RNA Blog

Tuesday Jun. 17, 2014

A cartography of ghetto insurance

From the atelier: Drawing inspiration from Sanborn fire insurance maps to create ghetto insurance maps.

What if you wanted to insure that a neighborhood became, or stayed a ghetto? In Villa Victoria (1), Mario Small instructs that to shape a neighborhood populated by poor and non-poor residents, and never the twain shall meet, simply: 1) demarcate fixed, instead of fluid boundaries (e.g., train tracks, hills) between the two groups' residences, so that they are essentially permanent; 2) shape landscapes on either side of the boundary line to be conspicuously different and linked to class markers; 3) make sure racial characteristics are coterminous with the geography; and 4) locate contentious practices (e.g., drug dealing, violent crime) predominantly on one side, even if only displayed by a minute proportion of residents. A parsimonious means of achieving all of these aims would be to install liquor stores. A liquor store on the corner carries the same topographical weight as a hill with an unforgiving gradient. It works reliably as a field marker to inform passersby what kind of neighborhood they're in. Liquor stores are inextricably linked with race and class—unless it is a chic wine store featuring evening tastings and art showings. Liquor stores attract physical and social disorder, enabling the quarantine of contentious behaviors (robberies, graffiti, violence) to the store's catchment area. Liquor stores also attract other businesses that buttress a blemished and racialized retail market.

Invariably, liquor stores comprise a disproportionate share of retail outlets in Black neighborhoods. And the distribution of liquor stores is always correlated with the percentage of Black residents. In a recent analysis, nationwide, the proportions of Black and Latino residents were the strongest predictors of liquor store density (2). It is logical to imagine, then, that a city like Newark, New Jersey, which is predominantly Black as a whole, might be replete with liquor stores. Indeed, a search on Google Maps conjures an improbable spatter of red dots all over the city. And while myriad dots convey the density of the alcohol environment, they elide the broader context of disrepute that produces and is reproduced by liquor stores. A chic wine store differs from one selling Night Train not only in merchandising but also in the spatial company it keeps and the decision-making that generates those neighbors.

Inspired by the Sanborn fire insurance maps, in the images below, I propose ghetto insurance maps. A standard definition of insurance is "a thing providing protection against a possible eventuality"; Sanborn maps were designed "to assist fire insurance companies as they assessed the risk associated with insuring a particular property." More than mere building addresses, the maps are a taxonomy of structure size and shape, construction materials, function, and more. Standardized legends indicate such features as whether building framing comprised individually protected steel joists, whether a roof was made of reinforced concrete or gypsum on metal lath, and where door and window openings were located. Given the overlap in usage between insure and ensure, my maps invert the definition of insurance to "a thing providing certainty of a possible eventuality." That thing, of course, is a cluster of liquor stores, and the eventuality is a ghettoized neighborhood. By ghetto I mean a spatial area in which residents are segregated by race and are excluded from the resources and public regard allocated to white space. "Ghetto" in common parlance is typically used as an adjective to cast characterological aspersions, naming black and brown people as uncouth, poor and perhaps criminal. But ghetto is not a state of mind, it's a noun, an institutional arrangement.

These ghetto insurance maps locate liquor stores in three Newark neighborhoods. I started with Home Owners Loan Corporation maps, well known for their depiction of risk in home financing. Using neighborhood characteristics such as building age and neighborhood racial composition, the maps deployed color-coding—ordered green (best), blue, yellow, and red (worst)—to assign loan risk specifically, and social judgments more generally. HOLC's map of Essex County, which includes Newark, marks much of the city red. I chose three adjacent, and differently colored areas (red, yellow and blue—there are no green neighborhoods within the city), and identified a current liquor store located in each of those historically-designated areas. Next, using Google Maps Street View, I recorded characteristics about the store and the rest of the block, and drew a map illustrating the usage of the surrounding land. The symbology for these uses is shown in a legend, with liquor stores designated by a question mark, to problematize their entrenchment in Black neighborhoods.

As a whole, the maps find liquor stores in a repetitive context of disinvestment in Black neighborhoods. Liquor stores operate amidst vacant lots and shuttered stores, and alcoholic beverage companies stamp their authority not only on retail points of sale, but on community and civic engagement. Liquor stores perniciously insure the ghetto by inscribing racial subordination into retail frontages, alongside the other markers that typify the built environment in Black neighborhoods.

1 Small ML. Villa Victoria : The Transformation of Social Capital in a Boston Barrio. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; 2004.
2 Berke, E. M., Tanski, S. E., Demidenko, E., Alford-Teaster, J., Shi, X., & Sargeant, J. D. (2010). Alcohol retail density and demographic preidcotors of health disparities: A geographic analysis. American Journal of Public Health, 100(10), 1967-1971.

Caption: This legend defines the symbols in the maps that follow.

