New exhibit explores how maps of California shape our reality
By Matthieu Byrne
Bay City News Foundation
Do MUNI trains really move along a straight path? Based on the transit agency map, but as any passenger who has made more than a few trips on the commuter train can attest, the routes don’t look straight. Centripetal forces push you from one side of your seat to every corner that MUNI rounds. Yet for as many turns as you count, the map refuses to budge, insisting the road is straight.
So what is going on? It turns out that MUNI is ironing the curvature of the heavy rail in smooth lines on its maps for the benefit of passengers. In reality, it doesn’t matter if the lines are curved or even if the map is to scale; its main function is to alert the runners when the next stop is and if this stop is a transfer point. What matters, of course, is that we get to our desired destinations on time.
It’s the bias that shapes the MUNI map, and the same choices of straight lines, vibrant colors, and streamlined urban geography are also reflected in renderings of the BART, cable car, and ferry lines in San Francisco. Because maps of all kinds inflict these small changes on often unsuspecting readers, only a robust atlas – a collection of maps – can visualize the true significance of a city: its political microclimates, its attractions, its contradictions.
In this vein, the exhibition “You Are Here: California Stories on the Map” at the Oakland Museum of California covers the gamut from maps of the US Geological Survey to militant maps of air pollution in Oakland to maps of crowdsourcing that pay homage to San Francisco’s beloved Japantown. A visitor can wistfully contemplate the extinct flora and fauna or look ahead with predictions of sea level rise in the bay area.
From this perspective, the cards suddenly seem urgent and politically charged. If MUNI isn’t telling us the whole truth, if it can also casually misinform us, what other half-truths lie behind other visual aids that we take for granted every day?
By the nature of their work, cartographers are writers – and clumsy too. In order to select for readers the story they need to hear, cartographers sift through specific details of all potential information about a given location – from street layout to pollen concentration – before creating a useful product. This process of sorting out the complexities of the world into a simple visual requires retaining treasure troves of information for the sake of utility. Too much data creates a cluttered and therefore useless card. Nuance naturally disappears when you switch from 3D to 2D. No wonder then that geographer Mark Monmonier believes that “not only is it easy to lie with maps, but it is essential”.
Even the most innocuous choices have consequences. Take the color scheme, for example, especially the color red, the meaning of which changes dramatically in different contexts. If you were a person of color in the 1930s, red foreshadowed a home loan or declined mortgage if it was printed in your neighborhood.
“You Are Here” features a 1937 map produced by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation that explains why. Although infamous today for its role in segregating the United States, the government agency’s notoriety can be attributed to a color scheme it chose almost a century ago. In the 1930s, HOLC began categorizing urban neighborhoods on a sliding scale to denote the safest neighborhoods for a bank to lend: “Type A” (green) areas generally corresponded to affluent and suburban neighborhoods. and, therefore, to a secured loan; “Type B” (blue) denoted less secure borrowers; and “Type C” (yellow) an even riskier loan. HOLC reserved “Type D” (red) for neighborhoods housing people whose company has determined to have the highest probability of default: black neighborhoods, gay villages, Chinatowns, Little Manilas and other racial enclaves and ethnic groups who for decades have received little support from the city for upkeep. Thus was born the term “redlining”, which survives in today’s discourse as a vestige of the terrible reality of de jure segregation.
Rather than running away, “You Are Here” commemorates the history of segregation as an ongoing struggle for adequate public housing, school desegregation and fair lending practices with this map of the East Bay. Patterns of “segregation and inequity,” the accompanying plaque reads, “persist in cities today.”
Chromatic shortcuts extend to politics as well. In the United States today, red is republican, but it is also communist: one domestic, the other considered foreign, insidious. The Communist “Reds” were America’s bitter enemies during the Cold War, a conflict led by many capitalists of what would be called “Red States” by the 2000 election. Red like Mao, red like George W. Bush.
From now on, any American who respects himself recognizes this abbreviation: “red states” republican skinny, “blue states” democratic and “purple states” oscillate between the two from election to election. As Election Day approaches, the contested purple states are making the headlines, but most election results cards drop color altogether. When the results pour in from individual states – “Florida goes to Donald Trump” – the tight races in the “purple” states disappear. The hesitation and ambivalence at the voting booth in these battlefield states evaporate. A state becomes either solidly red or solidly blue – a “white lie”, as Monmonier would put it.
