Map Critique Jakob, Oct 5

Map Critique – Mapping Decline in St. Louis

For my map critique I choose an interactive online mapping project called “Mapping Decline. St. Louis and the American City” by Colin Gordon, professor of 20th Century US History at the University of Iowa. Gordon critically looks at the case of St. Louis to understand the forces that led to the decline of many US american cities throughout the past century. The web project is a visual addition to his book “Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City”, published in 2008, in which he examines the causes and consequences of St. Louis’ urban crisis using both archival research and GIS mapping techniques.

Mapping Decline by Colin Gordon,

The website consists of 4 interactive maps, that unravel the history of “White Flight”, “Race and Property”, “Municipal Zoning”, and “Urban Renewal”. For this map critique, I will focus on one of the maps, Race and Property, in which Gordon analyzes the concrete practices of redlining employed by the local real estate industry, the local, state, and federal governments, as well as individuals and groups, which gave rise to a racially segregated city. The map thus denaturalizes racial residential segregation and shows how it was produced by deliberate decisions and actions.

I am interested in this project as it maps policies and practices that produced racialized space — my semester project’s theme — and is a good example to discuss both the possibilities and constraints of mapping the cumulative effects of such polices and practices over time.

The map consists of six consecutive layers that the viewer can select and deselect in tabs below the map. Thematically, they present major institutional documents that guided the institutionalization of racial segregation:

  • the racial zoning ordinance of 1916 that designated “Negro blocks” and foresaw that African Americans were not able to buy properties in other areas;
  • two local realtor agreements of 1923 and 1941 that responded to the Supreme Court ruling of 1917–rendering racial zoning unconstitutional–by prohibiting real estate agents to sell or rent to African Americans outside of “unrestricted neighborhoods”;
  • the 380 restrictive covenants that existed in 1945, in which white property owners—guided by the local real estate industry—agreed to prevent the selling or renting of properties to African Americans;
  • and finally the two residential security maps of 1937 and 1940 produced by the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation, a federal New Deal agency that adopted the existing redlining practices and formalized it as the basis for their mortgage insurance programs for reinvestments in declining cities.

The first four layers of the “Race and Property” map, showing racial zoning, realtor agreements and restrictive covenants

The last two layers of the map, showing the two redlining maps produced by the HOLC in 1937 and 1940 

The scale of the map at the level of one city is effective in showing how certain policies and practices (redlining, urban renewal, restrictive covenants, racial zoning)—common for the history of many US cities—played out specifically in place. The map aims to illustrate a common history of many US cities by way of one specific example. The project is thus effective in communicating its main message—urban decline is not a natural process, but produced by human decisions and actions. The interactive aspect of the map works well in respect to the different levels of detail that the viewer can choose to delve in, ranging from the original documents, and the spatial representation on the map, to the text fields on the right giving a brief written summary of the causes and consequences of these policies.

However, there are several ways in which the information communicated through the map is misleading when it comes to the role of race in urban decline. The map falls short in showing the relationship between the policies being discussed in separate maps, and how they add up to the reality of racial segregation. It does so, firstly, by separating the issue of “race” into only one of the four maps, suggesting that redlining was the only practice through which racial residential segregation took place. This is problematic because, while redlining might have been the most direct form of racist urban policies, institutionalized racism has not vanished but simply changed its form after redlining practices were prohibited by the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and other and other civil rights legislation. Both urban renewal and zoning laws with their designation of different land uses—as well as many other policies not mentioned by Gordon—have been used to reinforce racial residential segregation in urban America. Second, and closely related to the first point, the fact that redlining practices are discussed for the time period between 1916 and 1940 suggests that the racist underpinning of urban politics lies in the past. While acknowledging that any map must necessarily be selective and can only give a partial view of any given topic, the interplay of map and text and the use of text boxes accompanying the maps would have been a way of addressing these issues and simplifications. 

Having looked at what is (or isn’t) being represented and communicated through the map—its content—I now want to turn to the question of how the content is being represented. Going through the layers in chronological order shows nicely how the first three practices (racial zoning, realtor agreements, and restrictive covenants) played out spatially and together produced neatly separated racial spaces in the city. The HOLC ratings, however, completely cover the lower layers, making it impossible to see their spatial relationship. Another design aspect which could be improved is the choice of colors, which in my view does not elevate the map’s intuitive and emotional legibility. The colors of the zoning ordinance and realtor agreements which both demarcated restricted black neighborhoods are not responding to each other, and are not visually distinguished from the restrictive covenants, represented in orange, that created and maintained spaces of white privilege.

Map prototype – The Production of Racialized Space in New York City


For my prototype, I applied Gordon’s layering technique to the production of racialized space in New York City, while trying to improve the design and content flaws of his map discussed above. Beyond the fact that interactive online maps are a nice pedagogical tool that allow viewers to explore a given topic in a self-guided way and to choose various levels of depth, they are well suited to show the relationship and spatial effects of the practices and policies that (re)produce racial residential segregation (such as redlining, urban renewal, public housing, the construction of highways, HOPE VI, or government-incentivized gentrification etc.). My prototype layers these policies on a base of the HOLC’s redlining map of 1938. This allows us to see the long-lasting impact of redlining and how it is currently being reproduced through more hidden practices of producing racialized space.

My prototype also includes social characteristics such as income levels and the racial and ethnic distribution of the population, to visualize the effects that the cumulative effects of such practices have on urban populations. Below I show various examples of layering these policies and social characteristics. 

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