When I took public transit to a legal clinic near Fruitvale Station in hopes for help to contest an eviction notice my family and I had received this January, I had a growing sense of entering a new social topography that I didn’t often see–and not only because it was the first time I had experienced eviction. I had watched largely through maps at how evictions had transformed much of the East Bay–an area already fractured with strong social divisions–and the Bay Area at large. But the foreclosure landscape that had transformed the Bay Area was something I hadn’t seen at first hand, but had suddenly become disorienting after receiving a 60-day notice to vacate the premises of what was my family home for almost fifteen years. The surprise news had left us facing a legal landscape little familiar, but increasingly ready to reach out to social services with which we’d had no familiarity, and to face a landscape of landlord evictions that has been the byproduct of rising property values across the East Bay. And so the ride to the social services non-profits that are congregated around Fruitvale Station, a community that has long been of special resilience, seemed the only hope we had of legal redress.
Although that matter was resolved relatively amicably, the sixty-day notice concretized the economic pressures that have rewritten Oakland communities. The vacant faces at many of the offices among those learning about renters’ legal resources to contest or confront a letter of eviction–or an unlawful detainer–mirrored the uncertain grounds for response open to many in a city where the law is not clearly their friend. And the many non-profits that are located around Fruitvale Station–and defined it as a community of local mobilization and resistance for some time within the city of Oakland–both as a site of social services and local non profits around the intersection of Fruitvale and International Boulevard–provided a basis for orienting me to the landscape of evictions, in ways that seemed encapsulated and condensed in the BART map by the renaming of place. If the renaming of the transit map reminded one of the political nature of place-naming, the resistance that it offered seemed deeply comforting, if as a revisionary cartography–an exultant shift of place-name, reclaiming the map–in the face of a depressing picture of limited choices.
The limited familiarity of legal options that many tenants feel in Oakland seemed to give concreteness to renaming of the very place I was headed on public transit. The renaming was all the more striking as cartographic intervention in an urban map whose inequalities seem increasingly pronounced, and whose neighborhoods were changing, and local memories erased. As a sort of cartographic resistance, the stickers renaming “Fruitvale Station” after a BART traveller killed by transit police at that site some seventeen years seemed to first appear on trains in 2016, they seemed to acknowledge the continued resistance to the only increased uneven social topography of the city. What, after all, did place mean, and what did its naming process mean for its residents? And while I didn’t face such limited alternatives as a result of receiving a notice to vacate my premises, the shock of facing the process placed me in closer contact with the forces of displacement long at work in the city, as if revealing the underbelly of the city’s property market that one fails to notice before, and that all too often goes unseen, and the steep costs of that failure.
In a city afflicted by a crisis of widespread social displacement, the scale of eviction was a crisis of justice. Seeing the alteration–or correction?–of the transit map in the car I rode, the name “Oscar Grant” affixed over my destination, seemed to re-orient me to this space. Coming across the map at the very moment I was taking action against the eviction notice seemed to be of a piece with starting to redress some of broad inequalities of power and social justice in an epidemic of local evictions, and to be even more powerful for masquerading as an official BART map. My own familiarity with maps of evictions and Unlawful Detainers across much of the area where I was traveling was less comforting than the political art of the substitution of the name of the transit station where over ten years ago of Oscar Grant III died at the hands of a BART officer from bullet wounds that entered his back. The sense of relief, if not momentary elation acknowledging the change in place-names of the BART stop in several of the maps in public transit cars was a relief after public protests urging official renaming of Oakland sites after Grant to acknowledge the not only the wrongful but tragic and criminal death that divided the city, and reminded so many of the uphill climb toward social justice.