In recent years, Fox News has capitalized on a similar flaw in county-by-county election results to promote its own vision of America. “Tucker Carlson Tonight” embodies the phenomenon. From his show’s inception in 2016 until 2020, Carlson often aired in front of an imminent reproduction of America’s red and blue map, an image that also served as one of the show’s logos. It’s a disturbing backdrop: a crimson ocean dotted with a splash of blue, suggesting that more Americans voted for Donald Trump than for Hilary Clinton.
The bias is clever in that it is difficult, at first glance, to refute the visual. The magnificent Republican red wall seems to speak for itself. But the popular vote is measured by the votes cast, not the county’s landmass. (What the map shows is the inordinate influence that sparsely populated rural communities have on electoral politics. To give an idea of the scale, consider that a Wyoming senator’s vote weighs 57 times more than that of a senator from California.)
Nonetheless, the inaccurate map persisted. In September 2019, Lara Trump, former television producer and Donald Trump’s step-daughter, recycled the visual during the first of the president’s impeachment inquiries. Above was the slogan: “Try to remove this. “
As it turns out, Trump was impeached – twice, in fact – but the card never was. Plots still swirl around the 2020 election which approaches 12 months later. Despite being called the safest election in U.S. history by a bipartisan coalition of officials, more than half of Republicans in May 2021 believed the election was fraudulent or stolen, poll found Ipsos. Strange how easily a humble little map can tap into a reservoir of fury, stoking the searing rage that pours out like puddle of aggrieved voters. Strange, too, to imagine the potential role the map played in the perpetuation of such a grand plot.
There is indeed a distinctive political connotation to the work exhibited at the OMCA. The West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project is making a strong appearance, galvanizing support for the organization’s green agenda, as well as the reality of homosexuality in the Bay Area.
A niche in the exhibition houses a light map sculpted in neon by Lebanese artist Omar Mismar. To produce it, Mismar roamed the streets of San Francisco browsing Grindr, a popular location-based dating app used primarily by gay men. During his long walk, Mismar chose a man he found desirable and, with the help of the app, tried to get as close as possible to his handsome potential. Proximity was the key word. After the trek, he devoted his route to paper and created a neon sculpture from the plan. Representing the efforts so many people make to drive out passion, this particular map is part of his “The Path of Love” series, which tracks 30 of these quests over a 30-day period.
Regardless of the metric, the installation lacks a “use” for anyone except the artist to commemorate her romances that never existed. What, we wonder, does another man’s meanders through San Francisco have to do with me? Maybe he buried a joke somewhere about traveling along “straight” lines in a city known for its vibrant gay community… Take your own personal maps, the geographies you hold dear, the memories that you attach to beloved haunts, he suggests. Cast them in neon – or maybe bronze.
Journalist Rebecca Solnit makes a similar gesture in “Monarchs and Queens,” a map that visualizes the overlap between San Francisco’s queer public spaces and its local varieties of butterflies. First published in “Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas” and illustrated by artist Mona Caron, the card depicts a drag queen with fancy arms raised and a broad smile painted on her face. You can tell she’s a local – her makeup is reminiscent of San Francisco’s Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a nonprofit advocacy group. Her thin and vaporous wings unfold as if to claim the city she calls her home.
Like Mismar’s neon, the map lacks immediate utility for travelers or tourists to the City by the Bay, but Solnit is not so much concerned with practicality as with metaphors of emergence, of l belonging and habitat. The drag queen “emerged” from her chrysalis a more beautiful evolution of herself. There is a similar, although distinct, discourse in the trans community. Those who have yet to face their gender identity are endearingly nicknamed “eggs”: in gestation, not hatched and therefore not fully developed into their most authentic being. As a viewer, I found Mismar and Solnit’s maps calming, almost nourishing. Sanctuaries for homosexuals abound in this city.
“You Are Here” teaches visitors to read a map the same way a student learns to read a book: carefully, critically, and with attention to its creator. To ask questions. Tackle imagery. Let the author guide you on your journey, but think about how he came to his conclusions. The data that is left outside of a book – or card – is often as important as the data you receive.
“You Are Here: California Stories on the Map” will be on view at the Oakland Museum of California until 2022. The museum is open 11:00 am to 5:00 pm Wednesday through Sunday, and general admission is $ 16. For tickets and information, visit museumca.org.
Copyright © 2021 Bay City News, Inc. All rights reserved.