in saying that “the writing is on the wall” so to speak. The answers to my questions seem clear to me as of now, and I’ll try and be brief here in summarizing them:

The Orlando Magic conjured incredible enthusiasm over pro-sport in a town that felt insufficient in regard to its identity and national relevance. To procure a franchise, the team needed an arena (quickly). To make this happen, Orlando and Orange County politicians sidestepped standard legislative processes to make the arena a reality. The arena was built in Parramore both for its proximity to downtown and the fact that the residents there had been historically rendered politically and economically impotent. The people of Orlando created a “community identity” and developed “civic pride” around the team, while the arena served to further disrupt a subjugated Parramore community and dislocate residents.

Representing the Visualization

I will work with a tool developed by Northwestern University called TimelineJS. TimelineJS allows for the incorporation of photo, video, and audio, and does well to lend itself to layering.

“The Banana Business”: An example of what TimelineJS can do.

Tell a Story Using Data

If the questions are answered with the data gathered, and represented visually in a way that is transparent, stimulating, and informative, then the story should tell itself!




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