I was recently quoted in Rick Paulas’ “Mental Maps and the Neuroscience of Neighborhood Blight” for Pacific Standard. It’s incredibly exciting to see critical geographic work in the public eye.
I excerpt the selections where I was interviewed from the end of the article below:
For a contemporary example of this phenomenon, check out the media’s portrayal of the Black Lives Matter movement. Protests become riots, protestors become thugs, dramatic images of broken windows and burning cars are beamed to white, middle-class viewers who have never been inside the neighborhoods being covered. “[Viewers] presume the neighborhoods are violent,” says Jack Jen Gieseking, a postdoctoral fellow in New Media and Data Visualization at Bowdoin College. “And blame the people within them rather than thinking about how those neighborhoods got that way.” …
Racist practices like redlining, used from the 1930s through the ’60s to deny loans, insurance, supermarkets, and health coverage to those residing in certain neighborhoods (a practice that got its name from the literal drawing of red lines on a map to designate what areas to say blanket “nos” to), have predictably led to focused areas of blight. This has led to ensuing protests, persistent negative portrayals, a lack of funding to repair the damage, more protests, more negative portrayals, and so on.
“Presuming that we can read a landscape of fear and violence in a map begs the question why we also cannot read the geographies of inequality and injustice in those same maps,” Gieseking says. “We need to flip how we are reading this set of mental maps to show how inequality is produced and the seemingly diverse United States landscape is actually deeply segregated by race and class.” …
There are ways mental maps can be hacked to change a neighborhood’s trajectory. One is through the re-branding via subdivision, usually by retailers that want to distinguish a certain stretch from the surrounding area, but also by residents buying into the new designations. By changing labels, the original eventually ceases to exist. Travel guides, like Lonely Planet or A People’s Guide to Los Angeles (the first in a series, with more city guides on the way), that focus on telling the history of each neighborhood—as opposed to merely featuring the tourist hotspots—can introduce tourists and outsiders to a once-ignored neighborhood. As more money begins flowing into the area, more tax dollars will be allocated in that direction.
If this all sounds an awful lot like the start of gentrification, that’s because it can be. But the first step of making improvements to any neighborhood—including the changes that are designed for original residents—comes from re-defining these quirks in our neurology. “Mental maps cannot be read apart from the stories of those who created them,” Gieseking says. “We need to be careful not only then in how we tell stories but also how we present maps.”