I can remember the very first issue of Vogue I bought. I was 10 years old and it was the ’90s. I had left Toronto, the city of my birth, to spend the summer with my father and his family, split between the Bronx and Long Island. I pored over the magazine’s travel pages and felt at once transported. Through the magazine I got to see London, Paris, and New York City in all their cosmopolitan glory. These cities were all the things Toronto—despite its claims to multiculturalism and openness to everyone regardless of religion, race, or sexuality—was not. In a time before social media and the tectonic shifts in tech and print media that it engendered, Vogue showed me one vision of a city—and who should get to live there. And for a long time I bought it. Almost 20 years later, it is not surprising to see Toronto featured on Vogue’s sleek website: Like the internet itself, Toronto has grown in unforeseen ways, and it has become hot enough to magazines like Vogue to merit their attention. But Toronto’s newfound status as a city on the rise hides the social topographies that make it truly fascinating.
Growing up in Toronto, you get used to seeing images of the city refracted through pop cultural lenses. You recognize streets and buildings repurposed as settings for movies and TV, fractions that stand in for real-life cities like Boston (Good Will Hunting), New York City (American Psycho), and Chicago (Chicago), as well as fictional places like Suicide Squad’s Midway City and the dystopian Gilead of The Handmaid’s Tale. Travel features on Toronto, like the one in Vogue, can feel similar: The city as presented is an aspirational vision that seems partly dreamed up by a PR team or the tourism board. For a long time, such visions of the city rarely acknowledged the streets, neighborhoods, and boroughs where young Black women like me grew up and became themselves. In these representations, you had to strain to see any semblance of the city you knew, and on the rare occasion you did, it never felt like home. But the lesser-known stories of Toronto and its residents are as rich and as fascinating as those onscreen, and Torontonians are increasingly finding ways to complicate the depictions of their city, all through a process called counter-mapping.
Cartography is the science of making maps; maps are the end result of that science, practically applied. Like any piece of technology, digital maps run on algorithms made by the humans who created them. Broadly speaking, counter-mapping is the appropriation of that cartographic technology to contest stories that are told about places as narrated by those in positions of power. Counter-mapping can also help push forward progressive visions of a city or territory and help us reconsider those places by centering the knowledge, experience, and perspectives of people often marginalized by more traditional maps. The term “counter-mapping” was coined by Nancy Peluso, a Cornell-trained professor of forest policy who in 1995 was studying a region of Indonesia in which government efforts to open more land for logging and mining were encroaching on Indigenous lands.
Counter-mapping the contested area remains an important grassroots and Indigenous strategy to resist displacement and contest marginalization and environmental racism: Alternative maps not only reveal what official maps erase, they also assert the rights to lands and present precolonial histories of those spaces. Counter-mapping has been an important technology for organizers for decades, but now methods that go beyond conventional mapping and incorporate a wider range of technologies—art, music, film, and more—have become part of the process. Toronto is in the midst of a rebranding. Through an increasingly fraught partnership with tech giant Alphabet and its urban-planning arm, Sidewalk Labs, Toronto is redeveloping its dilapidated waterfront and trying to sell itself as a city of the future. And a small but growing group of researchers, artists, and activists are taking up digital design tools and open mapping software to contest this rebranding.
Counter-mapping as a form of social-justice advocacy makes sense: It relies on collective-memory work to understand how communities build identity and meaning, and it poses questions (Who once occupied this space? What was once here? Why is it no longer here? What elements of it are or were meaningful to the people who use or used that space daily?) that subvert singular narratives of home, of belonging, and of what a city should be. In the United States, the Detroit Geographical Expedition and Institute (DGEI) is a case study in counter-mapping. The project began in the late 1960s in response to the Detroit “riot” of 1967. Bill Bunge, a white geographer and antiwar activist, and Gwendolyn Warren, an 18-year-old Black student and community organizer, were both looking for new ways to address racial inequities in the city’s core.
