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Sarah Mapps Douglass’s Flowers: The First Surviving Art Signed by an African-American Woman

A rose is a rose is a revolution.

In his thrice-revised and expanded autobiographies, Frederick Douglass, born Frederick Bailey, recounts changing his surname multiple times to cover his fugitive trail. When the time came to settle on a permanent name, he invited the man in whose home was taking refuge — a free black man devoted to helping fugitive slaves — to choose for him, as a token of gratitude. His host suggested Douglas — the self-possessed Highlander hero of one of the era’s greatest literary blockbusters, Sir Walter Scott’s poem The Lady of the Lake. In his retelling, Frederick Douglass brushes past the additional s, with the vague intimation that he added it for distinction.

But there is another probable possibility for the peculiar spelling. Here was an orphan with no sense of roots, an aching ambivalence about his parentage, and a longing for communal belonging. And here was the grown man of genius retelling his own story of becoming, aware — like all persons of genius — that a larger mythos of colossal cultural significance hangs upon their private myth. 

Forget me not by Sarah Mapps Douglass

Since the dawn of the abolition movement, women had played an active and ardent role in fundraising, organizing, and public advocacy — women who risked ostracism, or worse, for exercising the agency of stepping outside the narrow confines of the domestic sphere allotted them and into the cosmos of political activism. One of the movement’s leading women was the young Philadelphian Sarah Mapps Douglass (September 9, 1806–September 8, 1882), who at only twenty-five had organized a major fundraising campaign for the primary journalistic instrument of abolition — William Lloyd Garrison’s paper The Liberator, on the pages of which Frederick Douglass found and trained his own literary voice.

The daughter of two active abolitionists, Sarah was born into one of America’s most prominent black families and raised in the Quaker tradition — her grandfather, Cyrus, had been a slave to a local Quaker baker who liberated him and taught him the baking trade; Cyrus soon opened his own successful bakery, which allowed him to fund and operate a school for black children from his home, later becoming a founding member of the pioneering Free African Society seventy-five years before Abraham Lincoln staked his credo and his life on the Emancipation Proclamation. 

Rose painting and poem by Sarah Mapps Douglass (Library Company of Philadelphia. Available as a print and as a face mask.)

Sarah was nursed on a love of literature and a love of nature, immersed in art and music, and lavished with painting lessons in a bubble of her privilege — provisional and relative, as all privilege is. Growing up amid the intellectual ferment of abolition, she grasped the terrors of slavery only abstractly, as an idea and not a felt reality, not fully imagining how other children who looked like her lived very different lives, how people who looked like her parents died gruesome deaths. Then, as a young woman, she performed one of those rare, triumphal acts that signify true maturity and grandeur of spirit: changing one’s mind as it expands to take in a broader perspective and publicly acknowledging one’s previously limited views.

Unsigned rose and scroll, likely by Sarah Mapps Douglass, from Amy Matilda Cassey’s friendship album. (Library Company of Philadelphia. Available as a print, a face mask, and stationery cards.)

In 1832, Sarah Mapps Douglass recounted her awakening to the urgency of abolition in a rousing speech at a gathering of the Female Literary Society of Philadelphia, of which she was a leader — the first specialty library for African-American women, literate and illiterate, free and enslaved, devoted to “the cultivation of intellectual powers” as the highest tribute to the sanctity of human nature. She told the women gathered before her:

An English writer has said, ‘We must feel deeply before we can act rightly; from that absorbing, heart-rendering compassion for ourselves springs a deeper sympathy for others, and from a sense of our weakness and our own upbraidings arises a disposition to be indulgent, to forbear, to forgive.’ This is my experience. One short year ago, how different were my feelings on the subject of slavery! It is true, the wail of the captive sometimes came to my ear in the midst of my happiness, and caused my heart to bleed for his wrongs; but, alas! the impression was as evanescent as the early cloud and morning dew. I had formed a little world of my own, and cared not to move beyond its precincts. But how was the scene changed when I beheld the oppressor lurking on the border of my own peaceful home! I saw his iron hand stretched forth to seize me as his prey, and the cause of the slave became my own.

