I’m a student. Taking notes is important. I’ve decided to create a notebook here — not a normal notebook; a notebook for my thoughts, for events, and for the mutterings of a fellow some call Harjus. Read carefully; you’ll be tested on this material afterwards.
- The copyeditors’ consensus: From 2011 to 2013, English Wikipedia editors passionately debated whether to prominently spell Vietnamese names with Vietnamese diacritics. Should there be an article on “Vung Tau” or “Vũng Tàu”, “Dien Bien Phu” or “Điện Biên Phủ”, “Dang Huu Phuc” or “Đặng Hữu Phúc”, “pho” or “phở”?
In its early years, Wikipedia’s content management software, MediaWiki, adopted then-state-of-the-art Unicode support to accommodate a quickly growing roster of foreign language editions of the encyclopedia. Drunken with this capability, English Wikipedians systematically embedded inscrutable IPA pronunciations in lede paragraphs, umlauts in the names of heavy metal bands, and zalgo text when signing their own names in discussions. But somehow the privilege of advanced Latin typography didn’t extend to Vietnamese people and places without a great deal more controversy. Superficially, the disagreement was over article titles, but due to how Wikipedia is written, any decision would gradually affect links to those titles, other mentions in running text, and articles translated into other languages.
The debate spread across dozens of discussion pages as editors attempted to get individual articles renamed, to put facts on the ground supporting their positions. One of the most prolific editors on Vietnamese topics eventually got banned for using disingenuous sockpuppet accounts to manufacture consensus to their liking. Even Jimbo Wales, cofounder of Wikipedia, weighed in with exasperation at the “excessive”, “ridiculous”, and “appalling” sight of stacked diacritics in English.
Wikipedia prides itself on being descriptive, rather than prescriptive. It relies on other reliable sources instead of trying to ascertain the truth by itself. One common refrain was that English-language published works routinely strip diacritics from Vietnamese names as a matter of policy. By 2012, some niche book publishers had begun printing Vietnamese diacritics. But the Associated Press stubbornly stuck to the basic English alphabet, the New York Times admitted accent marks for only a few favored European languages, and National Geographic specifically singled out Vietnamese for second-class status. News organizations heavily influenced the debate because their daily articles accounted for so many Google search results. Somehow, some of the most hastily written documents in the entire publishing industry was to set the typographical standard for the most deliberatively written reference work in history.
Ultimately, all the spilled ink came to nothing: per project policy, a lack of consensus means preserving the status quo. In practice, many articles have remained titled with diacritics, because diacritics distinguish completely unrelated words in every case. But editors have had to tread carefully around latent controversy when titling new articles or trying to make existing titles more consistent. The encyclopedia that anyone can edit has some advice for you: don’t go there.
The issue of diacritics on names is inherently personal for me, but I didn’t take offense at the many melodramatic, misinformed comments against Vietnamese diacritics. Surely the excess consonants and syllables in Welsh names would’ve elicited the same calls for simplification. My vote was essentially a sigh of resignation. I knew English language purists could only delay the effects of globalization for so long.
I had already seen these forces cut the other way, pressuring the Vietnamese Wikipedia to eschew the traditional names for overseas people and places in favor of bewildering, often unpronounceable English spelling patterns. Otherwise, it might’ve had to mimic the Vietnamese government’s official encyclopedia, which tries so desperately to hold the line on traditional phonetic spelling that it effectively invents its own novel alphabet: “Anhxtanh” (Einstein), “Penziat” (Penzias), and “Uynxơn” (Wilson) all contribute to the discussion on “Bich Beng” (the Big Bang). Imagine a generation of schoolchildren recalling the role of “Rudơven” (Roosevelt), “Tơruman” (Truman), and “Sơcsin” (Churchill) in World War II. Why would an English encyclopedia stop at stripping diacritics? Why not make Vietnamese names truly intuitive through phonetic respelling?
Sure enough, the tide is slowly turning. In 2019, the AP – which not long ago insisted on
``eyesore quotation marks''– began to incorporate diacritics into personal names. As a wire service, its style guide has outsized influence. Yesterday, I was surprised to see the Times Opinion section publish its first-ever byline with Vietnamese diacritics, right on the homepage. The article contains several references to Vietnamese people, places, and terms replete with diacritics. Rather fittingly, the op-ed by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai calls attention to a far more serious double standard in the lack of compensation to Vietnamese Agent Orange victims. Even if the extra attention to typographic detail doesn’t make its way into the print edition, due to typesetting constraints, I hope it’s the start of a trend online.