DGEI did so by teaching African American residents to use existing mapping tools to collect data relevant to their neighborhoods—for example, tracking how much wealth left “poor” neighborhoods after the riots by averaging out local retail revenues with salaries paid and the number of locals hired to fill those positions. They tracked the material conditions of children living in the city by recording the dearth of playgrounds, the shortage of recreational facilities, and the lack of access to medical services. In the past decade, new projects such as Mapping Police Violence have sprung up. Mapping Police Violence, which began in the wake of the 2014 murder of Michael Brown Jr. by police in Ferguson, Missouri, is a collective effort that comprises community groups, data scientists, researchers, activists, and more. The project’s interactive spreadsheet tracks the number of people killed by law enforcement officials since 2013, and a digital time-lapse map shows the locations of these murders and links to detailed statistical reports on police violence.
By providing snapshots not only of specific places but of the communities marginalized within them, Mapping Police Violence, like DGEI, illustrates counter-mapping’s utility for calling attention to power imbalances and abuses by the state. Toronto’s status as a city on the rise makes it particularly rich territory for counter-mapping. Jessica Kirk, a curator and cofounder of the grass-roots art collective Way Past Kennedy Road, points to the city’s affordable-housing crisis, noting that “the people who exist on the margins are the first to be impacted by the unavailability of places to live.” Major urban-renewal projects in Toronto largely target low-income, high–public housing neighborhoods; as in many other big cities, such projects have effectively pushed Black and other racialized residents out of previously undesirable—but now hot—areas. In places where they manage to hold out, Black and Brown residents face increased surveillance by newly arrived neighbors, many of whom are members of the city’s politically empowered professional class.
In 1963, the English science-fiction and fantasy author Michael Moorcock coined the term “urbicide”—a Latin portmanteau that translates to “city” and “to kill”—to describe violence against or annihilation of both the residents and the structures of a city. These days, it is more common to hear the term “gentrification” used to describe this phenomenon. No matter what word you use to describe them, these revitalization projects have made it increasingly difficult for displaced residents to find welcoming spaces to live and to congregate. As Kirk told me, “This city is shifting very quickly, and it is becoming increasingly difficult for nonwhite people, people who are from low-income families, to actually live here.” This shift also serves as the foundation of her art practice, through which she aims to share “the stories that are not being considered while these changes are happening.”
The influential midcentury American urban planner Kevin Lynch invented the term “mental maps” to describe how people situate themselves in their cities and synthesize the information they take from their surroundings. We often speak of technology as if it works in isolation, but counter-maps are a reminder that technology works in tandem with us; our bodies, our memories, and our histories are also technologies with their own algorithms. In this sense, maps and mapmaking are like early computing—they synthesize information and data about a place and its residents and flatten them to their quantifiable elements. Counter-mapping is one way to disrupt those algorithms and offer us new ways of synthesizing that data.
On April 1, 2016, the City of Toronto passed a bylaw that effectively banned smoking hookahs inside cafés and bars. Citing public-health concerns, the city council followed the recommendations made by Toronto’s medical health officer, comparing the practice of smoking hashish—common among Torontonians of African and Middle Eastern descent—to smoking cigarettes in restaurants. Mitra Fakhrashrafi, Kirk’s art-collective cofounder, pointed out that affected by the ban were 70 predominantly Black- and Brown-owned bars in Toronto, many of them in the city’s most coveted, rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods. This ban was the catalyst of Habibiz, a group art exhibit curated by Kirk and Fakhrashrafi, whose aim was to use the shisha ban “to consider what it means to illegalize already hypersurveilled spaces” and “extend a conversation on radical traditions of place-making across the Greater Toronto Area.”
If geography is identity, and the body a kind of technology, counter-mapping is a tool not just to redress injustice but to expand our capacity for empathy, the kind needed to think across spatial divides and the vastly different life outcomes that they can generate.
