Tag Archives: BART

Fruitvale Station

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.


Alameda Evictions.pngEvictions 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.



Screen+Shot+2017-09-28+at+11.21.36+AMUnlawful Detariner Notices Filed, 2005-16/Anti-Eviction Mapping Project


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.


big bart copy


BART Health Map:Life Expectancy at BART stopsLaura Choi//FRBSF


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.


Oscar Grant



“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.


Oscar Grant.JPG


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.


GettyImages-84291237-5a454cef96f7d00036e25426Justin 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.


city-of-women.jpgRebecca 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.


Subway South.pngRebecca 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.


SOUTH NYC SUBWAY MAPRebecca 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.


Oscar Grant.JPG


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.


Death by Law Enforcement Oakland.png

Oakland Police Killings--OPD, CHP, BART police.pngAnti-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..


Urban Displacement East BayUC Berkeley/Gentrification Displacement Map

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Filed under Bay Area, counter-map, mapping BART, mapping place, representing Oakland

Mapping Commute Routes across California in Pneumatic Tubes

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.  Elton Musk once was–not surprisingly–a big fan of Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy of 1951, 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 of Elon Musk seem 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.


BART_OriginalMapOriginal BART Map (1972)


The Hyperloop Musk has recently proposed recalls Asimov’s classic description of a trip to Hari Seldon, as much as to LA, as well 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:  indeed, the simple overlay of a yellow path of travel helps Musk spin the 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.  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.  A recently tweeted 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.


Musk tube take off!

Hyperoop SF-LA

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–which seems to be waiting for its engineer to actually map.

Hyperloop Diagram

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:

Musk Engines

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:

Hyperloop on I-5

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.

Hyperloop in Bay Area

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.

rail map scored corridors

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.

larger rout Hyperloop

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.

Phase 2 America 2050

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:

Trans-America Network 2050

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 hyperlink@telamotors.com.  But the devil seems to lie in its 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.

Emerging Megaregions

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?


Hyperloop-Elon-Musk-Train-e1432304356542-980x580.jpgHyperloop concept art from HTT


Filed under Bill Rankin, California, earthquake risk, Elton Musk, Google Maps, Google Maps ovelay, Hari Seldon, Hyperloop, Isaac Asimov, low-cost transit, Mass Transit Maps, megaregions, rail corridors, Star Trek, Tesla X, transit corridords, USS Enterprise

Oakland Represented Variously: What We See When We Map Oakland’s Inhabitants

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.

Oakland 1900

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?

OAK Topographical

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.

Redlining By the Shore

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:

esri dominant lifestyle est bay

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.
Skyscrapers in Oakland-  50 meters

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.

OaklandOpportunityImpactOverview-1024x663Distribution of San Francisco Foundation’s Investment in Oakland

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.

Map of Oakland and Vicinity- Key Car System

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.

Oak 1871 Birds Eye View

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.

Berkeley:Oakland Crime Density

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.

SF Crime Density

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:

eastbay_violent crime

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 the interactive 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.


Census Block legend

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:

Race in Oakland Google Mapped

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:

Mapping Race across Bay Area

%22Greater Mission%22

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:

NYC Racial Map from 20005-9 census

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:

Oakland Household Income Mean

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:

Below 25,000

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”:

Assaults, Arrests, Arson, Burglary, Robbery, Shooting, Theft, Vandalism

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:

Shooting Map in Oakalnd 2012

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:

Victims in oakland 2011

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.

Oakland Foreign Born Map

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 in Oakland

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:

National Gang Map

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.

Education--Less than high School degree

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.

70% no HS Bzy Area

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.’

College-Educated Oakland

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.

Racial Composition OAK in Bay Area

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.


Filed under Oakland, Oakland CA, open data, Racial Diversity, US Census