The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project: Combining Data & Narrative in Documenting Displacement

Meghan Valdes is a current OHMA student. In this post, she discusses the harmony between data visualization and oral history in Manissa Maharawal's presentation of the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project.

The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project describes itself as “a data-visualization, data analysis, and digital storytelling collective documenting the dispossession of San Francisco Bay Area residents in the wake of the Tech Boom 2.0.” On October 1st, 2015, Manissa Maharawal -- one of the co-directors and co-founders of the project’s oral history component, “Narratives of Displacement” – came to speak at Columbia University.

One of the project’s key aspects is the marriage of its data visualization and its oral histories. By utilizing both quantitative and qualitative elements, visitors are able to engage with the project’s content at multiple levels -- the best example of this being the interactive Narratives of Displacement map. Throughout the Bay Area, evictions and foreclosures are displayed as red bubbles of varying size (dependent on the amount of units evicted), while tenants’ stories are represented by blue bubbles. By clicking on these, you can listen to audio from their interviews that play as you explore the rest of the map.

A screenshot of the Narratives of Displacement map, displaying parts of San Francisco (left) and Oakland (right)

A screenshot of the Narratives of Displacement map, displaying parts of San Francisco (left) and Oakland (right)

Visiting the project’s website for the first time, I was truly stunned when I saw the Narratives of Displacement map. When I first looked at the sea of red upon red upon red, my mind stalled at first, as if it couldn’t process the scale on which this was happening. After a few minutes of exploring this virtual Bay Area, awash in its angry crimson bubbles, it began to sink in that each and every one of these data points represented a human life – a life that was uprooted, fundamentally altered in some way by the same forces responsible for the rapidly gentrifying landscape.

 The scale of the displacement portrayed on the map, by the very nature of its sheer size and scope, calls out for something more concrete – something to humanize and give individual faces to the pervasive phenomenon that the AEMP is so diligently mapping and analyzing. The project finds its answer to this in the interviews.

The oral history interviews collected by Maharawal and others for the project are first-hand accounts of eviction, personal narratives that intersect with the sweeping gentrification that has overtaken the Bay Area. They are not only stories of loss, but of entire lives, and are also often snapshots of neighborhoods that residents have lived in for years or decades. As a mix of both preservation and activism, they intend not only to chronicle a rapidly disappearing past, but to disseminate these stories and gain support in opposing landlords and speculators complicit in displacement in the present. In the language of the project itself, they form a “living archive.”

Prior to the workshop, Maharawal discussed how using the oral histories is now also helping to fill in gaps in the data – and get a better idea of the evictions’ long-term effects.

The data about who’s been evicted is easy to find, right, because landlords have to file official evictions notices -- and so we can make maps of that stuff, but where people go…there’s not a data set for where people go. So we’re trying to do some of that through oral history.

Even with this ongoing search, at times the amount of data the project already has compiled and visualized is almost overwhelming; the 311 Request, Income vs. Renter, and Loss of Public Space maps are just a few of the 30+ maps to be found. And yet, listening to Maharawal speak, it becomes very clear that even among all these figures and statistics, oral history has its place. It gives those being interviewed the agency to tell their story how they want it to be told – to highlight the parts of their lives in the Bay Area that they want disseminated, preserved, or acknowledged.

We find that being evicted is really, really disempowering. You feel like – and you are, in a lot of ways – being erased from a place that is important to you. So we’re really clear: ‘Tell us whatever stories you want to about this place. Tell us about your daughter’s birthday party, or whatever it is that’s important to you.’

As oral historians, one of the many issues we have to contend with during an interview is eliciting answers that speak to our project’s focus while still ensuring that the person being interviewed feels empowered to share their stories on their own terms. This project is no exception. Yet, in the end, you can’t help but marvel at how well the data and narratives synthesize -- listening to the narratives play as you delve through the red bubbles lining San Francisco’s streets, audio of displaced residents adding vibrant brushstrokes to help paint a picture of a region, a city, a neighborhood, a street, once – and perhaps still – home.