Yes, it’s Minh, like with a G at the end.
- Cover to cover: It was homesickness combined with an interest in roads that got me into OpenStreetMap originally, but I keep getting more deeply involved in the monumental task of completing the map in every imaginable way because it’s for a good cause and because, paradoxically, it’s unfinishable. Even a pandemic, for all its horrors, presented an opportunity to make a difference through mapping.
Tragedy of the commons
For several years after I moved to Silicon Valley, I kept contributing to OSM’s coverage of Ohio and never paid much attention to its coverage of my new surroundings. I assumed the capital of high tech would have an open-source map fully figured out by now. But in fact, when I finally got around to zooming into my part of San José in 2015, it had basically been untouched since the initial nationwide import of the Census Bureau’s low-quality road data, with far less detail than one would find in many Midwestern cities. It was reminiscent of how Google Maps and other proprietary maps had long neglected my hometown in Ohio. I guess everyone around here made the same assumption I did.
OSM is a far cry from proprietary maps. For one thing, we don’t have product managers deciding which cities should get a dedicated surveying team based on market potential or good PR. Perhaps that is how OSM’s corporate mapping teams prioritize, but they don’t have boots on the ground, so they can only help in so many ways. Setting priorities for the volunteer grassroots mappers, the ones who can really transform a map into something eye-catching and unexpected, would be harder than herding cats.
To my chagrin, Silicon Valley has an unearned status as the book cover of every world map out there. All too often, a product manager making purchasing decisions for a tech company will judge a world map solely on how it performs as they search and run errands in their neighborhood – which more often than not is somewhere in the Bay Area, right in Google’s backyard. A poor first impression here means OSM never gets a chance regardless of its coverage elsewhere. If only they knew about our gems, our labors of love, in random other parts of the world!
Mapping on a shoestring
By now, OSM’s map of Silicon Valley is also a labor of love. As soon as I started mapping in San José, I wanted to get it up to par with Cincinnati, but this time I didn’t have the advantage of knowing my way around town. I was never as bad a driver as when I struggled to jot down notes at stoplights or dictate to my phone while training my eyes anywhere but the road. It didn’t help that I kept saying the shop was on the right when I meant left – or was it right? As soon as I could get through my backlog of voice recordings, I’d have to resurvey the same places because new restaurants had replaced the old ones.
A few of us grassroots mappers found each other by chance and set up shop within Code for San José, even though mapping doesn’t really involve coding. We started scheming to build out the kind of superb coverage one would expect from an OSM community ten times our size. We copied some 3,500 miles of sidewalks, 250,000 buildings, and 200,000 addresses from local government databases, instead of mapping them by hand as larger communities often do. We’re like a scrappy startup (with no hope of a business model).
With streets, sidewalks, and buildings, San José now has a respectable level of coverage on OSM compared to other major U.S. cities. But these days, an ordinary user would consider a street map lacking businesses and other points of interest to be akin to chartjunk. Ask anyone who works on map and navigation software and they’ll tell you that most user feedback has nothing to do with the color scheme, turn instructions, or estimated travel times – it’s about the relevance and accuracy of search results.
Until this year, our approach to mapping businesses largely entailed collecting street-level imagery, then waiting for people to enter the businesses manually using the collected imagery. Occasionally, one of us would drive around taking notes, or a business owner would spam the map with an advertisement. (We’ll take what we can get.)
This organic approach helped us cover roughly 20% of the businesses in Silicon Valley. This shortcoming is by no means unique to this part of the country. I think it’s fair to say a lot of mappers have come to view comprehensive POI coverage as a Hard Problem and unattainable luxury.
Worse than being incomplete, our POI coverage was extremely uneven. You could generally rely on OSM for prominent, car-culture-friendly businesses like gas stations, but not for professional services or healthcare. Downtown areas and some suburbs had dense POI coverage, but working-class, minority neighborhoods and new suburban developments had sparse coverage.
When the pandemic hit, the county’s first-in-the-nation lockdown threatened to shutter many businesses and render all the years of ad-hoc POI mapping useless, especially in the minority neighborhoods where we were already falling behind. How would we catch up to the proprietary maps now?
