Not Just Dots on a Map: Life Histories Alleviate Spatial Amnesia in San Francisco

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“There are the indignities of being priced out, of being evicted, of doubling up with family members and friends, of not being able to hang out on the streets of your own neighborhood. There is the insidious realization that folks from outside your neighborhood are entering it as consumers, buying expensive, boutique versions of the food you eat and the clothes you wear. Certainly, there is never any shortage of rumors, legends, or nostalgic laments about the way things were. But really—how were they? Who remembers?

One problem is, there’s no sense of the whole—the scale of change throughout the city. Worse, there’s no sense of the history of these changes, of the protracted dialogue between two or more communities that has been taking place for decades. Being able to buy $8 artisanal mayonnaise in Bushwick isn’t an abomination of only the last ten or fifteen years. These ironies are the results of processes that unfold over the course of entire life histories; and life histories, in turn, can help us encapsulate and preserve the original spirit of these neighborhoods.

That’s [Manissa] Maharawal’s intervention, in the context of the San Francisco tech boom. The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project: Narratives of Displacement maps no-fault evictions and collects and attaches interviews with the victims of these evictions, creating a living archive that deconstructs the collusion between tech-industry corporate interests and the city. It’s a wedding of data visualization and narrative that ensures no one is reduced to a dot on a map. And these aren’t eviction stories alone—they’re life narratives, which come much closer to capturing the complex, subtle processes comprising neighborhood change that we are embedded in. These ‘located’ narratives provide an antidote to our spatial amnesia…

Life narratives can powerfully expose the nexus of gentrification and ever-entrenched structural racism that, unfortunately, so many in this country still deny. Taken together, maps and narratives allow us to pinpoint each tragedy in time and space, and ask, How did we end up here? At once, the viewer is able to perceive the killings concretely, as events, and abstractly, as structuring a status quo. In this way, the project informs public dialogue by providing a spatial and temporal awareness that contextualizes the disturbing and often bewildering visible symptoms of these obscured and elongated processes.

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