Intervention – “Intersectional Contours of Loss and Resistance: Mapping Bay Area Gentrification”

Erin McElroy

Doctoral Candidate, Department of Feminist Studies, University of California, Santa Cruz

Director, Anti-Eviction Mapping Project,

[email protected]

It’s difficult to map the multiple landscapes being produced amidst the San Francisco Bay Area’s gentrification crisis, in part because there are so many. As lessons in critical geographies teach us, no map is neutral, no contour un-situated. As rents are simultaneously boasted and decried as the most expensive in the US, in large part due to real estate financialization of the “Tech Boom 2.0”, and as long regional histories of investment and divestment have predestined the present, the Bay Area terrain has become a palimpsest for mapping placement and displacement (Graham and Guy 2002; Mirabel 2009; Ramirez 2007; Walker and Schafran 2015). Today, while real estate speculators carve out new spatialities of profit and consequential displacement, activist mapping projects, such as the volunteer-based Anti-Eviction Mapping Project (AEMP) cartographically visualize technologies of displacement and modes of resistance, endeavoring to spatialize other future modes of inhabitation. In San Francisco, where evictions, rents, and home prices are at an all-time high (SFRB 2016; Trulia 2016a; Woo 2016), and in Oakland, where rents are rising second-fastest in the US with evictions on the rise (Debolt 2016; Romburgh 2015; Trulia 2016b), possession and dispossession are inextricably racialized and classed. Thus map-making inheres the political.

Take, for instance, a map created in 2014 by Jennifer Rosdail, a real estate speculator who rebranded a large part of San Francisco’s Mission and Castro districts “The Quad” (Rosdail 2014a). She describes the Quad as a new “meta-hood” home to “quadsters”, those under 40 who “like to hang in the sun with their friends”, and who “work very hard–mostly in high tech–and make a lot of money” (Rosdail 2014b). They “take the Google Bus, the Apple Bus, or another of the reputedly less well equip shuttles like the eBay Bus” to reverse commute to Silicon Valley “campuses”. Further, “[t]hey also like to eat really good food”, but lack time to cook it. Responding to this new type of mobile inhabitant, she maps the Quad as its home. By ascribing new sets of values within her geometry, she participates in an economy that favors a disproportionately white, male, and upper-class workforce, one glaringly not black, Latinx, or working-class/poor (Wong 2016). As research by the AEMP has shown, between 2011 and 2013, 69% of San Francisco’s “no-fault” evictions,[1] occurred within four blocks of tech bus stops (AEMP 2014). Further, collaborative work by the AEMP and the legal nonprofit the Eviction Defense Collaborative has revealed that those evicted in San Francisco are disproportionately black, Latinx, and below median income (EDC and AEMP 2016).[2] Therefore, not only are those forcibly displaced demographically distinct from those catered towards by new meta-neighborhoods such as the Quad, but furthermore the spatiality of this racialized dispossession is tethered to that of tech-driven real estate speculation.


Rosdail’s isn’t the only real estate entity remapping San Francisco. Also in 2014, the luxury apartment complex NEMA released a map of San Francisco that explicitly erased certain neighborhoods while renaming others (Barmann 2014). NEMA opened its doors a year earlier to create housing for Twitter employees in the new “Twitter Tax Break” zone–another new geography designed to incentivize tech in-migration through a $34 million tax break (Lang 2015; McNeill 2016). Not only was Chinatown effaced from NEMA’s map, but the historically gay Castro neighborhood was renamed “Eureka Valley/Dolores Heights”, while POC southern neighborhoods such as the Bayview, along with western neighborhoods, never entered NEMA’s frame to begin with. After numerous people critiqued their map, NEMA apologized are released a new one with Chinatown and the Castro intact, but still it failed to bring the southern and western neighborhoods into its geography. The elision of space from NEMA’s map, like the introduction of new space in Rosdail’s, serve as reminders that spatial recognition upon a gentrifying landscape is, in Audra Simpson’s words, “the impetus of settlement” (2014:13).

In 2016, a new cartographic advertising campaign by the data center and colocation company Digital Reality saturated the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) trains of the region, literally advertising West Oakland as a new frontier for the tech industry. Reading “Your Next Stop, West Oakland Station–The New Edge of Silicon Valley” in bold letters, overnight trains highlighted West Oakland’s proximity to both San Francisco and Silicon Valley. Below the text, a smaller-sized font suggested: “Disrupt your industry from our data center.” Not only does the map prey upon what Paul Carr (2012) describes as the “cult of disruption” of Tech Boom ideology, in which techno-utopic libertarianism seeks to surpass and supplant “sluggish” forms of government regulation through millennial-centered innovations, but further it promulgates the penetration of Silicon Valley and San Francisco techno-realities into West Oakland. West Oakland, a historically black and working-class area undergoing rapid gentrification as of late, becomes a spatial object for digital racialized growth.