Luckily, the county public health department required every business to submit a site-specific protection plan online as a condition for reopening. At a brainstorming session in September, we discovered that the county was publishing these forms on a website, including the name and address of every kind of business, many in the very places we were finding difficult to cover well. It’s as if the county has dropped a phone book in our lap, but this phone book is machine-readable and updated daily with businesses that are sure to be open during the pandemic.
We turned the county’s dataset of forms into yet another massive import. Eventually, this import will result in 20,000–30,000 new POIs, making it the third largest POI import in OSM’s history, larger than most countrywide imports.
Unlike our previous imports, this import is especially labor-intensive because each entry needs to be hand-reviewed for accuracy. So we simplified the workflow so that even the most novice mapper can contribute from the comfort of a Web browser. It’s convenient enough that even I can comfortably contribute despite shying away from the usual import tooling. Now the challenge is to recruit more participants before the pandemic ends and this dataset starts getting stale. If it were just up to the few of us longtime mappers, it would take us years to complete the import, so we really need help.
Though we’re still mired in the 15% range, this import is already making an impact. Whenever an iOS developer tests their location-aware application in a simulator, the simulated routes around Cupertino feature many more POIs than they used to, including childcare centers and offices we never thought to map all this time. The map looks full like never before. It’s a baby step toward changing outside perceptions about OSM. Meanwhile, we seem to be filling in gaps in places like Milpitas and East San José that had gotten neglected all these years. I wouldn’t be surprised if we end up covering this county’s many ethnic enclaves better than any other map.
I’m hopeful we can build up an active mapping community that can not only fill in these gaps but maintain our momentum for years to come. In time, the businesses that survive this pandemic will benefit from being included in OSM. Maybe we’ll even serve as a model to other cities’ mapping communities, so that our coverage of Silicon Valley will be more than a mere book cover.
First, if you aren’t familiar with contributing to OSM, go to openstreetmap.org and create a free user account. Once you’ve logged in, zoom into your neighborhood and click the “Edit” button at the top of the page. Spend a few minutes completing the interactive tutorial to get a feel for editing, then dive in and add missing details to your neighborhood.
Once you’ve gotten the hang of basic mapping, go to this MapRoulette project and follow the instructions to get started. It’s a safely socially distanced activity and a small way to help the local community come out stronger after the pandemic.
- The main course: Who am I to comment on the terrible things that keep happening in this country? Me, I’m just someone who’s lived a sampler platter of a life. I have just enough musical talent for the honkytonk pianos at the airport, but not enough to survive another lesson. I had Tourette syndrome just enough to be teased at school, but not enough to need medication. I’ve crisscrossed the U.S. enough times to amass a mound of maps, but I was so clueless on my first visit to Europe, two years ago, that I needed help turning on the lights in my hotel room.
I’ve experienced just enough racism to know it still flourishes in this country. As an Asian American growing up in a nearly all-white, conservative Ohio town, I got to know the stereotypes pretty well. My grade school initially dumped me in a remedial English class assuming I didn’t speak my only language. (What I actually needed help with was math.) If I missed a pop culture reference, it was because I needed to “learn more about America”, my country of birth, not because I’m a bookworm. There was the time a white classmate assumed I was a Democrat because I’m non-white, then half-jokingly ridiculed me for sympathizing with slaveowners. (If that sounds absurd, consider that American history teachers dwell on antebellum politics, but they skip the civil rights movement and party realignment of the 1960s, ostensibly for lack of time.)
Racial profiling is not an abstract concept for me or my family. For example, when the town redid the street outside our neighborhood, they stationed a white police officer there for a week to enforce a “Local Traffic Only” sign. The only person she pulled over was my father on his way home. She refused to acknowledge that he lived in our tidy suburban neighborhood. Instead, she booked him and falsely accused him of assaulting her. Ultimately, he got the citations thrown out in Mayor’s Court, but that incident colored our impression of Loveland as just another Reading.
I wonder: do white parents berate their 10-year-old children for leaving a convenience store without a receipt as proof of purchase, worried that, next time, the store clerk will turn around and call the cops on them for shoplifting? I still think of that eagle-eyed store clerk every time a gas pump runs out of receipt paper.
