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Why NYC Is the Perfect Place for Creative Map-Making

In a new book ‘You Are Here: NYC,’ author Katharine Harmon explores how people have mapped the soul of New York.

Although London and Berlin maps are fairly recognizable, both pale in comparison maps of New York. Manhattan is almost like a symbol for the city, though the other boroughs are no slouches. In a new book titled You Are Here: NYC: Mapping the Soul of the City, author Katharine Harmon aeshethically and psychologically charts the mapping of New York, from myth to real history, across a beautiful array of maps.

E. B. White’s essay on “Here Is New York” serves as the book's conceptual appetizer. White famously stated that “there are roughly three New Yorks”: the one of those born there, the one that devours and spits out commuters each day, and then the one “of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something,” which he considered the greatest New York.

Paula Scher: High Line, 2005

This book of maps also gets at one of White’s other ideas: the miracle that New York works at all, with its “subterranean system of telephone cables, power lines, steam pipes, gas mains and sewer pipes is reason enough to abandon the island to the gods and the weevils." Its this New York, and many more, that readers get in You Are Here: NYC. It’s not so much the topographical New York City as its lesser known psychogeographical corridors.

Harmon tells The Creators Project that it’s hard to say when New York City was first mapped. There are maps of the East Coast dating to the 1500s, which include New York, but no definitive first for the city.

Liz Hickok: Fugitive Topography: Jelly NYC, 2010 (View from the Staten Island Ferry)

“The oldest map of the city in the New York Public Library's collection dates to 1660—it's a copy of a 1639 Dutch map,” Harmon says. “The library has hundreds of thousands of maps of the city, much of the collection available for online exploration.”

“It's fascinating to see maps of original Native American trails on Manhattan (then Mannahatta), though these were created after Dutch settlement,” she adds. “Check out the captivating Welikia Project, which envisions the region as it appeared in 1609, when Henry Hudson sailed in.”

More recent maps benefit from what Harmon calls a seemingly endless array of data visualizations of the city. Maps that show where people can eat every kind of ethnic food, or even where not to eat, much of based on restaurant inspection data. Other maps show the oldest place to have a drink in each neighborhood based on liquor license dates.

Nobutaka Aozaki: From Here to There (Manhattan), 2012-ongoing. Credit: Photo by Yuriko Katori

There are also many “hazard maps” that Harmon says will keep people awake at night. Maps of crime incidences, bike accidents, methane leaks, rat and bedbug infestations, and “other yummy stuff.” And if one is inclined to find the last remaining phone booths in the city, there's a map for that, too.

“You can even find maps of emotions… where people are the happiest, or the most sad, based on analysis of Tweets,” says Harmon. “One of the most beautiful maps in my book is a visualization of street trees by species.”

Katarina Jerinic: Brooklyn Constellations, 2007

By the time Harmon assembled the book she had compiled a database of over a thousand entries. She says that if she lived inside the internet she could continue adding more on a daily basis. For Harmon, the most interesting creative cartography is done by artists who reveal unexpected aspects of the city.

“For example, by strapping tiny cameras on pigeons to see the city from a true bird's-eye point of view,” she says. “Or using crowdsourcing to map all the bodegas in the city, or stenciling chalk labels on sidewalks to show where natural habitats, like oak prairies and eelgrass meadows, once existed.”

Henry Wellge: Greatest New York, 1911. Credit: Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, New York Public Library

In the Queens Museum lies an installation of Panorama of the City of New York, a scale model of the city. Originally conceived as a celebration of New York’s municipal infrastructure for infamous “power broker” Robert Moses, the model was built for the 1964 World’s Fair by a team of over 100 people led by architectural model makers Raymond Lester & Associates. It took three years to complete.

Another interesting map included in the book is artist Nobutaka Aozaki's From Here to There (Manhattan). To create this map, Aozaki—posing as a tourist wearing a souvenir cap and carrying a Century 21 shopping bag—asked various New York pedestrians to draw a map to direct him to another location. The result is a collaged map of New York City created with pen or pencil on scraps of paper, sticky notes, paper plates and other materials.

These and several other maps gets dedicated essays from writers commissioned by Harmon. She says they all gave her new ways of thinking about New York City and map-making.  

Liu Jianhua: Regular Fragile, 2002-10

“No matter how objective they may seem, every map is a curated document,” says Harmon. “My book aims to celebrate the creators of maps who embrace subjectivity—those who are inventive in what they choose to portray in their maps or explore in map-based projects.”

“I hope, too, that the book encourages ever more imaginative mapping of New York,” she adds. “As E.B. White said, ‘The city is like poetry...[a] poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions [...] but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.’ Elusive, but we can keep on mapping it.”

Click here for more info on Katharine Harmon’s You Are Here: NYC: Mapping the Soul of the City.

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