The following year, in a friendship album compiled by her Philadelphian friend and fellow activist Amy Matilda Cassey, Sarah Mapps Douglass fused her twin loves of literature and nature with her artistic acumen in a series of consummate flowers she painted alongside selections from poems she transcribed in her lovely longhand.

Flowers by Sarah Mapps Douglass, with transcribed anonymous poem. (Library Company of Philadelphia. Available as a print, a face mask, and stationery cards.)

No marvel woman should love flowers, they bear
So much of the fanciful similitude
To her own history; like herself repaying
With such sweet interest all the cherishing
That calls their beauty or their sweetness forth;
And like her too — dying beneath neglect.

Cassey would maintain and expand the album, now found in the collection of The Library Company of Philadelphia, for two decades, drawing contributions — poetry, prose, paintings, sketches — by some of the era’s most prominent abolitionists, including Garrison, Lucy Stone, and Frederick Douglass himself. The flowers Sarah Mapps Douglass painted in it are considered the first surviving artworks signed by an African-American woman.

A token of love, from me, to thee by Sarah Mapps Douglass (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

To a similar album complied by one of her pupils, Mary Anne Dickerson, Sarah Mapps Douglass contributed a single, splendid painting of fuchsia — Fuchsia triphylla, so named in the last years of the 17th century by a French monk and botanist, after a German botanist and herbalist born in the first year of the 16th century — an uncommonly beautiful and fragrant flowering plant uprooted from its native habitat in Central and South America, so that an uncommonly gifted young woman of uprooted roots could tend to it and paint it in her native antebellum Philadelphia — a tender reminder that by whatever ugly and unchosen forces we might come into this world, into the dispensation of chance contouring our lives, there is always the choice to consecrate those lives and this world with the willful brush of beauty.

Fuchsia by Sarah Mapps Douglass (Library Company of Philadelphia. Available as a print and as a face mask.)

Complement with Frederick Douglass on how photography, improbably invented seven years after Sarah painted her flowers, helped the cause of social justice by bridging the real and the ideal, then revisit these stunning 18th-century natural history paintings of exotic, endangered, and extinct animals by another trailblazing Sarah of an earlier era and this pictorial encyclopedia of medicinal plants a young Scottish mother illustrated another generation earlier to bail her husband out of debtor’s prison.


Visionary Maps of Time, Space, and Thought by America’s First Female Cartographer and Information Visualization Designer

Revolutions in design and education technology, underpinned by the conviction that women “are an essential part of the body politic, whose corruption or improvement must affect the whole.”

Visionary Maps of Time, Space, and Thought by America’s First Female Cartographer and Information Visualization Designer

“The everywhere of thought is indeed a region of nowhere,” Hannah Arendt wrote as she considered time, space, and the thinking ego when she became the first woman to deliver the prestigious Gifford Lectures on Natural Theology. A century and a half earlier, another woman of uncommon genius and drive revolutionized the way we fathom and locate ourselves in the world by bridging space and time in wholly original cartographies of thought: Emma Hart Willard (February 23, 1787–April 15, 1870), America’s first professional female mapmaker.

The sixteenth of seventeen children, Willard grew up in an era when girls were barred from formal education beyond primary school. In her long life, far exceeding her generation’s life expectancy, she went on to become a pioneering educator, founding the first women’s higher education institution in the United States when she was still in her thirties. Willard understood that improving the future requires a robust understanding of the past, so that one may become an informed, engaged, and effective agent of change in the present. In her early forties, she set about composing and publishing a series of history textbooks that raised the standards and sensibilities of scholarship. In 1828, having just turned forty, she authored what would become the country’s most widely read history textbook: History of the United States, or, Republic of America.

