Borders disputed! Brooklynites take issue with Google’s neighborhood maps

Park vs. parking: Plan to expand McCarren isn’t getting a greenlight from drivers
Photo by Stefano Giovannini

Google has drawn its lines in the sand.

The all-powerful internet company’s Maps feature has attempted to define every one of the neighborhoods of Brooklyn down to the megapixel, a task even the city has never taken on. The tech titan has, using an opaque process that claims to be based on input from users but keeps many of the details of the decision-making process secret, devised distinct boundaries for borough locales from Greenpoint all the way down to Mill Basin — and not everyone is happy with the results. For instance, an eight-block area around York and Gold streets in what this paper considers to be Vinegar Hill falls into a hole in Google’s neighborhood matrix, leaving it an area without a name, despite locals’ strong sense of place.

“Who the f— is Google to say we’re not standing in Vinegar Hill?” said Carlos Martinez, a 40-year resident of the Farragut Houses, Ground Zero of the gap.

Martinez ventured that the hole has to do with fear of the public housing development sullying the tony connotations around the Vinegar Hill name, which real estate types want to maintain.

“I think that we don’t get labeled in Vinegar Hill because that’s considered a middle-class neighborhood, and this isn’t,” he said. “We’re in the ghetto. Google doesn’t come around here and ask us.”

Google is in the process of trying to drive cars rigged with panoramic cameras along every passable road in the world, not to mention sending lens-toting backpackers where cars will not go ,as it did in Prospect Park last fall, but it does not go door-to-door asking how people define where they live. What it does do is host a service called Map Maker, which allows citizen cartographers to propose changes to boundaries, street shapes, and place names. The tweak proposals are then subjected to review by moderators who are a mix of Google employees and hand-picked, volunteer Poindexters.

A spokeswoman for the Silicon Valley giant compared it to Wikipedia when explaining the program to this paper in the fall of 2013.

But unlike Wikipedia, Map Maker offers no way to review who made what changes and its final gatekeepers answer to no one, according to the Google rep.

A more recent inquiry to the data-devouring corporation about how it decides on neighborhood lines drew a less helpful response.

“I’m afraid we don’t have any information to share on this topic at this time,” said spokeswoman Lauren Barriere.

Google may not be talking about its quilt of neighborhoods that overlap, and, in many cases, run contrary to prevailing wisdom on the ground, but Brooklynites sure are.

Google’s Williamsburg top boundaries, for instance, start at the East River on N. 12th Street, veer along the top of McCarren Park on Berry Street, continue to hug that road as it turns into Nassau Avenue, and drop down on McGuinness Boulevard, creating a 13-block area between the park and McGuinness which falls in both Williamsburg and Greenpoint, according to the mapmaker. A guy who lives a few blocks outside of the double-designated area agrees with the online atlas’ declaration that he lives in Greenpoint, but says that it is a matter of debate among his neighbors.

“A lot of the hipsters like to say they live in Williamsburg — I prefer saying I live in Greenpoint,” said Jonathan Farkas, who resides on Banker Street near McCarren Park.

Nor is the world’s largest online advertising agency’s Williamsburg–Bushwick border acceptable to area residents. The company recognizes East Williamsburg as its own entity on the Newtown Creek side of Bushwick Avenue, bordering Bushwick at Flushing Avenue, but a musician who frequents the industrial neighborhood balked at the notion that he hangs out anywhere but Bushwick.

“Of course this is Bushwick,” said Kevin Hillard, referring to his practice space on Johnson and Morgan avenues. “Williamsburg is on the other side of Bushwick Avenue.”

This paper, for the record, does not acknowledge the existence of “East Williamsburg” and puts the Bushwick border at Flushing Avenue, placing Hillard inside the part of Williamsburg with lots of factory buildings. Sorry, man.

The private sector’s answer to George Orwell’s Big Brother is sparking discussion on the other side of Prospect Park, too.

A Midwood community board member said Google pretty much gets Midwood right — Foster Avenue and Avenue H on the top end, Avenue P on the bottom, and McDonald and Nostrand avenues on either side — but that one corner is a problem area.

“I suspect people west of Coney Island Avenue and north of the Bay Ridge Branch of the Long Island Rail Road would identify as living in Kensington,” said Community Board 14 chairman Alvin Berk.

One self-described former resident of Homecrest, which this paper also does not recognize, said that the information-gobbling Goliath gives Sheepshead Bay too much real estate. The aggrieved party, who grew up on E. 12th Street near Avenue R, said Homecrest has its own thing going on.

“It’s not Sheepshead Bay — the people there are different,” Susan Heifetz said.

Sheepshead’s border with Midwood is Avenue U, not Avenue P as Google has defined it, another resident opined.

“I would say that Avenue U is the dividing line between Sheepshead Bay and Madison,” said Madison-Marine-Homecrest Civic Association head Ed Jaworsk.

Perhaps no neighborhood’s borders are more controversial than Bensonhurst’s, though. According to Google, Bensonhurst’s boundary with Borough Park and a neighborhood called “Mapleton” runs along 60th Street, meets Midwood at McDonald Avenue, and touches Gravesend along Avenue P and Bay Parkway.

Some old-timers argue the Bay Parkway edge should actually run down Stilwell Avenue, but others, including some prominent restaurant owners, feel that boundary should move even further into Google’s Gravesend, though the restaurateurs acknowledge they are pushing the limits of convention.

L&B Spumoni Gardens sits on 86th Street between W. 10th and W. 11th streets, halfway to Coney Island from Google’s Bensonhurst line, but the pizza destination has been considered a Bensonhurst icon for 75 years.

“L & B Spumoni Gardens is a family-style Italian eatery in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn,” its website declares.

The pizzeria’s owners concede Google might be right — but prefer Bensonhurst’s street cred to the vague morass Gravesend calls to mind.

“Legally, it’s Gravesend, but I always say Bensonhurst because nobody knows where Gravesend is,” said Camille Barbati, granddaughter of L&B’s founders.

— with Max Jaeger, Matt Perlman, Will Breddeman, and Danielle Furfaro

Reach reporter Megan Riesz at [email protected] or by calling (718) 260-4505. Follow her on Twitter @meganriesz.
Art by Matthew Perlman