Vacated (Justin Blinder)
Designer Justin Blinder’s Vacated series of animated GIFs use data extracted from Google Street View to make plain the rapid changes in New York City’s built environment between 2011 and the present. Google Street View launched in 2007 as a tool that allows users of Google Maps to zoom in to see on-the-ground, panoramic, and regularly updated images of the terrains they can chart online. Using Google Street View’s cache function, which allowed Blinder to access obsolete Street View images, he set out to reverse-engineer this technology to show the processes of transformation that have occurred—and are still ongoing—in certain Manhattan and Brooklyn neighborhoods. Using the NYC Department of City Planning’s PLUTO dataset, Blinder searched for lots that were vacant in 2011, and that had subsequently had new properties built on them. his goal was to both visually narrate the structures, processes, and effects on the urban landscape of financial capital, new zoning and building policies, consumption, and (often forced) migration—in short, to visualize the effects ascribed to gentrification in an immediately tangible way. As Blinder suggests, “Ultimately, Vacated is a street-level walking tour of changes usually depicted from an aerial view, on a macro scale—in the end, it’s up to the viewer to decide whether this change represents widespread gentrification, and whether the benefits outweigh the costs.”
I will never forget them. Or the shabby brownstone that they called home. The block looked like others in West Harlem, a neighborhood where the signs of the cycles of the real estate market cannot be ignored, where disinvestment and abandonment and redevelopment and gentrification stand side by side. Their blemished building, a shadow of a once elegant single-family house, had been turned into an SRO, probably in the 1960s. Outside, worn brownstone, rusted ironwork, broken windows, a neglected garden; inside, broken plumbing, cracked plaster, tarnished woodwork, and the smell of mold, dust, and dirt. All told, a building that seemed to have been consigned to the hyper-marginalized racialized underclass. A building that looked like it should be vacated.
Except that it wasn’t vacant.
The broker knocked on the apartment door, and when it opened, there were the tenants. They stood close together, framed by the doorway, and revealed behind them in the dim light, the single room on the front of the building that was their home. I don’t know when the middle-aged African American couple had decided to rent the small room, at best 225 square feet, and share a bathroom down the hall on the second floor and a kitchen on the parlor floor. I do know that they brought with them what seemed to be all of their possessions—books, photographs, pictures, music, mementoes that offered evidence of lives lived together, and richly so; furniture, housewares, rugs, curtains that had been acquired when a working class family in New York City could count on living in more than one small cramped room. Was their situation the outcome of the “planned shrinkage” that Roger Starr proposed in 1976 for housing stock in ghetto neighborhoods? Or of the class-driven biases in housing policy that James Ford appraised in Slums and Housing (1936) and that, despite his critique, constrained the spatial imagination of reformers long after the New Deal? Or had NYCHA simply failed to find them an apartment?
I should have been outraged, but I wasn’t. Their room was packed to the ceiling with stuff; it was also immaculate, and it seemed loved. A place where this couple wanted—needed—to stay. I looked at her, she looked at me, and the historian in me wanted to understand her housing history. How had she come to live in this room? Had she ever been able to harness opportunities in the built environment and use them to make better lives for herself, her husband, and their children? What threads tied her to other worlds and places? The violence that structured the encounter across the threshold rendered a conversation impossible. It was the violence that comes when a home is penetrated—when it is violated, even if only by a shared glance, quickly averted. A glance that in this case was aggravated by anger at white privilege, dismay at being judged, and fear of the probable outcome—(another?) eviction and (another?) forced move.
Long term, more intimidation was in store. In The New American Ghetto and Invincible Cities, Camilo José Vergara exposes the violent changes that come to communities when they are betrayed by a lapsed social democratic vision, a design violence that has especially hurt poor Americans of color. The real estate market in Manhattan was red hot in 2006, the building was for sale, and the broker made clear that it would not be delivered vacant. By this, she meant that vacating the place—emptying the building of tenants—would be up to the new owner. My husband and I looked at each other and agreed. Not for us.
Someone else bought the building and someone else rendered it vacant, pressed to do so by the purchase price, renovation cost, and a need for high rent. A click on the Time Machine tool in Google Street View shows that while the brownstone was still in disrepair in 2007, it had been renovated by 2009—the stoop is repaired, the areaway cleaned up, the façade restored. My bet is that the couple was forced to move, pushed against their will and to their detriment further to the margins of a gentrifying city. They disappeared from West 149th Street. The cache of photographs, captured by Google Street View, can only hint at the loss.