In Ohio, most adults described racial profiling as a hypothesis, the race card as a certainty, and racism in the past tense. That made it difficult to share a different perspective candidly. I do use the past tense to describe these experiences of mine, because upon moving to California and finding a job in Silicon Valley, I’m technically no longer underrepresented and most of the racism I experience is much more subtle. In a sense, I’ve escaped, even if it doesn’t always feel that way.
I’m writing about these experiences not because I want your pity, but rather because I don’t want anyone I know to be complacent about racism in this country. It would hit close to home if you knew how it affects the friends and acquaintances of yours who have to suppress their frustration like I suppress my Tourette ticks, just to get on with life. Racism needs to be acknowledged and addressed, led by those who aren’t its victims. As a society, we need to work on not only the symptoms, like racial profiling and excessive use of force, but also the pernicious lack of representation that leads to it. For me, as a coder, addressing the lack of visibility and fair representation is how I can most readily make a dent in systemic racism, because increasingly people rely on software and online services as gateways to society.
When I started working in earnest on Wikipedia and OpenStreetMap and later joined Code for San José, I thought my efforts were about narrowing the digital divide and plugging holes in education, but it turns out everything is interrelated. Now the challenge is to make these open source projects more authentic: not just for marginalized communities but, more importantly, with these communities. An effective code of conduct against harassment is now a baseline expectation, not much to write home about. But what to do about a project that celebrates outdoor mapping as the gold standard, looking down on “armchair” mapping, when a Black person wouldn’t necessarily feel safe surveying by foot or by car in their own neighborhood, let alone an unfamiliar one?
It would be wrong for me to say I feel anything like the weight of racism that the Black community faces in this country – that would be like saying I know what it’s like to be hospitalized for COVID-19 because I had a nasty cold in March. None of the encounters I described above were life-or-death situations, because the model minority myth shields Asian Americans even as it stifles us. I even have the luxury of nostalgia for the town that sometimes embraced and sometimes slighted me. But that awareness makes me all the more concerned about people who are served the full entrée, and more determined to do something about it.
- Local color: A year ago, I was pretty sure I’d be spending all my free time contributing buildings and turn lanes to OpenStreetMap. I did contribute plenty of them, but I also have a tendency to get distracted by ideas out of left field. During the past year, I wound up contributing several kinds of features to OSM that never make it onto conventional maps. At some point, I took up mapping flags.
The first atlas I owned as a kid was The Picture Atlas of the World (Kemp & Delf). The beautifully illustrated maps and infographics endeared this volume to me for years, but it was the colorful ring of national flags around the front cover that made it irresistible to me at the bookstore. It’s a wonder that my parents gave in to my pleas and purchased this atlas, despite the flag of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam gracing the cover. My grandparents fled the Communists in the ’50s, and they with my parents fled the Communists again in the ’70s. Like many refugees, they longed for Vietnam – especially after searching in vain for Vietnamese food – but hearing about life there today, good or bad, would often elicit dismissive eye-rolling about the Communists.
That was in a suburb of Cincinnati where Vietnamese are few and unknown. It was a bit easier for them to put the war behind them when no one around them seemed to know or care about Vietnam. But that wasn’t the case everywhere. Whenever we visited a Little Saigon in another city, I was fascinated by all the steps they had taken to maintain civic continuity with the old country: the major streets renamed “Sài Gòn” and “Trần Hưng Đạo”, the veterans marching in ARVN fatigues on holidays, the South Vietnamese flag raised proudly beside the American flag.
Later I’d learn that activists have convinced numerous city councils and state legislatures to give the South Vietnamese flag official status, regardless of international diplomacy, usually under a name like “Heritage and Freedom Flag”. The lá cờ vàng ba sọc đỏ is so important to these communities that, once in awhile, some official or business owner will unwittingly spark outrage, protests, and apologies by flying the wrong flag to represent the local Vietnamese American population.
Name that flag
About six years ago, I noticed that some contributors to OpenStreetMap had come up with a standard scheme for mapping flagpoles and the flags that fly on them. According to the scheme, flags are classified as “national”, “regional”, “religious”, etc., and national flags are identified by ISO 3166 country code. It was specific enough to precisely describe most of the flags in my hometown, so I didn’t think much more of these tags after mapping a few American and state flags. I had more important things to contribute to OSM anyways, like redrawing roads that the Census Bureau had turned into abstract art.
