"Chicago Boundaries" (by race) Click image for link to enlarged image at Radical Cartography.

“Chicago Boundaries” (2009) by Bill Rankin, Radical Cartography

Subject: Two maps showing the composition of Chicago’s neighborhoods by race and by income

Purpose: These maps respond to the fact that neighborhoods are traditionally shown on maps as static, homogeneous, and perfectly bounded areas with no awareness of the dynamic complexities of the populations within them.

Audience: Not specifically targeted or packaged — most likely those with interests in urban studies, race, economic data; map lovers; general public

Data Variables: 2000 U.S. Census data of racial/ethnic self-identification in Chicago; 2000 U.S. Census data of annual household income (HHI) in Chicago

Visual Variables: Five colored dots reflecting levels of annual HHI (each dot representing 10 households); five colored dots reflecting racial/ethnic categories (each dot representing 25 people); black lines representing Chicago’s officially-designated community areas

I first learned of cartographer Bill Rankin’s “Chicago Boundaries” by looking at another set of maps. One night on Facebook, a friend posted a link to a blog post on Gawker called “How White Is Your Neighborhood?” I have long been interested in America’s historical relationship (or obsession) with race, so I was curious to see what this article was about and just how it planned to help readers answer that question. The article, republished from a September Fast Company post, featured a series of maps created by Flickr user Eric Fischer that shows a bird’s eye view of the racial composition of many American cities. The maps — with tiny speckled sprawls of pink, blue, yellow, and green — resemble spills of finely ground cupcake sprinkles and are mesmerizing to look at. Fischer credits Bill Rankin’s map as the inspiration for his work, so I ventured to Rankin’s homepage for further review.

“Chicago Boundaries” is his response to the way that maps traditionally show neighborhoods as static, perfectly bounded, and homogeneous (as seen in the below examples).

Portion of Encyclopedia of Chicago's "Ethnic Mosaic in 2000." Click image to see entire mosaic.

Vintage Chicago Neighborhood Map

With that as his stated purpose, Rankin’s approach is a leaping bound in the right direction. Showing neighborhoods as neat, tidy shapes shows no awareness of the fact that 1) people with factors that affect their everyday lives (their race, their household income) inhabit these areas, 2) more than one group of people inhabit these areas, and 3) the nature of people is not to stay put, but to be in motion. “Chicago Boundaries” addresses the first two points well and even as it only addresses where people call home and not, for example, the distances they travel to get to where they work. The ‘big picture’ emanates a pulse that lets viewers know that there is a flow involved in how these people are organized. Aesthetic choices made in the map design reinforce that point well, with only faint gray traces of identifiable landmarks and neighborhood boundaries that appear only when users hover over the map. These are maps about real people, not people on paper.

While Rankin takes a smart approach to showing the dynamic nature of neighborhoods and their populations, there are at least three elements of “Chicago Boundaries” that are worth further examination for how form and content work together to support his intent.

Size, Scale, and Medium

Given the immense amount of data and sizeable geographic area, Rankin achieves quite a feat in representing everything within single images. The landing page for the maps shows a comprehensive view of the entire Chicagoland area and users are able to click to zoom into an extra large, high quality map at 2400 by 3000 pixels. While the resolution remains clear, the immediate transition from a wide view into a pinpoint focus is somewhat disorienting. I immediately lost sense of where I was and what I was looking to find. Although it was helpful to see that zones that looked uniform in color in the wide view often featured different color dots when focused, Rankin misses an opportunity to provide further context to where viewers are in Chicago and why a particular area looks a certain way. This may be more intuitive for a resident or one who is more familiar with the city, but  outsiders will remain lost tourists. It may also be an argument for these maps to be preferably shown on very large screens rather than a personal computer or smartphone.


The choice of the bird’s eye view for the maps’ perspective seems like the most obvious and preferable given the intent and the nature of the data. Yet, I’m curious about what life for these dots is like on the ground. What types of surroundings are found in which enclaves of the city? Which people can be found closest to major Chicago tourist attractions? Given the general hesitation around race-related conversations, there is an opportunity to confront existing stereotypes. For instance, just because an area is predominately white (or ‘red’), does that necessarily mean it is a high income area? A Google Maps-like “street view” could add a very compelling dimension.


Similar to the previous point, I found it surprising that Rankin did not explore or provide the option for users to explore connections between race, income, and location. Given the easy one-click and hovering methods he employs in the existing maps, it doesn’t seem to be that difficult of an option to provide. If this was a conscious choice, he does not contextualize it in his brief description. But for that matter, he doesn’t explain why he chose race or income, either.

Prototype Application

For my prototype application map, I explored the above consideration about connections. The importance of finding synapses between each of our individual proposals has been reiterated throughout the semester as we continue the development of the URT. As my personal project (which has been evolving in various directions since my initial proposal about a “moving history of subway messaging”) will focus on tightly-packed New York City, I will most definitely retain a consciousness of how place is not merely coordinates, but also the people who populate it in various ethnic- and economically-based enclaves.

Click to enlarge

To that end, I combined (above) Rankin’s race and income maps into one map, to start a conversation about how those factors relate to one another. Because my combination involved only a few Photoshop tricks, I know that there are some limitations on its clarity. For instance, the color used for Asian populations and the $40K-$60K household income brackets are the same, creating definite confusion between the minimal Asian presence in the race map and the larger middle class presence on the income map. Also, my map is fixed at a specific transparency between the two maps. For the URT and my map, it would be great to implement a sliding function that would more easily communicate gradient and transition between various inputs.

I’d love to hear any feedback about other limitations or suggestions!