Spatial Historiographies: The Decolonial Mapping Toolkit



Much of the world’s land mass has, at this point, been mapped. Over the centuries, cartography has been a discipline applied by the corporate and government entities that have the power and technology to do so. From the economic import of European world maps of the 15th century to the racist introduction of redlining to American urban plans throughout the 20th century; to the evolution of those plans in zoning, real estate redefinitions of neighborhoods, and displacement through gentrification, maps have been used to perpetuate power or to grow it. There has historically been a politics inherent to mapping: maps are drawn from very specific viewpoints and principles, and are typically literal visualizations of the worldviews of those in power.

The colonial histories of the Americas are telling of these worldviews: from the so-called “discovery” of the so-called “New World” to the usage of cartography to plan European settlements atop forests and the communities that inhabit them, mapping since the 1400s has become a tool used by very specific entities in the process of landscape development and cultural displacement. For hundreds of years, cartography has been a literally top-down way of building the world that translates landscapes into blank slates to be built upon in the name of modernist progress. Put differently, mapping has been fundamental to the project of Western exploitation, erasure, and ownership.

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The original city map of New Amsterdam, called the Castello Plan (circa 1660).

As Google maps and other wayfinding applications have become more and more ubiquitous, our reliance on corporations has transformed maps into a visual apparatus of landscape interpretation structured for the public by drones and satellites and controlled from and corporate offices. This relationship between maps and power is one glaring constant in colonial practices that can, perhaps, be reclaimed by the fringes to force more democratic social evolution. From this ambition arises the questions: what would a decolonized map look like? How would radically altering the mapping process benefit the project of decolonization? Is there a basic set of standards and questions that can be activated collectively to create a decolonized map?

Such questions require a radical shift in norms and standards of operation. The curatorial collective Frontview, of which I am a part, is pursuing this line of inquiry to deconstruct the dominant structures of mapmaking in our recent project, the Decolonial Mapping Toolkit. In this project, we have looked to a longue durée history of landscape as a legend, with subjective experiences as points of interest. Through interviews with decolonial thinkers, architects, and theorists; a series of citizen workshops; and, ultimately, a mapping research and design process; we are currently producing a first iteration of such a map. Our first public program and core component of the process, “Faultlining New York,” took place on May 20, in which a small group of participants were led by an artist and historian in walking through Lower Manhattan to collectively restructure its history. It has become clear to us that broad landscape timelines must always be involved in decolonial histories, as decolonization is an active project that works to acknowledge past alterations in landscape (cultural and ecological), present experiences, and decolonized futures.

Pasts: Erasure and Supremacy ///

In both our initial research and collective workshops, we have come to understand that the power of maps is, essentially, as a medium between the map’s user and “official” knowledge. We trust that Google will guide us to our destination; colonization required pre-mapped routes to the Americas for economic profit; zoning laws are sanctioned by city offices for the supposed public good. Maps are used for specific purposes, and those purposes rely on a relationship of trust between the public and the mapmaker (whether they be federal or corporate). We uncritically use these maps to interpret the landscapes we inhabit, labor in, and otherwise move through. At the same time, the very entities responsible for making and disseminating maps typically benefit from obscuring histories of injustice and economic conquest, as these processes often form their very foundations. Knowledge comes from power, and if these maps are our only sources of spatial history, then, as a society, we remain quite powerless in the face of colonial information structures. This is, of course, tied to the highly professionalized discourses around architecture and urban planning, which are almost always intertwined with capital, government, and neo-colonial projects of development and “urban renewal.”

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Map of Lenape infrastructure with contemporary counterparts in Mannahatta to Manhattan: Native Americans in Lower Manhattan. / Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian (2010).

Take, for example, the proto-urbanism of Dutch New Amsterdam in what once was Mannahatta. The Lenni-Lenape Indigenous Americans, whose relationships to both land and property were profoundly different from Western tradition, had a distinct relationship to the landscape, shaping it just as it shaped them. While they did indeed alter the landscape, leaving oyster shells in masses on the island’s East side and clearing pathways for collective use, they were a part of an organic, meandering, sustainable ecology. In 1626, the Dutch “purchased” the land from the Lenape, eventually coming to eradicate this ecology and overlay European architectures and grid-like streets onto the clear-cut land. This history relied on maps, made solely in Western terms, that deemed the territory a part of the “New World.” Cartography here is a nexus of erasure: to deem something “new” is a refusal of any former presence in the land, and its mapping from this point of view functions as its officially-sanctioned manifestation.

Maps and physical landscape alterations further helped delineate “cultured” Europeans from the wild “Other”: it has been speculated that the wall built by the Dutch in the 1600s (transformed through the years into what is now New York’s famed Wall Street) was built in order to defend the colony from either Lenape or British attacks from the north. In both cases, the wall still functioned to reify the enlightened European against the supposed primitiveness of forest inhabitants. Even as the colony grew, Black slaves were relegated to the other side of the wall, working on farms to provide for the colony; this is an unmistakable example of segregation and capital accumulation that defines the Western colonial project. The wall, the gridded colony, and the colony’s infrastructures of accumulation worked as manifestations of racist colonial thought, starting American development down such a destructive path that it is difficult to imagine alternative architectures or ways of moving through the space.

