The Digital Humanities, American Studies, and the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project
In an era in which digital web mapping and data visualization projects have taken over the media and the twenty-four-hour news cycle, in which "gentrification" has become a buzzword used to describe urban mutations across the planet without nuance, what does it mean to be an anticapitalist, antiracist, and feminist digital cartography collective working outside the formal boundaries of academe, the nonprofit industrial complex, and the media? Further, in times in which technocapitalism rampantly incites new forms of racialized dispossession on a growing array of technoscapes, what does it mean to use technology to provide data, tools, narratives, and analytics to counter gentrifying tides? These are but some of the many questions that we at the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project (AEMP)—a data visualization, data analysis, and digital storytelling collective that documents dispossession and resistance on gentrifying landscapes—are tasked with daily, some of which I begin to unpack in this forum on the intersections of American studies and digital humanities (DH). Specifically, I explore not only how American studies and DH frame the AEMP's methodologies, but also how these fields differentiate us within an ever-growing constellation of digital mapping practices.
The AEMP emerged in San Francisco during a moment now referred to as the dawn of the tech boom 2.0, or the moment following the late-1990s dot com boom and the 2008 foreclosure crisis, as Silicon Valley and San Francisco technology corporations began constituting new forms of wealth throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.1 This boom, which many date as beginning in 2011, also inspired an array of real estate speculators, developers, and politicians to collectively launch a massive surge of evictions, rental increases, and market-rate and luxury development construction.2 The AEMP was conceived of in 2013, when a few housing activists, myself included, thought that it might strengthen the San Francisco and Oakland housing justice movement to produce maps of evictions, and to conduct analysis to determine top evictors. Some of us also were part of direct-action collectives, and hoped to use AEMP's data to coordinate actions against serial evictors, venture capitalists, [End Page 701] and imbrications of speculative real estate and technocapitalist infrastructure. Our earliest maps documented where evictions transpired in San Francisco, and produced analysis of serial eviction and speculation, uncovering actors behind complex networks of investment and limited liability companies.3 Additionally, we correlated eviction concentrations with proximity to "tech bus stops," the depots of private transportation infrastructure used by Silicon Valley technology corporations.4 We also analyzed the racial, class, and gender dynamics of displacement, finding that disproportionate numbers of poor and working-class communities of color, female-headed households, and people with disabilities face displacement in the Bay Area.5
Soon after the germination of our project, the San Francisco Anti-Displacement Coalition formed, and then the Bay Area–wide Regional Tenants Organizing Network—coalitions that we are active in. Recently we have formed new partnerships in Alameda, San Mateo, Santa Cruz, Contra Costa, and San Francisco Counties, and have even opened chapters in Los Angeles and New York City, always working alongside (rather than for) an array of partners. Based entirely on volunteer efforts, our internal structure facilitates horizontality, internal leadership growth, skill sharing, and anticapitalist politics. In addition to producing maps and analysis of real estate–driven displacement, we have grown to also produce narrative-based work. From our oral history project to our interactive murals and projections, from community power mapping to interactive video and projection work, the scope of our project is ever expanding yet always backed by our entanglement in activist spaces and solidarities. As we produce our work with numerous partners and within coalitions, our pieces live within overlapping and diverse networks and spaces, from those of tenant organizing and direct-action collectives to those of policy and academe. While AEMP members have written more about the evolution of the project's work elsewhere,6 in what follows I address how our project builds off American studies and DH frameworks, informing approaches to technological critique and praxis, thinking beyond liberalism, and digital archiving.
Technological Critique and Praxis
As the eviction crisis of the San Francisco Bay Area is intricately related to the tech boom 2.0, with developers and others in the real estate business calculating on the future worth of housing once vacated of low-income tenants, the anti-eviction movement has frequently been described as "anti-tech."7 As the eviction crisis is highly racialized and gendered, with Black and Latinx tenants [End Page 702] and female-headed households facing the highest displacement rates,8 and with the tech industry disproportionately hiring white male employees,9 technological development in the Bay Area is frequently understood as that which engenders racialized dispossession. Upon this landscape, the AEMP has found it imperative to maintain critique of the racialized and gendered violence of technocapitalism and its Silicon Valley histories. At the same time, we have found it crucial to foreground DH and feminist science and technology studies (FSTS) practices that center antiracist, feminist, and anticapitalist technofutures. Wendy Chun's invitation to think "race and/as technology" has been pivotal for us, as her call opens new possibilities of theorizing racialized technological practices, such as redlining, but also how race is a technology in and of itself—one that can embody multiple and differential futures.10 This helps us blow open binaristic frameworks that see technology as inherently racist, inviting possibilities for a more rigorous approach to understanding specific racial histories of technological development, as well as the long-standing endurance of antiracist technological practices.
