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Not just dots on a map: life histories alleviate spatial amnesia in San Francisco

The #OHMATakeover of the OHR blog continues as Audrey Augenbraum explores Anti-Eviction Mapping Project organizer Manissa Maharawal’s idea of “spatial amnesia” and engaging with public dialogues surrounding neighborhood change. Stay tuned to the OHR blog throughout the month of July for additional pieces from OHMA students and alumni, and come back in August for a return to our regularly scheduled program. For more from Columbia’s oral history program, visit them online or follow their blog.

For Manissa Maharawal, the struggle for housing justice is personal. When her own father got displaced from his apartment in Prospect Heights—his home since moving from India to the States some thirty years before, in which he raised his family—she was struck by his unstoppable urge to tell the story over and over again. “Why do people need to tell?” she wondered. Why was her father repeating his story to neighbors, to cab drivers, to mailmen, to anyone who would listen?

Maharawal began her workshop at Columbia’s Oral History Masters program’s series on Oral History and Public Dialogue by proposing the idea of “spatial amnesia” in urban contexts. Our city is changing—and fast—but almost incomprehensibly. Sure, there are visible symptoms of it, especially in New York City: the gargantuan Whole Foods going up on 125th Street, the eclectic mix of working families and young students in many neighborhoods of North Brooklyn, even explicit condemnations of gentrifiers on billboards posted outside churches or graffitied on Work in Progress: Residential notices in empty lots. There are the indignities of being priced out, of being evicted, of doubling up with family members and friends, of not being able to hang out on the streets of your own neighborhood. There is the insidious realization that folks from outside your neighborhood are entering it as consumers, buying expensive, boutique versions of the food you eat and the clothes you wear. Certainly, there is never any shortage of rumors, legends, or nostalgic laments about the way things were. But really—how were they? Who remembers?

One problem is, there’s no sense of the whole—the scale of change throughout the city. Worse, there’s no sense of the history of these changes, of the protracted dialogue between two or more communities that has been taking place for decades. Being able to buy $8 artisanal mayonnaise in Bushwick isn’t an abomination of only the last ten or fifteen years. These ironies are the results of processes that unfold over the course of entire life histories; and life histories, in turn, can help us encapsulate and preserve the original spirit of these neighborhoods.

"lower haight anti-hipster stencil" by jeremy avnet, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.
“lower haight anti-hipster stencil” by jeremy avnet, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

That’s Maharawal’s intervention, in the context of the San Francisco tech boom. The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project: Narratives of Displacement maps no-fault evictions and collects and attaches interviews with the victims of these evictions, creating a living archive that deconstructs the collusion between tech-industry corporate interests and the city. It’s a wedding of data visualization and narrative that ensures no one is reduced to a dot on a map. And these aren’t eviction stories alone—they’re life narratives, which come much closer to capturing the complex, subtle processes comprising neighborhood change that we are embedded in. These “located” narratives provide an antidote to our spatial amnesia.

True to the series theme, the project directly engaged with public dialogues in San Francisco—even beyond helping Internet users, zine readers, and mural appreciators visualize evictions, buyouts, fires, and the influence of Wall Street landlords. For example, in 2013, protesters blockaded Google and Apple shuttle buses to articulate growing fears among San Francisco residents that the appearance of a private tech-industry shuttle bus stop in the neighborhood was a harbinger of eviction. In solidarity, the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project mapped the increase in these bus stops for 2011-13 and overlaid them on their eviction maps. They found that, during that time period, evictions increased 69% within four blocks of a shuttle bus stop. A 2014 study they cite corroborates the implications of these findings—that these bus stops are a significant factor in tech workers’ residential choice.

Of course, this evidence isn’t conclusive. It is likely that the shuttle bus stops are just as much symptoms of a larger gentrification process already underway as they are accelerators of that process. No matter—the success, for me, was that the map responded to residents’ fears, validated bus protesters’ actions in the face of criticism, mounted a convincing call for further research, and made this issue legible to broader publics.