Emma Willard

What made Willard’s textbooks so successful was her understanding that we are not mere intellects who cooly compress and compute facts and figures, but embodied creatures who yearn to locate themselves in space and time in order to make sense of the flow of existence. She taught herself mapmaking in order “to give the events of history with clearness and accuracy; with such illustrations of time and place addressed to the eye, as shall secure their retention in the memory; and, at the same time, with such an order of arrangement, as will enable the mind to recall, at need, what it thus retains.” Willard considered this approach a supreme means of “laying out the ground-plan of the intellect, so far as the whole range of history is concerned,” which would in turn empower people to become better citizens, “enlightened and judicious supporters” of democracy. In a passage of extraordinary pertinence today, she writes in the preface to her famed textbook:

There are those, who rashly speak, as if in despair of the fortunes of our republic ; because, say they, political virtue has declined. If so, then is there the more need to infuse patriotism into the breasts of the coming generation. And what is so likely to effect this national self-preservation, as to give our children, for their daily reading and study, such a record of the sublime virtues of the worthies of our earliest day, and of Washington and his compatriots, as shall leave its due impress? And what but the study of their dangers and toils, their devotion of life and fortune, can make our posterity know, what our country, and our liberties have cost?

In a diagram originally created in 1845 and later printed as the frontispiece in an abridged edition of the textbook, she draws on the long tradition of tree diagrams to depict America’s history as an organic development rooted in the Earth itself:

Willard’s Chronographer of American History. Available as a print.
Detail from Willard’s Chronographer of American History
Detail from Willard’s Chronographer of American History

Many of Willard’s maps and diagrams were astonishingly ahead of their time. We have, of course, long used the language of space to refer to time (e.g., my ahead to denote the future, my long to denote duration). But a century before Einstein radicalized science by exposing the single entity of spacetime as the elemental fabric of the universe, depicting space and time in a unified image was the work of an inspired and daring imagination. Willard lived not in Einstein’s era but in Kant’s — shortly before her birth, Kant had shaken the world with his Critique of Pure Reason, in which he defined space and time as the purest intuitions of the transcendental self. Willard took these elemental intuitions and enlisted them in making history — the hindsight of civilizational time — comprehensible, a clear somewhere of thought rather than an opaque nowhere.

Willard’s Guide to the Temple of Time and Universal History for Schools. Available as a print.
Detail from Willard’s Guide to the Temple of Time and Universal History for Schools

Half a century before W.E.B. Du Bois (with whom she shared a birthday) created his modernist data visualizations for the 1900 World’s Fair, Willard’s 1846 chart Temple of Time won a medal at the 1851 World’s Fair in London and earned the praise of Prince Albert himself. In the poetic rubric accompanying the diagram, she summarizes her design philosophy a century and a half before the golden age of data visualization:

The attempt to understand chronology by merely committing dates to memory, is not only painful, but it is as useless as to learn latitudes and longitudes, without the study of maps. As in geography, the relation of any place to all other places is what is important to know; so in chronology, the relation which any given event bears to others constitutes the only useful knowledge… By putting the course of time into perspective, the disconnected parts of a vast subject are united into one, and comprehended at a glance; — the poetic idea of “the vista of departed years” is made an object of sight; and when the eye is the medium, the picture will, by frequent inspection, be formed within, and forever remain, wrought into the living texture of the mind.

Willard’s Temple of Time was an expansion upon a diagram she had drawn a decade earlier — a century before John Sparks’s famous Histomap — in which she depicted the ebb and flow of empires along the stream of time:

Picture of Nations or Perspective Sketch of the Course of Empire, from Willard’s 1836 Atlas to Accompany a System of Universal Geography. Available as a print.

In the atlas accompanying her history of the United States, she used color to denote the settlement patterns of the pilgrims and the migrations of Native American tribes — an innovative effort to visualize movement in a spatial map.

While Harriet Hosmer was blazing the way for women in art and Maria Mitchell was doing the same in science, Willard was swinging the doors to historical scholarship and information visualization open to women. Undergirding her textbooks and her cartography was the broader conviction that, as Mary Wollstonecraft insisted a generation before her, “the mind has no sex” — young women have a life of the mind as worthy of being nurtured as that of young men. At twenty-seven, Willard opened her first boarding school for girls, in Vermont, but soon grew dissatisfied with the low intellectual aims of those types of institutions. She envisioned something greater, more ambitious, more on par with the education boys were receiving to prepare them for college — an avenue wholly closed to women at the time. (The founding of America’s first college for women was still four decades away.)