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Detail from the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation map of Manhattan in 1939. / Mapping Inequality.

Colonialist occupation and development — reliant on mapping as a preliminary act of erasure — has since become a major tool of urban policy and community displacement. Throughout New York City and the nation, the process of redlining has had the catastrophic effect of relegating communities of color to the fringes in federally-sanctioned ghettoes. The New Deal-era policy, based purely on culture-flattening maps, deemed certain parts of U.S. cities desirable to investors and developers and left neighborhoods of color to rot in neglect. These lines are more subtle manifestations of the Dutch wall, and have had the effect of patterning a slow violence of poverty, lack of education, and increased crime rates over the years. This racist process of urban “renewal” has since evolved into the renaming of neighborhoods on Google Maps for real estate usage, coating displacement with absurd branded terms like East Williamsburg and Bedwick (which, fortunately, has not stuck). This new colonial cartography, put into practice more than 300 years after the original map of New Amsterdam, has an evolutionary lineage directly tied to the white supremacist social structures of the 17th century.

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Map of various Underground Railroad escape routes in the Northern United States and Canada.
Compiled from The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom by Willbur H. Siebert Wilbur H. Siebert, The Macmillan Company, 1898.

Present: Decolonial Mapping ///

Yet the cartographic imagination is not unique to urban planners, politicians, or development companies that (much like the Dutch West India Company) have used maps to racist and capitalist ends. Mapping can also be used to inquire, remember, and decolonize these relationships and can very easily be placed in the hands of colonized communities. It has functioned well as a tool of white supremacy, capital accumulation, and control; and yet the power of mapping is not inextricable from this legacy. Rather, as a tool of accessing and establishing power, it has been and can continue to be used for justice. In this alternative methodology, there are several options that we have established in our collective research.

The Underground Railroad was one such anti-map. Used to guide slaves North to freedom in the US in the early 19th century, the map was disseminated only through coded messages and wasn’t visualized until later as a point of historical study. It remained accessible only to fleeing slaves and a trusted network of Native American, freed Black, and white ally “Conductors.” At the time, it functioned to undo white suprematist landscapes, and instead trace paths for active Black liberation. More recent projects such as Mapping Inequality, which disseminates redlining policy maps to the public for activist research; and the University of Washington’s Segregated Seattle project, which unveiled still-active remnants of redlining, are instances of mapping histories of injustice to political ends. From these and other examples, we have found that mapping hidden or even forgotten power structures is a route in decolonization, while a more positivist action is to map a landscape’s cultural histories in remembrance, potentially leading to public recognition of injustices that define our landscape today. A broader goal of decolonial cartography is to undo dominant frameworks of land use, instead working to proliferate and highlight the histories, contemporary experiences, and ultimate goals of communities that have suffered from the colonial project and in many cases, remain obscured.

Frontview aims to redistribute cartographic power and activate such modes of collective, participatory mapping through our Decolonial Mapping Toolkit project. Over a series of three workshops in January and February 2018, we, along with visual activist and writer Nicholas Mirzoeff and activist collective Decolonize This Place, began discussions around the relationship between decolonization and maps with the goal of determining what a decolonial map might look like. These workshops became a broader collective of artists, activists, scholars, and students, now called the Decolonial Mapping Front.

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Photographs of the “Faultlining New York” walks in Lower Manhattan (Wall Street and Little Syria). / Photograph by Mohammad Golabi (2018).

Together, we determined a few key aspects of the colonizer’s cartography: these maps are static, embracing immutability as a way of reifying power; they hide, misrepresent, or do not have the proper information structures to present certain types of information (such as landscape histories, community configurations, and change throughout time); and they only concern themselves with either the present (as in wayfinding maps) or future (as in zoning policy and development). In order to undo these understandings of landscape, our visual map must be historically-minded and yet conceived so as to always accommodate changes and additions, guided by the lived experiences of those whose bodies have been historically colonized. Situating cultural histories of Black, Indigenous, Arab, and other communities of color within mapped landscapes is the project’s broad and basic working principle. This is so we can link historical injustice to ongoing, lived experiences predicated by issues in land use and modernist “progress.”

In order to reframe our understandings of space, we aim to establish counternarratives and alternative histories that, rather than remaining anecdotes of a time past, can be seen as essential to the stories of how landscapes and the communities that inhabit them have been territorialized, constructed, displaced, and destroyed through colonial action. It is this type of political longue durée that we view as the essential structure of a decolonial map, which seeks not only to commemorate but also to contextualize contemporary architecture and infrastructure within a broader history of conquest and control. If maps have always been inherently political, this mode of mapping, placed into the hands of the colonized, becomes a grassroots remapping of historical power structures to decolonize our understandings of space.

