Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
From CityLab’s mailbag: Here are the personal stories about how maps shaped your lives.
When CityLab launched The Maps That Make Us, our series of personal essays on the life-shaping power of maps, we also asked readers to write in and share stories about the maps that made a difference in their personal, professional, and public lives.
More than 100 of you did, contributing reflections on navigating transit systems, getting lost in the frontispiece maps of fantasy novels, the borders that define religious rituals, the peculiar discoveries of Google Street View, and many other topics. These stories offered a kaleidoscopic view of the power of maps, and a rich complement to our series of published essays on the subject. A diverse selection of reader submissions follows.
Special thanks to CityLab's audience team members Jessica Lee Martin and Gracie McKenzie for managing the reader call-out. Thank you to all who took the time to read, reflect, write, and map.
—Laura Bliss, series editor
“An integral part of our workday”
From 1973 through 1984, I worked in distribution and customer service for the Southern California Gas Company. Every morning before getting in our trucks, we would all sit at tables together with our work slips, our coffee, and our Thomas Brothers guides and map our routes in pencil.
From one page to the next, we could create the most efficient route from the base to all the addresses in our work packets, and back to the base at the end of the day. All our orders were timed, so it was important that we were efficient in mapping out our routes every day. After a while the book got so tattered and torn that we had to turn them in for new ones every so often. They were an integral part of our workday.
“I can feel the scar left on our city”
I grew up in Gastonia, North Carolina. In the mid-1990s, in order to build a government complex, the city bulldozed the economic center of my neighborhood, Highland, where the majority of the black residents lived. As a child I didn’t understand what was happening; I only knew that my family and neighbors felt an extreme sense of loss.
As an adult, I’ve researched the history of this event and have recently written about it on my blog, using historic and modern maps as illustrations. I found that this project was part of a broader urban renewal trend around the country, through which many historically black neighborhoods have been destroyed. As an adult, I can feel the scar left on our city: Part of the area that was bulldozed included the home of T. Jeffers, the first black mayor of Gastonia and the principal of the only black high school in the city. I feel obligated to remain in the neighborhood and contribute to the life of the residents. I founded a school for low-income children and those with disabilities, and we intentionally located in Highland.
“A testimony of the greatness of our dreams”
I was 12 years old the first time I discovered the beauty of the geographic maps gallery in the Vatican. It’s magnetic: My eyes were at first attracted to the sumptuous Baroque ceilings. Once in the room, it was a leap into a picaresque story, going back in time and into the Mediterranean Sea. The deep blue waters. The boats. The hills. These maps carried me away.
Mare Nostrum: our sea. The mother of human civilization, of adventures, of modern fantasy. For me, mapping the world is a testimony of the greatness of our dreams.
“All the areas they can’t go”
I live in the Annapolis area in Maryland. U.S. Route 50 runs right through the city. The roadway system makes it look like you can go anywhere, but that’s only true if you’re driving. If you’re on foot or on a bike, then your options are extremely limited, and often dangerous.
I took a map of the area I live in and traced over all of the freeways with bold red lines, considering them as barriers instead of roadways. The purpose was to figure out where people can walk or cycle to get places, by emphasizing all the areas they can’t go.
The resulting map was a real eye-opener for me: All roads that ban cyclists and pedestrians are barriers to movement unless you have a car. There are roads that cross the freeways, but most do not have sidewalks. Many of them don’t even have paved shoulders, and those that do often narrow when they pass over or under a freeway.
“Forever embedded in the landscape”
As a teenager I fell in love with maps, particularly U.S. Geological Survey maps. A line on the Topeka, Kansas, quadrangle has mesmerized me for 45 years: “Old Indian Boundary.” For the last three years I have lived on the side of the line that was once two different Native American reservations for the Potawatomi and the Kanza tribes. Even though the line had no further meaning when the Potawatomi reservation was dissolved, it became forever embedded in the landscape because there had been two different federal surveys on either side of the line. Once a line has been surveyed and ownership of land established based on that line, it becomes difficult to erase it. This historic north/south line remains visible from the air and on maps today.
That line and the Native American connection motivated me to learn more about the ground beneath my feet. Now I am writing a book about the history of my neighborhood.
“These states are not so united”
I was the first person in my family to go to college. We had no money for me to fly the 1,421 miles from Houston, Texas, to Washington, D.C. Instead, my grandmother, Dear, told me to find a map and figure out how we would make the drive across the United States.
What we realized on that journey was that these states are not so united. We were refused service in Alabama, and turned away from a hotel in Mississippi. This racism was in the 1990s, not during the Civil Rights era that I now realize—after graduating with honors and dual degrees from Howard University—is still an uphill battle. An uphill battle, just like the mapped-out trip to my destination, which holds memories of pain, hurt, rejection, hungry bellies, five people in one motel bed, confusion, no gas, a flat tire and more.
But the laughter, memories, family bonding, and hope for a better generation that was born from our mapped trek across the South made Dear proud. She had a tenth-grade education, but died a multi-business and homeowner owner. I learned about her life as the highlighter-marked map literally unfolded over our 48-hour, August-heat-with-no-AC drive. Her dreams of a whole new world were highlighted and manifested in me.
—Dr. Denalerie Johnson-Faniel
“Dimensions of evolutionary history”
“Wallace’s Line” is shown below, in faint red on the bottom left corner of a map drawn by its namesake, Alfred Russel Wallace. I study paleontology, and to me this line is a symbol of compelling questions about how the history of life has unfolded in time and space.
