Linguistic colour in social cartography

I wrote a while back on how language has been used to describe the human condition in cities, citing Weber’s likening of the city as akin to ‘a human being with its skin peeled off and whose intestines are seen at work’ as an example of how language has been used over years to express visceral disgust towards slum areas of cities.[1]

This is a recurring topic in my forthcoming book, Mapping Society: The Spatial Dimensions of Social Cartography, where I write that no language, especially when used to describe marginality, is entirely neutral. When Engels was roaming the streets of London, visiting the slums, but also negotiating his way through the streets of ‘The Great Town’, he wrote: ‘The very turmoil of the streets has something repulsive, something against which human nature rebel.’  This could be interpreted as a repulsion against the lack of care towards the city’s poor, but equally, his words can be read as horror at the degradation of their behaviour as well. In fact, as Gareth Stedman-Jones has written, poor districts had become by this time ‘an immense terra incognita periodically mapped out by intrepid missionaries and explorers who catered to an insatiable middle-class demand for travellers’ tales’.[2] Lurid newspaper articles on the East End used ‘slum stereotypes and other formulaic motifs’ to reinforce the colourful descriptions read by the masses, helped by the fact that most of their readers had never ventured into its streets.[3] On the other hand, sensational imagery used by those who visited the slums safely at a distance from their carriages was bolstered by more precise accounts from what might be termed as explorers, who roamed the streets on foot to get closer to the reality of life in and on the slum streets. These ranged from Henry Mayhew’s newspaper articles published between 1849 and 1850 (and collected in London Labour and the London Poor), through Charles Dickens on his Night Walks, whose accounts of ‘houselessness’ helped shift Victorian consciences regarding the plight of the poor.

Similarly, numerous accounts of nineteenth-century slums show the negative perceptions associated with clusters of ethnic minorities. I discovered some of the worst language in the texts associated with the maps drawn up to record the activities in San Francisco’s Chinatown. This sense of foreign intrusion was strengthened by styling Chinatown a ‘colony’. The term was widely used in American cities to characterise poverty districts as being foreign in their character. Looking at the 1885 map of San Francisco’s Chinatown of that time (the first to be called that) we can see a compelling example of visual as well as linguistic rhetoric being used for a political purpose – to raise public concerns about the supposedly invasive population. The map was drawn up to accompany a report by a committee that had been established by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to record ‘the Condition of the Chinese Quarter’, aiming to uncover the effects of Chinese immigration on the locality.

Official Map of Chinatown, San Francisco, 1885.
Image copyright Cartography Associates, 2000

The report, an inflammatory text titled ‘The Chinese at Home and Abroad’ had gambling and the taking of opium described vividly as a ‘twin problem’. The author did not hold back on his criticism. In a passage rife with racist language and replete with terms intended to emphasise his revulsion at the manner of living in the quarter, he writes,

‘The twin vices of gambling in its most defiant form, and the opium habit, they have not only firmly planted here for their own delectation and the gratification of the grosser passions, but they have succeeded in so spreading these vitiating evils as to have added thousands of proselytes to the practice of these vices from our own blood and race.’[4]

Indeed, Nayan Shah has written of the salacious ‘press coverage of public health inspections’ in which ‘reporters described the Chinatown labyrinth as hundreds of underground passageways connecting the filthy “cellars and cramped “garrets” where Chinese men lived.’[5] Thus, language is used to paint a picture of the ethnic minority as living in spatially segregated conditions, with eyewitness accounts casting the Chinese quarter as being comprised of ‘serpentine and subterranean passageways’. In a neat trick, the minority group is distanced, if not in reality, than at least in the mind, by being hidden away. Thus, both the clustering, and the spatial segregation of the Chinese inhabitants of the city were seen as a severe challenge to public order in much the same way that Booth’s policemen viewed parts of London a decade later (and with similarly intolerant language).

An opium den, Chinatown, San Francisco, California (c.1900s). The fact that such images were available for sale is an indication of the exoticisation of the Chinese population at the time. Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views

I end with another aspect of the use of language in social cartography, namely the way in which writers on the city used language to depict spatial segregation. One of the most interesting examples of this is  Frederic Thresher’s The Gang: A Study of 1,313 Gangs in Chicago, published in 1927 (and still in print), which is full of the most intricate detail on the spatial nature of gang activity and the way in which disorderly behaviour takes place in the interstitial, marginal areas of the city, namely ‘the spaces that intervene between one thing and another’. In fact, an interesting game could be played spotting the many synonyms for segregated areas used in the course of the book. The wilderness, the slum, the colony and the terri­tory are found to nestle on the barriers, borders or frontiers of another gang’s area. These are typically in low elevation areas – valleys, gullies or canals – which are segmented by railroad tracks or highways; in some cases, they occur in a veritable wilderness or so-called blackspot.