For the next four years, Willard surveyed the landscape of education and mapped out what worthy schooling for a young woman would look like. In 1818, she published a pamphlet titled A Plan for Improving Female Education, in which she set out “to convince the public, that a reform, with respect to female education, is necessary; that it cannot be effected by individual exertion, but that it requires the aid of the legislature; and further, by shewing the justice, the policy, and the magnanimity of such an undertaking, to persuade that body to endow a seminary for females, as the commencement of such reformation.” Decades before the pathbreaking feminist and cultural critic Margaret Fuller insisted that “while any one is base, none can be entirely free and noble,” Willard argued that raising the character of half of society raises the whole of society. She entreated politicians and legislators to put their pen and funding behind this obvious yet radical equation. Writing 100 years before American women earned the right to vote and thus to steer the course of their country, she appealed to the patriotic spirit by framing the advancement and empowerment of women as a pathway to progress and a means to attaining “unparalleled glory” for the nation:

Ages have rolled away; — barbarians have trodden the weaker sex beneath their feet; — tyrants have robbed us of the present light of heaven, and fain would take its future. Nations, calling themselves polite, have made us the fancied idols of a ridiculous worship, and we have repaid them with ruin for their folly. But where is that wise and heroic country, which has considered, that our rights are sacred, though we cannot defend them? that… we are an essential part of the body politic, whose corruption or improvement must affect the whole?

When the Governor of Vermont refused to fund such an institution, Willard took her plan to New York. In the spring of 1819, she opened the Academy for Female Education, soon the Troy Female Seminary — an experimental school in upstate New York, which New York’s Governor Clinton proudly lauded as “the only attempt ever made in this country to promote the education of the female sex by the patronage of government.” Willard immersed her pupils not only in geography and history, but in algebra, geometry, trigonometry, higher mathematics, and rigorous physical education. (A lifelong advocate of physical fitness herself — a rarity among women in the era — she saw the vitality of the mind as inseparable from the vitality of the body and exercised vigorously each morning, well into old age.)

Pupils at the Emma Willard School in the early twentieth century.

This bold experiment spread across the nation and became the model for a new breed of “female academies” (including Mount Holyoke, where the adolescent Emily Dickinson received her education and composed her stunning herbarium at the intersection of poetry and science). Eager to take her educational ideals beyond the classroom walls, Willard commenced her career as a textbook author and mapmaker. In her eighty-three years, she embodied her contemporary and kindred spirit Elizabeth Peabody’s insight into midlife and the art of self-renewal. In her forties, Willard taught herself mapmaking and wrote poetry and ran her school and labored tirelessly on the broader project of education reform in America. In her fifties, she continued publishing authoritative textbooks on history and geography, mentoring young reformers, and traveling the world to survey other educational enterprises. In her sixties, she wrote about astronomy and authored a groundbreaking book on cardiovascular health.

Diagram of diurnal rotation from Willard’s Astronography, or, Astronomical Geography, 1854
Climate zones by length of day from Willard’s Astronography, or, Astronomical Geography, 1854
The Solar System planets to scale, from Willard’s Astronography, or, Astronomical Geography, 1854

To the charge of choosing “a subject unsuited to her sex,” she answered with the quintessential motive force of every true revolutionary and artist:

This is not so much a subject which I choose, as one which chooses me. It comes unbidden to my mind, and like an intrusive guest, there it will abide, and irresistibly claim my attention.

HT The Paris Review / Open Culture


You Are Here: Creative Cartography Mapping the Soul of New York

“Diversity fills the city with cartographic potential… New York belongs to everyone, and maps prove it.”

You Are Here: Creative Cartography Mapping the Soul of New York

“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.

Jane Hammond,  All Souls (Buttermilk Channel), 2015
Jane Hammond, All Souls (Buttermilk Channel), 2015
Paula Scher, High Line, 2005
Paula Scher, High Line, 2005

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.

Bernie Robynson, In the Heart of Harlem U.S.A., 1953
Bernie Robynson, In the Heart of Harlem U.S.A., 1953
Coulton Waugh, Ye Symbolic Mappe of Greenwich Village, 1922
Coulton Waugh, Ye Symbolic Mappe of Greenwich Village, 1922

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.