Further, as Elizabeth Povinelli argues, decolonial techno practices do not imply freedom from the cramped space of information capital; rather, through them, it becomes possible to "intervene and iterate" the growing tension of late liberal ontologies circulating on technoscapes.11 By later liberal ontologies, she refers to the governance of difference and markets, in which capitalist and settler colonial legacies undergo new legitimacy crises incited by pressures from anticolonial, antiracist, and feminist movements. This leads to what Jodi Melamed refers to as "neoliberal multiculturalism,"12 or the veneering of racialized dispossession with liberal multiculturalism—a form alive and well in the Bay Area. Yet as Povinelli suggests, despite and because of technocapitalist and liberal hegemonies, by engaging in techno practices, we can both disrupt and articulate the violence of technocapitalism and liberalism in novel ways. There are many of such practices alive in the Bay Area and beyond, from the Liberating Ourselves Locally hacker collective led by people of color, to wireless mesh networks being built in the activist-led Sudo Room, to open source collaborative projections designed by the Saito Group and the AEMP that textually impute and weave narratives of displacement and resistance on city buildings. These are but some of many practices designed to intervene and iterate political and social Bay Area technological tensions. [End Page 703]
Thinking beyond Liberalism
Even though the Bay Area is considered one of the most liberal of US regions, a long-standing epicenter of the Democratic Party, when it comes to debates about housing problems and solutions, politics virulently diverge.13 Daily, the AEMP and other housing justice groups are attacked by real estate speculators, developers, and technocapitalists, many of whom are card-carrying Democrats. American studies has provided a crucial set of theoretical frameworks for us to critique the violence of liberalism, particularly its more recent iterations of espousing multicultural and progressive values while consolidating the powers of neoliberalism—powers that lead to heightened forms of racial dispossession. For instance, at the time of this writing, the City of San Francisco is preparing to displace hundreds of residents on the human-built and radioactive Treasure Island, many of whom have been fighting the city to clean and make livable their residences for years. Now that the area is finally being cleaned, the city is displacing the tenants—most of whom are people of color and many of whom live in subsidized housing—to create luxury and market-rate condos and "green" development.
American studies scholarship, with its attentiveness to the long-standing legacies and entanglements of settler colonialism, racial capitalism, and liberalism, bestows on us the ability to understand and organize against liberally coated and racially dispossessive housing plans, from Treasure Island to the Mission District and beyond.14 Further, its foregrounding of emancipatory politics, abolitionist futures, and decolonial methods gifts us with tools for the devising of housing justice movements beyond those of policy bandages and reforms. What might it mean to theorize the abolition of private property,15 or reparations and repatriation for those dispossessed?16 These are questions we take seriously, informing the projects and collaborations we form, from the first community event that we co-organized with the Unsettlers Project, in which we invited tenants facing displacement to share ghost stories over a campfire blessed by an Indigenous elder, to our current Atlas project, in which we are organizing chapters on environmental justice and racism, Indigenous resistance, relocation and migration, the "gentrification-to-prison-pipeline,"17 and more. In engaging these frameworks and methods, we diverge significantly from dominant trends in urban studies that hierarchize critiques of class above those of race and coloniality, as well as those that understand coloniality as metaphor rather than as a materiality directly informing ontologies of space, temporality, and endurance.18 We also diverge from comparative trends in gentrification [End Page 704] studies that apply one spatial struggle on another without attending to irreducible histories and geographies of knowledge—something that we take very seriously as we begin new AEMP chapters and expand our regional focus.