A different sort of criminality and social justice were in my mind as the BART arrived. Landlord evictions had indeed spread with the rash of foreclosures that were an effect of a ballooning real estate market, shifting the landscape in much of Oakland and around Fruitvale Station, where I was headed. I observed the desperation created by the shifting topography of renters as I navigated the networks of housing assistance. As I had learned, the abilities of landlords to evict tenants for “no-fault” of the tenant was considerable, and letters giving thirty or sixty days notice can arrive without any specific reason or explanation in many buildings, not covered under the Just Cause law, without listing any reason—just or otherwise–and just reasons can be for no fault of tenants, including Owner-Move-In or Ellis Act evictions. The shifting landscape of rapidly rising rents had provoked an unexpectedly sudden ground change for urban renters, few of whom had tools of legal redress of the very sort I was engaged. I recognized the depths of desperation created by this topography as I navigated an unfamiliar and uneven legal landscape, where tenant rights were being explained to me, and the rights of those facing eviction seemed to create a huge information gap to landlords’ advantage.
The landscape of eviction letters was widely experience in the Bay Area, the sense of defenseless against the encroachment of new owners–or landlords’ demands–the basic service that the clinic offered, and that the specific vacant faces of those waiting to meet with lawyers, holding out hope, seemed to announce–was an issue of social justice. As I reviewed the papers that I had brought to the clinic on BART, I recalled the broad landscape of foreclosures and evictions across Alameda county as the train pulled into Fruitvale Station and gathered my thoughts, I remembered mosaic of foreclosures, owner move-ins, and flipping of houses by larger realty companies had created a new geography of displacement–and an intense barrage of filing eviction notices across much of Oakland, and which have recently begun to be documented and mapped.
Evictions Based on Housing Foreclosures in Alameda County, 2005-15; Lake Merritt is alligator-shaped squiggle in lower left, still connected underground to Oakland estuary
Oakland’s new landscape is evident ow the recent spate of unlawful detainers blanketed space, creating a virtual sea of evictions around Lake Merritt from 2005-15 by which so many were displaced. Offers of money to move from existing or new building owners, and organizations like the Bay Area Property Group–founded by one Daniel Bornstein–created a landscape of displacement reinforced by rising rents. The filing of expansion of evictions exploited the already stark neighborhood differences in life-expectancy and income, in part as unlawful detainers terrified residents, without clear senses of they rights, and have exposed residential communities past Lake Merritt to increased evictions in ways that are increasingly mapped to reveal the scale of their dramatic change over the past decade, and the scale of injustice that they posed.
If the scale of unlawful detainers were not able to be volleyed even by a huge array of legal clinics that sought to help negotiate unlawful detainer notices issued in Oakland–over 28,000 between 2005-15–clustered in downtown Oakland and West Oakland.
The passengers riding BART were by no means likely to be evicted, and not all who receive Unlawful Detainers were evicted. But how to map the lack of justice that their distribution suggests?
Disparaties of income distribution of the East Bay map all too neatly onto its space; in 2011, the sleek lines interconnecting the East Bay in the regional transit system mapped starkly onto differences in wealth, education and rates of childhood hospitalization for asthma–stark divisions that popped out from a recent remappings of social inequalities. In using BART stations to map such disparities, Laura Choi created an alarmingly bracing counter-map of urban space, modeled after how the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation used transit maps to consider urban divides by data of the American Community Survey. The map revealed differences in life-expectancy of a decade between sixteen miles of track, presenting a microcosm of disparities in life expectancy in California. The map suggest the intensity of economic divides–outing a hidden geography of sharp fault lines in life expectancy and income–health and wealth–in a landscape where the BART map emphasized spatial continuity, masking a stark lack of equality in its smooth surface.
The deep divides in social justice have intensified the stark inequities of public health, in ways that demand a more fitting counter-map.
The rise of evictions across the city from before the Survey suggested an endemic expansion of foreclosures, flipping, and swaps in housing across the more vulnerable corridors in Oakland–as well as opening many areas to displacement that intensify communities’ vulnerabilities, both to investors who are interested in converting and flipping properties–here marked in almost 4,500 red-brown dots–or foreclosures, represented by an abundance of over 10,000 tan dots.
