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 past January, I felt 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 or anticipated a legal confrontation with my landlord. The oppositional landscape of the gentrifying city was immediate, but was most vividly concretized by seeing the altered transit map in the car I took to a legal aid office–where the name for the station I was headed was covered by a decal (in a glorious act of cartographic resistance) that renamed the station after Oscar Grant, who had been shot on its platform after taking part in New Years Eve celebration in 2009, by a white BART officer.
The decal placed on the urban transit map in the header to this post served to reorient the viewer to an urban landscape that had been changed by cycles of gentrification, many of which had propelled so many residents to the urban periphery in Oakland. Indeed, the city has created a new sense of the suburbanization of many neighborhoods erasing the presence of former inhabitants, it seems to engage the social geography of the city, and the guerilla-style renaming of the station served as more than a marker and a reminder of a past that resisted urban exclusion, or resisted the dynamics of urban change in a city where I suddenly noticed my own precareity on the way to my appointment with legal aid.
There was some comfort in the decal affixed to the wall of the car. It created a chasm in the landscape in that BART car, in some way echoing the huge urban rioting and unrest following the killing of a twenty-two year old in the city–rioting that recalled the uprisings in urban America after the assassination of Martin Luther King. Jr., when the army was called in to northwest Washington, DC to avert social catastrophe. The memory was still so hard to negotiate that only a decade after the event did BART’s Board of Directors name a road near the station after Oscar Grant, an alley between 33rd and 35th avenues, to mark that unnecessary death. Rather selfishly, or out of fear, I was not thinking about the tragedy of his killing so much as the shifting landscape of Oakland and my relation to it.
The changes of rapid gentrification are beginning to be mapped by the Anti-Eviction Project, whose maps chart trace the residues of renters’ place in Oakland’s housing market. The decal oriented me to the changing urban landscape of Oakland, and served as a reminder of the precareity of urban residents as cycles of gentrification forced many living near Fruitvale Station itself, to relocate, recording something like a residue of displacement, that echoed the adoption of a tree as the new urban icon, suggesting a suburbanization of much of urban space, known now for farmers markets and the “unseeing” of many of its earlier residents, and erased much of its urban past–and indeed erased their faces.
A sense of presence was announced with clear resistance in that sticker, commemorating the shooting of Grant, a young twenty-two year old whose shooting provoked a level of rioting and looting that was reminiscent of the rioting in America cities after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr, catastrophic disruptions that led to the army to restore security, was, to be sure, a protest against racial inequality and overt racism of the BART officer. But the sense of instability that it registered in the transit map arrested me as a new site of orientation on a rapidly disappearing past, and as it somehow became an anchor or point of stability that orient me in the changing urban space, increasingly fluid and unsure, where I’d received an eviction notice in 2018.
The effect of cycles of gentrification–if not its engines–are evident in maps of the unlawful detainers served in the city in the past decade, and instability of the urban landscape that this has created. Visualizations of massive displacement of renters in the Bay Area chart escalating evictions in amped up real estate markets. The result is suggests of the changing nature of the commons or of public space over the past decade, as Oakland emerged as a prime site of private residence and rapacious landlords, and the city became something of a microcosm of the heightened pressures that the Bay Area experienced. The contracting commons is hardly able to be captured in point data. But a map of unlawful detainers issued across the city suggests the nature of the earth change, a swarm of ladybugs or less prosaic leeches feeding on the city’s neighborhoods, and ingesting its vitality: the arrival of predators that occasion such unlawful detainers suggest that the economy of home ownership nourish a form of master-slave relations. For across neighborhoods of radically different income levels, the shifting populations that have filled housing markets are mirrored by an ethnically shifting neighborhood, and a lowering of economic diversity. Even in the cordoned off area of North Oakland where I lived, the invasion of unlawful detainers had been felt not only from afar, but within what was a formerly African American neighborhood where home sales approached and far surpassed $1,200,000 for a two bedroom.
The extraordinary density appeared to track the outbreak of an epidemic or urban virus, the embodiment of the affliction of the city by landlord evictions mapped from 2005-15 seeming to be spread in strikingly uniform manner from North Oakland, where I lived, to Fruitvale in an evil effervescence or infestation of increasing gentrification and displacement of long-term residents.
Over the previous years, I had only 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. And the remapping of that station–where I headed on public transit–by renaming the station in gesture to a decade-old event piercingly revealed the unstable ground of social justice in Oakland, and made me feel better than since we were first served notice. The alternate embodiment of that map, created by a decal, seemed a powerful gesture of resistance as BART approached Fruitvale Station, and I reflexively looked from the map to the panel that hung above the BART platform a few times.
Although my dispute with my landlord was resolved, if quite contentiously, the sixty-day move-out notice concretized the economic pressures that have rewritten Oakland communities, and the deep disparities between landlords and renters–and the increasingly adversarial roles of landlords and predatory buyers of buildings in the face of the promise of greater rents– reminded one of the possibilities of legal contestation or assertion of renters’ rights for many in a city where I’d been tensely aware how rents had increased immensely and property revaluations was actively pressing populations on something of forced migration to far flung suburbia from Modesto to Visalia to Fresno to southern California. Arriving at Fruitvale Station to avail myself of public services was entering, if temporarily, into the unknown landscape of the disenfranchised.
Before Captain James T. Kirk ordered Agent Sulu to place the engines of the USS Enterprise on warp speed to go boldly to regions of the universe no man had gone before, in 1951 Isaac Asimov described Gaal Dornick waiting nervously for a Jump through hyper-space to visit Hari Seldon on Trantor. Dornick waited for his first ride on “the only practical method of traveling between the stars” through “hyper-space, that unimaginable region that was neither space nor time, matter nor energy, something or nothing, [by which] one could traverse the length of the Galaxy in the interval between two neighboring instants of time,” in ways that seem to prefigure Kirk ordering Scotty to place engines on “warp speed ahead” from his comfortable console on the Enterprise. Placing engines on “warp speed” was not only adopted as a mantra by Elon Musk, but offering a promise to move the nation into warp speed on a new sense of transit, where space will be conquered in neo-imperialist fashion as a benefit of the free market, public interest be damned. “People,” Musk has pronounced publicly, “like individualized transport, that goes where you want, when you want,” rather than a public service network of routes, a private transit system far preferable to the vision of “cram[ming] people in the subway,” rooted in an image of the frictionless world.