Caption: Home Owners Loan Corporation map. Excerpted from the map of Essex County, and retrieved from urbanoasis.org, this map shows spatially contiguous neighborhoods with descending reputations. The arrows in black and white indicate the location of the current day liquor store. The red area (census tract 31) was 88% Black in the 2010 census; the yellow area (census tract 50) was 88% Black, and the blue area (census tract 46) was 97% Black.

Caption: (HOLC color=red). A recreation of a Sanborn Fire Insurance map (1926-1950) for the block containing present day New Skyline Liquors #2. The block is fully built up, with retail, wholesale and industrial uses.

Caption: An update of the Sanborn map, depicting the block in the contemporary moment. In stark contrast to earlier map, the block is now sparsely populated by buildings. As well, the parcels across the street on Springfield Ave (not shown) were once made up of stores such as storage, plumbing supply storage, and tinning supplies. Now the lone occupant is a squat brick building housing the Social Security Administration. Within the four street boundaries, no longer are upholstery stores and tire sales, but only five buildings and a number of vacant lots. Three buildings are institutions--the Haitian Bethel Baptist Church; the Newark Vocational High School (behind which sits a fenced-in, austere playground); and an apparently unused and unmarked building that may have formerly housed the high school. The fourth building houses two stories of apartments above, and a supermarket and hair braiding salon below. Finally, New Silver Key Liquors #2 sits forlornly amidst prairies of vacant lots. One is dirt-strewn, intermittently cordoned with chicken wire fencing, and converted into parking. The other is simply overgrown with weeds. A one story building, that is much longer than it is wide, New Silver Key #2's roof menaces with coils of razor wire around the perimeter, but the storefront is more cheerful with a red and yellow awning announcing LIQUORS in a huge font. The awning is festooned with a string of Corona flags. The store windows are plastered with posters for lottery tickets; assorted pictures of liquor, bottles, and brands; neon lights for Corona and Bud Light; and cigarette offers (Newport pleasure $8 special offer; Mavericks, $6.00). The informal parking lot contains numerous vinyl banners, one indicating the store's sponsorship by Coors Light ("Refreshingly Yours"), another proclaiming that a case of (Heineken?) beer bottles is $26.99. Attached to the side of the building are two 8-sheet outdoor ads. One is illegible. The other markets one of the armed forces, calling out "FOR OUR NATION. FOR US ALL."

Caption: (HOLC color=yellow). This block is equal parts use and disuse. The Queen Supermarket holds down the corner of Runyon and Bergen, with two stories of apartments above. Next door, Skyline Liquors #2 is perched next to a vacant lot, while a camera sternly keeps watch on street traffic: "RED LIGHT PHOTO ENFORCED". Skyline Liquors has unobstructed windows with neon signs for Budweiser, Guinness, Coors Light and Bud Light. The awning announces the sale of "Cold Beer - Wines - Package Goods - Lottery - Cigarettes." Two other goods and services are on offer on the block, a soul food and BBQ restaurant and an auto body repair shop. The remaining buildings are residential. Three vacant lots in one block is noteworthy, with one seemingly made into a parking lot for large vehicles, though it is difficult to see behind the large iron fencing. The lot midblock is surrounded by chain link fencing, reinforced with razor wire on top. It has abundant growth, including a tree of heaven, Ailanthus altissima, an invasive weed known to thrive in the most barren and unforgiving environments. And they are indestructible. According to Ithiel, a gardening blog commenter, "This tree is one of the most invasive weeds I have ever experienced. It literally once grew from a crack in the foundation of my house. One of them was growing into a chain link fence at the back of my home when I moved in, and I cut it down every year for 15 years and it even survived being burned with gasoline. It wasn't until this year it finally died, I have no idea why. I absolutely hate these with a passion, and they grow everywhere here."

Caption: (HOLC color=blue). The block extending from Lyons Ave to Weequahic Ave is fully built up, unlike the other two. Royals Liquors is approximately a third of the way in, after Liniero's Grocery and Boost mobile—the retail frontage under what appears to be the remainder of a Dutch colonial house—and High Cleaners, a dry cleaning concern below apartments. The building is for sale. Royal Liquors is a one-story building, but it's castle-like design makes it effectively two stories worth of building materials. Two different renderings of crowns adorn the building above the awning, which is simple and to the point: Liquors. Like Skyline Liquors #2, Royal Liquors specifies the sale of Cold Beer and Wines. Why is beer always announced as cold? Perhaps the store caters to individuals who intend to drink the beer immediately upon stepping foot on the sidewalk. The windows are impenetrable, covered with inward-facing posters on 4 out of 5 panes. Neon signs advertise a diverse set of beers ranging from Red Stripe to Schlitz Malt Liquor. The rest of the block, while built up, is half empty, with several shuttered stores, some of which are of unclear type. One of these has been reused to display an ad for the 13th annual South Ward African American festival, which is sponsored by Coors Light. Other operating businesses include a seafood market, a drug store, USA Fried Chicken, a deli/meat & food market, and a city councilman's office.


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