The battles are pitched, suggest the dense clustering of overlapping tan and red dots around the International Boulevard corridor. And the cards seem stacked. The point was made with crystal clarity, by a glance at the BART map in the train I took from MacArthur station, I was reminded by the sudden shift of its demographic from Lake Merritt station, site of Alameda county courthouse, as passengers on the Fremont-bound public transit car changed to show a major fault line that divides the East Bay in a scar of the search for social justice. And so in noticing the arresting nature of the renaming of the BART stop I was headed, I wondered about the power of place and of renaming places in maps in the substitution of “Fruitvale” with the name “Oscar Grant,” in a clever nod to the hegemony of the map. Although renaming or identifying transit stops have provided formal tools to demonstrate social inequalities, the power of such situated renaming–and selective retaking–seemed to alter the landscape in powerful ways by visually mimicking a voice of authority, as it had been renamed from at least 2016, revealing the strength of the survival of local memories, and the depth of injustice.
“Fruitvale Station” had been strategically replaced, with what seemed particular eloquence, taking back of the map’s surface at a station renamed after the wrongly murdered Oaklander, Oscar Grant, in this one map. Grant had been killed after being stopped by BART police as he lay on its platform, lying prone on the platform and handcuffed, and for reasons never clearly resolved was shot by an officer in his back. Almost a decade after years of protest demanding the renaming of the station–site of the tragic killing of Oscar Grant, a twenty-two year old man on his way celebrate New Years back only to be shot in the wee hours of 2009, returning from the San Francisco fireworks, unarmed, after being wrongly profiled by BART transit police, and shot dead in the back at 2:00 a.m. as he lay on his stomach at Fruitvale Station. The renaming was a small site of resistance, important in the social web of public transit, and the sort of sites of civic memory that maps can erase and obscure but also often sort out. But the placement of the decal sticker was particularly powerful, especially as I had been considering, if in a different context, the disparities of social justice so striking in a public transit map. This counter-mapping, improvised and in situ, was particularly powerful, and triggered intense memories of injustice at a shooting that should never have happened.
The strong identification of Oscar Grant’s name with Fruitvale station was not only cemented by the later film, andwas difficult for residents to separate. Grant’s shooting had provoked protests at police brutality, after the shooting of a handcuffed man led to no charges being filed against the BART transit officer who shot the young man with a 45. The violence of that evening led to protests at the station of a more peaceful nature, as the officer who killed Grant was released from prison, around Justice for Oscar Grant. The 2013 drive to rename the station, only partly provoked by the film of that name, didn’t bring about a name-change, but there was a powerful restoration of poetic justice by affixing Grant’s name in the font and into syntax of the official BART map, by a decal affixed–even if an edge hints it might have been tried to be removed–on the official transit map, beside the familiar five-color map lines. The perfectly matching font of the peel-off decal was made to replicate an official adjustment to the map, but addressed its users by successfully reaching into their collective memory, if not suggesting a struggle over a station whose immediate neighborhood not yet redefined by continued gentrification, but redefined since 2004 by its mixed-use Transit Village, a transit-hub development including affordable housing and needed community resources.
The placement of the new place-name performed a compelling counter-cartography that suggested resistance to the dynamics of power in the city. Oscar Grant’s tragic death had been part of the Oakland landscape for some time, to be sure. It was long attempted to claim public recognition in a place name, and the appearance in BART font of the late man’s name on the map BART users consulted reminded one of the fractured social economy of the city, and the uneven legal access or accountability that Grant’s death had been emblematic back in 2009, and inspired Ryan Coogler’s award-winning first movie of 2013, which gave particularly poignant drama to the needless slaying of a man trying to live gainfully, and to provide for his daughter, who was shot with bullets as he moved after being stopped by BART police who arrived in response to an episode of violence in which Grant, by all accounts, wasn’t involved. (Although the officer alleged he mistook his gun for a taser, firing into the prone Grant’s back as he pleaded to the armed police, praying he not be killed, as was captured on live video feed by bystanders’ cellular phones. The shocking video shows the white BART officer reach for his .44 with puzzlingly calm intent that only helped inflame passions, charges of racism, and interrogation as it was captured on camera. Films on bystanders’s phones raised sudden questions of how such open and wanton use of force could have been, as some claimed, accidental. Indeed, the footage made the BART station the location something of a primal scene of the recurrent racial violence under the guise of the law that haunts Oakland’s present as it haunted its past.