But then I started mapping Little Saigons. Nothing marks these communities as indelibly as the South Vietnamese flag. It’s the first thing to map, more important than the buildings and businesses. Yet no one has ever compiled a comprehensive listing of the places where the South Vietnamese flag flies. For that matter, no one has ever made a comprehensive map of these flags. That makes OSM the perfect place to start one.
Unfortunately, when I started mapping South Vietnamese flags, the approved flag tags were too imprecise to identify it, because the community hadn’t considered that a flag could outlast its country. As it turns out, South Vietnam’s ISO country code was
VN, but after the war, the ISO obsoleted North Vietnam’s
VNto represent the reunified Vietnam – one of the spoils of war, apparently. I couldn’t simply tag these flags as
country=VN, as the OSM Wiki suggested, without fearing that an OSM-powered map would automatically depict them as Communist flags in the heart of a fervently anticommunist community. Indeed, OSM2World would color the South Vietnamese flag red based on the ISO country code, though it is possible to override the color explicitly.
A quick search in taginfo showed me that someone had coined a more freeform
flag:namekey in 2014 and used it ad-hoc on a few flags without documenting the key or campaigning to get it formally approved by a vote.
flag:name=South Vietnamwas an improvement in that I could make sure other mappers know which flag it is. But there was little chance that a future flag-bearing map renderer would special-case specific values of this key, given the sheer number of flag designs and the fact that the name could differ based on the local language where the flag flies. I needed to pair
flag:namewith another key set to an external identifier, which a renderer could use to look up machine-readable details in an external database.
I knew of two projects attempting to comprehensively catalog flag designs: Flags of the World and Wikidata. Both contain entries for the flag of South Vietnam, but I figured I’d eventually map other flags that weren’t in either database. My previous e-mail submissions to Flags of the World went nowhere, whereas anyone can create new Wikidata items while mapping. Moreover, Flags of the World lacks strictly unique identifiers: each webpage does have a somewhat memorable URL slug, but multiple flags can be documented on the same webpage. By contrast, Wikidata is organized around unique item identifiers (also called QIDs). It also has an API that makes it easy for software to reliably look up details, such as the flag’s aspect ratio, a scalable image to render, or even the Flags of the World URL slug if necessary.
flag:wikidatafollows the example of several other well-established keys that are set to QIDs, so I could use this key a bunch of times and expect other mappers and renderer developers to intuit the meaning behind it. But just in case, I informally suggested this new key on the
man_made=flagpoletag’s discussion page and eventually documented both
flag:wikidataon their own wiki pages to raise awareness.
Praying for a gentle breeze
Now I needed to get more flags on the map, to prove out the idea of tagging specific designs. I turned my attention back to my hometown and its mundane collection of American and state flags. Actually, I had missed plenty of other flags that needed QIDs for disambiguation: the five flags of the U.S. Armed Forces turned up at veterans’ memorials and outside the homes of many veterans. Some Catholic churches and cemeteries fly the local archdiocesan flag. McDonald’s restaurants fly a familiar Golden Arches flag. The high school I attended celebrates its Barcelonan exchange students with a Catalan flag – but my parents preferred to think of it as the similar-looking South Vietnamese flag.
Probably the main reason no one had ever rigorously catalogued individual South Vietnamese flags is that, important as each one may be to a particular community, it isn’t famous enough that word of that individual flag would usually spread across the country. OSM offers a way around that: anyone sitting in their armchair, so to speak, can identify flags in street-level imagery and sometimes even aerial imagery. It took me only a few minutes to find South Vietnamese flags in the most well-known Little Saigon, in Garden Grove, California. But apart from that, it’s still time-consuming to think of Vietnamese shopping districts and scour imagery for a little yellow speck to zoom in on. Not nearly every Vietnamese grocery store would fly the South Vietnamese flag, just as not nearly every mainstream grocery store flies the American flag out front.
