Private Maps

August 18th, 2008 § 1 comment

Those of us with a terrible sense of direction have a reliance on habit and visual recognition to know which way is up, down, east or west, making maps essential to learning a new city. Like understanding a network of subway lines, made up of colors, numbers, letters, and destinations, maps are not as difficult to read as I always supposed. The hardest part has always been the transition from understanding streets connecting on a two-dimensional map, to streets connecting from the street itself. Being underground is like being spun around with a blindfold, every time I emerge from the subway I find myself looking up and turning in circles as though seeing something new. The most difficult aspect in mapping Gotham, however, seems to be in creating a mental map of neighborhoods that connects together. Areas in the city are so diverse and separated from one another they feel like cities within cities. It was Joe who said that one block can make no difference or all the difference.

For the present it is not necessary to know why this is, it is overwhelming enough just to observe the separations. Richmond broke down into manageable pieces, downtown was the business heart, the fan residential, the outskirts commercial, and the rest suburban. Gotham neighborhoods require what feels like an insanely specific map, neighborhoods cannot be grouped together, only connected by strands of similarity. Neighborhoods also don’t feel like they have delineated lines, like looking for state lines they draw strange shapes in the cities landscape. They don’t feel flat and orderly, instead junctions pile upwards onto each other, as though fighting for space. It seems impossible to make the flowing and coherent document of the city that was appropriate in Richmond, instead images blend together only through the unlikely nature of their existing side by side. Very little here feels private or hidden within residential buildings or even people, and yet their exterior is so trampled it is hard to get a clean look at anything; apartments don’t feel like homes, they exist as a place to sleep.

Knowing (or learning) a city becomes tangled together with visually understanding it, as I create mental maps of places I have been and struggle to link them together, I am simultaneously working out a visual impression of each place. The resulting images are horrible, like gesture drawings, they are fast, loose, badly framed, and slightly boring—they are in essence, a beginning. I can’t discard them, however much I would like to, because they are the visual core of later observations. It is interesting to think of knowing a city through an internal map, if new york is unknowable, impossible to explore in its entirety, how then is it known? To each individual who lives, works, and walks, the city must look and feel different. There is perhaps so little connection between people because the visual spaces we inhabit conform to our own purpose.

Gopnik, in his memoir of returning to New York, talks about a map maker trying to perfectly map the city.

From a set of aerial photographs and underground schematics he had turned every block, every highway, and every awning into neatly marked and brightly colored geometric spaces laid out on countless squares.

The interesting thing about his introduction was that this map, as Gopnik states, “was unfinished and unfinishable.” The city itself changed too quickly and too much for the map ever to be done. I enjoy the futile act of trying to objectively quantify the energies of 8.2 million people. Gopnik suggests, rightfully so, that every resident makes a personal map of the city that includes and excludes what it will. Not only do I feel like I am constructing a quilt, badly at that, of unlikely pieces in absurd shapes with clashing colors, I feel like pieces are constantly disappearing and shifting without warning. Was that neighborhood really like that or did I just remember it wrong? Having as I do an intimate knowledge of earthquakes, to me Gotham feels like one of those mild, rolling quakes, less alarming and more surreal, as the earth itself rolls underfoot. Manhattan’s waves of people roam the city changing its landscape faster than it can be mapped out, by an individual or a professional, before a piece can be properly grasped it has shifted, moved, or is gone completely.

The lingering questions are how to represent, what to represent, and why. Not very different I suppose from other work, but the method, whatever the answers are, must be different. It is strange that in Richmond the answer lay in exploring, in wandering, the essence of the city seemed to hang on the edge of private spaces. Here, I feel like sitting somewhere, anywhere, and letting new york come to me. I want to document what passes rather than what I find or see. In the chaos of the city, between the discrepancies of maps, sitting still is my only plausible answer.

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