Musk once was–and no doubt still is–a big fan of Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy (1951), a classic of the and he’s offered Californians the prospect of something of a hyperspace-trip along California’s Central Valley in the futuristic Hyperloop. And now the tubes Musk seems to treat as a viable route for futuristic transit, some forty-five years after the unveiling of the pioneering long-planned 3.8 mile Trans-bay Tube and 3 mile bore vehicular tunnels of BART–the Bay Area Rapid Transit system–in September, 1972, that were among the longest in the nation, the most comfortable in its cushioned seating, and the most futuristic of its time, linking the region of the Bay Area as a single unit as a potential for its future growth. Yet if the BART provided an early icon promoting the Bay Area as a hub offering access to residents across an expansive commute–
–the promise of shrinking commute times across cities seemed the main aim of Musk’s promotion of the Hyperloop. Its actual intention was to torpedo high-speed rail as an option, using social media to lobby behind the scenes in the court of “public opinion” if not to go behind the state legislature, touting an unbuilt project as a way to stack the cards against public transit.
The notion that Musk, a developer of niche battery-powered vehicles for an exclusive market, using mineral-intensive lithium and cobalt batteries, should be an advocate for rethinking public transit was immediately problematic and questionable, let alone an advocate of safe transit, as a man who has mislead the nation about the safety of its Autopilot system, boosted as the future of self-driving cars, in quite misleading ways–“All you will need to do is get in and tell your car where to go,” the prospective buyers of the car are assured, and even “if you don’t say anything, your car will look at your calendar and take you there as the presumed destination,” boasting of interface abilities of its Autopilot and Full Self-Driving Features included in Tesla cars with a boosterism worthy of its name of its adopted name. The promise of personalized transit that Musk has long rooted his vision presumes a specific notion of pleasure promising to “increase the happiness of both drivers and mass transit users” in the name of efficiency, and innovation, but rethinks the basic tenets of public transit in ways that meet the aggregate needs of individuals, not of the collective community.
Nikolai Tesla is the namesake of Musk’s company, and was uncoincidentally the false prophet or messiah of electricity. Musk must relish Tesla’s own quite relentless promotion of the bounty of limitless free electricity as well as AC current has been appropriated by Musk to assume his own direct descent from the cult of the Serbian inventor whose work is often tied to robotics, laser, radio, and even x-rays in a relentlessly hagiographic fashion that have promised to spread by association to those who buy Musk’s costly cars, and if vicariously place themselves on the vanguard of electricity-based transportation akin to how Nikolai Tesla’s patents allowed George Westinghouse to introduce the most effective and economic distribution of electric power in America by polyphase current–the most effective means for powering electrical motors–a mantle Musk has channeled in Tesla Model 3’s very own “three-stage” charging stations.
Musk’s plans for the Hyperloop seemed an expand on the promotion of plans for BART as a modern linkage of the expanding East Bay into an economic unit, the promotion of Hyperloop seemed destine to disrupt the highway system, as well, we have recently learned, render obsolete not only earlier mass transit systems but needed high-speed rail systems in California. Musk has become increasingly aware of the pleasure of creating seismic earthquakes on social media, and the hint of a Hyperloop seemed able to materialize inverted the vision of consolidating Bay Area transit systems that BART aimed to achieve in the 1970s,–
–and has been a recognizable model for the future development of integrated mass transit today, in the imagined expansion of Bay Area Rapid Transit reaching by 2050 into Marin (purple line) and Silicon Valley.
In place of such an interconnected web, the Hyperloop Musk has recently proposed is a swift, single line. Its promise of transit from San Francisco to los Angeles recalls Asimov’s classic description of a frictionless trip to Hari Seldon, as much as one across California. As much as a serious proposal, it is a promotion better understood as a byproduct of artifacts and ideas generated at Tesla motors, to recast the commute from San Francisco to Los Angeles along airtight aluminum tubes. Musk first mapped his new mode of travel along hermetically sealed pressurized tubes in ways that reflect the idealized esthetic Google Maps afford of the Golden State as a region removed from any fears of natural disaster, earthquake tremors, or flooding: the overlay of a yellow path of travel let Musk spin a fantasy of real high-speed travel out on Google Maps template, removed from the risk of earthquakes on the Hayward fault or rainy seasons that would dim its solar-powered engines. It is an innovation similar to that Mush has sold to all those ready to cough up the cash to shift into warp speed collectively, by buying a Tesla, or booking travel to other planets on Space X.
Musk has since confessed to his biographer Ashlee Vance, Patricia Marx has revealed, the alleged proposal for the Hyperloop literally on the back of a napkin was a media stunt to get California legislators to scrap their own future plans for high-speed rail in the state. Musk had never intended to actually build the imagined utopia of mass transit via pneumatic tubes, but to torpedo public plans to expand mass-transit. The voluble libertarian inventor was hardly a fan of mass transit–he deemed it but a “pain in the ass”–but offering America collectively the promise of shifting into warp speed. Although Musk plans on constructing multiple similar networks of bored holes in major cities by his Boring Company that he promises are able to carry “pods” of passengers along electric “skates” at up to 150 mph, including a hyper loop between Washington, DC and New York City, as well as a tunnel network in Los Angeles, he feels public transit in fact “sucks,” and asked “Why do you want to get on something with a lot of other people . . . like a bunch of random strangers, one of whom might be a serial killer.” Indeed, the prospect of such pods promise the ideal of space-age travel that is familiar from 1950’s pulps, more than engineering books or public benefit. The promise was for us to be as hermetically sealed apart from reality as the hero of pulps of the Cold War era. Is this the vision of the future we want?