As a shortcut, I figured that places of worship catering to Vietnamese Americans would be just as likely to fly flags out front as mainstream places of worship, but much more likely to fly the South Vietnamese flag alongside the American flag. OSM has a lot of places of worship in the U.S., thanks to an import of the federal government’s official gazetteer, GNIS. GNIS is by no means comprehensive when it comes to places of worship, and it brought in lots of long-gone churches. Fortunately, it also has a tendency to call Vietnamese places of worship by descriptive names like “Vietnamese Alliance Church” rather than the actual, diacritic-laden names like “Hội Thánh Tin Lành Việt Nam”. So simply searching for “Vietnamese, United States” turned up quite a few churches, many of which do fly the South Vietnamese flag. I made sure to rename these churches according to signs I spotted in street-level imagery, and in some cases I had to move the church quite a distance from where GNIS had it, so there was a practical benefit in addition to the symbolism of getting flags on the map.
I turned up more Catholic churches by searching for the names that Vietnamese Catholics most commonly venerate, but in English: “Vietnamese Martyrs”, “Our Lady of Lavang”, “Andrew Dung Lac”. Aside from flags, these search results gave me a chance to micromap other details like outdoor Stations of the Cross. Similarly, I mapped a lot of statues after searching for Vietnamese words that commonly appear in the names of Buddhist temples, like “Phat” (Phật) and “Quang”.
I was pleasantly surprised to have access to street-level imagery in most of the localities where I found places of worship to map. That made it much easier to map unfurled flags. Sometimes, though, I had to resort to process of elimination. For example, sometimes the street-level imagery was taken at a time of day when the flags were down, but there was enough of a breeze to unfurl the flags in aerial imagery. From a set of three flags outside a Catholic church, I could often deduce that the one with a dark canton was the American flag, the yellow one was the South Vietnamese flag, and the yellow and white one was the flag of the Holy See. I made sure to tag any other flag I saw along the way, creating a corresponding Wikidata item if necessary.
Ultimately, thanks in large part to OSM’s Nominatim search engine, I managed to map some 45 South Vietnamese flags across the U.S. and Canada, making it one of the most commonly tagged flag designs in OSM. (I did spot a couple Vietnamese flags too, but notably none in the U.S. other than the one outside the U.N. headquarters in New York.)
flag:wikidatais now one of the most commonly used Wikidata-related keys in OSM, more common than
architect:wikidata, identifying Pride flags, Confederate flags, and everything in between.
I look forward to OSM’s coverage of flags increasing dramatically as others find out about this project and scour their own communities for flags. For now, only specialized 3D renderers of OSM data show flags at all. The overpass turbo analysis tool allows you to see the invisible flag data, but it requires some training, such as in a walkthrough I gave at the State of the Map U.S. conference last year. As flag coverage increases, I hope renderer developers will take note and add more sophisticated support for this data.
Raising the bar
I’m not mapping South Vietnamese flags in order to bear witness against Communism or to reopen old wounds. Rather, I want to ensure that Vietnamese American communities are represented on the map where they are today, in a way that’s meaningful to them. They already know where to find phở and bánh mì; what matters more is awareness and recognition. I want OSM’s attention to detail to bring people into the project from a broader range of backgrounds. The OSM community needs more diversity – not only among mappers and developers, but also among users and advocates – to establish the project’s relevance in society and keep it sustainable over the long term.
We need to expand our ideas of what OSM can excel at. Flag data is superfluous – until it represents new knowledge about the world that has never been expressed before or leads to improvements to the surrounding map. If we allow OSM to be judged solely by how well we provide the kind of information that people expect out of proprietary maps, OSM’s legacy will at best be a later, less efficient, less integrated Google Maps, merely a more current, detailed imitation of the paper maps in my collection. To be sure, roads, buildings, and businesses are an important baseline for a layperson’s trust in a map, but a baseline alone doesn’t capture people’s imaginations and spur them to action. Let OSM’s corporate infantry figure out how the project can compete with proprietary data sets on baseline data, while we grassroots mappers focus on mapping something quirkier, something more colorful that gets the next generation hooked on maps.
You can help
To contribute to OpenStreetMap, create a free account on the site, zoom the map into your neighborhood, and click the Edit button at the top. Take the walkthrough to learn the basics of editing OSM data.
To map a flagpole, add a Point and search the feature types for flagpole in the sidebar. The built-in fields so far only let you indicate the flag’s type (
flag:type) and ISO country code (
country), but you can add the
flag:wikidatakeys manually in the “All tags” section at the bottom of the sidebar. The wiki’s flagpole documentation explains some of the nuances, like the difference between
organisation, and how to find or create a QID in Wikidata.
