Maps have long been described or conceived as windows–analogous in ways to pictorial perspective–that invite viewers to look into a space in new ways.  But both word maps as the above, made of the names of Oakland’s almost 150 different neighborhoods, or more statistically derived data visualizations of the city are mirrors that present a less homogeneous or continuous image of the city that we want to see:  if the roughly type-set image above suggest a make-do approach of the somewhat scruffy post-industrial port city with big loading docks, but erase its dirt or drastically depressed areas with lively type, the sorts of mirrors of data visualizations are both dependent on the source-data that they use, and how they obtained it, but also on the dynamic layers that digital mapping allows us to place as overlays on the base-map of the city’s mountains and shores.

While these maps are only as good as the data that they employ, they reflect back some of the divisions in the city that we might not otherwise notice or want to see.  And while not based in prose in the same manner as the Ozan Berke’s word-map that nicely knit together the city’s 146 vastly different neighborhoods, they offer ways of reading the city’s multiple divides.  The increased data that is available from Open Oakland and other sources will doubtless provide further–and far more refined–images of the city’s deep differences and their bridging, and can serve as better and more detailed maps of its populations.  But in the meantime, the sorts of mirrors these maps offer can also provide ways to imagine paths toward a future for Oakland, and better understand ways forward in its public policies.  Many of them draw from the American Community Survey, created by the US Census and discussed in earlier posts, but all seek to focus attention on the city and to serve, as mirrors, to reflect differently refracted visions of its divides, in the hope that few distort  Oakland’s diverse populations.

The image of the diverse city whose neighborhoods are bound together as one unit starts to reveal fissures when one examines its ethnic and voting distribution at a somewhat finer grain, adding to the historical variations in the picture of the city summarized and surveyed in an earlier post.  The problem of mapping those populations adequately, both to reveal the ongoing inequalities and spatial injustice within the city, is not inherent in the city’s structure or divisions, but something that compels visualization in a myriad of ways, and in which we can look for different understandings of the shifting nature of the city’s socioeconomic (and sociocultural) divides.  As well as mapping the lay of the land, mapping the habitation of space creates even more of a “mirror” on the organization of the place.


The census mosaic only shows part of the inhabitants’ picture.  Indeed, perhaps a “racial dot” map can be rehabilitated, rendering one dot/twenty-five people, to create a rough distribution Bay Area-wide that respects the looser definition of “neighborhoods,” and does not impose strict racial segregation, as in this image by Eric Fischer, using red dots representing whites, blue representing blacks, green representing Asian and orange Latino populations, in trying to prevent  overlapping and blending of color-points,  and better to define neighborhoods as an ethnic or racial enclave:

Racial Map SF--25:dot Eric Fischer

Fischer seeks to respect Bill Rankin’s cautionary words that boundaries of neighborhoods are never so stark as on informational graphics, and that a cartographical index of one dot for twenty-five people is better able to allow “transitions also [to] take place [registered] through gradients and gaps” in the map’s surface, suggesting an urban geography without clear boundary lines, clear spatial differentials clearly emerge across the neighborhoods of Oakland, CA:
Oakland Alone--Fischer

And while the city was once historically predominantly black, or African American, in its population, one still found clearly define enclaves of blacks that are, sadly, starkly isolated in census blocks, based on results of the 2005-9 U.S. Census:

2005-2009 % Afr Am Oakland

One can map, in relation to the racial composition of the city, the relative percentages of kids in public schools, one index of its community, and the stark dividing lines created by some of its highways and major roads, which divide the regions of the hills from the flats, where few kids attend private schools.

Elementary School Kids in Private Schools

This is given much further definition by the map of those who have completed high school, already used in in my earlier post in a slightly different version, which suggests a chasm between cultures of neighborhood far deeper than race alone.

High School Graduation

Perhaps the starkest underpinnings of this cultural divide is a map using the 2010 Census to define an ESRI visualization, of the city’s divide in income levels in the city and outlying areas:

oakland's Income in bay Area

Which one can zoom into for the City of Oakland, revealing a clearer divide in incomes around  Highway 24, still using Census Blocks, that again reveals some intermingling albeit with sharp divergences in Oakland that stand in sharp contrast to the larger Bay area:

Median household Income East Bay-Oakland in it

To track a deep change in the population of the city that occurred in only recent years,  Pietro Calogero tracked racial displacement from many neighborhoods that illuminate this divide in incomes, around the aftermath o California’s housing crisis.  The map of foreclosed real estate in west and southeast Oakland, the former “industrial areas,” which stand in sharp contrast to wealthier areas in the hills, to illuminate an economic ravaging of the city that shows up in no other way in a simple map–and indeed masks innumerable individual stories of foreclosure and moving out:

Foreclosures OAK

Although perhaps the map of foreclosed houses is difficult to tie to race, Calogero comes closest to revealing stories with a map in choosing to map how African American families were in fact disproportionately effected by foreclosures, and how former African American neighborhoods were gutted from the inside out as residence became unsustainable:

African Americans and Foreclosure in Oakland

The effective narrative of racial displacement that these dynamic maps isolate and present is not only compelling, but raises questions of social justice–and perhaps of social justice and urban mapping.   Despite the broad interpretation of displacement, both when occupied by owner or purchased as an investment, the clear overlap between categories of race and foreclosure seems not only unjust, but a deep crisis, underscoring and mirroring the deep segregation that continues in so many American cities.