In 2016, news of the latest “affordable” housing unit spread like wildfire throughout San Francisco. A new 38-person co-living residence, “Chateau Ubuntu”, had emerged the year before near San Francisco’s Alamo Square. For $650-$1,050 a month, one could live in this new mansion. The hook–the house shares 1,330 hugs per week. The mansion’s website, replete with a regional map, explains: “Ubuntu, originating from Africa, defines what it means to be truly human. We affirm our humanity when we acknowledge that of others. According to Ubuntu, there exists a common bond between us all and it is through this bond, through our interaction with our fellow human beings, that we discover our own human qualities” (Chateau Ubuntu 2016). As Katie Dowd (2016) corrected: “If you were curious, the name Chateau Ubuntu comes from a Bantu word that ‘defines what it means to be truly human’ and a French word for an extravagant manor house owned by out-of-touch European royalty”. As such, Chateau Ubuntu, a project which caters towards a millennial genre characterized by Burning-Man-meets-capitalism (Mukhopadhyay 2014; Turner 2009), not only participates in a growing ecosystem of techno-utopic cultural/racial appropriation, but further spatializes its own genre of humanity against a growing climate of intersectional dispossession. Is a displaced working-class family, or an evicted 95-year-old Latina elder going to move into Chateau Ubuntu and participate in an economy of hugging? I ask, because one of the property’s investors, Fergus O’Sullivan–who’s notorious for his eviction portfolio–in 2015 forcibly displaced a 95-year-old Latina woman from her home in the Mission (McElroy 2015). Two weeks later, she passed away due to the aggravating effects of displacement, one disproportionately exacerbated upon seniors.

It’s been upon this polarized landscape of placement and displacement that the AEMP has set to task map-making. As a co-founder of the project, it has become increasingly clear to me that to visualize the fabric of Bay Area dispossession, one must take an intersectional approach to theorize the racialized, gendered, classed, and colonial contours of gentrifying space, historically and in the present (Crenshaw 1991; McKittrick 2006; Simpson 2014). Such a methodological approach unravels the spaces designed by real estate and techno-utopics. Following Sylvia Wynter’s scholarship, we can then begin understand how spaces are designed by and for a particular “genre” of human, specifically what she calls the genre of “Man”–the figure through which all other forms of the human are measured (McKittrick 2014). By interpolating his landscape, by undoing his logics, the AEMP mobilizes data used by housing justice activisms that fight for other genres of humanity.


AEMP maps attempt to visualize that which is already lost, while simultaneously participating in a movement geared towards future-building. Over the last year, we’ve been able to collaborate with the EDC to map relocation data, based on a set of 500 tenants evicted in 2012 (AEMP 2016a). Set against maps such as Digital Reality’s that depict new romanticized forms of mobility, this map displays undesired forms of mobility, homelessness, and even death. While I still don’t know how to best map the disappeared, these maps depict some of the AEMP’s attempts to spatialize the broad strokes of the displacement crisis–something in-between ghost mapping (Shabazz 2014) and counter-mapping (Voyles 2015).


Recently the AEMP has been producing collaborative narrative work, embedding oral histories and film clips within a cartography of Bay Area loss (AEMP 2015), hoping that storytelling might muddy some of what might otherwise appear too abstract and clean. Aligned in the tradition of “vernacular mapping”, the oral histories, some well over an hour long, slow down the consumption of eviction data, invoking deep neighborhood histories, childhood memories, smells of old buildings, and experiences of gentrification indescribable by city or clinic eviction data (Gerlach 2014). Further, they house stories of resistance, whether through direct action or other refusals.


In slowing down and listening to the narratives, we hope that listeners begin to hear that while loss abounds, there are also other tones woven into people’s experiences. Thinking through Hayden White’s (1973) work on narrative form, and David Scott’s (2004) subsequent work on the emplotment of romance and tragedy, for instance, I’m interested in ways that gentrification, as an emerging area of study, has become temporally framed as a policy issue. Protests rally against evictions and towards policy reform, but there is far too little work being done to think beyond short-term policy bandages. While the AEMP understands this policy framing as vital in order to keep people from being evicted (particularly against a growing network of dispossessive techno-utopic, speculative real estate, and culturally appropriative map-making), too often housing activist movements get swept into limited spaces in which there is little room to dream up futures in which the heteronormative, white, property-owning household ceases to serve as the model for inclusion into the genre of the home-worthy human. Some of this thinking informs the AEMP’s work in collecting narratives of resistance, but also in producing narratives of community power and assets (AEMP 2016b), a constant work in progress. How can we not only produce data to mobilize against loss and in memory of what is no longer, but also towards alternative futures and undercommon spaces (Harney and Moten 2013) in which the modus operandi ceases to be assimilation into the space and time of “Man”?


[1] In San Francisco, tenants can either evicted for particular “just causes”, such as breaking a lease or failing to pay rent, collectively considered “fault evictions”, or for a series of “no-fault” reasons. No-fault evictions include Ellis Act evictions, owner move-in evictions, demolitions, capital improvement, substantial rehabilitation, sale of unit converted to a condo, and lead paint abatement (SFTU 2016). While both fault and no-fault eviction have steadily risen since 2010, research has proven that increasingly real estate speculators are utilizing no-fault evictions such as the Ellis Act to displace tenants and then convert rental units into ownership units, or “flipping” properties (Tenants Together and AEMP 2014). Note that so-called fault evictions maybe transpire due to no fault of the tenant, as there have been cases of landlords issuing eviction notices for petty violations such as hanging laundry on clothes lines or parking baby strollers in hallways (San Francisco Anti-Displacement Coalition 2015). These we vernacularly call “low-fault” evictions, and they too are on the rise.

[2] The EDC represents nearly 90% of San Francisco tenants served “unlawful detainers”. In California, if a tenant does not respond to a three-day notice to pay or quit (issued if they do not pay adequate rent), or if they do not leave after receiving a 30- or 60-day eviction notice (often in the form of a no-fault eviction), they receive what is called a “Summons and Complaint for Unlawful Detainer” (EDC and AEMP 2016).


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