This Atlas Will Change How You See NYC


In the penultimate scene of Barry Lopez’s short story “The Mappist,” the master mapmaker Corlis Benefideo takes the narrator into his study to unveil his life’s work: intricately rendered maps depicting North Dakota’s geological and natural history, its ephemeral streams, fence lines, soil composition, and bedrock, its forgotten foot trails. As Benefideo lays out one beautiful map after another, the narrator is left speechless. “Nobody has the time for this kind of fieldwork anymore,” he stammers. Benefideo’s subsequent response is half mission statement, half lament: “That’s unfortunate, because this information is what we need. …This shows history and how people fit the places they occupy. It’s about what gets erased and what comes to replace it.”

Rebecca Solnit, the author of pioneering works of nonfiction such as A Field Guide to Getting Lost and Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics, has, for the past decade, endeavored to make maps in this vein. She has compiled a trilogy of atlases: an atlas of San Francisco, Infinite City; New Orleans, Unfathomable City; and now an atlas of New York City, Nonstop Metropolis, co-edited with the geographer Joshua Jelly-Schapiro. The North American Cartographic Information Society awarded Solnit the 2015–16 Corlis Benefideo Award for Imaginative Cartography, a prize named after the mapmaker in Lopez’s story. Like her writing, these atlases (created with cartographer Molly Roy and designed by Lia Tjandra) exhibit an overarching concern for peripheral or silenced histories. In a sense, the maps realize what, in Lopez’s story, is purely conjectural, honoring the beautiful over the utilitarian, the “priceless” over the “common.”

Nonstop Metropolis contains 26 atlases and accompanying essays, each bursting with research and proposition. Lopez is among its contributors, along with environmental historians, musicologists, ethnographers, artists, and urbanists who all cover a wide range of subjects: Suketu Mehta’s “Tower of Scrabble” guides the reader through polyglot Queens; Paul La Farge’s “Sailors and Scriveners” revisits a time when publishing and whaling dominated Lower Manhattan; Lucy Lippard’s “Coming Clean” critiques the city’s trash disposal infrastructure; Jelly-Schapiro’s interview with the RZA follows his early pilgrimages from Staten Island to Times Square to watch kung-fu flicks like Shaolin and Wu Tang.

Maps provide entry points, a way to learn the language of the land; once digested, they can become transparent overlays that add shades of meaning to one’s lived experience of the city. To re-emerge into the street after reading Nonstop Metropolis is to re-emerge into a city transformed. As I walked to work downtown, I thought of Heather Smith’s essay “Thirsts and Ghosts,” which excavates the history of New York’s buried streams. The Collect Pond, for instance, where Manhattan Central Booking now sits, was once a glacial pond fed by an underground spring and the borough’s main water source (until Dutch tanneries and breweries so befouled the water that the city was forced to fill the pond with dirt). Farther south, I looked for the gouged limestone at 23 Wall Street, the hand-sized scars left by a bomb detonated there in 1920 by Italian anarchists. A few blocks away on Pearl Street was once the site of an open-air slave market — a brutal testament to the human cost that enabled such unfettered wealth accumulation. Both of these sites are mentioned in Astra Taylor’s “Falling and Rising in Lower Manhattan,” an essay that charts the intersections between capitalism and white supremacy.

History may be obscured through the process of sedimentation, but traces can reveal themselves in the built environment. Nonstop Metropolis aims to teach us to read these remains. When I ask Solnit — we meet at a café near Columbia University — if this is her intention, she says with a smile: “You always bring your agenda with you when you map.” While maps often carry imperial, military connotations, she notes, there have also been maps to remediate environmental degradation or solve sanitation problems (such as the water map that identified the source of cholera in mid-nineteenth-century London). “Early maps were used very much for exploration and conquest and transformation of place into real estate,” Solnit tells me. “But there have been and always could be populist maps and insurrectionary maps in the service of other visions.”

One purpose of these atlases is to encourage us to exit what she calls “metanarrative superhighways” — the Cross Bronx Expressway, for instance, which Robert Moses ruthlessly rammed through that borough — to meander along lesser-known side roads. Daniel Aldana Cohen’s essay “Petro Gotham, People’s Gotham” veers from one dominant narrative that has been repeatedly reinforced by the Bloomberg administration: that city-dwellers are “low-carbon virtuous, by default.” In an accompanying map, “Carboniferous,” the darkest, sootiest squares are concentrated in the wealthiest neighborhoods of the Upper East Side, Upper West Side, Tribeca, and Battery Park. The map highlights the city’s inequality, while proposing alternative options. Instead of marveling at the extinct giants housed in the American Museum of Natural History, its dinosaur halls emblazoned with the name of one influential donor (David Koch, a major climate-change denier), we can see an answer in those lighter swatches of carbon-friendly space, dominated mostly by public housing. Perhaps, Aldana Cohen suggests, revamped versions of these latter buildings will be the real sites of the green city.

Cities are by definition palimpsests — their buildings and stories perpetually demolished and rebuilt — but ought we to mourn that which gets erased? Two essays about the “churn of developers’ schemes and capital’s march” stand out as cautionary tales: Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts’s “Freed but Not Free,” on gentrification in Brooklyn, and Marshall Berman’s “New York City: Seeing Through the Ruins,” on the burning of the South Bronx. During New York’s painful period of deindustrializing in the Sixties and Seventies, when jobless tenants struggled to make rent, landlords began to believe their buildings were “worth more dead than alive.” Arson was rampant, and entire blocks burned senselessly. “Disintegration became, not an absence, but a presence, an active force,” Berman writes. Countless families became homeless overnight. Often, as Rhodes-Pitts points out, it is the vulnerable and disenfranchised who bear the brunt of a city’s growing pains.

The hope is that new, diverse forms of life will somehow grow through the cracks. Solnit’s essay “The Oysters in the Spire,” on unlikely wildlife in the city (or “the residents who don’t pay any rent,” as she likes to joke), is a delightful intermission. Editor-at-large Garnette Cadogan’s map of his 24-hour walk around New York City and his essay “Round and Round” are equally optimistic, celebrating the immigrant communities that thrive at the outer margins of the city, even as the steel and glass centers of the heart stand cold and empty.

Cadogan’s walk begins and ends in the Bronx. He is now working on his own walking book, continuing the tradition of peripatetic writing that Solnit helped to inaugurate. And Solnit tells me Jelly-Schapiro is off to receive the Benefideo award on her behalf. But as for herself, Solnit is retiring from maps. She’s ready to just be a regular writer again, content to let others light the candles for now. “Never say never,” she says, laughing. But that’s the other thing about maps: When you map, you map the way for others to follow.

Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas

Edited by Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro

232 pp.

University of California Press