[-empyre-] On the limits and hopes of mapping gentrification

Erin McElroy emmcelro at ucsc.edu
Sun Jul 17 03:57:59 AEST 2016

What an honor to be able to participate in this month’s empire conversation! I’ve learned so much so far, and have been inspired by the thoughts, projects, and connections that the other guests have contributed. And I’m excited to converse this week alongside/with Johanna Drucker and Carolyn Castaño around feminist data visualization themes.

So some initial background from me:

Admittedly, when I co-launched the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project (AEMP) in 2013, http://www.antievictiomap.com <http://www.antievictiomap.com/>, I was far from versed on conversations around data visualization and critical cartography. Although I was trained in visual arts and anthropology, I approached the project as what I thought would be a temporary activist mapping piece aimed to amplify organizing around Bay Area gentrification. I had little foresight that the project would grow as it has, or that my approach to feminist data visualization would emerge through my situatedness in the project. Though of course there are always other inspirations and ghosts that accompany us, that diffract us perhaps.

The AEMP began as what I had thought was a simple enough idea of mapping Bay Area displacement amplified through and by the Tech Boom. Our first map, www.antievictionmappingproject.net/ellis.html <http://www.antievictionmappingproject.net/ellis.html)>, visualized the accumulation of Ellis Act evictions in San Francisco – the Ellis Act being one of the most notorious eviction technologies of real estate speculators in California rent-controlled cities. In San Francisco, they blossomed during the first Dot Com boom, and then again during the Tech Boom 2.0. On one hand, crudely, the creation of this map (and the project as a whole), offered the challenge of using digital technology to critique particular materializations of a digital technology boom. While purity has never been an aspiration of the project, and as I value our increasingly hybrid existence, the situatedness of the project as both technological and yet critical of capitalist tech economies has invoked numerous questions around techno-utopics/dystopics, Silicon Valley histories, and racial capitalism and the politics of space. 

On the other hand, the creation of the Ellis Act map posed a simple but nevertheless troubling problem of visually/digitally materializing loss. I remember being younger and mystified that the stars in the sky may no longer be there anymore, perhaps collapsed into a black hole, perhaps not, yet we still see the light speed illumination of their past. Evictions are not black holes, but I often think of my childhood disbelief when I think of how to visualize what may or may not materially remain. Additionally, to invoke some of the earlier ideas on this thread such as data visualization as conduit and material (to conjure Erin Leland’s work for instance, or Lee Mackinnon’s thoughts on Barad and the ontology of objects), something new coalesces through the visualization itself. And the substance of this materialization provides new fodder for thought as well.

Recently the AEMP made another map of displacement, this time visualizing relocation data: http://www.antievictionmappingproject.net/relocation.html <http://www.antievictionmappingproject.net/relocation.html>. Of the 500 evictions and subsequent relocations that we were able to map, 14 people ended up homeless, and 2 people ended up deceased. Where on the map do you place the relocation marker of someone no longer here, or of someone without markable residency? Maybe a map in insufficient and visualization is impossible. And yet as visual objects, our maps mobilize a form of political consciousness, one that many of our partner organizations and activist projects find useful. As digital cartographic objects, again to invoke Barad, they become agential in a collective movement for housing justice.

As I think these questions of data visualization and critical cartography through other scholars of feminist studies, critical race and ethnicity studies, and indigenous studies, I am admittedly always somewhat ambivalent about the object of the map at all. I think of Audra Simpson’s move from “ethnography of refusal” to “cartography of refusal” (2014) and Elizabeth Povinelli’s work on “the cunning of recognition” (2002), and recognize recognition as an instigator of settlement. Take for instance, the cartographic project of a new luxury development complex erected next to Twitter that erased certain San Francisco neighborhoods from the map altogether, such as Chinatown to the Bayview. Or a real estate speculator who in 2014 rebranded a large quadrant/“meta-hood” of San Francisco’s Mission District as “The Quad,” the new home of corporate technology workers who reverse commute to work in Silicon Valley (workers disproportionately white, male, young, wealthy). The more that maps such as these are made, the more important it seems to become to create others produced in the tradition of feminist and anti-racist counter-cartography. And yet, I’m always aware how insufficient they may appear. 

I could keep on going but I'll pause for now as this is long, and look forward to engaging more with this week’s conversations!



Erin McElroy
Doctoral Candidate, Feminist Studies, UCSC
Director, Anti-Eviction Mapping Project

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