Maps

Mapping the Almost-Real City

Hobbyist mapmaker Andrew Lynch is fascinated by what nearly was.

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History is filled with city plans that, for one reason or another, never became anything more. Some of them find their way into archives or museums. Some of them still await funding or completion or destruction in a sort of civic purgatory. And some of them are revived, at least in a digital sense, by hobbyist mapmaker Andrew Lynch.

The 28-year-old Lynch posts an eclectic array of urban design work at his website, Vanshnookenraggen. (The name is a nonsense word he made up in high school and used because he figured — correctly, obviously — that the domain would be available.) His creations over the years include a Google Map rendering that depicts the unbuilt Lower Manhattan Expressway and a hypothetical subway map of Boston.

Lynch, an Albany native, has urban planning in the blood. His father was an architect and his mother worked on historical preservation. He studied industrial design and later geography and interned briefly at the planning department of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, but didn't see himself in a 9-to-5 job. He now lives in Manhattan and works as a realtor, with a slow winter season that's conducive to his avocation.

"It keeps me up until 3 in the morning," he says.

Most of that interest is focused on what Lynch describes as "the fantasy of the almost-reality." As a teenager he moved to Arlington, Massachusetts, in metropolitan Boston, and learned that the town had successfully protested an extension of the red line. Lynch wondered what the system would have looked like if things had worked out, and the result was FutureMBTA — a subway map based on numerous plans and extensions that had gone unrequited over the years.

"I'd always been able to see the history — I could look at a block and see the ages of the buildings," he says. "Then when I heard about these plans that never happened, and I started looking into them out of curiosity, it became instead of a city that used to be, I could see the city that almost was."

FutureMBTA

When Lynch moved to New York he felt compelled to duplicate the task but soon realized the project was on another scale. FutureNYCSubway took three years to sketch and another year to research and write, he says. The end product is a sharp hypothetical work that maps (and summarizes) M.T.A. proposals from the in-progress Second Ave. Subway to a Staten Island system based on a plan from 1939.

Extract, FutureNYCSubway

Around the time of his move Lynch read The Power Broker and became fascinated with the influence of New York road-czar Robert Moses. But simply looking at historical maps of proposed highways like the Lower Manhattan Expressway didn't do it for Lynch; instead he chose to blend the old with the new by rendering the road in the style of Google Maps. He's also done the Mid-Manhattan and some urban highways in San Francisco.

"Google Maps refocused the way we all see the city," he says. "When everyone has the same map in their palm, or on a computer screen, it changes the way you see the place."

Lower Manhattan Expressway in Google Maps

In addition to maps, Lynch posts some traditional city photography (preferring "unseen, forgotten, disused, abandoned, and off limits" subjects) and even some abstract creations (including a series that overlays an imprint of New York onto other major cities for comparison). Recently he launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund posters of New York subway lines drawn to their actual geographic shape — in contrast to most maps, which distort the routes.

NYC Subway Infographic - BDFM line

Lynch traces his interest in bold-but-unfinished plans back to Albany. On the one hand, he gained a respect for grand projects like the Empire State Plaza. On the other, he saw unrequited plans up close, with the city's many unfinished urban highways (particularly the Dunn Memorial Bridge, which ends partway across the Hudson). He hopes his "almost-real" maps will remind a few almost-ready urban planners to think big.

"There was a generation of planners who were very forward-thinking, and all that energy moved over to the highways, and now we're going to have to move it back a little bit," he says. "We lost a vision or something."

All images courtesy of Andrew Lynch.

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