Why Grant feared the BART police might kill him enough to beg them not to shoot him isn’t clear, but may have been triggered by being recognized by a former inmate at San Quentin, where he had served time, or sudden fear at the arrival of armed police who had drawn weapons and detained twenty to preserve the peace. The image of Grant, handcuffed and prone on the ground while detained among some twenty other suspects police held while investigating an episode of violence with what seemed needlessly inhumanity, fearful that someone else had a firearm on their person, but reminding most all of the all too common under-representation of racial balance or Oaklanders in the BART police; stick figures rendered in signs protest didn’t need differentiation by race.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
The survival of Grant in public memory persisted, as his death became emblematic of steep inequalities. There had been many invocations of Grant, to be sure, in the Occupy Movement–held at a square before City Hall that was temporarily rechristened “Oscar Grant Plaza in honor of the young African-American, whose death had provoked broad outrage and raised tensions city-wide, which intensified as a search for public justice or social justice went unanswered. Protests at the release of his murderer from jail ran from the station to the City Hall, as if in an attempt to raise questions of political representation–and the lack of equitable representation, in a city whose mayoral candidates competed in offering greater police protection in later years as if it were a measure of their deservingness to hold the mayoralty. Requests to memorialize the killing by renaming the BART station weren’t accepted. But the sticker’s placement at Fruitvale Station offered a sense of public justice, as an effectively situated counter-map.
The terrain of public transit, that most shared and common of media of spatial orientation, is often taken as a counter map by provocative toponymic transpositions. There have been, to some extent, revisionary subway maps that have presented or tried to present counter-maps to a landscape of gender, as Rebecca Solnit did so elegantly in her warm pink-hued “City of Women,” redressing a gender imbalance inscribed in New York’s topography. As a cartographer of hope, Solnit worked to rename each station, following the symbolic template of the transit map, but coloring it pink as a way of bearing witness and offering a firm if gentle acknowledgement of an actual and effective absence of the commemoration of women–or public presence of women–in a city where male statuary defines the landscape, and almost all the women who do appear in statue form are symbolic or spiritual figures. The result is an exhilarating topsy-turvy rendering–a City of Women, in a nod to Fellini, if less embodying a male gaze?–and a discovery of a new community, opening up an exuberantly cornucopian revisionary text whose inventive cartography provokes reflection on the public space of the city.
Rebecca Solnit/Molly Roy, “City of Women” from Non-Stop Metropolis
Solnit’s elegant remapping of the serpentine lines of the MTA subway system seems a new take on the chorographic form of mapping of the community, and foregrounds a community that is all too often silenced in maps: Solnit invited her students at Columbia University to imagine what their own relation to place would be in a city whose streets were named after women, and seeks to redefine the community by replacing the names of stops on the subway system. If the new image of a pinked public transit features Carole King, Dorothy Day in Staten Island, Hannah Arendt, Susan Sontag, Toni Morrison, and Rosa Luxembourg in lower Manhattan, in a celebratory reclaiming of that landscape, its trick lacks the immediate poignancy in its redress of the map in toto and in its inversion of space as a land of make-believe, not to mention its unclear engagement with actual spatial inequalities. But the point isn’t a cartographical precision, to be sure, so much as a broad-brush- strokes provocation revising the historical imbalance of the city’s gendered space, and the multiple polysemic sort of narratives it might occasion.
