Gentrification and Placing Literature

I recently had a spirited email conversation with a well-known and influential book blogger who I am trying to encourage to write about our site. While most people I talk to are excited about the concept of mapping literary scenes, this particular blogger had some doubts. He lives in an urban neighborhood that is becoming gentrified, and he’s concerned that transposition from the fictitious to the real to the digital doesn’t really allow him to understand that place in the real and will only serve to encourage tourists to come to these neighborhoods without truly understanding the people who live and work there.

And that’s a fair point. I lived in San Francisco for 12 years and saw first-hand the tech professionals moving into neighborhoods like the Mission, Potrero Hill and China Basin and displace the native populations through exploding rents, high-priced restaurants and bars and mass transportation issues. The very people who made these neighborhoods unique are now unable to live and do business in the area, changing the local culture of the places. Don’t get me wrong, change is inevitable, but people coming into a neighborhood need to be aware of the culture that exists, be respectful and contribute positively. The tech nerds with their VC funding are not doing that, and it’s pissing people off.

However, as I told the blogger, I fail to see how Placing Literature is part of the problem. Our goal is to get people to appreciate the places around them through literature. Someone coming to San Francisco for a visit may go to the Mission for one of its new, up-and-coming restaurants. They take a cab into the neighborhood, spend their money and leave, failing to understand the people and places that really make the Mission a great place to live and visit. But let’s say that the visitor first goes to Placing Literature, searches for literary places in the Mission and decides to read a novel that takes place in the neighborhood. Then, when they visit, maybe they decide to take the 14 Mission bus instead of a cab because a character in the book rides the bus every day, and they get that great mixture of BO, booze, tacos and marijuana smells that every local knows and loves. Maybe the visitor goes to a hole-in-the-wall taqueria that is the setting for a scene in the book. Maybe they meet someone who invites them to a house party and they meet all sorts of interesting people that give them a much better sense of the neighborhood than if they hadn’t had that connection through literature.

The important thing to realize is that our users aren’t just mapping Union Square, the Ferry Building, Fisherman’s Wharf and Washington Square Park. They are mapping restaurants, bars and cafés owned by locals, turn-of-the-century factory buildings, old schoolhouses—exactly the kind of places that give visitors (and people who live there) the real sense of a neighborhood. And by introducing people to the characters and stories from that place—they get a better appreciation and an incentive to protect and preserve.

Here’s another hypothetical example I’ve cited in media articles and on the radio: Let’s say that a turn of the century school building in the Upper East Side is slated for demolition to make way for some condos. As a neighbor you may support the project because of blight. But let’s say that you find out that the school is the setting for the popular children’s book Harriet the Spy. Suddenly, it’s not just another run-down school building. It has meaning. You may decide to galvanize the neighborhood to save the outer shell of the building and turn it into artist lofts. Or a community center. Or indoor public gardens. Who knows? But the fact remains that tying a place to a popular children’s book suddenly gives it meaning and helps create community.

The key will be to show people how to use our data respectfully. We just partnered with Espais Escrits to map places from Catalan literature, and we’ll be highlighting their project over the next several months. We’re also hope to work with a PhD student who is studying Russian novelists’ use of place and is using Placing Literature as a platform for his research. I plan to make outreach to Black Words, an organization dedicated to preserving and promoting Aboriginal literature in Australia. It would be great if they could use our site to introduce people to their history and struggle through literature.

The fact is, we don’t know how people are going to use our website and our data. We simply want to be a platform to collect location-specific literary information and let the public go wild with various applications—and hopefully, we help enhance the reading experience and encourage people to appreciate and preserve these wonderful literary places that are being mapped.

What’s your take?

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