For Musk has repeatedly decried mass transit is but a distasteful immersion of one’s self among a crowd of unsavory individuals, and the individualized futuristic “pods” he proposes follow rather a technocratic vision of longtermism based in fact on the dreams of Nazi engineer Werner von Braun, a prophet of space travel, and Asimov’s Foundation series itself. The relic of the Hyperloop seems a libertarian spiking of actual plans to expand public transit, by a Neo-colonial project of exploiting “space” and the “future utopia” more tied to megalomania and the false security of oracular prediction compared by Kim Stanley Robinson dismissed as at base just a “story” with rotes not in actual engineering or transit problems, but “the 1920s science-fiction cliché of the boy who builds a rocket to the moon in his backyard, combined with the Wernher von Braun plan, as described in the Disney TV programs of the 1950s.” The image of an antiseptic sealed barrier to prevent a bubble of oxygen for white boys colonizing Mars was a stock image of fantasy literature for many kids sporting a haircut eerily similar to Musk’s own today.
The plan was a way to entice attention to his own abilities to solve the transit problems that plague California as a state, and a vainglorious promotion of how a single company might resolve free from local community input. Robinson lambasted Musk’s hope SPACE-X could promise one-way missions to Mars at a cost of $100,000 to $200,000 per ticket not only as “not believable, which makes it a hard exercise to think about further,” but self-indulgent exercises promoting travel to Mars as a single-company effort, the undermining of a state transit system with a single proposal from Silicon Valley suggested a similar Great Man idea of history, by again pedaling the myth of the futuristic fantastic visions once pedaled by Nikolai Tesla himself and his patents and his vision of a liberating future consisting in free electricity for all.
The map projects an image that obscures questions about how the cars would manage those turns at such high speeds, even as it seeks to conjure the promise of such high-speed travel. The immediate media stir around the recentlytweeted prototype of the Hyperloop makes the prospect of traveling in a vacuum actually all far more concrete. Planned to run through Quay Valley, a town to be built along Highway 5, midway between LA and San Francisco, to be built with Oerlikon Leybold Vacuum, who helped craft the large hadron collider at CERN in Geneva, capsules flying through vacuum tubes across the state were promised last year, and the cross between a Concorde and air hockey table may have arrived in an actual prototype tested in California over a shorter geographical stretch.
The pioneering tube of high-speed transit would suggest one of the “greenest” travel options in the state. Rather than make the drive down that expanse, or the airplane trip on which Musk may have doodled a map of the idea on a napkin, one commutes in the Hyperloop driven by a fan on its nose that sucks in pressurized air in the aluminum tube in which it is suspended, pushing air beneath and behind it like a hydrofoil, as one speeds in a vessel through the Central Valley past the many cars that travel on I-5: indeed, the proposed placement of the track of the Hyperloop beside the interstate allows its very structure to offer something of a standing advertisement for speedy velo-commuting.
Although Musk has yet to attract the investors or engineers to build the project along Highway 5 without disturbance to surrounding croplands on aluminum-encased rails on pylons, he promises that its economical construction would soon be able to shuttle seated passengers along on a cushion of air, in cars powered exclusively by fan that runs on batteries powered by solar energy that would rest on the roofs of its reinforced tubes. To be sure, the Hyperloop offers a radical updating of the sort of proposed transit solutions to link the two metropoles, including the “Sleepbus” equipped with oddly analogous pods, but promising to do the same distance overnight in old-style automotive style fueled by gasoline:
In the face of such an outdated (if funky) alternative of overnight transit in an old Volvo bus for $48, Musk advocated his speculative plan as a radical re-imagining of public transit corridors.
It offers evidence of his interest in thinking ahead of the curve for the benefit of the state in which he works. Musk proposed this vision primarily as an alternative to plans for implementing high-speed rail in California proposed by Governor Jerry Brown. He couched the proposal as an illustration of an illustration of his public-spirited commitments: rather than spending the 68 billion dollar price tag on rail to be completed in 2029, Musk promises a commute time from San Francisco to LA in under half an hour, if you’ll just buy his batteries and plan and follow him in the scrapping of all existing public rail systems in the US. Although the pragmatics of the proposal have all to be mapped out in further detail, his 57-page spec sheet PDF Musk manages, with the help of Google Maps, to flesh out the practicalities with an urgency that makes one wonder why no one every thought of this model for moving through space before–that seems designed primarily to hold skeptics temporarily at bay, and meet the building anticipation for Musk’s plans for a “fifth mode” of transport. It is amazing that his proposal manages to resolve so many issues, and present itself as a significantly lower-cost alternative to high-speed rail, and even makes one question how “high-speed” the quite expensive rail system would actually be.
In providing commuters with a cabin that is “specifically designed with passenger safety and comfort in mind,” Musk’s plans caters to the jet-set who probably wouldn’t even want to drive. It’s rather something of an alternative to the airplane. Musk envisions Hyperloop as the travel of the future, whose construction would be far less costly than a rail system, and directly linked to renewable solar energy. Since the Hyperloop also evidences of Musk’s commitment to the public good, it is odd that it also undermines recent attempts to create a useful means of public transit that would reduce both air pollution, gas use, and highway-crowding in California. Musk’s antagonistic presentation of the “bullet train [as] both one of the most expensive per mile and one of the slowest in the world” seeks to use engines created by Tesla to offer a “fifth mode” of public transit able to reach supersonic speeds driven by an electric compressor fan, charged by photovoltaic cells perched on above its path. Its DeLorean-like doors, like the “Falcon Wings” of the Tesla XTesla X, seductively open to invite passengers to hop on in for the ride . . .
The map for the route is not that different from Highway 5 itself, whose path it follows, but the conceptual mapping of travel through space is decidedly futuristic in tone, boasting traveling speed not beyond light but above 700 miles per hour, allowing something of a Jump between the two not so neighboring cities in California akin to an air hockey table on skiis, which he promised “would generate far in excess of the energy needed to operate” and whose energy could be stored in the form of compressed air itself. Told with the urgency that one might associate with the inventor Nikola Tesla himself, the basic diagram of the Hyperloop is devoid of any actual spatial placement–still waiting for its engineer to actually map.
