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ike a lot of people, I have been waiting for this book for a long time.
Among those who have been waiting alongside me, I am sure, include: The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project (AEMP) itself and the book’s many contributors, who worked on this project for years, and–as discussed in the introduction–experienced the cognitive dissonance of producing fixed maps for print as the world around them changed, again, and again, and again; geographers, urban planners, cartographers, and others who have long admired the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project’s work, in terms of both its products and its process; and housing activists, who have relied on, learned from, used, and been moved by the maps collected within Counterpoints and many more that are not.
I count myself among the latter two categories, and I have great admiration for the first. The arrival of this effective and affecting atlas in my inbox made me reflect on what the AEMP has provided me, and others like me, over nearly a decade of struggle and study.
First, they have provided evidence for when we put the system on trial, literally in the courts and metaphorically in the streets. Second, they have provided a way of educating ourselves about the spatial trends we otherwise understand intuitively, partially, personally, anecdotally, or hyper-locally, and they have done so without diminishing the importance of all those other ways of knowing. Third, they have provided a set of tools to teach others about these dynamics, and to organize into larger and more powerful formations. Fourth, they have provided an inspiration for how some of the same technological forces that are reshaping places like the San Francisco Bay Area can be repurposed into tools of resistance against those very forces–i.e. they show us ways of using technology against big tech, use planning against the real estate state, and the scholarship against the university, and so on. Fifth and finally, they provide an example of the practical use of various research methodologies–including oral histories, various types of quantitative analysis, critical GIS, and more–in ongoing struggles. In so doing, they refute either anti-intellectual or hyper-intellectual attempts to wall off the tools of academic analysis from struggles around the right to the city. These are all invaluable contributions, as is the atlas they have produced.
Describing Counterpoints brings to mind several spatial metaphors, which are perhaps cliché but nonetheless apt: it is vast, sprawling, and mixed use. The Atlas includes, of course, the maps and oral histories for which the AEMP is best known, but also much more. It includes essays, first and foremost, which make up the bulk of the book, as well as photographs, illustrations, graffiti, poems, propaganda, and movement ephemera. The theoretical and quantitative contributions of the Atlas and its contributors are presented in and through representations of everyday life and struggle for Bay Area residents. The result is a book that puts us into the AEMP’s Bay Area orbit, which, from my home base in fairly far away New York City, felt both immersive and grounded.
Several chapters stood out as particularly revelatory. “Indigenous Geographies of Resistance” is crucial not only for setting the historical record straight and setting the tone for the book, but also for fearlessly asking–and positing preliminary answers to–difficult questions about the meaning of “the right to the city,” “public land,” and “community control” in a settler-colonial context. Ultimately this chapter offers an overview of the multiple and layered assaults involved in displacements from stolen land. “Transportation, Infrastructure & Economy” is notable for zeroing in on a common but often unmentioned dynamic in infrastructure activism, wherein the fight against new things we don’t want is so all-consuming that it diminishes our time and capacity to deal with the problems of the infrastructure we currently have, let alone to envision and fight for the infrastructure we want for the future. The chapter on “Migrations/Relocations” is appropriately complicated, weaving together dynamics of international, national, regional, and local migrations; gentrification and suburbanization; and the difference and interplay between voluntary and involuntary migrations, as well as the unsatisfactory nature of that binary. It ultimately folds the patterns of human migration into the story of uneven development in the region, and beyond.
The chapter on “Speculation & Speculative Futures” resonated particularly strongly with my own work on urban planning and real estate dynamics in New York City. It was also the chapter that, to my eye, contained some of the most interesting and productive differences in terms of how to understand the changes unfolding in the region. Erin McElroy and Andrew Szeto’s “YIMBYism and Absentee Ownership” takes on some of the theoretical and political assumptions behind California’s “Yes In My Back Yard” (YIMBY) movement, and Toshio Meronek’s “Evict the Evictors” offers an even more withering takedown. These two essays highlighted one of the most maddening aspects of the notion of an all-encompassing Not In My Backyard (NIMBY)/YIMBY binary, which is: what ever happened to positionality? The “M” in these two acronymic affiliations asserts a personal perspective–“my.” Meanwhile, the “BY” asserts a place standpoint–a metaphorical “backyard.” And yet this debate immediately obliterates its positionality in practice, with little attention paid to who is the M, where their BY might be, who and what else is already in it, or what is being proposed for it.
Katja Schwaller’s “Becoming Twitterlandia,” however, presents a complementary but subtly conflicting account of the gentrification and development story. The author quotes journalist Tim Redmond, who writes, “When Mayor Lee decided to do whatever he could to attract tech firms to San Francisco, he set off a displacement bomb. It was a cataclysmically bad bit of urban planning. You can’t bring thousands of high-paid, mostly young, mostly single workers with a lot of disposable income to a city with a tight housing market and not see rents soar” (Schwaller 2021: 365). This framing posits–accurately, in my view–that the state’s affirmative policy of attracting high-income newcomers to a housing market without creating enough new housing for them puts a tremendous strain on housing supply, which landlords–using loopholes written into the rent regulations at their bidding years ago–turn into a spiral of ever-rising rents. It is not that different to say there is an oversupply of high-wage workers compared to housing units for them, than it is to make the basic YIMBY claim that there is an undersupply of housing for those workers.
While I wish there might have been a more direct engagement between McElroy, Szeto and Meronek’s perspective on the one hand, and Schwaller and (by quotation) Redmond’s on the other, the juxtaposition of these well-articulated and not entirely contradictory perspectives is, in and of itself, a productive tension within the chapter. It leads well into the chapter’s finale: a set of “speculations” on alternative futures, with contributions by activists and San Francisco school children that manages to wrap up the book by opening it up again.
As a print book, Counterpoints is a very different medium than the digital media in which the AEMP had previously and primarily operated. Along with that shift comes a shift in temporality. The AEMP writes in its “Prefaratory Note” that this atlas had been in the works since 2016. The intervening years were… eventful, to say the least.
By its nature, a non-fiction book commenting on the present is, to some extent, already about the past by the time it is published. The AEMP and the book’s contributors put considerable effort into addressing some of the events of 2020, in particular the popular uprisings and response to police murders that summer. But it would be impossible to keep up to date with all the changes the year or two have brought us. The Atlas, however, clearly commands its readers to keep their eyes on a more distant horizon than that of the day’s headlines. Its implicit charge is to know the past so we can understand the present so we can change the future.
The Atlas, then, should be understood not as a compendium of maps, but rather as a compass. I mean this in the sense of the late anthropologist Fernando Coronil’s (2011: 260) observation, made in reference to the state of the Latin American pink tide: “The left has no map, but it has a compass.” Counterpoints is less a map of where we need to go than a guide for understanding the way forward–which direction points us away from our history of displacement and exploitation, and toward a future of emplacement and liberation.
Coronil F (2011) The future in question. In: Calhoon C and Derluguian G (eds) Business as Usual: The Roots of the Global Financial Meltdown. New York: New York University Press, pp.231–64.
Schwaller K (2021) Becoming Twitterlandia. In Anti-Eviction Mapping Project (ed). Counterpoints: A San Francisco Bay Area Atlas of Displacement & Resistance. Oakland: PM Press, pp. 365-368.
Samuel Stein is a geographer, urban planner and housing policy analyst living and working in New York City. His writing on planning politics has been published by Jacobin, The Village Voice, The Guardian, and many other magazines, newspapers and journals. He is the author of the book Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State (Verso, 2019).