The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project also maps killings by law enforcement from 1985 to 2015, so that they can be understood in the context of San Francisco’s gentrifying neighborhoods. This map was created in honor of Alejandro Nieto, who was killed by the SFPD on March 21, 2014. Joey Vaez, a project narrator and good friend of Nieto, sees increased police violence in Bernal Heights and greater San Francisco in part as a result of the changing communities in the neighborhood. He describes a town hall meeting in which the “new community,” voicing concerns about youth, gangs and crack, called for more of a police presence in the area:

What people don’t understand is—what more police enforcement does is, it gives them carte blanche to do whatever they want. And so they would come, they would rough people up. You know, I was roughed up in front of my house.

Life narratives can powerfully expose the nexus of gentrification and ever-entrenched structural racism that, unfortunately, so many in this country still deny. Taken together, maps and narratives allow us to pinpoint each tragedy in time and space, and ask, How did we end up here? At once, the viewer is able to perceive the killings concretely, as events, and abstractly, as structuring a status quo. In this way, the project informs public dialogue by providing a spatial and temporal awareness that contextualizes the disturbing and often bewildering visible symptoms of these obscured and elongated processes.

Introducing the situation in San Francisco over the last few decades, Maharawal said, “What’s happening? Same thing as New York City, but accelerated.” As a native New Yorker and former resident of three boroughs, I also cannot help but compare the two. “Gentrification”—the process by which high-income households replace low-income households in a neighborhood—is a confusing, ambiguous and controversial term for many New Yorkers. For some, it refers to the racism and classism undergirding the displacement of disenfranchised groups. For others, it connotes economic revitalization and the promise of clean streets and safe community spaces. For still others, it means the commodification of their culture for the consumption of outsiders—consumption from which they are excluded.

In my own experience talking to residents of fast-gentrifying neighborhoods, it doesn’t take too long to realize that opinions can’t always be predicted by incomes, ethnicities, or even length of residency. Moreover, many New Yorkers are unsure of whom to blame—wealthy prospective residents and their homogenizing tastes? Predatory landlords? Mayoral rezoning schemes? Ambitious and market-savvy real estate agents? Global trends toward a capitalist cosmopolitanism that rewards the jet setting elite?

In this respect, San Francisco and New York don’t compare: against the ambivalence I’ve observed in my own city, the San Francisco case now presented to me seemed shockingly black and white. The invasion of the tech industry, supported by Mayor Ed Lee, spurred a cascade of negative consequences for long-time residents of San Francisco. Okay, I’m convinced that tech is the enemy. But why did tech move there?

 One of the unique qualities of oral history research is its ability to marshal a 360-degree view of an issue. It can contain a multiplicity of perspectives, and still be revelatory of a vision.

That’s why, despite the fact that my own sympathies lie with those displaced, I’d also be interested in hearing narratives from other players—the landlords who push their tenants out, or the wealthy new residents who are favored by these unjust acts. Granted, we are shown some of the machinations of ‘the other side’—as with this map of Wall Street landlords in California—but not first person accounts. In order to effectively fight gentrification and displacement, we also need their stories and motives, in their terms. Exploring what structures the decisions of tech industry gentrifiers and predatory landlords is a crucial piece of the project of alleviating spatial amnesia, of understanding how we got here. This understanding is empowering because it enables a complete picture of what needs to change, and how we might begin.

The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project portrays historical processes of neighborhood change beautifully, and could render them in all of their complexity. One of the unique qualities of oral history research is its ability to marshal a 360-degree view of an issue. It can contain a multiplicity of perspectives, and still be revelatory of a vision.

This post was originally published on the OHMA blog. Add your voice the conversation by chiming into the discussion in the comments below, or on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, or Google+.

Featured image: “Photograph of Butler Library, Columbia University’s largest single library.” by JSquish, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons. 

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