Maira Kalman and Rick Meyerowitz, New Yorkistan, 2001
Maira Kalman and Rick Meyerowitz, New Yorkistan, 2001
Panorama of the City of New York, 1961– 63
Panorama of the City of New York, 1961– 63

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.”

Saul Steinberg, View of the World from Ninth Avenue, 1976
Saul Steinberg, View of the World from Ninth Avenue, 1976

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.

Mark Ulriksen, Center of the Universe, 1999
Mark Ulriksen, Center of the Universe, 1999
William Bridges, Plan of the City of New York, with the Recent and Intended Improvements, 1807, from Manual of the Corporation of New York, 1871
William Bridges, Plan of the City of New York, with the Recent and Intended Improvements, 1807, from Manual of the Corporation of New York, 1871
Oscar Newman, Plan for an underground nuclear shelter (detail), from Esquire, December 1969
Oscar Newman, Plan for an underground nuclear shelter (detail), from Esquire, December 1969
Eric Fischer, Paths through New York City, 2011. Data from the Twitter streaming API, August 2011.
Eric Fischer, Paths through New York City, 2011. Data from the Twitter streaming API, August 2011.

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


Nonstop Metropolis: An Atlas of Maps Reclaiming New York’s Untold Stories and Unseen Populations

“Each of us is an atlas of sorts, already knowing how to navigate some portion of the world, containing innumerable versions of place as experience and desire and fear, as route and landmark and memory.”

Nonstop Metropolis: An Atlas of Maps Reclaiming New York’s Untold Stories and Unseen Populations

“A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry.” So wrote E.B. White in his timeless 1949 love letter to New York. But meaning never exists in the singular in this city of infinite multiplicity, this mecca of idealism, iconoclasm, and codified idiosyncrasy, which means many different things to its eight million inhabitants and seven billion onlookers — a densely populated capital of loneliness, a canine kingdom, an ever-changing castle, a city that makes and breaks the American dream, a city that impelled Walt Whitman to demand: “Keep your splendid silent sun… Keep the blossoming buckwheat fields where the Ninth-month bees hum… give me the streets of Manhattan!”

The poetics of that multiplicity is what Rebecca Solnit, in collaboration with Joshua Jelly-Shapiro, explores in Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas (public library) — the culmination of Solnit’s cartographically scrumptious trilogy, after Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas and Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas, exploring “what maps can do to describe the ingredients and systems that make up a city and what stories remain to be told after we think we know where we are.” The trilogy, Solnit notes, arose from “the belief that any significant place is in some sense infinite, because its stories are inexhaustible and the few that are well known overshadow the many worth knowing.” Any place can therefore be mapped in innumerable ways, each casting before the viewer a particular point of view and thus contributing to cartography’s long history as power and propaganda.

The twenty-six maps, each accompanied by an original essay, explore facets of the city as varied as its songscape, its linguistic wilderness, its notable women, its brownstones and basketball courts, its riots, and its various human and physical energy systems.

Cartography: Molly Roy; artwork: Kelsey Garrity-Riley
Cartography: Molly Roy; artwork: Kelsey Garrity-Riley




Beyond the revelations of this particular city, the maps reveal the nature of all cities as functions of human intention with its always dual and often dueling capacities for good and evil, for revolution and repression, for power and prejudice, for creation and destruction. To map any city is to present a polished mosaic of selective memory built atop the rubble of selective forgetting. In reimagining the social and cultural landscape of New York, Solnit and Shapiro reclaim the unmapped territories of being and the untold stories of beings marginalized by the dominant psychogeographies of their time — from women to Native Americans to wildlife species.

Solnit writes in the introduction:

A city is a machine with innumerable parts made by the accumulation of human gestures, a colossal organism forever dying and being born, an ongoing conflict between memory and erasure, a center for capital and for attacks on capital, a rapture, a misery, a mystery, a conspiracy, a destination and point of origin, a labyrinth in which some are lost and some find what they’re looking for, an argument about how to live, and evidence that differences don’t always have to be resolved, though they may grace and grind against each other for centuries.


Each of us is an atlas of sorts, already knowing how to navigate some portion of the world, containing innumerable versions of place as experience and desire and fear, as route and landmark and memory. So a city and its citizens constitute a living library.