Rebecca Solnit/Molly Roy, “City of Women” (lowerManhattan, Staten Island, and Brooklyn)
Despite the breadth of the counter-roster of unremembered figures, from Sojourner Trut to Elaine de Kooning and Joan Mitchel to Beyoncé and Lady Gaga to Susan B. Anthony to Twyla Tharp to Janet Yellen, who lend their names to the celebration of the rich cultural vitality of the flat, pink-hued landscape, there is a wistful undertone to the reminder of just how far this landscape is from our life, if there is the injunction to hold it present in our minds all the better to orient ourselves. The city embraces them all, and we can imagine coming into contact with them on the map in any commute route.
Rebecca Solnit/Molly Roy, “City of Women” (detail)
If the reclaiming of Fruitvale Station for Oscar Grant is also imagined, the imagined practice of affixing the detail of that decal, all important and rich with melancholy, but now beautifully inscribed on the map’s surface, provides a spatially situated act of resistance at which one’s heart suddenly and surprisingly warms. Its particular power is to take us to a special place, and, in taking us to a place of incredible emotional power, to tell us about the power of maps, as well, of course, about the East Bay and the society where Grant’s death might occur–and where it might be recognized. There was a sense of urgency, if a muted one, in the placement of the sticker over the place “Fruitvale Station” in the transit map that demanded BART riders recognize the value in its improvised renaming, which seemed to open up new spaces of expression in the map.
The glare of the transit lights that reflected off the map, and the act of the name’s placement on the map, offered a remapping of our relation to place that was deep, and human, as much as the glare superficial and electric. For maps are not only about the narratives triggered by place-names, but the process and practices of the continued rewriting of place, and the territory that the place summons, and indeed the contested landscape of Oakland. The counter-cartography made the viewer do a double-take, but addressed how place was commemorated, and how the rider was entering a topography that had been defined by increased killings by law enforcement officers, if marked by a sharp drop some years after Oscar Grant’s tragic shooting and needless death.
Anti-Eviction Mapping Project–Killings by Oakland Police Officers
If the site of Oscar Grant’s shooting on the public transit platform had gained clearly divisive connotations, the absence of recognition at what so wrongly occurred at the site were made only deeper by the sentencing of the former transit officer for involuntary manslaughter,–and his early release after eleven months of his two-year sentence. Where was the place for Oscar Grant on the map? Renaming the station had already suggested the search for a fitting way to honor Oscar Grant, rather than obscuring the experience of Frank H. Ogawa–an interned Oaklander, barred from living in one of its “white” neighborhoods, who later rose to serve his neighborhood on the City Council. But the need of processing and addressing Grant’s wrongful death demanded commemoration lest it be wrongly erased from a collective memory–indeed, upon seeing the affixed decals some passengers wrongly imagined that, upon seeing the doctored map, that the city had altered the station’s name “’cause that’s where they killed him,” as if the map was The Man, and its authoritative voice was seen only as one of antagonism, not one in which they or Grant could inhabit, so foreign was the official landscape of public transit and so raw remained Grant’s more than wrongful killing. The memories activated by the place-name seemed to lead to stupefaction at the substitution of the station’s actual name for many who wondered what was up.
The decals renaming the station affixed by an unknown group–or an industrious individual–at a precise spot on several of the maps on the Fremont line is emblematic of a guerrilla cartography of the contested territories in Oakland. The cartographic revision of place registered the continued sensitivity of processing memories of place, and of doing so in a changing social field. The decals may have encouraged a mistaken rumor of an official renaming of Fruitvale Station as Oscar Grant Station in 2016, but also continue to remind us of the particulars power maps hold in preserving narratives about place, or literally as place-holders, and conserving a common memory. The prominence of the renamed station remind us of the contestatory nature of all naming, and renaming, in a testimony to the vital need of the map, even in an age of GPS surveying, where a geodetic position exists independently from the map–as a location stripped of context and independent from it. Fruitvale Station remains a site of contestation in Oakland’s public memory, three years before the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, occurring only years later in Sanford, Florida, four before the 2014 death from choking ofEric Garner in Staten Island, when the uncertainty of interaction on the BART cars seems as if it cold have gone different ways, but didn’t, and how we can deal with it as a community, some nine years later. The filming of these deaths on cell phones, and the collective witnessing of their deaths on social media, rehearsed the inequities of what seemed epidemics of abuses of justice.