And the repercussions of this sort of segregation are evident in the apparent disenfranchisement of despair, revealed in this simple map of voter participation that Ofurhe Igbinedion so astutely thought to create from Alameda County electoral data, which shows a valley of voter absenteeism in an area where the 2010 voting held low potential or positive prospect:

Oakland Voter Turnout
The huge fall-off in turnout among the same population of a territory of disclosure suggests a political disconnect scary in its dimensions, if sadly typical for most American inner cities.  But the cavities of voter turnout in an election for which turnout was itself particularly high–or just short of 75% (74.52%)–suggests a sense of a politics of abandonment.  What, indeed, did the election accomplish for a large percentage of the city?   What resonance did the candidates even hold, or could they hold?  The topography of disenfranchisement is arresting if not puncturing of a vision of a city united in its neighborhoods, and sort of undoes the unity of its own mapping of continuity.

It is a sort of inversion of density.  Mapping the density of population in Oakland by census blocks reveals not only clear neighborhood divides but a uniquely geographic dispersal of demographics, most dense between the freeways and thinning out to the hills and the flats:

Oak Pop Density

There may be real reasons for not living by the shore below the freeway:  the area is not only late-industrial, but the ships spewing sulfur dioxide and pollutants exceeding standards for vehicles that are registered in the United States create a spew of particulate matter over the downtown area not confined to West Oakland, but reaching in to Chinatown, Emeryville and the Downtown area, areas downwind of the port, in this rather terrifying map, posted by Sarah Brady and Alfred Twu, using the Port of Oakland Emissions Inventory:


The map reveals regions with air pollution up to 10 times the national average a couple miles from the port, but whose effects increase risks of cancer and asthma extending twenty miles inland, creating a poorly-known map of particulate matter as an argument for raising pollution standards in Oakland’s port.

Perhaps it’s not uncommon to value (and inhabit) property away from the shoreline.  Examining relations between elevation and population density in the wake of the shifting consciousness of the relation between water-elevation and land-use after Hurricane Sandy, Stephen von Worley offered the following interesting alternative visualization mapping elevation and population density on a spectrum of white to yellow to orange to blue, that emphasized the sharp divide between hills and flats as a population divide in the East Bay:

Stephen Whorley, Elevation and Poopulation Density (2010)scale von whorley

A nice register of how this space is actually used or perceived, and, equally important, moved through, based on a collation of the adjustments to Open Street Maps of the city, suggests the well-travelled nature of Oakland’s major arteries and downtown roads.   How might this be registered in the surface of the map? is a question that is nicely resolved in this map of Oakland’s self-mapping of its major roadways.

Oakland, McConchie-every line, every point- Oakland

The Open Street Map view of Oakland, rendered so distinctively by Alan McConchie, tells a perfect story of the inhabitation of Oakland’s space by its routes of mobility, recalling the sort of GPS-derived maps increasingly common from artists like Jeremy Wood, who practiced “drawing with GPS” as a line of work:  it would be interesting to be able to map street-use at different times of the day, if possible, though deriving data of the abandonment of downtown Oakland when dark is undoubtedly difficult.

The divergence of nighttime and daytime is evoked, if not measured, in Michal Migurski’s brilliant layering of a “heat map” of crime–based on police visits per unit of time–over an OSM template, both layered with a semitransparent streets that interact smoothly with the underlaid data; the combination of layers effectively allowed Migurski to adapt a heat-map of crime to downtown Oakland, using police visits per unit of time as a metric as part of his active and for its time particularly innovative Oakland Crimespotting, in the hope that the HeatMap APIs won’t obscure either context or specifics, and provide a legible text.


One could argue that this mapping of hot-spots excessively illuminates those areas of BART stops, where more police calls would tend to occur–and, in the case of 12th street and downtown, more street folks congregate.  But the increased number of calls provides a basis to register local attention to crime and property protection, or how the city sees itself.

And how Oakland maps its own crime, or tends to monitor its own possessions, is foregrounded in this striking map of the downtown density of security cameras, often placed in response to fears as much as evidence.  This final map of the installation of security cameras downtown points up the increased anxieties of its safety, almost in response to and the perceived need to monitor public life, and registers the odd dynamic of a downtown business zone that has few residents, and whose topography of suspicion vastly changes as one moves from daytime into night–when downtown is increasingly abandoned by workers or street populations.

We’re clearly fascinated by the different images of the city’s different composition and divides, and in understanding how best to work within them, or to heal them as best we can. The mapping of security cameras–if focussed in the downtown area–reveals a sense of deep divides, and a perceived in security, no doubt partly voiced as inadequate police coverage among businesses, as much as the city’s residents.  This map, also a mirror, in part doubtlessly contributes to the image Oakland projects, an image that is underscored by deep divide Eric Fischer revealed in his remarkable ‘Bay Area’ map of photographs uploaded by “tourists” v. “locals,” red v. blue, in a database that charts a tale of the visual interest of two cities:

Eric Fischer- Locals v non-Locals in SF:Oak

There are many other, more positive maps of the city’s populations, no doubt, and other mirrors that reflect great changes in the city’s diverse communities.  But only by understanding the lay of the land, as it were, and situation of these communities, can we hope to understand the unique challenges that the city faces. 

Cross posted from Daniel Brownstein’s blog


2 Responses

  1. R2D2II

    A wonderful article, well-written, clear, full of fascinating information and suggestions. A too-rare find in Oakland Local. Too bad we don’t see to have any one like Daniel Brownstein informing our “decision-makers.”

  2. Theresa

    Terrific article! Thanks for all the great maps; those will be handy for reference later. Hope we see more articles like this.


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