The Digital Archiving of Disappearance
Just as we struggle to find what appears to be an increasingly narrow space from which we can critique the violence of liberalism and the limits of reformism, so do we struggle to find spaces of legitimacy outside the borders of official academic sponsorship and the nonprofit industrial complex. While we are already positioned against the corporate IT industry and its extractive practices of big data and data colonialism,19 it might appear that academe and nonprofit worlds would offer some sanctuary. While members of our collective are individually affiliated with both, and while we occasionally do get project-specific funding from both, we have been careful to not hand our entire project to either. For us this is a political choice, as we do not want to be restrained by nonprofit, policy-driven landscapes that our American studies scholarship makes us critical of. As we have come to find, policy reform can be a form of harm reduction, one that we respect, but we do not want to stymie more revolutionary dreams and possibilities by confining ourselves to this realm.
Further, unfortunately, we have encountered an array of exploitative interactions with academics eager to prey on our work. From big-name sociologists to high-ranking research institutions requesting our eviction data for funded projects, extractive requests come monthly if not more. We have tried working with university projects as contractors to help map their own data, but even this often becomes extractive and reductive. However, these encounters have mostly occurred in the realm of the social sciences, and in recent years, we have found much inspiration among DH activists and scholars who take the time to theorize the ethics of collaboration, for instance, UCLA's "Student Collaborators' Bill of Rights."20 We have also found ways to form ethical collaboration with university classes by working with students to create mutually beneficial projects.
Our independent positioning also reflects in our archival practices, which we consider an ethical dilemma at times. Unlike many DH projects aimed at digitizing existent archives, with every project that we make, we constitute our own. Not only have we produced hundreds of maps, all of which we perennially update to make relevant, but we also have produced over one hundred oral histories, dozens of videos, numerous webpages on serial evictors, several [End Page 705] reports, zines, murals, digital light projections, community events, and more. Our Atlas project has also invited outside contributors, and will include narrative and oral history work in each chapter, seeking to strengthen analytic connections between fields and areas of study often segregated in the academy.
Although we have been in conversation about archiving our digital material with public libraries, we have run into problems, as we are frequently asked by tenants to temporarily remove stories for their own legal protection when their cases go to court. This has led us to question what an anti-eviction digital archive could look like—a question that we are excited to explore more through DH frameworks. While discussing the creation of a postcolonial digital archive, Povinelli suggests: "The task … is not merely to collect subaltern histories. It is also to investigate the compositional logics of the archive as such."21 These include the material conditions that allow something to be archivable or not, and what invokes the appearance and disappearance of knowledge and objects within the archive itself. This leads us to question, how can DH and American studies be brought together to engender archival practices that center gentrifying material conditions which call some objects into the archive, and others to disappear from it? How can we maintain autonomy in digitally archiving geographies of dispossession while eschewing from reducing, exploiting, and gentrifying people's struggles within the archive itself? How can we decolonize the digital archive to, in addition to centering strategies of resistance, become a strategy of resistance in and of itself?
Erin McElroy is a doctoral candidate in feminist studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, studying frictions of socialist and Western technological modernities in postsocialist times, looking to Romania and Silicon Valley. Erin is also cofounder of the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, a digital countercartography collective documenting dispossession and resistance in the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, and New York City, as well as the Radical Housing Journal, which features housing justice struggles transnationally.
There have been hundreds of people involved in the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project since it was first launched, and this writing is dedicated to all of them. As a collective, we are also indebted to the numerous community partners whom we work with, as well the housing justice coalitions that we are a part of.
1. Rachel Brahinsky, "The Death of the City?," Boom: A Journal of California 4.2 (2014): 43–54; Nancy Racquel Mirabal, "Geographies of Displacement: Latina/os, Oral History, and the Politics of Gentrification in San Francisco's Mission District," Public Historian 31.2 (2009): 7–31; Richard Walker and Alex Schafran, "The Strange Case of the Bay Area," Environment and Planning A 47.1 (2015): 10–29.
2. Manissa Maharawal, "San Francisco's Tech-Led Gentrification: Public Space, Protest, and the Urban Commons," in City Unsilenced: Urban Resistance and Public Space in the Age of Shrinking Democracy, ed. Jeffrey Hou and Sabine Knierbein (New York: Routledge, 2017), 30–43; Erin McElroy, "Postsocialism and the Tech Boom 2.0: Techno-utopics of Racial/spatial Dispossession," Social Identities 24.2 (2018): 206–21.