“Faultlining New York,” a public series of artist- and historian-facilitated walks, was one such experiment in remapping. The day-long program sought to reframe our interactions with contemporary urban environments, connect contemporary colonialism to global histories of displacement and apartheid (as in the aforementioned Dutch wall separating white settlers first from the Lenape, then Black slaves), and remember Lower Manhattan’s once-thriving Arab community of Little Syria. This neighborhood — which housed Arabs from what are now known as Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Israel, and Palestine — was eradicated by capitalist development in a story that has conceptual colonialist ties to the violent displacement of Palestinians in 1948, a connection we would highlight during our walk, which was scheduled in the week of the 70th anniversary of what Palestinians call the Nakba.

The first walk of the day, Paradise Glossed, was led by artist Moira Williams, who presented precolonial materialities (such as seaweed and marsh sand) and led us in exercises inspired by indigenous rituals to renew sensory relationships to the landscape. The resulting hour and a half included stomping across a wooden bridge; running our hands along metal fences, flower petals, and trees; and rubbing sand into our hands and clapping them together. Emphasis was placed on the contours of Battery Park, whose map reveals landscaped curves, meandering paths, and plant life, all built on landfill excavated during the construction of the World Trade Center.

The World Trade Center was, in fact, one of the nails in the coffin of Little Syria, which had, by then, been partially displaced by the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. This history, along with the histories of Bowling Green, the Customs House (now the Museum of the American Indian), and histories of the slave trade on Wall Street were all discussed through printed images, architectural histories, and participant-led conversation for historian Rebecca Manski’s Unsettling Wall Street, the second walk of “Faultlining New York.” By bringing to light histories of colonialism on site through visual culture, we collectively reframed the area by making connections between the still-standing buildings and streets of the area and their political implications. Conversations spanned from indigenous lives and their relationships to museums, to the present-day manifestations of Jim Crow laws, to the histories of Arab displacement in both New York and Palestine.

Remapping landscapes are essentially an act of reframing our understandings of them; traces and architectural evidence acted as the nodes for these walks’ new maps. Additionally, participants were encouraged to take video, audio, and notes throughout the day, all of which will be aggregated on a dynamic online map — the project’s framework that will house myriad narratives, histories, and notes. This decolonial map will continue to be built on through other walks in “Faultlining New York” (and, potentially, other cities), as well as through in-depth research of contemporary colonial practices. By mapping and remapping the traces of
our decolonial gatherings, we effectively aim to decolonize our relationships with the spaces through which we move, and to create an accessible and living multimedia archive that counters mainstream understandings of space, maps, and urban histories.

Futures: Utopian Cartographies ///

In our efforts, we have found that both social justice and decolonization frameworks rely on broader temporalities that these maps must embody, lending a way of envisioning a future geography that reflects utopian principles of community ecology, anti-occupation, and anti-gentrification. What’s more, utopian visions must rely on a radical re-envisioning of the past, beginning with a reorganization of the cartographies on which societies have literally been structured. A new historiographic cartography can focus on recognizing the political implications of infrastructural change over time. Decolonial maps, then, house the potential energy for active decolonial projects, framing information in such ways as to imagine, then enact, alternative social configurations.

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Photographs of the “Faultlining New York” walks in Lower Manhattan (Wall Street and Little Syria). / Photograph by Mohammad Golabi (2018).

One such ongoing process is the decolonization of New York City’s literal and cultural landscapes, which both undoes colonial infrastructures and monuments and introduces participatory design to city governance. Prior to Frontview’s Decolonial Mapping Front, maps of the city’s colonial and racist monuments have been made and disseminated, which help influence public thought and increase access to the NYC Monuments Commission’s recent public discussions. Further, the National Museum of the American Indian (while inhabiting a colonial architecture itself) has released a guide to Mannahatta, the Lenape name for the island on which Manhattan stands. While this guide does not necessarily refuse the regime of modern design and urban planning, we can look to institutes such as the University of New Mexico’s Indigenous Design and Planning Institute (iD+Pi) to activate indigenous ways of life through new technologies, architectures, and urbanisms to progress towards a future with decolonization at its core. This is to say nothing of the Black, Latinx, and myriad other communities that continuously battle displacement through gentrification. These issues fall under similar discussions of power, architecture, and maps, and participatory mapping can begin to reverse colonial urban processes. The Decolonial Mapping Front, as a layered and dynamic project, is able to encompass these multiple stakes, temporalities, and visions for the future in its multimedia and iterative approach.

Utopian progress on colonized land would thus look directly to precolonial narratives for cartographic, infrastructural, and architectural guidance, honoring these living histories while negotiating political, technological, and environmental realities. This does not necessarily imply a 1:1 return to historical maps; such moves are, for the most part, as impossible as reversing time. Rather, utopian cartographies must be radically participatory and progressive to redistribute the power inherent to maps. They must prioritize cultures and infrastructures of the colonized in future-minded redesigns: they must never be complete and must account for both historical transgression and living culture. Histories are made by irreversible events; by mapping these events and remapping their politics, social structures can, perhaps, evolve to accommodate both alternative pasts and radical futures.