Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘maps’

17 JANUARY, 2012

The Greatest Grid: How Manhattan’s Famous Street Map Came to Be

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What Edgar Allan Poe, the Dead Rabbits, and Charles Dickens have to do with New York’s defining feature.

For the first two hundred years of Manhattan history, the Collect Pond, a lovely, spring-fed reservoir that bubbled up on the border of what is now Chinatown and the Financial District, was the main water source for most city dwellers. The streets grew up organically around it, private roads bounded by a vacant, rocky, wasteland to the north, from what is now 23rd to 90th streets. These were the city-owned Common Lands, and after the revolution they were something the debt-ridden city needed to parcel out and sell fast.

By the end of the eighteenth century, the Collect Pond had turned into a quite literal cesspool, and the the city paved it over to accommodate a booming population. Five streets came together over the newly-filled pond, which still seeped though the cobblestones, and at the heart of this intersection grew a infamous slum, ruled by gangs like the Dead Rabbits and the Bowery Boys. When Charles Dickens visited in 1842, the scene shocked him:

Poverty, wretchedness, and vice….all that is loathsome…narrow ways diverging to the right and left, and reeking every where with dirt and filth.”

(That same year, he rather excitedly wrote of returning to Broadway in his diary, noting in a matter-of-factly manner the curbside intermingling of pigs, hogs, and well-dressed ladies.)

Where streets converged, so did humanity, proof positive that right angles could mean the difference between utopia and bedlam.

A 'South East View of the City of New York in North America,' ca. 1763, by Thomas Howdell. The tallest spire is Trinity Church. (Museum of the City of New York)

The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan 1811-2011, based on the current exhibition of the same name at the Museum of the City of New York, tells the story of the city’s right angles. The Commissioner’s Plan of 1811, the map and surveying scheme that set the blocks at 200 by 800 feet all the way up the length of the island, was an audacious gamble on growth. From 1790 to 1810, the population of New York had tripled, and the commissioners predicted that by 1860, New York would have almost the same population as Paris, then home to half a million people. (They were wrong, of course — New York would top nearly 800,000 by then.)

The Commissioner's Plan of 1811, by John Randel, Jr. (Courtesy of the New York City Municipal Archives)

The grid was far from simple to achieve. “Mannahatta” translates to “island of hills,” and the rocky wasteland to the north had to be surveyed to perfection, and private roads, farms, and pastures wrestled into order by a ruthless eminent domain. This meant plenty of opportunity for graft, personified by William “Boss” Tweed, who would pocket city officials and buy up lots just as they opened city streets.

A map from 1835 of property belonging to Clement Clarke Moore in Chelsea. These newly subdivided lots eventually came to be worth fortunes. (Museum of the City of New York)

View of Second Avenue looking up from 42nd Street, 1861, by Egbert L. Viele.

There were problems with the plan: a lack of public parks and open space, constant congestion, overbuilt lots, no vistas or urban openings for important civic buildings. The only open space the Commissioners allowed was a parade ground in the vicinity of present-day Madison Square. But the grid system allowed for these cut-throughs to happen later, in the form of Broadway, Central Park, Rockefeller Center, Columbia University, and the thousand smaller parks and plazas easily carved out of the 1811 plan.

Aerial View of Madison Square, 1894, by J.S. Johnston. (Museum of the City of New York)

The grid was easier to implement on the flat East side than on the hilly West. By 1860, streetcars could only travel up 8th avenue to 84th street before the terrain became impassable. Huge outcroppings of rocks, the kind that are found in the Ramble in Central Park, blocked the way for most development. Small mountains had to be blasted apart or cut through, and the hundred foot changes in elevation around Morningside Heights and Inwood has created a strange and magical neighborhood of apartments perched on peaks and valleys, still for the most part obeying the grid.

Rocks at 81st Street and 9th Avenue, December 1886, by Robert L. Bracklow, (Museum of the City of New York)

In the 1840s, at the still rural intersection of 84th and Broadway, Edgar Allan Poe rented a room at the Brennan Farm House, the likely location where he wrote “The Raven.” The farm was on a rise from the dirt Broadway road, and from his window Poe could witness nature give way to the city:

These magnificent placers are doomed. The spirit of Improvement has withered them with its acrid breath. Streets are already ‘mapped’ through them, and they are no longer suburban residences, but ‘town-lots.'”

The Greatest Grid, a fine addition to our favorite books about maps, is a catalog of development and destruction, the end of nature and the beginning of urban living. When the grid eventually overtook the Brennan farmhouse, it too was destroyed. All was not lost for Poe, however. In the 1980s, the city council wanted to mark the writing place of the now famous author—they named the street after him.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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09 DECEMBER, 2011

Matthew Picton’s Map Sculptures of Cities Made of Books about the City

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From Hunter S. Thompson to Wagner, or what Ulysses has to do with news headlines from 9/11.