The inequities of displacement cannot be seen but in this context as a form of exclusion; even if it is not as violent in its manifestations, it is far more insidious. And so it is all the more pressing, perhaps, to consider be best or indeed adequately visualized, in terms of its human costs. The odd use of muted pastels to visualize the pressures of displacement on the housing markets in the Bay Area calls attention to an important phenomenon but only at a distance–the widespread inexorable pressures of gentrification are light colored, and even along the Fruitvale are and International Street corridor all the way to Hayward. The color choice is not bad, but runs the risk of seeming to remove the observer from the actuality of displacement, and may, despite its best intentions, suggest only at a far remove the fates of those displaced, or the huge financial pressures of rising rents that have served as forces of exclusion–and the social justice issue that rising rents raise. The dislocation of man residents to cities outside of the Bay Area–Manteca; Visalia; Fresno–suggests a diaspora of economic refugees. The process of displacement is perhaps impossible to color as landcover, land-use, or population density and the spectrum that would be most opportune or adequately expressive may not exist. But the prominence of lavenders suggests a melancholy remove, and the intense spread of lavender along transit corridors and especially in Oakland West, if it mirrors the BART in scary ways, seems striking, although the degree to which the entire map is now covered with regions undergoing or at risk of displacement and exclusion suggests a Bay Area that is quickly leaving its former neighborhoods as they empty out..
At the same time as these process of exclusion and displacement spread, we’ve also seen an astounding 1,342% increase in homeless encampments between 2007 and 2017, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. The changes are a sign of the insidious nature of displacement lies in the rarely mapped spread of dense encampments of homelessness around Oakland–rarely mapped because they are so difficult to locate with precision and are often temporary in nature–but many of which are clustered precisely in what are the less visible areas of the city, where they are more easily overlooked, and at the edges of urban space. For the encampments of homeless in Oakland are, as in many cities, clustered under or along freeways, and often lying near to the waterfront. Often, provided with some sanitation, they are called “safe havens” in an odd echo of the neoliberal rhetoric of “safe spaces” for the relocation of refugees.
The city has established a number of “safe havens” for encampments that reduce immediate health hazards by offering trash pickup and toilets to the number of homeless encampments whose occurrence in urban areas have increased by 39% over two years.
It is dramatically striking that a large number of homeless consist of those displaced from some of the same urban neighborhoods in which they once lived: the recent finding by local reporters that an astounding 83 percent of the homeless in Alameda County had once lived in or near the very same neighborhood where they are currently living as homeless, unlike many homeless nation-wideide. The finding inspired a broader interactive map, to be undertaken by the City of Oakland and Roots Community Health Center, reveals a broad crisis of public health and inequalities, and the motion of homeless to encampments on the martinis of public life, living under freeways or close to the water, apart from the most populated neighborhoods, as if in places we have been taught not to look, where they will be less open to charges of offending neighborhoods, and because of this less vulnerable to folks calling the police on them.
Oakland Homeless Encampment beneath Freeway/Liza Veale/KALW
The have expanded across much of downtown Oakland and past the Oakland Coliseum, and and near Fruitvale Avenue or International Boulevard–here mapped by complaints that the Oakland Publics Works receives. If not comprehensive by any means, this outdated and provisional map–which reveals the dense settlement of the West Oakland out of the way spaces and abandoned industrial lots and back roads–reveals the extensively entrenched nature of homelessness and homeless encampments in Oakland, often overlooked and driven by, or out of sight, that mirrors the spread of displacement. Even if often removed form the area of International Boulevard or Fruitvale, the expansion of homelessness is something the city cannot process, which needs to be seen in relation to foreclosures and displacement, and is placing new stresses on the city’s moral economy.