With an eye to the inherent incompleteness of any cartographic representation of a place as rife with infinite possibility as a city, Solnit adds:

Each of us grasps and inhabits only part of the pattern. The complexity beyond comprehension is one of the marvels of great cities, their inexhaustible, ever-renewing mystery… Every city is many places; the old woman and the young child do not live in the same city, and the rich and the poor, the pedestrian and the wheelchair-bound, black and white inhabit different but not completely separate realms.


A city is not one or the other of these things but all of them, contradictions and collaborations and conflicts together, forever churning and spitting out new possibilities.

Among the peculiarities of New York, a city that is at once a template and a glorious oddity, is the mismatch between its location and its significance — perched on the periphery of the country and hanging off the very edge of the continent, it is nonetheless an epicenter of creative culture and intellectual life. In a passage that calls to mind Susan Sontag’s memorable words on the crucial difference between being in the middle and being at the center, Solnit captures the centripetal force of this peripheral city:

The opera diva from the rustic West at the center of Willa Cather’s novel The Song of the Lark leaves small-town Colorado for Chicago for her first round of education as a musician, but she triumphed by becoming a successful artist in New York, as Cather did herself for the last forty-one years of her life. There she wrote vividly about the West, while living with her partner, editor Edith Lewis, in the East, where a publishing job had brought her and where privacy, tolerance, sophistication, maybe access to Europe and editors, seem to have kept her.

It’s a reverse of the old mythic westward migration for freedom — though it’s worth remembering that other New Yorkers left the city in search of liberation, whether it was the patrician Edith Wharton checking out of the closed upper-class society she continued to write about or James Baldwin escaping American racism for a while. Then there’s Djuna Barnes, who had a lively early career with the New York newspapers, including the Brooklyn Daily Eagle Walt Whitman once edited, moved on to a legendary era in lesbian Paris, and then spent the reclusive last half of her life on Patchin Place in Greenwich Village. You could come to New York to appear or to disappear; the city accommodated all kinds of wishes.


New York is a center that pulls people in and a centrifuge that spins them out into the world.

Cather, Wharton, and Barnes are among the women depicted in one of the most fetching maps in the atlas, City of Women, which reimagines the iconic New York City subway map — a feat of graphic design but a failure of social justice, with its complacent abundance of stops named after white men. In this alternative version, each stop on the city’s twenty-two subway lines is renamed after a notable woman who was born, lived, or made her name nearby.

Cartography: Molly Roy; subway route symbols © Metropolitan Transit Authority
Cartography: Molly Roy; subway route symbols © Metropolitan Transit Authority

Solnit writes in the essay accompanying this “map of recovery and possibility”:

Names perpetuate the gendering of New York City. Almost every city is full of men’s names, names that are markers of who wielded power, who made history, who held fortunes, who was remembered… A horde of dead men with live identities haunt New York City and almost every city int he western world. Their names are on the streets, the buildings, the parks, squares, colleges, businesses, and banks, and they are the figures on the monuments.


We tried on what it would look like to live in such power by paying homage to some of the great and significant women of New York City in the places where they lived, worked, competed, went to school, danced, painted, wrote, rebelled, organized, philosophized, taught, and made names for themselves… Many women were never allowed to be someone; many heroes of any gender live quiet lives. But some rose up; some became visible; and here they are by the hundreds. This map is their memorial and their celebration.

Populating this transit of Venus is an eclectic cast of writers, artists, scientists, philosophers, and other luminaries, including Hannah Arendt, Adrienne Rich, Margaret Mead, , Nora Ephron, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Audre Lorde, Ella Fitzgerald, Maira Kalman, Louise Bourgeois, and Anaïs Nin.(I’d be remiss not to savor the supreme, if solipsistic, existential satisfaction of being placed as near as I will ever get to Susan Sontag, my great abiding hero.)



Another map, The Singing City, plots New York’s musical creativity onto a typographic songscape celebrating “the ways that what starts as a particular place can end up as the tune that you hum, a song line with no guidance other than to the human heart.”