As a hopeless lover of maps and cities, and even more so of books about maps and books about cities, I was instantly enthralled by the work of Oregon-based British artist Matthew Picton, whose stunning paper sculptures of cities are made of books and other textual materials related to the respective city, taking the art of book sculpture to whole new level of meta with subtle, thoughtful commentary through the selection of the specific texts.

Jerusalem created from The New Testament, The Torah, The Armenian Bible and The Koran

Photo by Ron Jaffe

Dresden in 1945, made of Wagner's score for The Ring, 2010

Photo by Ron Jaffe

Portland created from the covers and text of the novel The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula LaGuin and the DVD covers of the films Dante's Peak and Volcano; the work has been smoked

Photo by Ron Jaffe

London in 1666, created from the book covers of The Plague Years by Daniel Defoe

Photo by Ron Jaffe

Dublin on June 16, 1904, created from text from James Joyce's Ulysses

Photo by Ron Jaffe

Lower Manhattan created from headlines that accompanied the 2001 World Trade Center attacks and DVD covers of the film Towering Inferno and book covers of the novel The Plot Against America by Philip Roth

Photo by Ron Jaffe

Las Vegas in 1972, created from texts from Hunter S. Thompson’s 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas'

Photo by Ron Jaffe

If’re a fellow bibliophile with a soft spot for the intersection of cities and cartography, don’t forget these 5 essential books on maps and 7 essential books on cities.

via roomthily

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21 OCTOBER, 2011

Stunning Subjectivity: Obsessive Typographic Maps by Paula Scher

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An irreverent, artful antidote to GPS appification, or what the NYC subway has to do with tsunamis.

Iconic designer Paula Scher is one of my big creative heroes, her thoughts on combinatorial creativity a perfect articulation of my own beliefs about how we create. Since the early 1990s, Scher has been creating remarkable, obsessive, giant hand-painted typographic maps of the world as she sees it, covering everything from specific countries and continents to cultural phenomena. This month, Princeton Architectural Press is releasing Paula Scher: MAPS — a lavish, formidable large-format volume collecting 39 of her swirling, colorful cartographic points of view, a beeline addition to my favorite books on maps.

I began painting maps to invent my own complicated narrative about the way I see and feel about the world. I wanted to list what I know about the world from memory, from impressions, from media, and from general information overload. These are paintings of distortions.” ~ Paula Scher

(Cue in cartograms.)

A foreword by Simon Winchester contextualizes Scher’s maps as cultural objects, and an introduction by Scher herself offers a peek inside the mind and personal history that sprouted her cartographic creativity.

A Paula Scher map is both detached from reality and yet at the same time becomes an entirely new reality, one that manages to be useless and essential all at once. What follows here is cartography as living art — fun and whimsical, obsessively made, and knowingly offered, lovingly, to be read… Maps such as these are never ever to be replaced by the cold blinking eyes of the GPS. Use them, enjoy them, glory in their madness.” ~ Simon Manchester

Cherry on top: The cover jacket folds out into her legendary colorful map of the world.

The World, 1998

NYC Transit, 2007 (left); Manhattan at Night, 2007 (right)

China, 2006

Africa, 2003

Shock and Awe, 2005

International Air Routes, 2008

The Dark World, 2007

Tsunami, 2006

Sample Scher’s extraordinary mind and creative process with her now-legendary talk from Serious Play 2008:

Artful and opinionated, Paula Scher: MAPS is a beautiful antidote to the sterile objectivity of location-aware apps and devices, reminiscent of Ward Shelley’s analog data visualization and the poetic subjectivity of You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination, but presaging both and shining with Scher’s own distinct, quirky, visionary voice.

Images courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press // Thanks, Russell

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30 SEPTEMBER, 2011

A Map of Woman’s Heart: Appalling Victorian Gender Stereotypes, in Illustrated Cartography

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From coquetry to selfishness, or what the Sea of Wealth has to do with the City and District of Love.

Nineteenth-century ideals of womanhood and beauty expressed as much about women as they did about the society in which they were germinated. At a time of radical sociocultural and economic shifts — rapid urbanization, new modes of transportation and communication, increasing mechanization of industry — the expectations for women’s role in society shifted as well, with an idealized version of what was known as “True Womanhood” underpinning pop culture representations of women in everything from newspaper advice columns to art.

A Map of the Open Country of a Woman’s Heart was a map created by D. W. Kellogg circa 1833–1842, in the tradition of these maps of the human condition you might recall, subtitled “Exhibiting its internal communications, and the facilities and dangers to Travellers therein.” Though it mostly depicts Woman as a sentimental, selfish, and superficial being driven by vanity, it places Love at the center of her heart, with Good Sense, Patience, and Prudence at its tip — or bottom, depending on the interpretation.

For a fascinating look at the expectations of True Womanhood, marvel at Bernard O’Reilly’s 1883 classic The Mirror Of True Womanhood: A Book Of Instruction For Women In The World.

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