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Subordination, subjugation, subaltern, literally ‘under the earth,’ racialized populations are buried people. But there is a lot happening underground. Not only coffins, but seeds, roots and rhizomes. And maybe even tunnels and other lines of flight to new worlds, where alternative forms of kinship have room to grow and to nourish other life forms and ways of living. –Ruha Benjamin (2018), cited in Counterpoints (AEMP 2021: 393).
nderground. At the edges. With a view from the often-dismissed corners of urban life. These are the beautiful and fertile places in which the Counterpoints atlas lives and does its best work. A work of art, of deeply-educational cartography, and an archive of stories and feelings of a particularly turbulent time in a perpetually turbulent place, Counterpoints models the rhizomic work of an underground that remains awake and alert. It offers a window into the possibility of afterlives that are informed and nurtured by a deep knowledge of historical struggles. Counterpoints showcases a world in which resistance is not just a reaction, but where it is central in the formation of cultural and political life, both the surprising and the everyday. In essence, Counterpoints offers a map for the afterlives of resistance.
What does such a map look like? It can be, as the book’s collectively-written introduction suggests, an “archive of resistance” (p. xxiv), which in this case includes art and poetry alongside deep data dives and cartographic experiments. Together these reveal that the burden of urban displacement in the reportedly-progressive Bay Area continues to fall disproportionately on the Black and Brown working class, in much the same pattern as in cities across the country with less progressive reputations. At the same time, the atlas reveals the continual agitation in the underground, where people who are marginalized by the dialectics of urban development insist on their humanity and persist in their demands for the right to stay.
As a longtime resident of the Bay Area, and as a professor studying and teaching about many of the processes elucidated in the atlas, I have watched the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project emerge and expand from its origins in the early 2010’s. I still use the group’s original map of Ellis Act evictions, which established the AEMP as a formidable activist-scholar project, as a teaching tool. More than a decade later, the atlas offers a snapshot into years of creative agitation, in which the AEMP pushed boundaries and used the tools of visualization to repeatedly center the margins.
Counterpoints is punctuated by a series of oral histories and interviews that anchor the complex narratives of techno-displacement in the experiences of everyday people. One story that stands out is the oral history testimonial from Edwin Lindo (p. 34), a Latinx resident of San Francisco’s Mission District whose new neighbor calls the police to say that Lindo, while taking out the garbage after dark, looks suspicious. He describes a neighborhood that had long been his home changing rapidly all around him, until suddenly he was declared to be “out of place” in his own driveway. The story is entirely quotidian, and also so shocking, that it’s worth quoting at length. In Lindo’s words:
And it slowly was changing, and I knew that it hit the climax in the change when my dad and I were taking out the trash; it was about 8:00 p.m., so it was dark. We both had sweaters with a hood—it was a bit cold—and we lifted up the garage door. And the police rolled up and flashed their lights on us. They said, “Excuse me, what are you doing?” I said, “Just taking the garbage out of our house.” They said, “Oh, okay, we got reports that there was suspicious behavior.” A week before, someone moved into the house next door—bought the house, moved in. Never said hello. Never seen ‘em. But while I was taking the trash out, I saw someone peeking out the window— just kind of staring at us. I thought nothing of it at the time until I saw the police roll up, and I realized that they had called the police.” And I asked the police officer, “Did someone at this address report it?” and they said, “Yes.”
So, all of a sudden, I became a foreigner in the community that I grew up in. And it felt strange; it felt weird. It wasn’t the first time—experience—I’ve had with the police, but it was my first experience of feeling different in my community… (AEMP, 2021: p. 43)
Lindo’s story echoes across so many other stories like this, and many far worse—including the San Francisco police killing of Alex Nieto, another Latinx man in the same neighborhood. Nieto died while committing the apparent crime of eating a burrito on a park bench, while a new resident nervously called the police (p. 188). Other tensions like these, of the contemporary unfolding of settler colonialism, ripple through the text of Counterpoints, including the root stories that make up the chapter on indigenous resistance, perhaps the original experience of being found “out of place” by newcomers in one’s own home.