After leaving school at age 14 to train as a land surveyor, Wallace sailed to South America and then Indonesia to collect natural history specimens in the 1850s. Though not trained as a scientist, Wallace studied the species he collected thoroughly, especially in the context of where each lived, and became a crucial character in the history of the discovery of evolution.
On this map, a red line winds between the islands of the archipelago, cutting between Bali and its neighbor island, Lombok. On Bali, Wallace observed birds from the same families as the ones that lived further north and west in Borneo and on the Malaysian Peninsula. Just 35 kilometers across the sea in Lombok, he saw a completely different set of birds, related to those living in Papua New Guinea and Australia. Wallace realized that this stretch of water was a boundary between two regions of life. Somehow, over the course of history, the birds of Southeast Asia became part of the ecosystem in Bali, and Australian birds settled on Lombok and adapted to life there. As he traveled to more islands and studied other groups of animals too, Wallace traced out where the characteristic species from each side stopped, filling in the length of the line.
In 1859, halfway through his travels in the Malay Archipelago, Wallace wrote a letter to Darwin from a small hut on the island of Ternate. This letter outlined the exact same idea of how new species could be formed from a common ancestor that Darwin had been developing. Wallace saw how populations of a single species exposed to different conditions in different areas could diverge in their traits over time, and how animal groups sharing common ancestry spread through the archipelago from Asia or Australia. Darwin submitted Wallace's paper on this topic alongside some of his earlier writings to be published, unveiling the idea of biological evolution to the world.
The unique and complex interactions between geography and life on the islands Wallace traveled made the spatial dimension of evolution clear to him, while Darwinian evolution is usually thought of the dimension of time. Lines like Wallace's draw me deeper into questions about how competition, extinction, dispersal, death, and diversification unfold within ecosystems. This map reminds me to keep considering these dimensions of space and time in my paleontological research.
A couple of my friends have been to Bali, and when they come back I always ask them, “Did you look out over the sea towards Lombok? Did you ponder the biogeographical history of life on earth while you were there?” They’ve always said no. I guess I’ll have to go there one day and do it myself.
“Alternative routes to experience the city”
Growing up in Rio de Janeiro, my 30-minute walk to school was a chance to explore the neighborhood on my own. I enjoyed testing out alternative routes to experience the city, and I went through the maps of the neighborhood I lived in. This habit helped my atypical passion for maps flourish, and eventually inspired me to create my own fictional city as a hobby.
My detailed maps reflected what I experienced as a big-city inhabitant: Viaducts overpassing broad boulevards, mixed with a hectic car-centered downtown (despite me being a pedestrian to this day). These maps made me not only an active citizen of my city, but also pushed me to become an urban planner later on.
Nowadays, I advocate for walkable and people-centered cities. Map sketches are still on my mind, every time I scribble involuntarily during boring telephone calls. I could “breathe” maps, and I am grateful for them; otherwise, I wouldn’t have become the “homo Urbanus” I am today.
“Maps always central to the lesson”
There’s not a lot for a preteen to do in the evening in the middle of the desert, but that’s where my early love of maps and location was fostered. While we lived in town, my parents frequently spent the evening with a cousin of my father and his wife, who lived on a ranch several miles out of town.
Their son, a couple of years older than I, often found ourselves stuck for entertainment while the adults chatted. This was pre-internet, even pre-television in remote spots. At some point we found an old globe, and started taking turns challenging the other to find a feature. One of us would pick out a place, spin the globe, and ask the other to find it. At first it was countries, or large cities, but very soon we were looking for the smallest, most obscure city or mountain.
In fact, it wasn’t long before we had both learned every place identified on that old globe. I was hooked on maps, and eventually went on the get a Ph.D. in geography, and spent my professional life teaching geography in universities, with maps always central to the lesson.
“The elements of wonder and awe”
One of the reasons I've always loved maps is because they imply discovery and exploration. I like to contribute observations to iNaturalist, a citizen science platform documenting species occurrence of organisms.
I recently took a picture of a bumblebee with a splash of red on its abdomen while on a photographic walk about in a local park. I uploaded the photo to iNat and discovered that the bee was a Hunt’s bumblebee. In looking at this bee’s map, I realized that I am on the eastern edge of its range here in Central South Dakota. Reading about a species is one thing, but seeing it mapped adds the elements of wonder and awe.
“Strip away the beauty, but the memories remain”
I didn’t know what Delray was until I heard about the neighborhood as part of a research project on Detroit in the 1930s, an era of illegal vice, gang violence and police brutality. Back then, the neighborhood was a Hungarian enclave, full of beautiful houses, churches, synagogues, and community centers. Candy stores, neighborhood bars, and bakeries hung off of every corner. Then Detroit decided that Delray’s waterfront location would be an ideal spot for its wastewater treatment plant. Decades later, it put the I-75 freeway through Delray and selected it as the new location of the massive Gordie Howe International Bridge. What was a thriving neighborhood has become a 160-acre pancake, taking out trees, homes, businesses and historic places of worship in the process.
I love this map because it shows the before and during of Delray's destruction: The overlay shows what came before, but under it all you can still see what was there—the area the French originally called Belle-Fontaine, or beautiful fountain. You can strip away the beauty, but the memories remain.