The low areas of the city were shelters for crime and – as Dickens had it over half a century earlier –  crime and poverty intertwined in the worst corners of the city, with Nicholas Nickleby finding,

‘. . . pieces of unreclaimed land, with the withered vegetation of the original brick-field. No man thinks of walking in this desolate place, or of turning it to any account. A few hampers, half-a-dozen broken bottles, and such-like rubbish, may be thrown there, when the tenant first moves in, but nothing more; and there they remain until he goes away again: the damp straw taking just as long to moulder as it thinks proper: and mingling with the scanty box, and stunted everbrowns, and broken flower-pots, that are scattered mournfully about – a prey to “blacks” and dirt.’[6]


[1] Weber, 1904, quoted in Nolan J. L. What They Saw in America: Alexis De Tocqueville, Max Weber, G. K. Chesterton, and Sayyid Qutb (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2016), p. 72.

[2] Stedman Jones, G. Outcast London: A Study in the Relationship between Classes in Victorian Society. Oxford: Peregrine Penguin Edition, 1984, p. 14.

[3] G. Ginn, ‘Answering the “Bitter Cry”: Urban Description and Social Reform in the Late-Victorian East End,’ The London Journal 31, no. 2 (2006)

[4] Farwell, W.B. The Chinese at Home and Abroad Together with the Report of the Special Committee of the Board of Supervisors of San Francisco on the Condition of the Chinese Quarter of That City. San Francisco: A. L. Bancroft & Co., 1885, p. 39.

[5] N. Shah, Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), p. 29.

[6] Dickens, C. Nicholas Nickleby. University of Oxford Text Archive http:// text/ 3082. html. Accessed 24 May 2017.

The “narrow streets and meaner houses” of Soho in 19th century London

“Segregation is one of the key methods of accommodating difference” (Peach, 1996: abstract)

It’s been interesting to see the large number of responses to the cover of my new book, Mapping Society: The Spatial Dimensions of Social Cartography. Clearly the Charles Booth maps of poverty resonate with anyone who knows London even in a small way. Just as I’ve seen when people visit my offices (where the maps are pinned to the wall), people’s immediate reaction is to peer closely at the map and search for where they live, or at least somewhere familiar, to see what is was like in the 1890s.

Section of Charles Booth’s Descriptive Map of London Poverty, 1889, sheets 1-4. Image copyright David Rumsey Map Collection, The map’s streets are coloured in a range of colours from warm (yellow, red and pink) to cool (blue to black) to represent classifications from ‘wealthy’ to poor. See key to map below.


It took several iterations to determine which part of the map to show. In the end I chose to centre the image on the West End, rather than the End End of London (which is the more obvious illustration of the spatial dimensions of social cartography, as I wanted to highlight how even in central London, poverty was situated cheek by jowl with prosperity). At the same time, it is clear how the area west of Regents Street is significantly more prosperous than the district to its East.

This matter is not by chance. H.J. Dyos has written how John Nash’s decision on the alignment of the new Regent Street in his masterplan from 1809– 33 was a conscious confirmation of the perceived need for separation between the ‘streets and squares occupied by the nobility and gentry [to the west], and the narrow streets and meaner houses occupied by mechanics and the trading part of the community [to the east, broadly in the Soho district]’.

Regents street slide
John Nash’s plan from 1812 for the new Regents’ Street and Park alongside section of the Charles Booth map of 1889, showing the same area.

The spatial configuration of Booth’s West End is worthy of closer scrutiny, and indeed it formed part of a research project I ran over a decade ago, where I compared the two districts to see if my earlier findings regarding a correspondence between poverty and spatial segregation (measured using space syntax methods) was replicated in the West End of London. Indeed this was the case: both in the study area and in its comparator area, north of Oxford Street, we found a rise in spatial integration alongside a rise in prosperity similar to the pattern shown for the East End. It is notable that the integration values for the red (‘middle class’) streets were much higher in the area north of Oxford Street, whilst gold (‘upper middle and upper’ class) streets had an average value which was below the average red values in the north, though only marginally so. (We concluded this reflected the way in which the wealthiest squares of London have the tendency to step back from the main roads, leaving only one flank facing the city’s busier arteries).

