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How Google Wiped a Neighborhood off the Map

Back in Buffalo, that explanation doesn’t settle the matter. It may explain why the Fruit Belt appears on so few maps — but it does not explain Medical Park’s origins.

I visited the Buffalo Central Library to find the source of the error, enlisting two special collections librarians to search old city plans for any references to Medical Park. They pulled down banded folders and heavy scrapbooks compiled by New Deal workers during the Great Depression. Maybe the term actually predated the Fruit Belt, or appears in some newer, more obscure city document. Simmons said that some of Pitney Bowes sources for Buffalo data included a long-inactive planning group and the city itself.

Sure enough, one of the librarians located a single planning office map that used the “Medical Park” label. It was a 1999 report on poverty and housing conditions — long since relegated to a dusty shelf stacked with old binders and file folders. Even longtime city planners barely recall this map: Its purpose, they say, was to display census statistics, and its 54 “neighborhoods” correspond to census tracts. Somehow, likely in the early 2000s, this map made its way into what is now the Pitney Bowes data set — and from there, was hoovered into Google Maps and out onto the wider internet. Buffalo published another map in 2017, with the Fruit Belt clearly marked, and broadcast on the city’s open data portal. For whatever reason, Pitney Bowes and its customers never picked that map up.

City of Buffalo Master Plan Phase 1: Community/Neighborhoods Condition Summary map — the source of the “Medical Park” mistake.

With so little public understanding of how these systems work, it’s tempting to assign intent — malicious or otherwise — to these myriad decisions. They could be calculated attempts to push out a community already under threat; but they could just as easily be a string of careless accidents. Bad data, pulled from an outdated map. Either way, the process is too opaque to scrutinize in public. And that ambiguity foments a sense of powerlessness.

“We’ve historically tended to self-identify our communities,” says Aaron Krolikowski, a Buffalo-based geographer and data scientist who sees risks in the ripples of centralized data. “If suddenly we become disconnected from that process, I think there’s a lot of questions that emerge about the ability of a community to determine its future, in some cases.”

Google Maps did correct the name of the Fruit Belt in February, after being contacted for this article. So too did Redfin, TripAdvisor, Zillow, and Grubhub. In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for Google defended its use of third-party neighborhood sources.

“Overall, this provides a comprehensive and up-to-date map,” the spokesperson said, “but when we’re made aware of errors, we work quickly to fix them.”

There is little indication that either Google or Pitney Bowes will make this process easier or more transparent in the future; while Google says it invites user feedback on its maps, it doesn’t always act on those suggestions. And even that process, which involves clicking through three levels of menus, precludes users with limited computer skills. (Says the geographer Matthew Zook: “Communities that are not well represented in the online world tend not to show up as much” on digital maps.) Pitney Bowes offers no method for users to submit corrections.

This victory is partial for the Fruit Belt, too. Residents are glad, of course, to get their name back. But some wonder how long mistaken impressions may linger — and everyone acknowledges the name change won’t address the Fruit Belt’s underlying problems.

Rents continue to rise and developers are circling the neighborhood, looking for investments. Next year, advocates say, some Fruit Belt homeowners will get slammed by property tax reassessments as a result of rising property values, spurred by the Medical Campus.

But as residents continue to fight, says Lott, they’ll have the basic certainty their community is seen — by Google, at the very least.

“The thing with Google, it dampened people’s spirits who have been there struggling all their lives,” Lott says. “But it’s good, it’s good now. It’s a neighborhood where people are really close and concerned about each other. And you don’t see that, probably not anywhere.”

Today, if you tap “Fruit Belt” into Google, it brings up a pin near High and Peach Streets, six blocks from the house where Lott grew up. Coming from City Hall, the app dictates a left, then a right, then a left on Michigan.

Drive under the overpass that first slashed Fruit Belt home values in the 1950s. Past St. John’s Baptist Church, on the right, and the mirrored glass and terra-cotta science center on the left. Right on High Street, past the windowless deli and the overpriced lot and the intersection that realtor Instagrammed. Past wide flats of asphalt, neat, narrow houses, and an old blade sign for New Zion Baptist, rusted almost beyond recognition.

And when you get there Google will say, after all these years: “You have arrived at your destination.”

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