Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

Eight pairs of surveyors are covering every street in the city to determine exactly how many homes are vacant.

Scribbling on a map doesn’t change the territory. But walking around the territory, jotting notes on an iPad, may be the best way to change the map.

That’s the idea in Cleveland, where the Western Reserve Land Conservancy’s Thriving Communities Initiative is undertaking an enormous survey of the city. Eight pairs of surveyors are walking down each and every street in the city, visiting all of the storefronts, houses, and vacant lots there are to see. Parcel by parcel, the teams are documenting how many of Cleveland’s roughly 158,000 properties are vacant, distressed, or abandoned.

No one knows what the number is right now. The Plain Dealer’s Mark Naymik says that he’s heard estimates for the number of abandoned properties in Cleveland that range from 8,000 to 15,000—a wide variance. The Land Conservancy, working in tandem with the Cleveland Department of Building and Housing and the Cleveland City Council, aims to have an exact number in hand by September.

Cleveland isn’t just idly curious about Cleveland. Unlike previous city surveys, which have focused on where residents live, this one will detail where they don’t. The database will help Cleveland city officials to direct their efforts to demolish abandoned properties and consolidate vacant and abandoned lots. Even if some homes will require judgment calls—as Naymik explains, there’s abandoned and then there’s abandoned-ish—the database will include photos and descriptions for every parcel in the city.

Recall the old Borges story, “On Exactitude in Science” (hell, it’s very short):

. . . In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

The Empire built a map that fit the territory with a one-to-one correspondence, but it fell to tatters. In Cleveland, it’s the other way around: Parts of the Empire are in ruin. To restore it, start with the map.

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