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Putting oral history on the map

Oral history has always been concerned with preserving the voices of the voiceless, and new technologies are enabling oral historians to preserve and present these memories in new and exciting ways. Audio projects can now turn to mapping software to connect oral histories with physical locations, bringing together voices and places.

In West Side Stories, developed by Oakland based production company Youth Radio, audio vignettes are placed on the map alongside neighborhood profiles and points of interest. The map is centered on some of the areas that have been hit hardest by gentrification, as home prices continue to climb in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Click on one icon and you can listen to interviews with people at an open house for sale, offering a front row seat to the changes in the neighborhood. The DeFremery Park icon plays a history of the area dictated by Black Panther Ericka Huggins, and includes a snippet of Angela Davis’s iconic Vietnam War speech. At the West Oakland Bart Station icon and you can read about turf dancing, a street dance commonly seen on the trains that ferry people between the East Bay and San Francisco. Below the text a video shows a handful of young people performing on the train, interspersed with snippets of dance lessons and local history.

The map layout makes the connections between these stories all the more clear. When listening to the open house story, you can’t help but notice that it is only a few blocks away from DeFremery Park and a number of interviews from people who are refusing to leave the neighborhood. The website offers a view of gentrification that is simultaneously broad and narrow, placing individual stories into the context of regional changes.

Another interactive website tracks stories of eviction across the San Francisco Bay Area, presenting more than a decade of change in the metropolitan area. According to its website, the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project is “a data-visualization, data analysis, and storytelling collective documenting the dispossession of San Francisco Bay Area residents in the wake of the Tech Boom 2.0.” The website’s Narratives of Displacement map shows the area flooded with a sea of red dots, each one representing a single eviction. Scattered across the map are links to edited oral history interviews with the people who have been evicted during the recent tech boom, as well as some who have successfully fought back.

Aside from oral histories, the project includes additional maps that provide invaluable context, bringing together census data, crime reports, and a list of the locally infamous tech company bus stops to more fully demonstrate the contours of displacement. While these other maps don’t link to the oral histories, they can help to place the individual stories within larger trends.

Finally, moving beyond the Bay Area, the Fiji Oral History Map aims to “reflect the diversity and expansiveness of the Fijian community worldwide and to provide a forum for members of the community to share their stories and connect globally.” The map includes written memories and recorded oral histories from the global Fijian community. As of this writing, the map only includes stories from the Australia, Fiji, and the United States, but by encouraging visitors to add their voices, it can continue to grow.

The map was developed in conjunction with a movie that uses a single family’s story to tell the complicated history of colonization in Fiji. The film’s trailer asks, “When you are born in a stolen land…Who are you?” This question guides both the film and the oral history project, as they attempt to give context to the Fijian community worldwide, allowing them to see themselves reflected in the past.

All three of these projects are deeply invested in preserving worlds that are either gone or quickly disappearing. In this way, they echo the goals – stated or implied – of many oral history projects. They each go even further, however, attempting to intervene in this disappearance, preserving not only the memories but also the worlds themselves. Youth Radio and the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project make it clear that they are fighting back against the silencing of their voices and the disappearance of their communities through gentrification and eviction. The Fiji Oral History Map is likewise fighting back against the silencing of Fijians through colonization. In their own way, each of these projects is working to create a digital space that holds open the possibility of returning to a physical space.

Image credit: You Are Here. By Tony Webster. CC BY 2.0 via diversey Flickr.

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