I did not expect to get emotional over maps on a wall. But there I was in the Oakland Museum right before the pandemic, face hot and eyes damp, overwhelmed by maps. I’d been working with the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project to provide narrative strategy and interpretive text for the museum’s You Are Here: California Stories On the Map exhibit, in which WOEIP’s community mapping is featured. Now here we were. Sarah Seiter, former Curator of Natural Sciences, was talking about maps as a lens, an interpretation, a curated view of the world around us. And I kept thinking about my father.
Michael’s museum design work was one of the core ways we connected and got along. I grew up within it, was saturated with it. His office and the exhibits he created were a playground where we spent so much of our time together. As I got older and the relationship strained, it became a source of resentment; his greater love, his blind spot.
Processing his archives since his death has allowed me back into this world without his overbearing shadow. I’ve been able to learn my own lessons without his intervention. In some ways, it leaves me with a deficit—he was, after all, brilliant in his creativity.
But to collaborate honestly requires setting aside your own presumptions and perspectives long enough to be truly open to the others in the room. He and I were never good at that with each other. Yet now I was doing just that with some folks in West Oakland, and the result was hanging in front of me on the walls of the Oakland Museum. I couldn’t help feel him with me.
Many of the works on display in You Are Here: California Stories On the Map are artistic explorations of community mapping, data, and cartography. Path of Love by Omar Mismar might be one of the more tantalizing examples of this. Mismar depicts in stark neon the paths he took around San Francisco, following men he was attracted to on Grindr without ever meeting them. The context of his GPS data rendered in electrical gas creates a literal heat map. “Path of Love” maps a one-sided love story.
Who gets to represent a community?
In other contexts, the map is a utilitarian tool. As navigation guidance or survey or forecast, they work in service to decision-making. They’re a means to an end. In this context, the mapmaker’s lens, methods, and intent directly impact the outcomes of those decisions.
Take the redlining map on exhibit, intended to help lenders determine which loans to underwrite and which were deemed too risky. The Homeowner’s Loan Corporation (a federal agency) published this map in 1937. Loans to areas marked in red were considered high risk. The realtors who helped create these maps defined the red zones as “characterized by detrimental influences in a pronounced degree, undesirable population or infiltration of it.” The “undesirable population” were Black residents and other people of color. Less community mapping than the mapping of a community by outsiders, these maps were designed to actually keep communities apart. The map is a weapon used against real people. All these decades later, West Oakland residents still live with the deeply harmful consequences of this racist classification.
Making the invisible visible
Maps don’t just reflect an interpretation of our reality. They help us shape it as well. Over the past decade, the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project has made the invisible visible through community mapping of data that wasn’t being collected by anyone else.
That early redlining, and other racist planning policies like the industrialization of residential neighborhoods, means that West Oakland is now disproportionately impacted by poor air quality. Yet until a decade or so ago, the scientific data collected came from a single sensor in West Oakland. That limited data collection suggested air quality was uniform across the neighborhood and even across the city. As WOEIP began questioning the higher incidence of asthma and cancers in the neighborhood, they tried to understand the source of these issues. They quickly discovered that the available data, collected and analyzed by a scientific community without resident input, simply didn’t describe them. Painting the community with data collected from a single sensor in West Oakland flattened the reality of what was and is a complex community.
So residents set out to create a more nuanced picture of their neighborhood’s air, using their own bodies on their own streets. Outfitted with backpack sensors, they spent years capturing the particulate levels in the air they breathed, block by block. Back in their office, a prefab unit behind a chain link fence tucked into the shadow of I-880, they overlaid the data they collected onto street maps. What they found told a very different story than the lone stationary sensor used by the county to represent the neighborhood.
These early maps completely changed the conversation neighborhood residents were having with their local regulators and legislators and helped secure funding for more studies—larger, well funded studies involving specially-equipped cars that could cover more ground, more consistently.
Fast forward a decade and WOEIP is now leading a multi-agency task force whose mandate is to implement 80+ individual but interdependent strategies for reducing West Oakland’s disproportionately higher exposure to air pollution. Some of these early maps now hang in the Oakland Museum, while Ms. Margaret Gordon, Brian Beveridge, Jhamere Howard, and dozens of their neighbors show up week after week to hold their city accountable.
What other ways might we change our world by mapping it?
With the Oakland Museum currently closed, I feel especially grateful to have seen this story told on the museum’s expansive walls in person. I’m even more grateful to have worked with WOEIP and the exhibit’s curators to share the neighborhood’s powerful story. Providing narrative guidance and the foundation for the interpretive text for this section was deeply meaningful on a personal level because of my father’s work. But it was incredibly important that WOEIP’s voice be the one at the center. Fittingly, Michael’s hands-on approach to exhibit design shares many of the same principles as WOEIP’s community-based participatory research approach. And in early iterations, we explored participatory ways of presenting information, in the hopes of giving museum-goers the ability to work with the data itself to create their own meaning. Ultimately, we ended up prioritizing the faces and stories of the community itself.
You Are Here is sweeping in its breadth. Just as it zooms from one neighborhood to another, it zooms back out again, fuzzing the boundary lines of what community means and what mapping itself can look like. We see maps of fire risk foretelling our current crisis. We trace the coastal neighborhoods likely to wash away with rising sea levels. When communities map themselves, they surface what’s most valuable to them. The process can provide agency where it may not have otherwise existed and shift traditional power structures.
A final great example of this is Margo Rivera-Weiss’ illustrated map of food-based worker cooperatives in Oakland. Playfully bleeding off the edge of the page, this map cares less about geography. It creates a different type of space: one that celebrates how communities are mapping new futures for themselves, creating networks of humans working together, confronting capitalism through their daily labor.
Mapping our communities is a way of telling our own stories, of defining new boundaries to describe the world we live in, opening a door to new versions of that world. Many of us are now sitting at home, trying to reconcile the overwhelming failure of the institutions and systems that got us here. And I’m left wondering: what other ways might we change our world by mapping it? What other boundaries and borders will we challenge?
What map will we draw for ourselves next?
- Visit WOEIP to get involved in with their work.
- WOEIP has been instrumental in driving local work on AB617, which aims to reduce air pollution exposure in hard-hit communities like West Oakland.
- Explore the WOEIP’s partnership with the Environmental Defense Fund.
- Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America is an incredibly rich dive into the federal redlining maps of the 1930s.
- Writer and researcher Alexis Madrigal has compiled an outline of Oakland’s historical development based on primary research as part of a book about Ms. Margaret Gordon, co-director of WOEIP.