Cartography: Molly Roy; artwork: Gent Sturgeon
Cartography: Molly Roy; artwork: Gent Sturgeon


What Is a Jew? captures the astonishing diversity of the subpopulation associated with New York’s intellectual elite but, in reality, spanning a vast spectrum of inclinations, interests, and legacies. (One can grasp that staggering range in reading Alfred Kazin’s poignant reflections on the loneliness of being in a culture but not of it, penned amid Brooklyn’s densely Jewish Brownsville neighborhood as Robert Moses, another Jew, was masterminding Manhattan across the river.)

Cartography: Molly Roy
Cartography: Molly Roy

Solnit, herself the daughter of a Jewish New Yorker mother, introduces the map:

Stereotypes and generalizations generally precede discrimination. Often they depend on the belief that all members of the hated group have common characteristics, so much so that you can punish any member for the sins all members share. Except that they don’t. Categories are leaky, anomalies often occur, and differences within groups can matter as much or more than similarities. You could make this map, pointing up diversity, of any ethnic group, but we made it of Jews because New York has the greatest concentration of Jews on earth outside Israel, and because the word Jew contains a host of internal contradictions, from positions on Israel and capitalism and religion to race and class. What can you say of a group that, even within New York, ranges from Busy Siegel to Sammy Davis Jr. to Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Beastie Boys? Whether Judaism is a culture, an ethnicity, or a religion is an unresolved question for people who are good at questions, and even Judaism the religion runs from the progressive inclusiveness of Chelsea’s queer-friendly Congregation Beit Simchat Torah to the mysticism and strictures of the Hasidic ranks of Williamsburg. What is a Jew? This is an exploration without an answer, or with as many answers as there are Jews.

Riot! depicts the eruptions of unrest and revolution in “a city at a simmer that boils over readily.”

Cartography: Molly Roy; artwork: Thomas Nast, illustration of Draft Riots, Harper's Weekly, August 1, 1863
Cartography: Molly Roy; artwork: Thomas Nast, illustration of Draft Riots, Harper’s Weekly, August 1, 1863

In the accompanying essay, Luc Sante makes clear that most of these uprisings sprang up when the systemic abuse and oppression of minorities reached a breaking point, from the Stonewall riots to the aftermath of Eric Garner’s murder in the hands of the NYPD. (I’m reminded here of Chinua Achebe’s astute observation that those who condemn something as too political are simply those who see it as discordant with their politics and who prefer the status quo undisturbed, so the very act of labeling a civic event a “riot” can itself be a function of the oppressive status quo.)



Indeed, dissent, difference, and divergent viewpoints are core to the genome of the city’s spirit — this city, as any great city. These, after all, were the conditions that catalyzed the emergence of the revolutionary Vienna Circle in the early twentieth century, which forever changed the course of art, science, and philosophy. I recall a poignant passage of May Sarton’s journals, in which she describes Dallas — “just plain inhuman, too rich, too new” — as a city of artificial beauty empty of poetry, where people are “starved for a kind of reality that does not exist in Neiman Marcus fur coats, in changes of fashion, in redecorating,” where “under the polite small talk, one sensed nostalgia, the nostalgia of the bored child who does not know what he lacks, but knows he is being deprived of something essential to his well-being.” Such homogeneity of privileged politeness threatens to sap any city of its essential energy. With an eye to these forces “driving diversity and complexity” out of the city, Solnit asks:

What are cities when the qualities that have defined them are drowned in rising tides of what we call wealth — that increase in holdings for some that increases scarcity, desperation, and exclusion for others?

The odd notion of the central city as a place where bohemia and dissent thrive has been withering away as cities become enclaves of the affluent and the corporate — or empty zones. Many of the condominiums and luxury apartments are often unoccupied, either because they’re not primary residences, or because they’re places to park money for the transnational super-wealthy or their corporations.

Reflecting on a world where gentrification has inverted Langston Hughes’s lament about white flight, Solnit adds:

The poor are pushed to the periphery, to the old suburbs, which fall into their own kind of decay. In the inner city the poor had access to shared resources like public pools and parks, to public transit, and to the possibility of a collective power and civil society engagement that the suburbs do not offer. There they become literally marginal.