The ‘conceptual diagram’ is wonderfully futuristic vision that has been beautifully sketched as a sleek object of a consumer’s fantasy for an aerodynamic car running on skis, more than clearly mapped as a means of transit, whose propulsion system allows it to accelerate quickly to 300 miles per hour before reaching 760 mph by a linear induction motor, making the trip last but 35 minutes:
Needless to say, the linear induction motor has already been built by Tesla motors, and the solar generators on the roof of the tube use cels from Musk’s own SolarCity company; but mapped on Google Maps to follow I-5, the route becomes a reality, and that huge stretch of Highway 5 that no one really likes to drive on is reduced to a route the Hyperloop passenger barely registerd as s/he was sucked past:
The pneumatic tube isolates commuters from the travel experience, shuttling them from LA into San Francisco in ways that seem perfectly synchronized with the excitement over the new Bay Bridge, whose own futuristic and streamlined design it seems to leave in the dust.
Granted, we do need to update the systems of public transit that are woefully underfunded and often outdated in the United States. The existing options are mapped in the below illustration, brought to us by radical cartography‘s own Bill Rankin, comparing the layouts and expanse served by systems of urban mass transit: the great majority of these mass transit systems follow a simple hub-and-spoke design of regional commutes seem diminished insects once placed beside the grandiose vision of futuristic streamlined jetting between metropoles of the sort that Musk envisions, raising some questions about the efficiency of Musk’s futuristic system.
The ways of viewing the city as a self-contained unit is not necessarily a canvass broad enough for spatial travel to accommodate urban growth.
The limited efficiency of our rail corridors, which aside from the Northeast get low scores–and are in need of massive structural updates–moreover seem retrograde when compared to the system Musk sketched.
Musk, to be fair, advocates an eventual state-wide expansion that would be a virtual state-wide redesigning of the rail system into a range of spin-off Hyperloop stations: “give me a map,” Tamburlaine said, weary of further battle, “[and] then let me see/ how much is left for me to conquer all the world”–or, in the case of Musk, all the state of California.
But Musk doesn’t offer a system of mass transit, but something more like a transit for the haves, and elite type of shuttle that can be experienced by those whose time is worth the public investment on a project that would best serve them. While he of course isn’t explicit about the audience he is addressing, it is pretty much the same as those to whom he is selling a Tesla S for a $70,000 cash payment–some of which can be recouped through electric vehicle tax incentives, and a monthly saving in energy costs–not the prospective audience, in short, as Amtrak.
And maybe–just maybe–Musk’s futuristic Hyperloop isn’t really so future-oriented after all, but more of a projection of Musk’s own fantasy, designed while scribbled on a napkin while flying from Los Angeles to Menlo Park. It is striking that the notion of a phasing in of plans for high-speed rail is a plan mapped that has been mapped by the Regional Plan Association America 2050, was premised upon the belief that rail can sustain and facilitate regional economies’ growth in crucial ways, and should be built around them in order to foster their growth.
Eventually, the Regional Plan Association envisions a Trans-National Network to connect “megaregions” sharing natural resources and ecosystems–as well as interests–by new corridors to foster their inter-related economic systems:
Musk’s plotting of a travel corridor by Google Maps software seems a quick reality, even if one that has come in for some ridicule on late-night TV, that might be mostly for folks who jet-set between two cities on the California coast. The “reality” of his Google Maps reconstruction of a state-wide system, positioned itself to replace the very cars that his company produces, but is also a pretty darn exclusive ride. To be sure, Musk invites open feedback and contributions to his design from anyone at email@example.com.
But the devil seems, as always, to be lying in its quite murky details: plans call for “Building the energy storage element out of the same lithium ion cells available in the Tesla Model S is economical,” he assures us on page 38 of the spec sheet for the Hyperloop, using the very supercharger batteries which, he promises, “directly connected to the HVDC bus, eliminating the need for an additional DC/DC converter to connect it to the propulsion system,” provide the linear accelerator with sufficient propulsive energy to accelerate to supersonic speeds, allowing one effectively to ski from Los Angeles to Norcal, or ski back to Bakersfield. While cool as hell, the axial model of this coastal shuttle suggests few possibilities for expansion to the hinterland, or obstacles form the environment–like earthquakes. (Musk likes comparing the Hyperloop by comparing it to a cross between the Concorde and an air hockey game, a colorful simile, probably to give the concept a populist appeal; but this is an air hockey game on fixed and tracks.)
But the deeper question behind the funding of the system of Hyperloop may be the degree to which San Francisco and Los Angeles will ever come to constitute a single economy: the forecasting of a map of national megaregions suggests it may in fact not be one, and provides a picture of the megaregions it wants to link.
The scheme that Musk floated is not attentive to the clusters of economics, but incarnates the very aesthetic of the Google Map. Indeed, as a scheme of travel, it perpetuates a means by which one can move through a landscape without registering its existence, and removing space from travel, much as Google Maps isolate place from environment, in a new form of transit whose focus adopts the passenger’s perspective of space, rather than the expanse through which s/he travels, or the impact of building these rails on surrounding farmlands or their potential impact. In removing the schematic map of rail destinations from any external or material constraints by the dream of frictionless travel in an air-bearing suspension system, Musk maps an argument to channel public monies to a system which awaits its designers and engineers–or at least to plan on doing so to bolster shares of Tesla (NASDAQ: TSLA) to robustness on Wall Street.
Some concern about Musk’s eagerness about the project encountered has been directed to the far greater price tag it would probably involve, as well as its earthquake-safety, and skepticism about the entire question of whether “the thing would actually work.” Perhaps the deeper question is whether the state of California–and indeed the coast of that state–provides the sort of economic hub that needs to be connected. The fantasy that it does seems to grow out of the maps that so prominently convince readers’ of the reality in Musk’s elegant spec sheet.
