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.

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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).

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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]

Notes

[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:// ota.ox.ac.uk/ text/ 3082. html. Accessed 24 May 2017.

The language of poverty

Slightly late for its inclusion in Mapping Society, I’ve come across this quote from Max Weber, writing about the stockyards of turn of the twentieth century Chicago as a landscape of “lowing, bleating, endless filth”. His likening of the city as akin to ‘‘a human being with its skin peeled off and whose intestines are seen at work”[i] is an example of how language has been used over years to express visceral disgust towards slum areas of cities. Not only is the use of graphic imagery a means to convey the urgency of the problem, (and in this instance to reveal the extent of the problem just as a dissection might do), but also to argue for its solution: whether to cleanse, or to separate it out.

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Men on horseback herding cattle during the 1904 Stockyards Strike. Photograph by Chicago Daily News, Inc. Source: Chicago History Museum

Separating the unclean from the cleansed is not of course a new idea. David Sibley has written how the Greeks and the Romans saw themselves as standing at the centre of the civilised world, so that the farther away a group was from the imperial hub, the ‘greater was its “vice”’.[ii] Any civilisation that was inferior to the Greek or Roman culture was in effect deviating from the mean – or the norm – in its statistical as well as its physical sense. A map of prostitution, he argues, provides essential information about ‘the social topography of the town. The basic principle of medieval regulation was to designate certain areas to prostitution, either inside or outside the walls, and limit vice strictly to them.’ This was a form of ‘social hygiene’, locating prostitution in poor districts, ‘often close to the river’ or beyond the city walls.[iii]

By drawing boundaries around people other from themselves, European powers defined the separation of the centre from the periphery. This analysis recalls similar ideas put forward by Richard Sennett regarding the treatment of the Jews of Venice. Sennett writes of the ‘fear of touching’ that led the Christian community of Venice five centuries ago to seek to isolate its foreign inhabitants, as if they were ‘isolating a disease that had infected the community . . . with corrupting bodily vices’.

Despite the complexity of the subject, many nineteenth-century texts continued to use powerfully negative imagery to describe the poor, foreigners and other people viewed as marginal to society in emotive, sensual terms – emphasising their moral contagiousness. David Sibley has described how a distinction was made between the ‘pure bourgeois and the defiled proletarian’ in mid-nineteenth century Paris as part of an effort to ‘deodorize utopian city space’ during the reshaping of the city under Baron Haussmann.[iv]

Minority groups are typically not the only people to be marginalised spatially. So too are the poorest classes. Despite the slum clearances that took place throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century, the increasing numbers of people moving into the city from the countryside, coupled with a lack of organised city planning, led to the formation of poverty areas constituted by an ‘almost endless intricacy of courts and yards crossing each other . . . like a rabbit warren’.[v] Robin Evans has commented that the campaigns to clear the slums were due to their being viewed in the public eye at the time to be breeding grounds for indecency ‘. . . as if the homes had been one great block of stone eaten by slugs into innumerable small chambers and connecting passages’.[vi] Overcrowding was linked with immorality, while poverty was associated linguistically with the animal (in this instance, the insect) world, suggesting the poor to be non-human in their behaviour. At the same time, likening the city’s morphology – its physical form and layout – to a rabbit warren shows how the city was itself viewed by people as a source of the immorality of its inhabitants.[vii]

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 rebels’.[viii] 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.

Notes

[i] “(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.

[ii] D. Sibley, Geographies of Exclusion: Society and Difference in the West (London; New York: Routledge, 1995), p. 50.

[iii] Sibley, Geographies of Exclusion, p. 87. Bronislaw Geremek has similarly described how the city walls of medieval Paris were seen as a purifying device, defining territory within and without the walls, and placing the prostitutes beyond them. B. Geremek and J. Birrell, The Margins of Society in Late Medieval Paris (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[iv] Sibley, Geographies of Exclusion, p. 57. For more on Baron Haussmann’s reconfiguration of Paris, see section on the contemporary mapping of disease, in Chapter 2 of this volume (p. 000).

[v] H. Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor vol. 4 (London: Griffin, Bohn, 1861); Penguin Classics reprint edition, ed. V. Neuburg (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985), pp. 299–300.

[vi] R. Evans, ‘Rookeries and Model Dwellings: English Housing Reform and the Moralities of Private Space,’ in Translations from Drawing to Building and Other Essays, ed. R. Evans (London: AA Documents 2, 1997, first published 1978). ‘Rookery’ is a term dating from the 1820s to describe a particularly low quality of housing, closely packed with people of the poorest class (it refers to colonies of rooks, which nest in trees in large populations during the breeding season).

[vii] Evans, ‘Rookeries and Model Dwellings’.

[viii] F. Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (New York and London: Panther Edition, 1891 (first published Leipzig: Otto Wigand, 1845), p. 57.

‘Mapping Society’: new book out with UCL Press in September

I’m pleased to announce the forthcoming open access publication in September 2018 of Mapping Society: The Spatial Dimensions of Social Cartography with UCL Press.

The book reflects two decades of enquiry into the spatial nature of society, focusing on the detailed patterning of social phenomena as these are laid out in historical maps. The importance of a spatial analysis of historical data is not to be underestimated. Going beyond placing the data on the map to a deeper analysis of the geographical patterning of the data allows the researcher to pose a variety of questions: regarding the spatial character of the urban setting, regarding whether social data of a single type have spatial characteristics in common, and – in general – to control for spatial effects when analysing social patterns.

For me, the Booth maps have become the quintessential starting point when exploring the relationship between the spatial organisation of cities and how societies take shape over time. I have written about the spatial-temporal evolution of cities in my earlier book, Suburban Urbanities. This current publication effectively goes back to the origins of my research, starting with my most fundamental subject of interest: how the spatial configuration of cities shapes social patterns and, specifically, urban social problems.

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Section of the Charles Booth map of Poverty, 1889 – with legend

This book does so by taking maps of social statistics and developing a close reading of the maps themselves as well as the context within which they were created. A side product of this inquiry has been the discovery of the extent to which social cartography is frequently used not only as a tool for communicating information on patterns of settlement, but also for other purposes: for propaganda, to collate evidence or to support scientific argumentation. The use of social maps as an analytical device is less prevalent and this book will show how a reading of the spatial patterns captured by such maps can reveal some fundamental rules about how cities work according to a specifically spatial logic of society.

From a rare map of yellow fever in eighteenth-century New York, to Charles Booth’s famous maps of poverty in nineteenth-century London, an Italian racial zoning map of early twentieth century Asmara, to a map of wealth disparities in the banlieues of twenty-first-century ParisMapping Society traces the evolution of social cartography over the past two centuries, examining maps of ethnic or religious difference, poverty, and health inequalities, demonstrating how they not only serve as historical records of social enquiry, but also constitute inscriptions of social patterns that have been etched deeply on the surface of cities.