3. Tenants Together and Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, "Speculator Loophole," 2014, https://static1.squarespace.com/static/52b7d7a6e4b0b3e376ac8ea2/t/5b127473f950b792dfdb3c97/1527936162241/Speculator+Loophole+2014.pdf.
4. Manissa Maharawal and Erin McElroy, "The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project: Counter Mapping and Oral History toward Bay Area Housing Justice," Annals of the American Association of Geographers 108.2 (2018): 380–89.
5. Eviction Defense Collaborative and Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, "City of Change Fighting for San Francisco's Vanishing Communities," 2017, antievictionmap.com/s/EDC_2016.pdf; Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County, Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto, and the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, "San Mateo County Eviction Report," 2016, www.antievictionmappingproject.net/ SanMateo.pdf; Tenants Together and Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, "Speculator Loophole".
6. Maharawal and McElroy, "Anti-Eviction Mapping Project"; Erin McElroy and Andrew Szeto, "The Racial Contours of YIMBY/NIMBY Bay Area Gentrification," Berkeley Planning Journal 29.1 (2018): 7–44; Florian Opillard, "Resisting the Politics of Displacement in the San Francisco Bay Area: Anti-gentrification Activism in the Tech Boom 2.0," European Journal of American Studies 10.3 (2015), doi:10.4000/ejas.11322.
7. Erin McElroy, "Mediating the Tech Boom: Temporalities of Displacement and Resistance," Journal of the New Media Caucus 13.1 (2017): 38–57.
8. Eviction Defense Collaborative and Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, "City of Change"; Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County, Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto, and the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, "San Mateo County Eviction Report"; Tenants Together and Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, "Speculator Loophole."
9. McElroy, "Postsocialism and the Tech Boom 2.0."
10. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, "Race and/as Technology, or How to do Things to Race," in Race after the Internet, ed. Lisa Nakamura and Peter Chow-White (New York: Routledge, 2012), 38–60.
11. Elizabeth Povinelli, Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), 148.
12. Jodi Melamed, Represent and Destroy: Rationalizing Violence in the New Racial Capitalism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).
13. Walker and Schafran, "Strange Case of the Bay Area."
14. Grace Kyungwon Hong and Roderick A. Ferguson, eds., Strange Affinities: The Gender and Sexual Politics of Comparative Racialization (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011); Lisa Lowe, The Intimacies of Four Continents (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015); Cedric J. Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983).
15. Manissa Maharawal and Erin McElroy, "In the Time of Trump: Housing, Whiteness, and Abolition," in Contested Property Claims: What Disagreement Tells Us about Ownership, ed. Maja Hojer Bruun, Patrick Cockburn, Bjarke Skærlund Risager, and Mikkel Thorup (New York: Routledge, 2017), 109–25.
16. Planting Justice, "Urban Indigenous Land Trust Partnering with Radical Food Justice Organization to Repatriate Ohlone Land in Deep East Oakland," December 5, 2017, campaign.r20.constantcontact.com/render?m=1114968673510&ca=f45d98ae-f205-4fbe-bc08-c92a89f6630e.
17. Lacino Hamilton, "The Gentrification-to-Prison Pipeline," Truthout, April 30, 2017, www.truth-out.org/news/item/40413-the-gentrification-to-prison-pipeline.
18. Without citing a lengthy biography, we have found that the majority of gentrification literature emerges from either neoliberal or Marxist perspectives rather than from those of critical race studies, feminist studies, Indigenous studies, or postcolonial studies. See "Oakland School" of Urban Studies, 2016, www.oaklandschool.ucdavis.edu.
19. Jim Thatcher, David O'Sullivan, and Dillon Mahmoudi, "Data Colonialism through Accumulation by Dispossession: New Metaphors for Daily Data," Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 34.6 (2016): 990–1006.
20. Haley Di Press, Stephanie Gorman, Miriam Posner, Raphael Sasayama, and Tori Schmitt, with contributions from Roderic Crooks, Megan Driscoll, Amy Earhart, Spencer Keralis, Tiffany Naiman, and Todd Presner, "A Student Collaborators' Bill of Rights," UCLA Center for Digital Humanities, June 8, 2015, cdh.ucla.edu/news/a-student-collaborators-bill-of-rights/.
21. Povinelli, Geontologies, 149.