These maps suggest yet another way maps generate ways of thinking of and considering space without reflecting on its occupation: how hard would it be, after all, to travel down the Interstate to not be confined to cars, without having the distractions of the farmland that lies between, and the smell of all those cows?
The range of ‘open’ online data that is available for a city such as San Francisco showcases the city’s clear definition of a public space. Although there are plenty of spaces of local meaning and importance in Oakland, from the site of Occupy near the mayor’s office to nearby Chinatown and Lake Merritt, or from Fruitvale Station to west Oakland urban farms and on to Alameda, the fragmented nature of public space is difficult to map coherently.
When it comes to public space, the East Bay and Oakland–despite a rich variety of parks, an estuary, and increasing vitality of Jack London Square–is a polycentric sprawl, its former downtown interrupted by freeways, and open boulevards dotted with closed commercial centers, beauty supply zones, or dense interchanges. This is in part due to how little the diverse areas and neighborhoods of the city know themselves. How to map the inhabitants of Oakland, CA, given the considerable diversity across neighborhoods? Does it exist as a unified social space, or what image of the city emerges? By looking at some of the census maps of the city, and mining the range of information compiled in them by displaying their data in mapped form, we can process and digest the complexly variegated nature to view its population’s profile. (Indeed, the problems of politically representing the complex composition of a somewhat divided city were revealed in the most recent mayoral election of 2014.)
The sprawling city challenges the abilities of the social cartographer as much as the post-modern space of Los Angeles, even in this real-estate view. Maps of any scale organize social space by relevance, preparing a selective record of its inhabitation and revealing networks for ready consultation. Maps of any scale create a simulacrum or construct of social reality, as much as simply orient their readers: the city’s salient features highlighted and network of organization explained, omitting other spaces and residents. We might start by acknowledging how the below bird’s-eye view of Oakland from c. 1900, of unknown origin, celebrating the city’s settlement and early Bay Area Real Estate: the engraving showcases an open urban grid as an area becoming future realtors to its shores: if mostly green and largely uninhabited, presents a prospective view of the city-port as a commercial center, showcasing notable houses of prosperous residents that distinguished Oakland’s built environment, and beckoning viewers to its estuary and the man-made shores of its new Lake as if to shift our attention from the city of San Francisco.
Elevated or “bird’s eye” views praising urban identity and architecture such as this anonymous print had a long tradition. Such imagined constructions that gained currency as encomiastic forms, often complemented by poetic paens to their social harmony. If the artist who engraved and designed the elevated map is not known, the presentation of the city’s growing physical plant and street structure echoed the architectural elegance of earlier urban views, as the visual encomia to the elegance of architectonic form of Venice in the virtuosic perspective designed by Jacopo de’ Barbari circa 1500 of his own creation. De’ Barbari exploited skills of perspective to craft a graphic and pictorial encomia to his native city’s architecture and burgeoning wealth to trumpet its social distinction; an earlier elevated view of Florence, sold by the cartographer and engraver Francesco Rosselli similarly celebrated and displayed the architecture of his native city. De Barbari famously employed to evoke the harmonious order of his city, also lying in close proximity to surrounding wetlands, by displaying its distinctive harmony–vaunting its delicate socio-political balance figuratively by deploying his mastery of creating a previously unimaginable perspective to considerable effect, showing the density of its architecture in the watery surroundings.
Even if much of present Oakland seems a bit of a blank slate, whose territory expands from its port and the man-made lake built to beautify its urban estuary, the print of c. 1900 divides plots and settled acreage, as the surrounding images of buildings that testify. This is not only a pictorial space, but an attempt–as the Rosselli and de’ Barbari maps–to show the social space as harmoniously mapped to a pictorial space of representation, and distinguish the city as a microcosm of the world. Both maps offer sophisticated visual glosses on the ancient notion of a “chorography” or qualitative view of a community, elegantly overlaying and equating their imaginary perspectival space with he social spaces of each city.
Can we create a modern chorography of Oakland that both displays and comprehends its dynamic heterogeneity, or would the city split into social divides? Google Maps clearly fails to do so, but what would a comparable mapping of Oakland’s populations look like, perhaps mapped from the ground up–in the manner that Jacopo labored to achieve?
There was clear redlining of much of the East Bay’s residential areas in real estate maps for the East Bay cities dating from the Depression, in which Home Owners Loan Corporation rated neighborhoods for the refinancing of mortgages that amounts to a reflection of the value of property in the East Bay, and reveal an odd mosaic of the city that privileged some regions, but also include a clear redlining of those regions by the Bay and the main arteries of transportation that continue to define Oakland’s port. The red-lining of the city’s residential areas in the New Deal structured the city’s social geography in imaginary construction ofways that reflect the continued exclusion of African Americans and blacks from the market of legitimate home mortgage in much of America through the 1960s, described so compellingly by Ta- Nehisi Coates, and in Oakland not only reflect the deep divides in residential ownership but created social disparities but record scars that make the city’s future harmony particularly difficult to re-imagine. The zones of imbalanced opportunities for home ownership that long existed in the city created perpetuated deep social divides among its residents, often left without the chances of refinancing that were available to many other residents from the 1930s in the United States, as its port and low-lying areas became victims to a classic image of “blight” with roots in its deep abandonment by the public good in ways not yet overcome.
From the first settling after the San Francisco earthquake of the Oakland hills, the demographic divides Oakland’s settlement seem to have been reflected in the value of residential ownership in its neighborhoods in ways revealed in the fractures lines of the map of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, and which have continued to divide its neighborhoods even after a period of urban growth. The absence of clear neighborhoods or community organizations around the major traffic arteries that Oakland has long been defined by at its port and older shipping canals created something like a social divide not only in this early HOLC map, but that has been perpetuated within the socioeconomic divisions that were so starkly reflected in the “red-lining” of urban real estate.
Even if Oakland has been billed a “livable city,” the “split personality” is revealed in the divides starkly illuminated by a map of social lifestyles generated by an ESRI tapestry charting dominant lifestyles–purple noting High Society; blue “upscale avenues;” teal “Metropolis;” light bright blue “metro trendsetters;” green “seniors;” and tan and brown “inner city,” “highrise,” or “up and coming.”
