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Google Maps' Digital Erasure Highlights Issues of Community Identity in Buffalo, NY
In the late 2000s, public outcry over the development of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus in the Fruit Belt neighborhood of Buffalo, NY brought shed light on a complex community identity conflict. Residents saw their drastically changing neighborhood undergo rapid transformation and gentrification. In addition to this displacement, they observed that the name of their neighborhood, the "Fruit Belt," was erased from Google Maps and replaced with the name "Medical Park."
In the historically Black and German immigrant neighborhood, "community members argued the designation was a calculated tweak in favor of gentrification, a digital rechristening," writes Caitlin Dewey. "The misnomer also revealed a great deal about the invisible process major tech firms use to put neighborhoods on their maps—and how decisions based off arcane data sets can affect communities thousands of miles away."
Digital erasure is not the only way the ownership of the Fruit Belt was forcibly removed from long-time residents, notes Dewey:
[D]evelopers tore down low-income townhouses and bought out a nearby African-American cultural center to make way for new apartments and medical offices. Worse, some residents reported rent hikes of as much as 50 percent, and one in three homes sat vacant and unused — a common sign that owners planned to resell them at a higher price.
As a result of Dewey's journalistic research, Good Maps corrected the name of the Fruit Belt. This acknowledgement of collective community autonomy is only a small step in the right direction.