Analysis of the study area, which covered the area east of Regent Street and south of Oxford street, also considered morphological factors such as block size, and showed the study area to have much smaller blocks and narrow streets than its surroundings. The effect of smaller block size is an intensification of the grid, with the ability to make more small-scale journeys. In other cases, where this is coupled with high levels of integration, small block size has been found to correspond to areas of intensified commercial activity.

This is explained by Penn (2003), who shows that “one of the primary effects of the built morphology and its use by people” is to enable movement, smaller blocks enable speedier journeys across the grid. Penn’s second effect is that the “morphology of the environment defines a local visual field and so defines the area from which one can derive visual information and within which one can potentially be considered visually co-present with others” (Penn, 2003: 62.12).

In the cases here, smaller blocks are not coupled with large visual fields and high integration, so, the consequence effect is likely to have been localised patterns of movement and social interaction, which do not engage as well with the larger scale built environment (and the larger patterns of socialisation).

These findings help explain how both Soho and the East End emerged over time as poverty areas. It also helps explain how these areas have acquired a history of being the place of sub-cultures, whether of specific economic activities, specific markets or specific social groups, such as the Italian immigrants who set up restaurants in 1880s London.

“Halfpenny Ices”. From ‘Street Life in London’, 1877, by John Thomson and Adolphe Smith. Copyright London School of Economics (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0). (See Sponza, 2002).


[i] For full analysis, see section of special issue of Progress in Planning (Vaughan, 2007).

For more on poverty in London, see blog post on the John Snow map of cholera in Soho.


Dyos, Harold J. 1967. The Slums of Victorian London. Victorian Studies XI:5-40.

Peach, Ceri. 1996. The Meaning of Segregation. Planning Practice and Research 11 (2):137-150.

Penn, Alan. 2003. The Shape of Habitable Space. Proceedings of the Fourth International Space Syntax Symposium, London. pp.: 62.01-16

Sponza, Lucio “Italian ‘Penny Ice-men’ in Victorian London” in Kershen, Anne. 2002. Food in the Migrant Experience. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited.

Vaughan, L. 2007. The spatial form of poverty in Charles Booth’s London. Progress in Planning: special issue on The Syntax of Segregation, edited by Laura Vaughan 67 (3):231-250.


The Spatial Ecology of Yellow Fever in New Orleans, 1853

City of New Orleans, Louisiana in 1872. A steel engraving from a study by Alfred Rudolph Waud, engraved by D. G. Thompson and published in Picturesque America, D. Appleton & Company, New York, New York 1872, 1:265. Scanned from the book. From

Reading the Historical Geography Research Group’s summer newsletter led me (via a piece by David Beckingham) to look at an interesting moment in the history of medical cartography: a map by Dr. Edward H. Barton that was included in his “Report upon the Sanitary Condition of New Orleans” (part of the famous Report of the Sanitary Commission of New Orleans on the Epidemic Yellow Fever of 1853).

Caption: E. H. Barton’s Sanitary Map of New Orleans (1854) depicts “various nuisances and other causes” that he associated with yellow fever, cholera, and other diseases. Via Willoughby, 2018. This image was published by the New Orleans Sanitary Commission. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Public Domain Mark 1.0 License.

As Stevenson (1965) points out, this actually wouldn’t qualify as a spot map of disease, nor does it fulfil the claim for “presenting the localization of all the cases of yellow fever of the year”, though it does show the general locality. Indeed, he points out that this would have been a graphic challenge, given that there were nearly 30,000 cases in that year. Yet the map is important for the history of social cartography for two reasons: First, it presents an apparent association between locale and the clustering of disease, showing (in glorious detail), the location of “various Nuisances and other causes affecting the Salubrity of the City. . . . ,” such as cemeteries, slaughter houses, “vacheries,” [“nasties”] livery stables, sugar depots on the levee, factories of various kinds, open basins and unfilled lots, canals, drains, and gas works, not omitting “fever nests” and crowded boarding houses. It also shows pavements of stone, plank roads, and unsurfaced streets, as well as regions where soil had been disturbed and overturned, alongside information on the seven ships that – it was thought at the time – were the source of the disease. Second, it provides evidence of an association between topography and spatial layout.

