Map Critique: Urban Displacement Maps and Counter Cartography

Anna Gorman
Maps as Media

Map Critique: Urban Displacement Maps and Counter Cartography

Although two distinct terms, “gentrification” and “displacement” each inform the other and are ubiquitous features of many contemporary cities. New York City is no exception. For my thesis project, I aim to explore an angle of these contentious terms – namely, how the policies and practices deployed in cities over the last several decades have polarized, oppressed, and disenfranchised the majority of urban inhabitants. It is my contention that the broader neoliberalization of urban policy and urban governance is engineered to keep people moving and prevent organized community resistance, leading to strategic (and often subtle) urban displacement. As such, these policies and practices have serious ramifications for urban communities and urban space.

Despite the gravity of these issues and their long history as actors in urban “development” (“gentrification” as a term celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2014, according to Curbed New York), gentrification and displacement – as human and spatial phenomena – prove tricky to pin down. Not only are their definitions contested and varied, but their existence as urban phenomena are frequently reduced to static snapshots of dehumanized, decontextualized census data, and visualizations which are often completely devoid of the cultural, historical, and social variables that surely influence where people call home.

urban-displacement-project_sf-mapCartographic illustrations of these trends are often no different. Even the widely touted Urban Displacement Project out of UC Berkeley generates its displacement map of San Francisco and the surrounding Bay Area by mapping the loss of low-income households over time. Because other research has shown that neighborhood composition in the U.S. is relatively stable, the researchers feel comfortable assuming that “a net loss of low-income households [in a neighborhood] is a result of displacement pressures.” (More information on their methodology can be found here). They developed a set of eight displacement typologies split across low-income and moderate- to high-income census tracts. By color-coding the tracts, the researchers attempt to show the stage of each tract in the displacement process, with the intent that this be a tool and a resource for impacted communities.

Through its use of a simple color gradient to indicate the typology that applies to a particular census tract, the map is able to legibly communicate important information about displacement and gentrification. Unfortunately, the map uses many acronyms and abbreviations in describing the typologies, making it potentially less intuitive and useful to community members. Additionally, the map may be more intelligible to its intended users if the researchers had chosen to include zip codes or some indicator of “neighborhood” beyond a City and County designation per tract.

anhd-dap-map_nycA secondary example of a similarly visually-stimulating map with (perhaps) limited social utility is the Association for Neighborhood Housing and Development’s (ANHD) Displacement Alert Project (DAP) Map. The Map is designed as an interactive tool to benefit tenants of buildings which may be facing displacement pressure or tenants of buildings which may be on the cusp of losing their affordable housing units. To visualize this, the Map “demystifies the information used to target neighborhoods for gentrification” by mapping the following variables: buildings which lost rent-regulated units, volume of NYC Department of Buildings permits that indicate tenant turnover (side note: what is this, exactly?), and building sale prices which ANHD uses to approximate risk of speculation. These three indicators are combined into a total building risk score to indicate both building and tenant vulnerability to displacement pressures. (Read more here and here). The trouble is, though, that each of these indicators consider data from different time periods and use baseline data from different years as their point of comparison. That would maybe be acceptable if each indicator were mapped separately, but when the tool encourages users to view the “Combined Building Risk Indicator”, or the hybridized building score based on each of the other three indicators, does that not run the risk of painting an inaccurate picture for the average user? Will the community members they claim to target investigate the source of the information visualized on the map, or will such users be inclined to take this at face value?

It is also worth pointing out that like the Urban Displacement Project map, the DAP Map displays its data by council districts, community boards, and zip codes. Of the three options, viewing the map by zip codes would likely yield the most utility to urban residents, whereas viewing displacement pressure data by council district and community board views appear to target a different population of users.

And so, the question remains: how useful are these tools to urban residents who have, or may soon be, impacted by urban displacement? Although these maps present the available data clearly and succinctly, their actual purpose and utility is unclear. Would this map help me, were I a long time lower-income resident of the Mission District in San Francisco, or of the East Village in Manhattan? What do these tools tell me about the web of issues influencing my vulnerable position? By obfuscating the underlying data and providing minimal contextual discussion and information – much less anecdotes and insights into lived experience on the ground – what do these maps actually lend to the discussion around displacement and gentrification beyond fear, concern, or resignation to the trend? Are the maps used by individuals affected by displacement, or are they largely used by academicians, students, researchers, and the occasional community activist? If the maps are truly intended for use by residents, to inspire critical discussion and resistance, should they not reflect the histories and lived experiences of the people at risk of displacement? If you buy my line of reasoning, perhaps a critical cartographic approach could change the way we talk about, and visualize, rampant urban displacement.

According to Crampton and Krygier, critical cartography represents the “undisciplin[ing]” of cartography, or the freeing of cartography from academia, thereby opening it up for use by the people. (Crampton and Krygier, 2006: p. 12). Considering urban displacement from a critical cartographic perspective would allow mapmakers to transcend the boundaries of positivist science and leverage the “marginalized and local knowledges that were not scientific” in the making of what Harley and Woodward described as the “graphic representations that facilitate a spatial understanding of things, concepts, contradictions, processes, or events in the human world.” (Crampton and Krygier, 2006: p. 17). After all, what value is a map devoid of all context?

Following my review of these maps, I decided to employ a critical cartographic approach to visualizing a slice of neighborhood change and displacement in New York City. In my prototype map below, you’ll see an initial attempt to hybridize quantitative and qualitative knowledges in this map of Los Sures (or Southside, Williamsburg), using census data (specifically racial and ethnic group distribution data from the 1990, 2000, and 2010 census, along with projected numbers for 2014), contextual information to highlight relevant policy change, as well as photos and other documentation to illustrate the changing sense of place of Los Sures.



While this is by no means a comprehensive illustration of the displacement and gentrification experienced by Los Sures over the last 20 years, it does – I think – begin to offer some insight into how these spatial changes influence the lived experience of people on the ground. Through continued exploration, I hope to come closer to creating a map of hybrid knowledges that could help viewers understand the significance of displacement, provide community members with a medium to share their experiences and frustrations, and ultimately help to unpack how the complicated web of factors – including income, race, housing/job availability, and social policy like welfare reform – reinforce one another and help to facilitate the march of urban gentrification, displacement, and neoliberal policy in cities.


Urban Displacement Project and Executive Summary

DAP: Displacement Alert Project, ANHD’s Housing Data Project and DAP Tutorial

Social Explorer (access through the New School’s library subscription!)

Displaced Urban Histories: Los Sures

Curbed New York, Mapping 25 Years Worth of Rampant New York Gentrification

Jeremy W. Crampton and John Krygier, “An Introduction to Critical Cartography”. ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, 4 (1), 11-33; 2006.

New York Times profile on Los Sures

Personal photos

Inspiration: The Anti-Eviction Map, the Eviction Map, and the Anti-Eviction Oral History Map