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Editorial: Fruit Belt’s map quest shows residents' pride

Google Maps cleared up a case of mistaken identity, restoring the name of the Fruit Belt to its map of Buffalo.

It took more than a decade of lobbying by residents of the historical neighborhood before the technology giant – after being contacted by a Buffalo News reporter – erased the erroneous name “Medical Park” and put the Fruit Belt label back where it belongs.

The incident illustrates the way technology and “Big Data” have infiltrated our daily lives, while showing that humans are still needed to keep an eye on things and sometimes set the record straight.

There were hurt feelings among Fruit Belt residents such as Veronica Hemphill-Nichols when they discovered that Google Maps had incorrectly changed her neighborhood’s name. The term “Medical Park” carried a special sting, as neighborhood residents have struggled to adjust to the rapid expansion of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, just across Michigan Avenue. The campus is an important contributor to the city’s economic revival, but for some Fruit Belt residents it means competition for street parking, more traffic and a changing real estate market that brings an increase in rents and concern about higher tax bills.

Gentrification often means displacement for low-income residents.

The Fruit Belt was founded by German immigrants, who planted the numerous orchards that gave the area its name. Coinciding with the building of the Kensington Expressway in the 1950s, the neighborhood transitioned to a mostly African-American population in the ’50s and ’60s.

According to Henry Louis Taylor Jr., director of the University at Buffalo’s Center for Urban Studies, the proportion of Fruit Belt residents living in poverty increased from 28 percent to 45 percent between 1970 and 2000.

Hemphill-Nichols had been complaining to City Hall about the name mix-up on Google Maps, which was picked up and repeated on numerous other sites and apps, including Zillow, Grubhub, TripAdvisor and Uber.

“They took it from us and no one knew about it,” Hemphill-Nichols said. “This is the historical Fruit Belt – not the Medical Campus.”

Perhaps this falls under the category of “no harm, no foul.” No one’s life on Peach Street or Grape Street was materially harmed by the digital slight. And similar mapping mistakes have been made with mischaracterizations of other Buffalo neighborhoods, such as Kensington-Bailey, Allentown or the Elmwood Village.

Still, Fruit Belt residents are proud of where they come from and don’t appreciate their history being wiped away through digital carelessness.

Algorithms, machine learning and artificial intelligence are amazing, but like anything designed by humans, they are imperfect.

Anyone who has ever used driving directions from an online app that leads to a dead end or nonexistent street has to wonder about the viability of self-driving cars. (We’ll stick with our non-autonomous model for a few more years.)

Good for Google for updating its maps, but it would not have happened without Fruit Belt residents speaking up.

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