Detail of E. H. Barton’s Sanitary Map of New Orleans (1854) depicts “various nuisances and other causes” that he associated with yellow fever, cholera, and other diseases. The dark lines “indicate disturbances of the soil, as digging for Railroads, earth thrown from Canals, Drains, or Ditches, or buildings laying down pipes for water or gas,” and the checkered lines “indicate such Nuisances as Cemeteries … Markets, Sugar depots on the levee … Fever nests, [and] Crowded boarding houses.” Via Willoughby, 2018.
Barton’s report showed how a plague spot “exists here on the river bank, because at this season (August and September) the river is low and the bank exposed, leaving an extensive surface—the common receptacle of all kinds of filth—and here, or not far distant, we find the large amount of unacclimated population; but it [the disease] first breaks out and spreads in St. Thomas and Madison streets, St. Mary street, about the Markets, at the triangle, Gormley’s Basin, &c. Sec. . . . — all filthy, crowded and badly ventilated localities.” (quoted in Stevenson, 1965, 257-258)

According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, yellow fever is spread via Aedes (Stegomyia) aegypti, commonly known as the Yellow fever mosquito. It is a known vector of several viruses including yellow fever virus, dengue virus chikungunya virus and Zika virus. It thrives in densely populated areas which lack reliable water supplies, waste management and sanitation.

In fact, as Willoughby (2018) maintains, the construction of the city 300 years ago, which entailed draining the swamps and building flood walls against the Mississippi, shaped its landscape for the long term. In addition, massive demographic change that brought about a large influx of workers, including slaves, contributed to the emergence of New Orleans and its surroundings as a zone of yellow fever. The map featured above captured the city shortly after the most devastating epidemic of the disease, that killed nearly 15% of its inhabitants.

Barton was an anticontagionist – rather than supporting the idea of disease being spread through human contact – anticontagionists believed that contagion occurred due to the locale, namely – that the environment of the locale itself was blamed for the disease. (See full explanation in Gilbert, 2002). The local stench was supposedly a sign of this, though confusingly there was the added element of incomers (“foreign elements” bringing the disease with them via the ports. This was a theory that had barely progressed from Seaman’s yellow fever maps of New York, 1799 (see image below), which had similarly showed the apparent association between “the fever” and the port. Yet, the report is significantly more sophisticated, with detailed descriptions of sanitary conditions, along with tables of statistics.

Plate II from Seaman’s “An Inquiry into the Cause of the Prevalence of the Yellow Fever in New-York,” dated March 10, 1797. Medical Repository, 1 (1800, 2nd edition): 303-323 [Rare Books Collection]. Image via Historic Maps Collection, Princeton University Library © 2012  
The spatial ecology of the disease is clear from Barton’s report. What is saddening to note is the preponderance of cases having occurred close to the water, in low-lying areas. That same spatial patterning can be seen 100 years later in the redlining map of New Orleans, pictured below, which designated the districts by the water as being most at risk for defaulting from loans. It is no coincidence that the city surveyor coloured as red, namely “hazardous” vast tracts of areas inhabited by “Negroes”, who were spatially segregated from the white inhabitants of the city due to racial zoning laws from decades earlier. It is also a sad truth to find that the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 also disproportionately affected the city’s African Americans, still living in the flood plain 60 years after the city’s spatial patterns of poverty had been fixed on a map.

Redline map of New Orleans, c. 1935, showing the desirability, namely the risk of loan defaults, of making bank loans to property in the city. This is part of a national programme of assessing neighbourhoods in major cities in the US. Ranking was according to four grades A to D, colour coded as green, blue, yellow and red, respectively; hence redlining (in fact, red shading would be more precise). Image via  NATIONAL ARCHIVES CATALOG


Gilbert, Pamela K. 2002. The Victorian Social Body and Urban Cartography. In Imagined Londons, edited by P. K. Gilbert: State University of New York Press.

Stevenson, Lloyd G. 1965. Putting Disease on the Map: The Early Use of Spot Maps in the Study of Yellow Fever. Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 20 (3):226-261.

Willoughby, Urmi Engineer. 2018. The Ecology of Yellow Fever in Antebellum New Orleans: Sugar, Water Control, and Urban Development. Environment & Society Portal, Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society Spring 2018 (1).

See also: Chapter 2. Disease: The city as organism in Vaughan, L. 2018 (IN PRESS). Mapping society: the spatial dimensions of social cartography. London: UCL Press.