Cities are not over. But it’s hard not to fear that the great cities of the North are never going to be what they were. Just as most have cased to be centers of industrial production, so they may cease to be centers of cultural production, at last with the intensity they once possessed. Now they’re menaced by climate change, too. New York CIty’s coastline will be pummeled with hurricanes and blizzards; hotter, wetter weather will bring the kind of heat waves that tend to kill seniors; food prices will likely rise, and climate refugees will become a new subpopulation. It’s impossible to say exactly what this city, like other great cities ceasing to be what they were, will become.

Brooklyn Villages, laid out in the style of the first modern world map, plots former Native American settlements, original Dutch and English villages, and Freedmen’s towns alongside contemporary housing complexes and real estate developments. My own home nestles uncomfortably between a onetime Ihretonga settlement and the aptly named “Rapacious Developers Village” of today.

Cartography: Molly Roy; artwork: Hannah Chalew
Cartography: Molly Roy; artwork: Hannah Chalew



And yet the stories told in this atlas — for every map is a story — are decidedly redemptive. They offer considered counterpoints which, in exposing the fragments of our sociocultural brokenness, compose us closer to wholeness.

Noting the “special incandescent joy” with which we humans respond to maps, Solnit examines her criteria for these cartographic redemptions:

Maps demand work, and this kind of cerebral work can be exhilarating.

By a good map I mean an aesthetic one, a map that is an invitation to the imagination, a map that offers a fresh view of the familiar or an introduction to the unfamiliar or finds the latter in the former. If every map is a story, most of them are mysteries that invite you to solve them while remaining forever unsolved, in that they indicate more — more past, more future, more adventures, more travels. They have an openness, indicating more than they depict.

Maps, Solnit reminds us, are above all exercises in editing, both conscious and unconscious:

A map can trace one story, though it often portrays the coexistences of many stories in relation to each other. It can show how the physical, economic, visual, and social landscape can shape those stories, letting some bloom, grinding out others. Multiple stories in spatial relation become the geosocial constellations of our lives…

A map is a proposition: here is what this place is, or was, or will be. Most contemporary maps are predictable propositions: here are streets and freeways and also parking and maybe shopping or subway lines. But imagination can always go beyond what even the most quotidian map shows. You know that when you exit the Columbus Circle subway stop, Central Park will be there, and that may evoke majestic trees or strolls or memories of crimes or performances; or the Mets-Willets Point subway stop in Queens on the 7 may make you think about the Unisphere or Venus and Serena Williams at the U.S. Open or when the ash heaps described in The Great Gatsby were nearby.

We furnish maps with imagination; they offer us rooms to furnish thus. Even the most straightforward map is an invitation…

In orienting oneself in this atlas — and orient is a fitting word in speaking of New York, for it comes from the Latin oriens, meaning to find east by looking for the rising sun — one is invited to fathom the many New Yorks hidden from history’s eye. But, more than that, the atlas stands as a reminder that maps make cities as much as cities make maps, and that humans make meaning through how we build and map and live our cities and our stories.

Undergirding the project is a certain countercultural quality in calling on paper maps to nurture us with richer meaning in an age when digital maps feed us mere information. In a sentiment that harkens back to her beautiful meditation on how modern technology is changing our experience of time and place, Solnit writes:

Digital devices tend to offload knowledge from brains to machines, promise us that our ignorance will be adequate because machines will augment us. All recording technologies do this, but paper maps have a way of transferring their data to your mind, so that you become the map. You don’t become the phone. Expertise about place never becomes yours with the digital devices, but it often does with paper, which, paradoxically enough, makes paper a more fluid interactive technology.


In the remainder of the thoroughly terrific Nonstop Metropolis, Solnit, Shapiro, and their venerable stable of writers go on to celebrate “the complexity, the layers and tangles, the cross-pollinations and conflicts, the hidden and overlooked, the ugly and beautiful” aspects of the city. Complement it with pioneering photographer Berenice Abbott’s stunning black-and-white portraits of New York’s changing face and Jack Kerouac’s tour of the unseen New York, then revisit Solnit on living with intelligent hope in dispiriting times, the rewards of walking, what reading does for the human spirit, and how Muybridge shaped visual culture.

Maps courtesy of University of California Press; photographs by Maria Popova


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