Maps, whether printed or pixelated, are purely utilitarian for most people. But to the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, maps are a powerful, immediate way to measure change.
The collective's animated map of Ellis Act evictions in San Francisco between 1994 and 2014 looks like a time lapse of a city-wide military proving grounds, evictions blooming outward in circular explosions from SOMA, the Mission and -- really -- everywhere within San Francisco’s 49 square miles. The data-visualization depicts evictions as sites of violence, with rippling aftereffects.
As effective as this type of mapping is in providing a sense of history, scale and geographic trends, the data remain abstract: number of tenants evicted, addresses and dates. But the A(E)MP collective, a shifting group of mostly volunteer housing rights activists, community organizers and artists, doesn’t stop with numbers. Alongside number crunching and data-visualization, they operate a storytelling and qualitative side of their work, collecting narratives of displacement and resistance.
Allowing people to tell their own stories -- of changing neighborhoods, fights against eviction, and experiences of homelessness -- in their own words, the A(E)MP profiles the differences and similarities between lived experiences in the current Bay Area housing crisis. Close to 100 oral histories, most around 1 hour in length, dot A(E)MP’s narrative map. I dove in for some deep listening with suggestions from Erin McElroy, one of A(E)MP's founding members.
'This is next-level'
In Caleb Smith’s interview of Tiye Silon Shepard, the native San Franciscan compares her childhood in the Mission with her relationship to the swiftly changing neighborhood today. Semi-seriously, Shepard, who is Black, points to the appearance of white joggers near her apartment as “the end.”
Her outlook on the neighborhood's future is bleak. “The second they started building condos on Mission Street, we just all need to find a new place to go,” she says.
“I like not hearing gunshots outside my window at night,” she says, but change is not categorically good. “Of course neighborhoods change over time, but this is next-level, this is organized, this is purposeful,” she says of the displacement she sees around her.
For her, gentrification is a new form of colonization. Instead of violence, she sees the effects as emotional distress. “The folks who for the last 20 years have lived in that neighborhood all come from a colonized background,” she says. “So to have that trauma again hurts on an even deeper level because you always feel like you’re being pushed out of what you’ve tried to make your own.”
Asked about the social and political effects of gentrification on San Francisco, Shepard predicts, “I just think it’s going to turn into a place where it’s gonna be a bunch of people who have no real emotional investment in the city.”
Shepard's interviewer wasn’t surprised by her outlook. Smith just graduated with a degree in politics from University of San Francisco and is spending the summer on a public policy fellowship in Sacramento. “People feel politically disenfranchised,” he says. “There are measures to try and slow gentrification and they don’t even pass. It’s hard to identify anything that could potentially stop it.”
'This is my family and my home and everything'
For Mira Ingram, who moved to San Francisco when she was 25, the city was always a safe haven, where she could be queer and punk and politically active without fear of retribution. “I’m grateful every day that I’m here,” she says to her interviewer Zeph Fishlyn. “I always have some bit of gratitude that I’m at a place where people understand me.”
In 1997 Ingram suffered an injury that ultimately caused her to become disabled; she now uses a wheelchair. At almost the same time, she was evicted from her Mission district apartment during the Bay Area’s first tech boom. “It wasn’t a big deal then,” she says of the eviction in retrospect. “It was more of a rare occurrence.” Today? “I would say probably half or more of my close friends have been Ellis Acted out of the city,” she says.
The tech buses that transport employees to and from Silicon Valley are more than just symbols of a changing economy and population for Ingram -- they’re physical obstacles she can’t surmount in her wheelchair.
“The city just lets the tech buses operate here, but they don’t pay any attention to how it violates the rights of people with disabilities like me,” she says. When tech buses pull up to curbs, Ingram explains, MUNI buses are often forced to stop in the middle of the street, making it impossible for them to lower their wheelchair ramps.
“I can’t tell you how many doctor’s appointments I’ve missed because the tech buses are there,” she says. Beyond this serious inconvenience, she see the buses as emblematic of an even larger problem: “It’s a loss of consciousness and awareness that’s missing too. And that’s really sad.”
For now, Ingram’s living situation is stable, but she worries about what might happen if she lost her place in public housing. “I don’t have anywhere else to go,” she says. “This is my family and my home and everything. I’ve got tons of medical problems and this is where I’ve got it all set up.
