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Mapping Manhattan

“Maps and memories are bound together, as little as songs and love affairs are.”
–  Adam Gopnik, Mapping Manhattan: A Love (and Sometimes Hate) Story in Maps by 75 New Yorkers

Told as a 13.1-mile, single-day walk down Broadway, the book follows author Becky Cooper and her roommate Ama as they hand out 3,000 blank maps of Manhattan to total strangers. 300 of them sent the map back with their personal stories etched across this oddly shaped island of dreams: accents and celebrity sightings, lost gloves (and virginities), color-coded emotions, circles around tragedies, a guide to teleporting.

Becky talked to us about her terrible sense of direction and what makes New York so great.

How did you first get into cartography?  

A very fortuitous accident. I was hired the summer after my freshman year of college to write copy for a nonprofit that was mapping all the public art in Manhattan. On my first day, my boss opened the file on InDesign and the program just self-destructed. She looked at me, smiled, and said, “So yeah, finish this, and then you can start writing.” She wanted the map to be accurate, but despite that, I was still making a map that reflected me. Making decisions like, “Does a carousel count?” I think I put the carousel in, but if I were to do it now I wouldn’t. A map says as much about you at a specific time as you in general.

Your map is the last in the book—an ink drawing of the Brooklyn Bridge, an eclectic city block, and a girl on a bicycle. Would it portray a different “you” now?

That one compresses all of these significant spots into one panoramic vision. Mine now might actually be Brooklyn—I live in Carroll Gardens. It’s the first New York I can repeatedly go back to … the first time I’m deeply embedded in my community.

The majority of maps are from anonymous New Yorkers, but you also have maps from well-known personas, like Yoko Ono and David Chang. How did these come about?

When I was in France [working as a paralegal] I sent an email on the template on David Chang’s website. I wrote in that little window, “Dear whoever’s job it is to read these things,” and they responded really quickly. For Yoko, it was similarly magical, because I was showing a friend from out of town around Central Park, and he had brought another friend. As we were passing by the Dakota, I said, “This was where John Lennon was shot, and I think Yoko Ono still lives there.” And the friend of my friend said, “She does.” Eleven years ago he had a friend who spotted her in front of the building, and he hands her a piece of paper to sign. She rips it in half and says, “I’ll sign it if you meet me back here in exactly 10 years.” They send each other letters over the years, and he does come back 10 years later, and she signs it. My first thought was: “What address did he use to send the letters?”

Are there any maps that are particularly special to you?

The second-to-last map in the book is called “Eve.” It’s this four-decade-long relationship. I gave a talk at the 92nd Street Y two weeks ago, and the man who sent it to me came up and thanked me for giving him the opportunity to make that map. It captured his state of mind at that time, right after his wife passed away.

What is special about Manhattan as a mappable place?

New York, in some ways, is an example of the American Dream. People come here in not a different way from 200 years ago—to make a go of it. From the simple grid, you know as much as the next person. You may be here 2 days, but you can know as much as a New Yorker. You’re mapping against this very impersonal grid these very personal aspirations.

You can check out the maps that didn’t make it into the book on Becky’s Tumblr. Stay tuned for a Paris project .