Atlantic Cities
Maps

The Map as Ghost Story, Love Story and Everything in Between

One of the things I miss most about the pre-smart phone world are the hand-drawn maps friends and family would provide when I needed to get somewhere new. Drawn on the back of napkins or bits of scrap paper (or, in one case, entirely in the margins of a newspaper page), these pictorial directions were also mini-guides to what the people in my life saw in a given neighborhood, or what they thought was important.

Becky Cooper's new book, Mapping Manhattan: A Love (and Sometimes Hate) Story in Maps, tries to recapture a little of that hand-drawn map magic. To begin the project, Cooper handed out an outline of Manhattan to strangers on the street. As she explains:

I distributed them by walking down Broadway and across Houston and by winding through Central Park. I gave them to as wide a variety of New Yorkers as I could find: a psychic on St. Marks, a dreadlocks barber in the East Village, a curator at the Museum of Art and Design.

She then asked the people who stopped to fill them in as they saw fit. The spots on the maps range from actual attractions (the MOMA and Metropolitan Museum of Art feature prominently); to personal favorites (best restaurants, best book stores) to the more intimate (secret spots, spaces where people fell in or out of love.)

As Cooper explains it in the book, it's a fundamentally autobiographical project, though each participant interpreted the assignment differently.

Some map-makers color coded the entirety of Manhattan ("places I don't visit" in pink; "places I always visit." green; orange for "parts of the city the map-maker has never seen.") Another labeled all the places she's ever lost a glove. One map plots out personal landmarks like "first indelible kiss", "stranger hit by car in my arms", "a spot where a future love may live" and my favorite dot, labeled simply "nothing happened here."

A handful of participants chose to fill the space with a mantra. My favorites: "If you can make the city work for you, you'll thrive, otherwise it'll eat you alive" and "In New York, people think we are rude. We just have monster ambitions."




At its heart, Cooper's project shows us just how much of our memory is wrapped up in a place. As New Yorker reporter Adam Gopnik writes in the forward:

Maps and memories are bound together, a little as songs and love affairs are ... we go to live somewhere, and when we see a schematic representation of it, and superimposing our memories upon it, we find that it becomes particularly...alive.

These maps, as he says, are nothing short of street haiku.

Keywords: New York, Books

Amanda Erickson is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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