American cities are more diverse than ever before. Successive waves of immigrants and their descendants have created vibrant ethnic enclaves and cultural centers that now define the cosmopolitan urban experience in this country. Often, however, these enclaves and centers are not met with official recognition from city governments or other political institutions. Meanwhile, many streets, parks, neighborhoods, are named for (usually white and male) elites, politicians or war-heroes.
In "We Are Here: City Signs and Maps in Ethnic Placemaking," in the Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol. 89, No. 1) Annette M. Kim and Kristy H.A. Kang examine one of the ways that cities can attempt to democratize this heritage: using cultural signage projects and community mapping to reinvent the ephemeral landscape of central cities. These "placekeeping" policies, they claim, can help invest in existing neighborhood institutions.
The investigation begins with a literature review that establishes the power of naming in legitimizing and maintaining a sense of place for immigrants and other traditionally marginalized groups in American cities, stating that "the power of the map lies in its history as a legitimating tool...empires and nations strategically used maps and the renaming of places to slowly erase local place names." This same strategy, then, can theoretically be used by marginalized groups to re-assert their claims to urban space.
Kim and Kang then zoom in on Los Angeles, whose city council has established a "community naming" system through cultural signage. They hypothesize that these projects fill a need in immigrant communities that are not met by other conservation programs, and that these programs open up space for new sorts of "postcolonial mapping."
Using a combination of qualitative and quantitative analyses, the authors investigate the proliferation of ethnic signage projects in Los Angeles by race and type of sign, as well as what this signage means for the communities who advocated for them.
Their findings establish several implications for the practice of community naming going forward. First, the process of community naming is a grassroots initiative started in response to calls from community groups. These calls were then codified into official policy by the Los Angeles City Council, and this track can provide a framework for other groups seeking recognition in their own cities.
The second implication is an upheaval of current understandings of map-making. It is impossible, the authors note, to "produce a single conventional map without alienating some constituency," as there will always be some sort of conflict around boundaries and ownership. Kim and Kang advocate for a system of mapping with more porous boundaries focused on cognitive, symbolic spaces and on "centers" rather than the traditional "edges."
Kim and Kang's analysis provides a substantially radical tool kit for planners and other practitioners looking to increase representation in our cities. Naming and mapping are powerful political tools, and something as simple as a sign can have substantial effects on power and identity within communities. The fields of Sociology and Political Science have long established the threads between cultural hegemony and political legitimization — with the aid of this investigation, planners now have a lineage to point to as well.
Figure 1: Community naming and ethnic signage projects in central Los Angeles.
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Top image: Wishes written on Tanzaku, small pieces of paper, and hung on a Japanese wishing tree, located in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles. iStock/Getty Images Plus - Jonathan W. Cohen.
About the author
Michael Zajakowski Uhll is a master in urban planning candidate at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design.