The Power of a Neighborhood’s Name

AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

Sometime in the late 2000s, Google Maps started calling Buffalo, New York’s Fruit Belt neighborhood “Medical Park,” even though long-time residents didn’t call it that. Home to Buffalo’s black working class, Fruit Belt residents feared this digital erasure was part of the city’s attempt at rebranding in order to sell it out from under them. For Medium’s tech channel, OneZero, journalist Caitlin Dewey writes about how data threatened this African American community, how residents are fighting to save it, and what Google Maps’ renaming reveals about the flawed ways data collection works. Many people deny that the renaming is part of any calculated rebranding, but what is clear is that data is not neutral. Neither are those who use Google Maps.

Worst of all, in May 2018, a young realtor named Kim Santana posted a glamorous Instagram post of herself standing on the corner of High and Lemon Streets, holding a large coffee cup. “Whether you call it the fruit belt or the medical park neighbourhood, this is a great opportunity to be part of the buffalo renaissance!” her caption read. (“I really believe that the Medical Campus is going to bring some attention to the formerly known Fruit Belt neighborhood,” Santana told me by email.)

Residents who saw the image seethed. India Walton, the co-founder of the Fruit Belt Community Land Trust, ticks off the many ways the Instagram post offended her: the tone, the use of the reviled Medical Park name, the presence of a “chai latte or whatever.” Walton includes the image in a presentation she gives to other activists around the country about the dangers of gentrification. The post proves, Walton says, that developers and realtors seized on Google’s mistake to market the Fruit Belt to rich white kids.

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