How do race and inequality intersect with space? American mapmakers have been trying to answer this question since at least 1895, when a group of reform-minded Chicago women published the Hull-House Maps and Papers. At the height of the Gilded Age, inequality was skyrocketing. Housing and labor conditions among droves of new immigrants were dire.
Putting their faith in data as catalyst for progress, the Chicago reformers meticulously surveyed the ethnicities and wages of industrial workers living in a tenement neighborhood on the Near West Side, and then plotted their findings in vivid color on a set of blank property maps. The result was a groundbreaking visual demonstration of poverty as a product of a person’s spatial context, rather than some damning individual quality—a belief that was commonly held then (as it is now).
Flash-forward 120-plus years, and we’re living in an era some call a second Gilded Age. In fact, income inequality is even worse now than it was then. Mapmakers are still figuring out the best ways to plot disparities across all sorts of measures—jobs and school quality, environmental health, and transportation access, for example—to advocate for policy change. The National Equity Atlas, developed by PolicyLink and the University of Southern California’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity (PERE), might be the best and most comprehensive graphic call for economic equality available today.