“I would be here, and homeless," she says, "before I would go somewhere else.”
For Ingram's interviewer, Ingram's story hit very close to home. Fishlyn has been evicted three times in the last four years, helping 35 people move out of their homes in 2012 alone. In addition to Ingram, Fishlyn interviewed about a dozen other subjects as part of Fabric: Raveling/Unraveling, a visual art project for the 2014 National Queer Arts Festival.
“The process of doing the interviews in some ways felt like one of the most powerful pieces of it,” Fishlyn says of their artwork, which brought together multiple stories of displacement to connect those experiences of isolation. “It felt like therapy.”
'I shouldn’t be doing this'
Claudia Tirado was busy fighting an eviction notice from her landlord (the late Google attorney Jack Halprin) when Manissa Maharawal interviewed her for A(E)MP. A mother and veteran third-grade teacher, Tirado, like Ingram, points to a growing empathy gap in the city.
“People don’t understand the difficulty of eviction if they have money,” she says of those who can rely on financial support from family and friends. “I don’t have funds. I’m a self-raised person.”
Tirado wants San Francisco to retain its spirit of acceptance and celebration of diversity. “We all have to respect each other and our differences. That’s what makes San Francisco awesome,” she says. Different worlds -- and different classes -- can and should coexist in the city.
“We have a right to live here and to work here,” she adds. “There's nothing wrong with being a janitor, a teacher, a bus driver, a taxi driver or a maid. What’s wrong is the lack of humanity and respect that we get.”
The eviction was a threat not just to Tirado’s home, but to her relationship with her son’s father and to her own emotional well-being. When Maharawal asks if the community organizing around Tirado’s eviction is empowering, she says, “I don’t feel empowered at all. I still feel like it’s a stronger force than I can rally up energy to fight sometimes.”
“I feel like...” she says before she trails off. Her voice breaks with emotion. “I just feel like a mother protecting her baby.
“All this energy that I should be putting into my child and my classroom, I have to put into fighting [Halprin]. I shouldn't be doing this.”
Maharawal, who has an oral history of her own on the A(E)MP page, says their two-hour interview was “a deeply personal and intense experience.”
“Claudia told me that the interview was cathartic for her,” she says, citing the oral history project's overarching goals. “Eviction is a destabilizing and alienating process. The interviews aim to create space for solidarity, support and reflection.”
'That was me'
Michael Rouppet, an HIV positive man who was homeless for nearly a year after being evicted from his Alamo Square apartment, now volunteers with the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, providing services and resources to the city’s most disenfranchised people.
Locked out of his apartment with just his dog, one satchel and the clothes on his back, Rouppet is still trying to find out what happened to all of his possessions. “I’d like to know and I’ve been asking the court for two years, where are my things?” he says. “My wedding ring, my family photos, my mother’s recipes, not just my clothes and my underwear and my medication. My grandmother’s silver set. I’d like to know where these things are.”
On the street, Rouppet suffered debilitating cellulitis. It was other homeless people who took care of him. “The humanity that homeless people show each other, they taught me so much,” he says.
Rouppet says volunteering with the SF AIDS Foundation helped him find his bearings. Vince Crisostomo, manager of the foundation’s 50-Plus Network, interjects in the recording. “When Michael talks about volunteering, it goes so far beyond that,” he says. “It just makes me cry thinking about it.”
When out in the field working with the city’s homeless population, Crisostomo explains, Rouppet always reaches out to even the most isolated individuals, saying, “That was me.”
“He’s setting the example we should all live by,” Crisostomo says. “We should remember that that could be us.”
While A(E)MP’s maps, murals and community events make visible the connections between global capital, real estate, high tech and the local political economy, what emerges from the oral history project are the effects of these entanglements on the city's most vulnerable individuals. To listen to someone’s story, told plainly and honestly, is to momentarily inhabit their world, their struggles and goals. Empathy, a quality so many of the oral history interviewees wish to see more of in San Francisco, is the inevitable result.
When Rouppet's interviewer Manon Vergerio asks what newcomers to the Bay Area could do to better understand each other, and the homeless population more specifically, he says, “Talk to them. Rather than speaking for a population that doesn’t have representation, talk to them.”