Update: See below for important corrections to this story
"Fruit Belt" is a 150-year-old predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo that has faced a series of systemic hurdles, each worsening the next, with the latest being the erasure of its very name, with the Big Tech platforms unilaterally renaming the area "Medical Park."
The neighborhood's story shares a lot with other historically Black, northern neighborhoods: boosted in part by the Great Migration and in part by the razing of other historically Black Buffalo neighborhoods on the east side. In the 1960s, racist slum-clearance policies led to clearance of a large part of the neighborhood and the creation of a huge, university-affiliated medical park with two massive hospitals. The decades that followed were attended by relentless pressure from city government and planners to establish a "medical corridor" in the neighborhood, with more displacements of the families that made up the community.
Rents skyrocketed and landlords began to take properties off the market, allowing them to sit vacant in the hopes of flipping them to developers. An African-American cultural center was torn down, as were many homes.
But the final indignity was when all the online maps of Buffalo began referring to the neighborhood as "Medical Park." Onezero's Caitlin Dewey sleuthed out the way this came to pass, and it's a fascinating tale.
In the early 2000s, a dotcom startup called Urban Mapping hired low-waged recent college grads to catalog neighborhood names referenced in online sources like blogs, marketing sites, city plans, and real-estate sites. Lax antitrust enforcement allowed Urban Mapping's competitor Maponics to acquire it; and then allowed the postage meter giant Pitney Bowes to acquire both companies, becoming virtually the only supplier of neighborhood mapping data in the US.
The data-sources that Maponics/Urban Mapping/Pitney Bowes relied on were systemically biased against "Fruit Belt." The local residents who used that name lived in a poor, besieged neighborhood where skyrocketing rents and the closure of local community centers meant that there was less surplus cash lying around to pay for expensive, primitive computers, to say nothing of the spare phone line, dial-up ISP service and modems (or rare, expensive DSL service) that were required to participate in the early blogosphere. Realtors were more apt to use "Medical Park" than "Fruit Belt" in their listings, because they were actively trying to erase the neighborhood's history and replace it with a clean slate targeting medical researchers and other high-income newcomers.
Update: Pitney Bowes denies that they were Google's source for the incorrect description of Medical Campus and Caitlin Dewey has confirmed that she will correct her story. We apologize to Pitney Bowes for incorrectly identifying them as the source of the error.
Information provided by Pitney Bowes Director of Communications Emily Simmons showed that Pitney Bowes does indeed incorrectly name the Fruit Belt area as Medical Campus; Ms Simmons referred to a related Wikipedia post to indicate that this was not uniquely Pitney Bowes's miscategorization.
Ms Simmons threatened legal action in pursuit of this correction. While I do not believe that there was any legally objectionable material in this post, I'm glad to make the correction, and I do so in pursuit of accuracy and not in response to a groundless legal threat.
One company's blind spot became the entire internet's blind spot, rippling out through mapping services thanks to Pitney Bowes's dominance.
It appears that the fatal blow came when
Pitney Bowes someone (see update, above) ingested a 1999 report on poverty in Buffalo that used census data to draw boundaries around 54 Buffalo neighborhoods; for some reason, this map referred to Fruit Belt as "Medical Park," and that single reference became the authoritative one.
As I said, this is a really good example of how systemic bias works.
Some of it is overt racism: Jim Crow kicking off the Great Migration; bulldozing of Buffalo's east side Black neighborhoods; the "slum clearance" movement of the 1960s leading to the razing of parts of the neighborhood; redlining contributing to low rates of home ownership, making the community vulnerable to landlords who leave properties vacant in the hopes of selling them to developers.
But some of it is just a failure to account for overt racism: the failure to consider who has access to the systems being used as data-sources for the canonical mapping database.
And some of it illustrates how systemic bias undermines the resiliency of targeted communities, so that universally problematic pathologies exact a higher cost from poor and racialized people: poor antitrust enforcement led to Pitney-Bowes's dominance (and the dominance of the Big Tech platforms it supplies with neighborhood data), and we all suffer from that, but poor and racialized people have fewer avenues to push back to defend their neighborhoods from the fallout. Update: While Pitney Bowes's dominance is indeed due to lax antitrust enforcement that should have prevented its growth through the acquisition of nascent competitors, the firm did not supply Google with the incorrect map data.
Systemic bias doesn't require that people be overtly racist, and monopolism doesn't require that people be incompetent. The problem isn't that
Pitney Bowes the unnamed firm responsible for the incorrect map data was especially stupid in its data-collection and refinining, it's that everyone makes mistakes, and when there's only one dominant player in the mix, its foibles and blind spots take on vastly outsized roles.
There is little indication that either Google or Pitney Bowes (Update: Pitney Bowes did not give Google the incorrect data, though their neighborhood label for Buffalo does incorrectly class Fruit Belt as Medical Campus) will make this process easier or more transparent in the future; while Google says it invites user feedback on its maps, it doesn’t always act on those suggestions. And even that process, which involves clicking through three levels of menus, precludes users with limited computer skills. (Says the geographer Matthew Zook: “Communities that are not well represented in the online world tend not to show up as much” on digital maps.) Pitney Bowes offers no method for users to submit corrections.
This victory is partial for the Fruit Belt, too. Residents are glad, of course, to get their name back. But some wonder how long mistaken impressions may linger — and everyone acknowledges the name change won’t address the Fruit Belt’s underlying problems.
Rents continue to rise and developers are circling the neighborhood, looking for investments. Next year, advocates say, some Fruit Belt homeowners will get slammed by property tax reassessments as a result of rising property values, spurred by the Medical Campus.
But as residents continue to fight, says Lott, they’ll have the basic certainty their community is seen — by Google, at the very least.
“The thing with Google, it dampened people’s spirits who have been there struggling all their lives,” Lott says. “But it’s good, it’s good now. It’s a neighborhood where people are really close and concerned about each other. And you don’t see that, probably not anywhere.”
How Google’s Bad Data Wiped a Neighborhood off the Map [Caitlin Dewey/Onezero Medium]