Kim’s new book transforms perception of public space
By Matthew Kredell
Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam is known for having sidewalks bustling with action. Street vendors set up shop to sell a variety of foods and merchandise, creating a social atmosphere with people of different classes lingering to chat over snacks and drinks. To many city officials, it was an unsightly mess that needed to be cleared off and modernized to impress tourists. To USC Price School of Public Policy Associate Professor Annette Kim, it was beautiful.
With her newly published book Sidewalk City: Remapping Public Space in Ho Chi Minh City (University of Chicago Press, 2015), Kim uses critical cartography and spatial ethnography to provide new insights into the value and potential of this contested public space.
“The sidewalk life in Ho Chi Minh City is so humanistic, so aesthetic and cultural, but they’ve been trying to clear it off because it doesn’t seem modern and seems kind of backwards,” Kim said. “I wanted to frame it differently, and I think that’s where visualization is really helpful.”
Kim, who was born in New York and raised in Southern California, first went to Ho Chi Minh City as a doctoral student in 1996. She returned to the city many times, including as a Fulbright scholar in 1999 for doctoral dissertation fieldwork. She conducted most of the research for the book in 2010, collecting field surveys coded into GIS databases of everything happening on the sidewalks, as well as photographs, interviews and video.
When Kim returned to Ho Chi Minh City in 2014 to present some of the research in an exhibition titled In Celebration of Outdoor Activity Culture, she found that much had changed in the previous few years.
Police had increased enforcement of a clearance policy, levying fines and seizing goods of vendors. But since most of this happened between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., vendors came out early morning and scrambled to pack up everything five minutes before 9. The cat-and-mouse game between vendors and police had led to some bloody confrontations. Kim was saddened to see that some vendors who had been in the same spot for decades were gone.
Coverage of her exhibition from Vietnam television, radio and the front page of the Sunday edition of Vietnam’s largest newspaper helped spark a public discussion of reconsidering what is being done to the sidewalks. Recently the city opened its first solely pedestrian street, but Kim fears may exclude lower-income peoples.
She is planning another exhibition in partnership with the USC School of Cinematic Arts in September. Research on the Ho Chi Minh City sidewalks sparked Kim’s interest in critical cartography, which when applied to public policy and urban planning can experiment with multimedia sights and sounds to bring attention to overlooked spaces and people. Earlier this year, she launched the Spatial Analysis Lab (SLAB) at USC Price.
The crux of the book is a primer of critical cartography with map after map making a visual argument for how we can see new phenomenon by altering how we map.
“I hope people can see the amazing possibilities of what a map can do if we start playing with the rules,” Kim said. “By adding a time dimension and not committing to one static location, you can capture so much more of what happens in a space.”
Already, the book has drawn acclaim and public interest. It was recently tabbed as one of the “10 Must-Read Books for Urbanists on Cities, Race and Public Space” according to Next City, a planning-focused news site. In addition, Kim was invited to speak about the book at the Chicago Humanities Festival in October.