The Surreal Estate

Perspectives on Tenant Organizing from the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board

Participatory Mapping as a Tool for Tenant Organizing

As a tenant organizer with a background in geography, I can’t help but relish in the ways that tenants claim ownership of their buildings and communities.  Particularly in buildings like the Vantage/ Lone Star portfolios we’re working with in Upper Manhattan, tenants have lived in the neighborhoods and individual buildings for decades, and they are brimming with knowledge of history and culture of the community. One tool that could be used to preserve this local knowledge is building-wide participatory mapping projects.

Unlike an article or a picture, we are often less critical of a map. It is therefore a tool that is rarely contradicted, particularly the more professional it looks. This is problematic, as maps promote a particular way of thinking. Every geographer knows that maps are inherently skewed; cartographers are forced to make choices about what they can and can’t include, and those choices reflect a particular agenda. Maps may be as benign as a bike map that only shows bike paths or as willfully ignorant and politically motivated as East German textbooks neglecting to include the existence of a city beyond the Berlin Wall. We should be as thoughtfully engaged and critical of what maps include and don’t include as we are of other mediums.  Maps that leave out local realities, such as use or disuse of space or existence of towns or people, can have major impacts (for better or worse) on a community. Beyond a tool to critically engage with maps, participatory mapping brings to light information that can otherwise be ignored by traditional map-making processes.

Participatory mapping has been used a great deal in rural communities, particularly outside the United States.  I first encountered the tool of participatory mapping, the process of extracting local knowledge to produce a map, while studying in Cameroon.  I learned it as the process by which indigenous people collectively mapped out sacred spaces and hunting areas in their forest as a way to preserve land rights for their community.  However, the process is equally useful in urban contexts since it points to what’s important in communities, and and where boundaries lie.

To give you a taste of what I’m talking about, try this exercise (as done in every single geography class I’ve ever taken. Ever.)

  • Spend five minutes creating a map of your hometown/ community.
  • After the 5 minutes are up, take a minute to analyze what you have created.
  • What is largest on the map, what seemingly important location has been left out?
  • Are there non-spatial elements on the map (i.e., social demographics, walkability levels, etc)?
  • What lies at the center of the map?

The creation of maps like these, either on an individual or a community- wide scale, allow us to better understand what places have meaning, and consequently what we’re willing to fight for (or not).  It would be useful for community development organizations to hold participatory mapping workshops to better cater to what the community values and desires.

So, back to tenant organizing. Participatory mapping has a role to play in housing and community building. In New York City, buildings, large or small, represent a community all in themselves. The process of collectively identifying important parts of a building (i.e., a locked community room, a trash-filled backyard, an entrance where residents congregate and catch up) is important to acknowledge in order to set goals, problem solve and strategize as a tenants’ association. Participatory mapping is a tool to identify those meaningful places, building connection and power for tenants, and providing a rallying point by which they can collectively fight for their building.

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