Through these painful stories, the atlas does the rhizomic work of documenting the tragedies of dispossession, while also highlighting community members like Lindo who seek to reclaim their ground, via direct action and deep community education on the intricacies of policy. Sometimes, through that work, they change the story and the very trajectory of the region. In this light, while reading Counterpoints, I was continually reminded of two visual texts that have helped me understand displacement, dispossession, and resilience in the Bay Area. Although they are both documentary films, Counterpoints echoes their visual power. Like Counterpoints, these were both products of community-academic partnerships rooted in activist communities, and like Counterpoints, they were produced during times of intense upheaval, when housing insecurity was a central narrative across the region.
The first, a 1974 film, was produced at a time in which the federal redevelopment offered a material representation of capital’s primacy in the Bay Area. Redevelopment: A Marxist Analysis documented neighborhood agitation and the often-rowdy push for the right to stay, waged against the federal “urban renewal” program (RFC, 1974). The film documented the moment with activist urgency, as the redevelopment bulldozers joined with the dramatic expansion of the city’s corporate downtown to create a dystopia for renters. It also documented emergent forms of resistance, from direct action to legal strategizing.
In the years that followed, the displacements of redevelopment weren’t stopped, but the shape and direction of development was significantly altered, as community members learned about new modes of collective struggle and education, and as they became street-level urban planners and learned to counter top-down proposals with their own plans. The precedents set at that time – including the legal requirement of one-for-one replacement of demolished housing, and the knowledge about how to fight to enforce that requirement, echo forward to us today (Brahinsky, 2014). By the end of the 1970s, officials passed the city’s first rent control law, in part because of the documentation of stories like these.
Several economic booms later, residents again faced the turmoil of widespread housing instability as the rise of the dot-coms roiled the economy, political culture, and physical landscape of the region. Boom: The Sound of Eviction, a 2002 documentary film made by tenants’ rights activists, vividly depicted the eviction crisis of that era (Cavanaugh et al, 2002), a time in which the future of places like San Francisco’s Mission District seemed bleak, as displacement threatened the Latinx and arts communities, along with the district’s working-class political energy. The dot-com wave brought a flood of high-earning tech workers whose buying power appealed to landlords. A terrible parade of overstuffed moving vans, piles of furniture punctuated with children’s toys on the sidewalks, families moving into cars and vans as they lost stable housing. Boom illustrated those stories, while also highlighting the deep well of political resistance that the boom engendered. Over the years that followed, activists won a series of important policy changes, slowing one type of evictions, and better regulating certain rogue developments that brought more displacement than housing.
I offer these counterpoints not to present a rose-colored view of progress in housing policy. Indeed, if there is a core theme in the Counterpoints atlas, it is that the pressures of dispossession and displacement in the Bay Area have been relentless in their ability to morph and persist in new ways. Still, an equally urgent core theme is that of the life-giving energy of power-building from below, a perpetual project that may indeed make the city a place worth living in and fighting for.
Benjamin R (2018) Black AfterLives Matter: Cultivating Kinfulness as Reproductive Justice. Boston Review, 16 July, 2018.
Brahinsky R (2011) ‘Hush puppies,’ communalist politics, and demolition governance: the rise and fall of the Black Fillmore. In Carlsson C and Elliott LR (eds) Ten Years That Shook the City: San Francisco 1968-1978, pp.141–53.
Cavanaugh F, Liiv M A, and Wood A (2002) Boom: The Sound of Eviction. Whispered Media.
Anti-Eviction Mapping Project (2021) Counterpoints: A San Francisco Bay Area Atlas of Displacement & Resistance. Oakland, CA: PM Press.
Resolution Film Center (1974) Redevelopment: A Marxist Analysis. California Newsreel.
Rachel Brahinsky is Associate Professor of Politics and Urban Studies at the University of San Francisco. She is co-author of A People’s Guide to the San Francisco Bay Area (UC Press, 2020).