The map shows the city’s split personality:
In a year that boasted crowd-sourced mapping of the San Francisco Bay, organizing the demographic divides that continue to shape Oakland deserves our sustained attention–and the varieties of viewing the divisions and distributions in the settlement of Oakland’s space. Unlike San Francisco, dominated by some 359 skyscrapers in its downtown and other regions, Oakland is far more geographically disperse and diffuse, with only a small number of buildings over fifty meters all clustered by Lake Merritt–including those noted in blue, under consideration or construction.
The recent ambitious and brave investment intended to equalize these clear socioeconomic divisions and to prevent them from being perpetuated by public services from schooling to economic opportunity is a step in the right direction and, based on a back-of-the-envelop calculation, seems to have its priorities and direction of resources fairly straight in how it has decided to invest in Oakland’s neighborhoods’ futures.
But how to frame and orient the viewer of a map of the city’s demographic divisions is fraught, given the difficulty of uniting Oakland as a whole, or even in abstracting an analogously unified image that connects its disparate inhabitants. The network that bounds the city was advanced rather optimistically in a map that elegantly promoted the lost or abandoned system of Key Cars whose web linked downtown Oakland to the Temescal and Alameda–the infrastructure for the local economy that it did up until its complete dismantling by 1959.
The serviced networks that any map foregrounds, even one of transit routes, engage their readers by networks of inter-relationships. The above map affirms a network of transportation for their rider, suggesting the ways that the infrastructure by which the Key-Car systems united downtown Oakland and the vicinity–much in the manner current BART maps promise to link everywhere in the East Bay in a radius to Point Richmond, Brentwood, and San Jose. The current BART network may link the Bay Area, indeed, as Oakland seems to be forsaken as being the economic it was by transit authorities and Bay Area residents.
But Oakland is also a city whose social space was long both divided and eviscerated, as the network of streetcar transit was dismantled, the railroad stations that centered the town from the 1880s declined or closed, preparing for the razing of the West Oakland residences of many porters for the MacArthur maze, long before the collapse of the I-880 Cypress Freeway in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake–and the subsequent massive shifts in home-ownership as a large number of houses went underwater after 2007 led to a wave of foreclosures that was almost distributed across the city, and which redefined its social space once again.
The divides and diversity in Oakland make the mapping of the city of particular interest as tools to understand its social reality. In a society where we are regularly mapped and surrounded by maps, the critical of reading maps is recognized as an important tool to negotiate and mediate lived social space. What sorts of divides and continuities emerge in a city like Oakland, historically defined by considerable racial diversity and income disparity? How to map so many variations in one place?
When Denis Wood and John Fels described the map as an ideological construction of space or territory, they took time to examine the surrounding ‘paratext’ to maps as keys or markers that revealed the ideological construction of the space within the “nature” of the map, created by interpretive legends and iconography, as well as the semiotic conventions of the map itself: yet interactive urban maps provide much more of a creative cartographical conventions and treat the map as something like an open text.
In their critical examination of the authority inherent in the medium of the map, The Nature of Maps, Wood and Fels argue that the relation between a map and territory exists through how cartography–as much as cartographers–“constructs the natural world” in relation to other sign systems, construing the relation of a ‘map’ to ‘territory’ by how maps inescapably make their subject ideological. Taking as their case in point maps of nature, they argue the order of maps demand assent from readers through what they call the ‘postings’ and the relays that the map creates to the world it ostensibly depicts, and the new understandings of space it creates. Wood and Fels argue “relays” in maps, tied to the texts inherent in them or positioning in books or paratexts, which uniquely promote the construction of meaning, effectively organizing complex mental spaces to understand nature in maps, whose structure demands assent to create truth-claims about nature, and transform the space of the natural world into a structure by which nature is spatialized as known. The Barbari and Rosselli views assert an ideology of the local, spatializing the city as it is best viewed and encomiastically celebrated as a microcosm, even though the “paratexts” by which one reads a map are left tacit for their viewers.
Yet the map does not begin from an empty space, so much as it is rooted in a space that is inhabited: it indeed tracks multiple networks of inhabitation.
Tempting as it is to argue that social space fills in the empty space of a geographic region, the maps of Oakland’s inhabitants suggest a remaking of the city’s social space–and present an image of the remaking of that space viewed from the ground up. For rather than providing a fixed or authoritative transcription of space that promotes “a standard scientific model” that creates a “mirror of nature . . . through geometry and measurement,” as Harley wrote was endemic to the discipline of cartography, or invest authority in a single map, the variety of Google Maps templates to plot data from the US Census for the years 2005-9 create a set of multiple maps in themselves each provisional, which they invite viewers to act by ordering their content. It is perhaps no surprise that, in an age when maps proliferate, and we are both regularly mapped and surrounded by maps, the appeal of the website is that it provides tools to select variables and determine geographic parameters about the city that we can know: indeed, their interactive nature provide a shifting notion of a map as a graphic fixity. Wood and Fells primarily examined the organization of space within the printed map, critically reading map’s insertion in printed texts and their relation to the semiotics of written legends.
The compilations of maps based on census data offer, at a far greater granularity than other maps, to divide space by variable criteria of income, race, or level of education to offer what might be treated as elements of a composite picture of the city’s inhabitants–from the ground up–rather than demanding assent to a given cartographical record. In a sense, the interactive maps below start a discussion about the nature of mapped space from which one can begin to examine the city’s social space. The interactive map creates an open text whose variables and criteria users can create.
