Off the Map

When my childhood home went missing from Google Maps, I wondered what remained of it

The screen on my cellphone read 4:52. It was Christmas morning. I’d had a nightmare, and I fumbled over to my computer, overwhelmed by an urge to see the house again: my childhood home, the one I’d left on a Monday in 2009. I entered my old address into Google Streetview and waited for a few moments, expecting a sight that would reassure me — or maybe not, but I needed to see it nonetheless. The screen flashed with the names of streets that were once familiar: I could see the park and, dragging the yellow Streetview humanoid through the screen, I could walk to my school, wander the two streets parallel to mine. But Google did not have access to my street. Instead, a foreboding, ominous glitch kept sending my yellow humanoid to the streets nearby.

The house’s absence in Google Maps was linked to my own absence from it: No pictures survived the robbery, and our former neighbors had closed the street to make it safer, rendering it inaccessible

In the dream I had seen the house. It had been renovated, but in minor ways — the sort of change you would expect if we had continued to inhabit its wide, luminous spaces and we had been able to make new marks on the walls. There was a party going on. It started out small. Just a few friends and acquaintances from our past, scattered around the house, cheerful, chatting and holding drinks in their hands — maybe laughing a bit too loud. Suddenly, the party began to fill with more people. Fewer friends and more strangers. We pleaded with our guests to leave, but they would not listen, as if our words were sealed inside a pool of water. Then I felt it: Fear. Time accelerated. The sounds of the party got louder and louder. The images around me began to swirl. I wanted to run, but how could I escape from my own house, from my own party, full of guests unknown to me but guests, nonetheless?

As I glanced in the mirror, my face glowing with the blue light of the screen against the darkness, I felt uncomfortable. The house’s absence in Google Maps was linked to my own absence from the place where I’d grown up. My mum, sister and I had left our neighborhood after our house was robbed and we were assaulted in the process. No pictures survived the robbery — our computers and hard-drives were stolen. Since then, like many middle-class neighborhoods in Mexico City, our former neighbors had closed the street in an attempt to make it safer, rendering it inaccessible to Google Maps. People often ask me if, as a writer, losing my computer to the robbery was not the worst that could happen to someone like me. What I miss the most, to tell the truth, is not the unfinished novel or the coursework from my first year in college but my digital archive as a whole. Poor and precarious as it was, it would be the only way of peering into my life before it radically changed: my music library, my cell phone pics, the Word documents where I stored my notes and diaries. Some odd times I still find myself looking for a file that no longer exists.

As photography has become cheaper and more capable of rendering images immediately, seemingly without the intervention of a third party, we’ve become detailed archivists of our own lives, producing hundreds, if not thousands, of visual documents of everyday life that range from our most intimate moments to our most trivial ones. But their retrieval is dependent on other entities: Our hardware, where visual memories are accessed, exchanged and stored; the applications that make them legible; the people who manage the technologies we trust with our pasts, and who in many ways determine which parts of them we’re allowed to see. Meanwhile, the more we outsource these mementos, the more vulnerable we become to glitches and limitations. They jeopardize the idea that new media renders a better picture, closer to reality, and sometimes threaten to obscure our own recollections.

I felt a stinging desire to return in body to my childhood home, to regain my sense of that place. I pleaded with my boyfriend to take me there the following week, on a Saturday morning. I wanted him to see it: the yellow house where I had been a girl, played hide and seek, buried my dog under the tall fir. I felt that the place, and the way we abandoned it, had strongly determined the woman I’d grown into. I wanted him to be able to visualize the memories that I had shared with him.

What I miss the most is my digital archive as a whole. Some odd times I still find myself looking for a file that no longer exists

As soon as we got there, policemen asked us where we were going. Six years after the incident, my ID still listed the address, so I made up a story: I was a former neighbor and my credit card had been sent erroneously to my old house. The police followed us while we drove to the end of the street. My feeling of displacement then, in the neighborhood that had seen me grow up, was a feeling not unlike the one I experienced in my dream.

“Nice,” my partner said, looking at the last house on the street, a small property with a frontal patio, a charming iron gate, overgrown plants and children’s toys scattered all over the place.

“That’s not it,” I said, pointing to the second to last.

It had undergone renovation. The tall fir was no longer there. I took my cell phone out, determined to document the moment, but I could only take one picture before my battery died. With the street so different from the one I’d known, I thought to trust my memory as a better keeper. But it might be as flawed as the map.

One Friday night soon afterward, I was having a conversation with my partner and two other friends, one of whom works at the school I once attended. After a couple of beers, I found myself reminiscing about the neighborhood. The school headmistress, an elderly, vigorous woman, lived a few houses away from mine. Her house had flooded one year when the river overflowed. When my sister and I were kids, long before we were her students, she used to invite us over to dig up treasures in her terrace garden, built over the ruins of her lost ground floor. The neighborhood, by then, in the late ’90s, had rebuilt itself and its scars were invisible. My sister and I searched for plastic and stones, and dreamt of the day when we would find an object significant enough to allow us to call ourselves archeologists.

The new residents will never piece together the past, just as my sister and I were ignorant of the flood. My childhood home has become a placemark for something that is missing

By then the flood seemed too far away in the neighborhood’s collective memory to be considered painful. But some had lost everything. An artist, Feliciano Béjar, who lived on the other end of the street, had lost his studio to the water — he’d lost his sculptures and paintings and, according to a news report, was sectioned in a mental institution following “a breakdown.” In a 1999 interview about the aftermath of the flood, Béjar said that he had bought the house nearly 50 years earlier, when the area was considered part of the countryside and not in the bustling heart of Latin America’s largest city. “This was a small hill and there was a river, but it didn’t hurt anyone. The problems started when the river was dammed,” he said. He died in 2007, two years before the robbery and my assault.

Looking for Feliciano Béjar’s house on the map, I discovered another inconsistency in Google Maps’ interface. The Satellite view was years old — of his house when it was still standing, before it was destroyed. The allotment was huge and still full of green. But the Street view shows it as it looks today: an empty lot awaiting the construction of yet another residential building following Mexico City’s real estate boom. “Atlamaya Art Residences,” reads the firm’s website, “is an exclusive concept that fuses art and an elegant lifestyle, with ‘sky amenities’ that inspire tranquility, balance and pleasure.” The project is set to be completed later this year.

I wonder if the new residents will ever ask about the people who lived there before them — whether, like my sister and I, they will try to excavate, in soil or online, the relics of lives that once took place there. Most likely, they will never piece together the past with the clues available, piecemeal, just as my sister and I were ignorant of the flood that had once changed the neighborhood where we used to play. My childhood home has become a thing defined by non-existence, a placemark for something that is missing.

In the age of mnemonic abundance, we tend to assume that we will remember everything — or that everything will be remembered for us, and access to our memories will remain at our fingertips. Recipes. Conversations. Locations. Price tags, and even the spectral messages left by others long gone, metaphorically or not. Derrida spoke of domiciliation as one of the necessary conditions for an archive to exist: In order to be conjured, memories need a place to dwell. What happens when these dwellings no longer belong to us?

Marisol García Walls is an essayist in Mexico City. Her work in English has appeared in Remezcla. She is currently writing a book on objects, surfaces, archives and museums. She is active as one of the editors and members of the Center for the Study of Cute and Useless Things.