Jennifer Maravillas is painting a cartographic portrait of Brooklyn. In trash.
The 29-year-old Maravillas is walking the streets of the borough from end to end, picking up a piece of paper garbage from each block, cutting them into neat strips and pasting them onto a 10 by 10-foot map that stretches from Greenpoint to Sea Gate, from Vinegar Hill to East New York. She’s calling it 71 Square Miles, which is the vast measure of this place.
Why use garbage to map Brooklyn? "Because of how dirty it is," says Maravillas, who has created many other maps in more conventional media. "Because of how much garbage is available, and how it shows the culture of the neighborhood."
The cartographer-artist began her project back in February of 2012, when she was dividing her time between San Francisco and New York. The garbage map has now taken over, and she is full-time in Brooklyn, hoping to finish up by spring 2014.
She walks for hours at a time with a glove and a brown paper bag, picking up one scrap of detritus from each block as she goes and recording her route with an iPhone app for later reference. “I try to look as sane as possible when I’m on the sidewalk,” she says. (Animal New York has a video of her doing her thing that shows she succeeds at that.)
The most common pieces of trash, she says, are lottery tickets, phone cards, and parking tickets. She’ll use those if nothing better blows her way, but she prefers more revealing ephemera, especially things that are written in different languages or that otherwise reveal the demographics of a neighborhood.
“I love handwritten notes, kids’ drawings, things like that,” she says. “I’ve found a few love letters that are really sweet. That’s a little sad at the same time.”
In one more affluent neighborhood near Coney Island Avenue, the sidewalks were almost bare, although she did find a stray $20 bill. But in most places, her raw material is available in abundance.
She says she hasn’t really had any negative incidents while walking the borough’s tougher neighborhoods, usually going in the middle of the day and almost always with a companion. “The scariest part is cars,” she says. “I’ve been slightly hit a few times.”
For Maravillas, who’s been doing a lot of reading about urban planning lately, 71 Square Miles is a natural expression of the way she thinks about cities and maps in general. "Brooklyn is a really interesting place from a global perspective because of the diversity here," she says. "The map is serving as a tool for people to see the borough. Connecting people – that’s the idea of a map."