- The bridge where friends meet: The Benson Street Bridge, or “Rainbow Bridge”, marks the city limit between Reading and Lockland, Ohio. Residents are fond of mentioning a sign that hangs over the bridge, proclaiming both Cincinnati suburbs to be “Where Friends Meet”. But if you talk to enough people from the surrounding area, you eventually hear whispers about a less friendly sign that used to be posted at the city limit, warning nonwhites not to set foot in Reading. My mother used to ride the bus with an African American person who still avoided that town, even though she said the whites-only sign hadn’t been up since the 1960s. You can imagine there must’ve been robust enforcement of that policy for it to have wound up on a welcome sign in the first place.
I first heard about her experience while growing up on the other side of town in Loveland. I was still too young and sheltered to take notice of the occasional weird remark or special treatment that in hindsight was almost certainly related to my ethnicity. But that story struck me, because we previously lived in Reading and we went to church and shopped there for several years after. To a child like me, Reading seemed like a perfectly normal community, not the sort of place that only a generation earlier might’ve treated nonwhites like criminals or kept us out.
Reading’s decades-long history as a sundown town goes unmentioned in official town histories. A 1951 book commemorating Reading’s centennial tells some tall tales about Reading’s history but omits any mention of the ban on blacks. Surrounding the mayor’s embellished historical account are advertisements by local businesses praising Reading as a “progressive town”. In fact, it took me many hours of scouring local newspaper archives before I finally found a single published confirmation of the ban, from 1912.
Even if the community felt little need to advertise its ban in the press, those who needed to know about it did get the message. Census records show a purely white Reading, extremely unusual for the area and for a town of its size. Until the 1970s, Reading’s black population was usually nonexistent and never broke two percent of the total population. By contrast, neighboring towns had plenty of black residents, especially Lincoln Heights, the first black-led municipality in the North.
Reading population by race, from incorporation to present Census 1860 1870 1880 1890 1900 1910 1920 1930 1940 1950 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2010 White 1,225 1,575 ? ? 3,076 3,985 4,463 5,664 6,079 7,833 12,816 14,213 12,563 11,755 10,579 9,251 African-American 5 0 ? ? 0 0 77 59 0 0 1 60 196 172 361 756 Other 0 0 ? ? 0 0 0 0 0 3 15 30 84 111 352 378 Total 1,230 1,575 2,680 ? 3,076 3,985 4,540 5,723 6,079 7,836 12,832 14,303 12,843 12,038 11,292 10,385
Other communities have had their ugly side too. Loveland was where the KKK held regional conventions and staged photo-ops in the 1960s and 1970s. As recently as the 1990s, when I lived there, they almost put up their cross in front of City Hall, after Cincinnati put an end to their annual rallies downtown. Yet despite the problems African Americans in Loveland may have faced, they were still able to reside there in greater numbers. Reading’s demographics stood apart from its neighbors, a fact that was surely clearer in person than in a federal census report. The sundown town phenomenon was especially pernicious because it was, in a sense, uncontroversial in communities like Reading.
As I continued to search newspaper archives for additional information about Reading’s race relations, I stumbled upon articles about dozens of other towns across the country that had driven out their black residents, either violently or by threat of violence, and become sundown towns. Each time, I edited the town's Wikipedia article to acknowledge the town’s former antagonism towards blacks. In at least one instance, I found that a passage on race relations had already been added to the article, only to be removed by a local resident who perceived it to be “playing the race card”, or blowing out of proportion what was historically a fact of life. But this is not a case of judging yesterday’s norms by today’s morals. Back then, southern Democratic newspapers often mocked northerners and Republicans as hypocrites for criticizing Jim Crow laws but, on the other hand, implementing an extreme form of segregation not often found in the South. Some northern papers also noted the existence of sundown towns with regret. People knew it was wrong.
By now, such policies have been swept under the rug so thoroughly that many current residents are legitimately unaware of their hometown’s sordid past. For them, seeing it suddenly appear in the town’s Wikipedia article can feel like an attack on their own character. But silence can only perpetuate injustice. There’s at least one person who still bears the burden of that long-gone sign at the Reading city limit. She will continue to experience that stigma until the community acknowledges its past and declares a definitive end to institutional racism as publicly as it started. Mentioning sundown towns in these Wikipedia articles is the least I can do to start much-needed dialogue before it’s too late to give people like her some closure.
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