A photo-illustration of a map of San Francisco
Madison McVeigh/CityLab

Introducing a new CityLab series of personal essays on the power of maps in shaping our private and public lives.

I have a theory: Whether or not they know it, everyone is a map geek.

Yes, some of us have put in more hours to prove it. If you’ve ever lost an evening poring over a gorgeous topographic portrait of a nearby mountain range, marveled over what’s changed in your neighborhood with a colorful old fire insurance map, or just floated  over some mesmerizing digital images of your hometown, raise your hand.

But if you haven’t, I bet that—if it hasn’t already—a map will one day matter to you, because of what it says about your world. Maps are visual representations of the places we know or might like to know, and although they’re also often informative and scientific in nature, they have weirdly powerful holds on our imaginations.

For example, seeing the grid of streets where you grew up is almost sure to trigger a Proustian journey down the childhood memory hole, for better or worse. A map of where a shoreline is likely to stand 20 years from now can look like a flood of heartbreak. Even the stencil of a region’s borders can function as shorthand for an important piece of someone’s identity. (Folks with line tattoos of California, Texas, and Washington, D.C.: I see you.)

Because they can be so curiously emotional, maps are as capable of directing the way we relate to our world as they are of reflecting it. That’s why CityLab is launching a series of personal essays that illustrate the power of maps in shaping our private and public lives. In the coming weeks, “The Maps That Make Us” will gather contributions from CityLab writers, mapmakers, and artists who consider how a work of cartography had a hand in changing their perspectives, relationships, or life decisions.

This week, I write about the Thomas Guide, the pre-Waze street atlas that Angelenos like my dad once relied on to get around their sprawling city. Coming up, we’ll have stories about navigating the shifting river-borders of El Paso, Texas, how the imaginary landscape of The Phantom Tollbooth helped a writer through depression, and more.

We’re looking for more contributors for this series: If you have a personal essay to share about how a map has impacted your life, email us at editors@citylab.com.

In addition, we’re inviting CityLab readers to share shorter takes on maps that meant a lot to you. Maybe you’ve got a tale about an old road map folded in your glove compartment, Google Street View screengrab, a geography textbook or travel guide, or a historic map that led you on an adventure. You can submit those stories here. In a few weeks, we’ll publish a selection of these reader-submitted stories.

You can also just share links or photos of maps that made an impression on you by tagging @citylab and using the hashtag #MapsThatMakeUs on Twitter or Instagram.

Follow along in this series by bookmarking this series landing page, or signing up for our MapLab newsletter. Mappy reading.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. a photo of a WeWork office building
    Life

    What WeWork’s Demise Could Do to NYC Real Estate

    The troubled coworking company is the largest office tenant in New York City. What happens to the city’s commercial real estate market if it goes under?

  2. Bicycle riders on a package-blocked bicycle lane
    Perspective

    Why Do Micromobility Advocates Have Tiny-Demand Syndrome?

    In the 1930s big auto dreamed up freeways and demanded massive car infrastructure. Micromobility needs its own Futurama—one where cars are marginalized.

  3. A photo of a police officer in El Paso, Texas.
    Equity

    What New Research Says About Race and Police Shootings

    Two new studies have revived the long-running debate over how police respond to white criminal suspects versus African Americans.

  4. a photo of Extinction Rebellion climate change protesters in London
    Environment

    When Climate Activists Target Public Transit

    The climate protest movement Extinction Rebellion is facing a backlash after disrupting commuters on the London Underground.

  5. Equity

    Why You Should Say 'Hello' to Strangers on the Street

    On sidewalk psychology. 

×