You Are Here: Creative Cartography Mapping the Soul of New York
By Maria Popova
“Each of us is an atlas of sorts, already knowing how to navigate some portion of the world,” wrote Rebecca Solnit in her imaginative remapping of New York’s untold stories, “containing innumerable versions of place as experience and desire and fear, as route and landmark and memory.” But as fascinating as it is to imagine the world’s greatest metropolis remapped according to its unheralded dimensions, New York’s multitude of parallel realities is itself bountiful fodder for the artistic imagination and has inspired centuries of fanciful cartographic interpretations.
Exploring this lacuna between physical reality and the interpretive imagination is a very different kind of atlas — You Are Here: NYC: Mapping the Soul of the City (public library), envisioned and edited by Katharine Harmon. This localized follow-up to Harmon’s wonderful 2004 atlas of “personal geographies and other maps of the imagination” presents two hundred wildly diverse maps of the city, alongside original essays exploring the most iconic of them. There are historical treasures like the first geological maps of Manhattan, masterworks of art like Paula Scher’s obsessively detailed typographic maps, and conceptually daring pieces like artist Liz Scranton’s honeycomb shaped after the landforms of the NYC subway map. What emerges is a layered inquiry into the relationship between self and space, the plurality of perspectives aimed at the same place, and the myriad ways in which we orient ourselves to the landscape against which we live out our lives.
Harmon writes in the introduction:
What is it about the city that invites mapping? First, perhaps, is a need to find one’s place here. An endlessly morphing population of contemporary lives humming along, side by side and mutually oblivious, feeds a need to locate oneself. Another New Yorker writer, A.J. Liebling, wrote in 1938 of the city’s multiplicity of lives: “the worlds of weight lifters, yodelers, tugboat captains, and sideshow barkers, of the book ditchers, sparring partners, song pluggers, sporting girls and religious painters, of the dealers in rhesus monkeys and the bishops of churches.” Diversity fills the city with cartographic potential. Density, ethnicity, race, heritage, languages, income differentials, locals versus commuters versus tourists — all can be, and have been, mapped. New York belongs to everyone, and maps prove it.
With an eye to the two hundred dazzling cartographic curiosities included in the book, culled from an initial database of one thousand maps she had compiled, Harmon writes:
New York has no shortage of inventive thinkers who make excellent cartographers. Each act of creative cartography reflects both the state of mind of the mapper and the state of the city. And each contributes another page to a giant, ever-accumulating atlas of New York — an atlas as big as the city’s self-regard. Perhaps, in the end, what makes the city the most mapped metropolis in the world is that it offers complete cartographic liberty.
I contributed one of the essays for the book, “A Panorama of Power,” exploring the monumental Panorama of the City of New York currently housed at the Queens Museum. This is what I write:
“A poem,” E.B. White wrote in his 1949 masterpiece Here Is New York, “compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry.” Nothing compresses the city in order to heighten its meaning more palpably than the Panorama of the City of New York — an astonishing feat of architecture, urban planning, and craftsmanship, strangely poetic in its deliberate contrast of scale and significance. To look at it is to see, perhaps for the first time, the city’s elegant enormity.
Constructed by a team of more than one hundred architectural model builders from Raymond Lester & Associates over the course of three years, this elaborate and elegant microcosm reduces every hundred feet of cityscape to one inch of Formica panels and Urethane foam. This conceptual compression cost $672,662.69 to construct in 1964 — the equivalent of approximately five million dollars today. But what makes the Panorama most striking is its affront to our sense of scale — at 9,335 square feet, it is both a miniature and an expanse, containing every street, every park, and every single one of the 895,000 buildings constructed prior to 1992, when Raymond Lester & Associates updated the model.
The Panorama, which now resides at the Queens Museum, was created for the 1964 World’s Fair as a celebration of master-builder Robert Moses and his indelible imprint on the cityscape. A brilliant architect and a fierce politician who publicly defied politicians—including, in one famous incident, President Roosevelt himself—Moses envisioned and brought to life 658 playgrounds, 416 miles of parkways, 288 tennis courts, 678 baseball diamonds, and numerous major roads and bridges. He was a man animated by “an imagination that leaped unhesitatingly at problems insoluble to other people,” as Robert E. Caro wrote in The Power Broker — his Pulitzer-winning 1,200-page biography of Moses.
But Moses, like the city itself, was also a man of duality. Although he began his career as an earnest idealist and an irrepressibly optimistic reformer, the power machine hardened him into a man of “iron will and determination,” in Caro’s words. Intent on bending the world’s greatest city to his will, he imprinted Gotham with his fiery fusion of idealism and egotism. That his legacy should be celebrated by a miniature model of the city, Moses’s favorite toy, is only fitting.
Perhaps most emblematic of all is how the Panorama was pitched at the 1964 World’s Fair, where it became a favorite attraction — as an indoor helicopter tour of the city, promising to provide a “god’s-eye view” of the urban ecosystem. In a sense, visitors were invited to try on the view of Moses — a self-anointed god who had drawn the master-map not only of the city’s infrastructure but also of its very character and destiny; the craftsman of the grand stage onto which, in the immortal words of White, “enormous and violent and wonderful events … are taking place every minute.”
In another essay from the book, New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff considers Saul Steinberg’s most famous cover, both timeless and rendered timely by the recent shock of sobering political perspectives:
I saw the New Yorker cover when it came out in 1976, and it wasn’t long before the magazine, in response to popular demand, made it into a poster. And not long after that you could find it on the walls of apartments and college dorms. Soon it was pretty much everywhere, even if only as a local imitation — who knows, maybe even out there on the far right horizon of the drawing, in Russia, perhaps there’s a yellowing poster of “The View of the World from Novosibirsk.”
The vast popularity of “View of the World” was that it appeared eminently “gettable,” especially when the image was topped by the New Yorker logo. With that affixed to the image, to put it in New Yorkeese, “what’s not to get?” It seemed to be an unambiguous visualization of that old quote, “If you’re leaving New York, you ain’t going nowhere.”
Yes, it was gettable, and more than that, easily adaptable and therefore adoptable, which is why so many other cities knocked off the cover, to proclaim, however dubiously, under their own local rubric, that they were the epicenter of existence. As a born-and-bred New Yawker, my own take was similar, with the very implausibility implicit in the derivative covers’ claims, actually making my own native chauvinism seem reasonable in comparison. I mean Novosibirsk may be a nice little city, but gimme a break.
Complement You Are Here: NYC with Solnit’s spectacular Nonstop Metropolis, pioneering photographer Berenice Abbott’s black-and-white portraits of Gotham’s changing face, and Jack Kerouac’s tour of the unseen New York.
Illustrations courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press
Published November 30, 2016