Placemaking—a holistic, community-based approach to the design, planning, and management of public spaces—is a cousin of counter-mapping. They share similar aims and principles, and one often predetermines the other. (Counter-mapping, for instance, is both a kind of placemaking and an outcome of it.) The contributors to Habibiz contest these assumptions by archiving and tracking their own marginalization from the very places that they helped make desirable, the cool spots in a hot real-estate market: Their mental maps are made real and project onto the viewer a vision of the places these artists no longer occupy. In an essay about the film Moonlight for Bright Wall/Dark Room, film critic Angelica Jade Bastién writes that geography is identity. “The architecture of our homes, favorite dives, and cities come to shape us in ways we’re not always aware of,” she writes. “And we, in turn, shape these places back. Our emotions have a way of manifesting on the physical plane.”
Maps are an example of this: Despite claims of authority over representation of a place, maps almost always misrepresent that place in some important way, making the familiar seem alien. Counter-mapping does the opposite, using technology to demonstrate technology’s own limitations and making obvious what maps cannot capture or what they willfully obscure. And in Toronto, what is often obscured is that, as Black Canadian writer David Chariandy argues, “Canada, no less than any other site of the African diaspora, boasts brilliant affirmations of Black life and creativity, powerfully ‘here,’ but in complex intercultural and diasporic dialogue with the world.” I felt Chariandy’s words keenly at a screening of where now?, a documentary series by Toronto-based music writer and filmmaker Amani Bin Shikhan and her coproducer, Samah Ali, CEO of the Toronto-based production house Sisterhood Media.
Set in the rapidly gentrifying downtown neighborhood of Parkdale, the series features several interviews with first- and second-generation Black millennials about their experiences growing up in the midst of immense social and infrastructural change. Shikhan says the project “asks us what it [means] to be in/belong [to]/feel indebted to a place,” adding that the series is meant to “wid[en] our imagination, [which] in turn contributes to a better chance at making a better home.” If geography is identity, and the body a kind of technology, counter-mapping is a tool not just to redress injustice but to expand our capacity for empathy, the kind needed to think across spatial divides and the vastly different life outcomes that they can generate.
Testing his “mental maps” concept, Lynch instructed a volunteer to make a map “just as if you were making a rapid description of the city to a stranger, covering all the main features. We don’t expect an accurate drawing—just a rough sketch.” In other words, draw me a snapshot image of the city as you remember it. Shikhan describes Toronto’s rebranding as “[m]aking [a] cartoon of culture” and notes that this “happens in most cities with a charismatic, resilient Black population that eventually gets pushed out because they can’t afford to live there anymore.” Habibiz, too, hits that message home: A sense of loss, anxiety, and yet hope for the future of Toronto is palpable through its series of mixed-media art installations, one of which recreates a shisha lounge.
Toronto remains one of the centers of this ongoing colonial experiment, an urban center that has taken odd turns in its quest to become a tech hub. At Habibiz, Kayla Carter, a local educator, was hosting a workshop during which she asked, “What does it mean for us not to have spaces where we can just be?” Carter added that we need mirrors of existence to confirm to us that what we experience as real is real and that by denying us agency or ownership over a place to which we have built cultural and emotional attachments is a form of imperialism and psychological violence. Counter-mapping provides a mirror to the experience of being in spaces that racialized people are being displaced from. Such practices that provides tangible evidence that what racialized communities in the city knew was there really was there.
Maps are a form of storytelling, and data is the raw material that helps tell those stories. The narratives revealed by counter-maps are meant to be disorienting, to upend collective assumptions about who gets to claim space, and how, and why. Counter-mapping is looking through the pages of Vogue and pretending where you are is wherever the magazine takes you; it is articulating a desire for a shisha lounge that once was somewhere but is no longer. It creates space for communities pushed to the margins of a city to contest their marginalization and set the terms of the social and material conditions of their own lives. Shikhan’s description of what now? ends with a direct stand: “[S]he loves this city more than she should and is deep-in-her-bones tired of condos. [S]he doesn’t want to leave.”