They provide a basis to question, critique and re-evaluate question the dominance of stereotypical categories of local violence or gangs as relevant descriptors of the city, but provide a bit more complex picture of its social composition. For the interest of these maps lie in how viewers map them as simulacra against their mental maps, rather than in their mimetic claims: ‘simulacra’ since all maps are both filters of information that parse the relevance of social space and embody a coherent order of space, providing deeply social tools for reading. Rather assigning integrity to the map as a unique document, we can understand its ‘social life’ through how each creates and constitutes its own social reality for readers: the Google Maps templates offer a basis to refract socio-economic distributions in the city, rather than fetishize the authority of the given map as a form that commands assent; the familiar templates increase the improvised nature of the comparative mapping exercise. But Matthew Block, Shan Carter, and Alan Maclean are also particularly inventive graphic artists in how they use of Google Maps–especially in comparison to how it is usually used by others.
The interactive maps created from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey provide tools to track social realities across the nation, and filters to view specific variables in each zip-code and neighborhood. I’m interested how maps embody Oakland as a coherent entity, and in Oakland a test-case to examine maps as embodiments of space and to illustrate spatial divides, as well as to filter different aspects of social space. The interactive maps devised by Block, Carter, and Maclean employ Google Maps templates to invite viewers to process the coherence and divides within data from the US Census in spatial terms, using data for the years 2005-9 to create multiple maps, generated on demand, that refract or mediate statistical realities in visual formats which provide compelling ways to embody and understand social realities from the ground up. The statistical “maps” map at stunningly finer grain that reality–by “Mapping America: Every City, Every Block,” as they boast–that use tools of mapping creative interventions to analyze the Bay Area and its inhabited landscape; the mapping forms offer tools more than vehicles to demonstrate variables of race, income, education, or presence of recent immigrants, offering alternative models by which the region might both be mapped and, by extension, surrogate realities by which its composition might be known. As much as surrogate realities, they refract pieces of that reality that we must juggle and assemble for ourselves, less attentive to the semantics of the Google Maps frame than their content. One might compare them to conventional maps based on skimpier data, to which their detail and agility provide a sort of foil–starting from the graphic charting crime-density in the Bay Area based on the police blotter.
The map is surprising for how the area immediately around the campus is a thick blotch of indelible red, bleeding into its nearby areas and along Telegraph Avenue like indelible ink. Most of this “crime” is based on calls to the Police Dept., including a significant number of calls about problems of noise around fraternity row: the impermeable barrier both around campus can be explained by the different policing agency that supervises the university’s campus, and the boundary of the Berkeley Hills to the East. Crime is mapped not only indiscriminately, but distributed to reflect the contours of public complaints, as much as actual crimes. Although the red splotches and streaks around much of Oakland and focused in its downtown seems in keeping with the difficulty of maintaining control over the dispersive city, while around UC Berkeley are dense stains of intense crimson that corresponds to the frequency of calls that the local police receive near campus. It is interesting to contrast the map to that of San Francisco–where a huge amount of crime is clustered in the downtown, near the Embarcadero, Tenderloin, and Mission and some pockets around Van Ness–in a broad field of relatively crime-free green.
And so, if we shift mapping forms to a sort of heat-sensitive map of the violence committed and reported, the hot-spots of Oakland are more readily apparent–almost as a diffuse miasma of violence spread over neighborhoods like a viral form whose trajectory is difficult to explain or track: heat-sensitivity is an apt cartographical metaphor of the subject charted:
The map of hot-spots of violent crime provides a different picture, if a tragic one, extending along the city’s major streets deep into East Oakland. One might ask how this maps onto the city’s racial diversity. Given common predispositions, it might make sense to reflect on the city’s composition with greater granularity. Does violence correlates to the complex ethnic or racial distribution of the city? or to income? or to gangs, as often suggested? The interest of theinteractive maps lies how viewers map these simulacra against their own individual mental maps, as much as in their mimetic claims: ‘simulacra’ since all maps are both filters of information that parse the relevance of social space, providing deeply social tools for reading. Rather assigning integrity to the map as a unique document, we can understand its ‘social life’ through how each creates and constitutes its own social reality for readers. Aside from the heat-spots in West Oakland, race is not a determining factor in a clear a way at all, although the ethnic diversity of Oakland–a historically African American city with a rapidly shrinking number of areas dominated by African American populations. It’s in fact striking that the greatest mix of black and hispanic Oaklanders in any neighborhood occurs on the edges of Oakland: and that the island of Piedmont is the only area that’s white.
The same data can readily be re-mapped to present a distinctly different picture of the city, emphasizing urban diversity, by using the US Census Bureau’s data from 2005-9, using the American Community Survey. Block, Carter and Maclean exploit the Google Maps platform to embed Census data in color-coded terms, which shows small pockets of African American concentration by light blue, but relative integration with the greatest concentration of Asians near Chinatown downtown. The below aggregates units of fifty people, rather than proportional composition, to provide finer granularity of the population and of each neighborhood in Oakland, if in a less than dynamic manner:
Oakland’s complex diversity might well be compared to the clearer clustering in other urban regions of the Bay Area, where whites are more concentrated in clearly bound neighborhoods, and Asians similarly concentrated in areas around Golden Gate park (Inner and Outer Sunset)–if with considerable overlap of Asian and Hispanic populations in the Mission:
Far more sharply defined geographies of racial separation define New York City, where property values create the starkly demarcated racial composition of Manhattan, and concentrations of blacks in outlying peripheries in the Bronx, New Jersey, Queens, and Brooklyn, as well as part of Harlem:
We see a different picture of Oakland if we look at outside racial self-identification, but examine economic diversity at a finer grain in its neighborhoods.
Back to the Bay Area, stark income divides define the landscape of Oakland in this map of median family incomes in the same dataset, more than race:
More specifically, the map reveals clear divides and income troughs where median incomes have sunk below $25,000, often reflecting food deserts and islands of an evil toxic brew of desperation, hungry desire, and distraction:
For Oakland, the website Spotcrime employs catchy icons to track arrests (handcuffs); arson (flames); assaults (fists); burglaries (masked faces under hats); robberies (men running with money-bags); shootings (cross-hairs); thefts (purple silhouettes of men running); and vandalisms (green cans of spray paint spraying red), creating a detailed map to set off mental alarms in the name of a call to “know your neighborhood’s dangers”:
Even if the violence and theft are predominantly in low-income areas, where the map dutifully foregrounds these impressive icons, doesn’t it remove a lot about what good happens in the same low-income areas? After counting 1, 077 shooting incidents in Oakland in 2011 with 1, 594 victims of guns–the largest category among which (140) belonged to minors, and the greatest sub-group 16-year-olds (40) and 17-year-olds (38)–John Osborne used Google Maps to represent in a fairly schematic way the urban distribution of fatal shootings by neighborhood:
The terrifying concentration of aggregates off International Boulevard, a major thoroughfare in East Oakland, past Fruitvale Avenue, the overwhelming majority of whose suspects are male. In abstracting each as discrete, of course, the map is less successful underlying ties to both prostitution rings or drug deals, so much as a platform to make claims about gangs or organized crime. The following map of victims of shootings reveals an even somewhat scarier density in the identical area of West Oakland:
What kind of image of Oakland emerges? It’s difficult to map it clearly. One striking effect of the greater scale and definition of the maps based on the 2010 census is that the considerable proportion of resident immigrants in the city, which reveals a considerably high percentage–often more than half and up to 70% if not almost 80% in West Oakland, across from Alameda–of foreign-born residents, which demonstrates a considerable geographic mobility among residents that seems specific to the area: Oakland has long been a cosmopolitan center that attracted the displaced to its margins.
Immigration is not criminality, but suggests the margins of the city are where the displaced arrive: displacement might be something of a thread in Oakland’s history, from the arrival of (far more wealthy) San Franciscans after the 1906 earthquake in Piedmont to the Chinese-American railroad laborers who settled downtown, the railway porters whose families created a large community in West Oakland from the 1880s, and workers for the shipyards, or rich communities of Eritreans, Africans, Native Americans (Lakota or Dakota), Hispanic, Hmong, Vietnamese, Somalians and Congolese who most live in cheaper housing and are likely to be taken advantage of in varied ways. As of 2004, Oakland somehow ranked tenth in the US for the largest number of immigrants, according to the 2006 Census, despite a less vigorous local economy, and almost 30% of its entire population is foreign-born. The margins of the city somehow remain greater and far larger than its center.
But Oakland remains known, despite this mobility, despite the presence of city gangs, a more deep-seated and almost endemic presence and prime descriptor of the city. One can–and many do–blame gang-violence, or the competition for turf; but the violence is difficult to separate from prostitution and drug-related crime, not necessarily competition between gangs or gang-related activities, even though gangs do suggest a culture of violence.
Gangs are difficult to measure, although the intensity of turf-wars would seem to make it easy to use the map as an indicator of violence.
Yet if one looks at a broader map of “gangs,” the variables seem impossible to keep constant, even in a hand-drawn map of gangs in East LA from 1978 purporting to decode ‘insider knowledge’ about a topography of violence, but provides only the sketchiest of tools:
The difficulty of attributing meaning to the mapping of gangs is more apparent if one notes their widespread presence, given this–perhaps unreliable–map taken off of a “National Gang Map” which reveals a dramatic concentration of gangs and gang members in the Westernmost states:
Perhaps their presence itself reveals an attempt to make meaning from life or to carve it out of one’s social terrain to the greatest extent that is possible. One compelling map maps educational attainment–with the brightest yellow indicating an inability or difficulty to complete High School at 70%–with less than high school completion hovering around 40% among families.
In the Bay Area at large, the failure of education in the Foothill-International area is striking, and is doubtless also some degree of failure in socialization if not of public education, and maps a continuing challenge for the city’s School Board and public schools.
And a corresponding map of college-educated Oakland reveals a bounded drop in below 20%, more roughly characterized at 5-14% with a BA, with large numbers of closely bordering districts hovering between 5-8%: this might be one measure of the cultural insulation and isolation of the region, if not a clear barrier to what is often described as an ‘achievement gap.’
Those empty tan regions are a measure of the difficulty of shifting a divide between different Oaklands, because it maps a cross-generational or at least temporal divide in the given area over time. The heterogeneity of Oakland is nonetheless striking even in its inequalities, to turn back to map racial diversity of Bay Area generated in bright colors on the NYT website of Block, Carter and McLean, since it suggests a picture of considerable promise.
But of course a map is not a picture. It is a picture of variability, which can shift depending on one’s chosen criteria. In the distribution of income levels in North Oakland, aggregating incomes of twelve families reveals a telling integration of an income-mix more striking and apparent than the in the above demographic models: despite a scattering of upper-income levels across this North Oakland area from Emeryville, across San Pablo, and up to Broadway Terrace and Grand Avenue, lower income levels are present virtually throughout the region, with the exception of East of Broadway, although Broadway provides a clear dividing line of high incomes and lower ones, and the 880 corridor below MacArthur dotted with light blue markers.
The color-coded map of relative incomes provides us with some possibly meaningful correspondences to the hot-spots in crime. But I wouldn’t advance the sort of argument that maps crime–or gun-violence–onto variations in household income. The pictures of the city offer limited tools that suggest possible sites of research that might help to connect these dots. But they offer useful, ground-up mappings of the city’s inhabitants.
Processing the relations among inhabitants of Oakland offers a way to renegotiate your relation to the city as a whole. Mapping is about navigating, as well as processing, a surfeit of information, and about making the connections among it, grosso modo, that exist. The fine grain of the census maps provides both a corrective to our preconceptions, and the start of something like a more fair–and illuminating–map of the city’s social space.
We read more maps than ever before, and rely on maps to process and embody information that seems increasingly intangible by nature. But we define coherence in maps all too readily, without the skepticism that might be offered by an ethics of reading maps that we all to readily consult and devour. Paradoxically, the map, which long established a centering means to understand geographical information, has become regarded uncritically. As we rely on maps to organize our changing relation to space, do we need to be more conscious of how they preset information? While it is meant to be entertaining, this blog examines the construction of map as an argument, and proposition, to explore what the ethics of mapping might be. It's a labor of love; any support readers can offer is appreciated!