Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Rebecca Solnit’s third and final urban atlas reminds the reader that maps are not facts, but starting points.
Good maps shed light, but all maps reduce. They take some infinitely varied piece of terrain, shaped by constant encounters with natural history and human hands, and narrow it to a few features, limited further by space and time. For all their dimensions, maps can never wholly represent a place—especially not when they purport to.
Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro’s new anthology of maps and essays, Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas, is defiantly subjective cartography. Its thesis—that a city’s geography can never be wholly accounted for, confined, or normalized—is supported by 26 maps of enthralling variety. Here there be ball courts and brownstones, radical feminists and authoritarian planners, 19th-century banks and 21st-century kids’ parties, archipelagos of immigrant homelands, Jewish and Jerseyan influencers, churning commutes, and the entire city’s waste. With dozens of contributors, this kaleidoscopic tour of America’s largest urban palimpsest pans a multitude of perspectives. “Each of us is an atlas of sorts, already knowing how to navigate some portion of the world, containing innumerable versions of place as experience and desire and fear, as route and landmark and memory,” writes Solnit in her introduction. “So a city and its citizens constitute a living library.”
To be clear: the book’s maps are not “made up” or “imagined.” They are plotted accurately by a professional cartographer (Molly Roy crafted the majority) and most are studded or shaded with facts, dates, and figures. Still, the truths they tell about New York City come most alive through inventive essays by the host of writers, historians, artists, urbanists, and ethnographers Solnit and Jelly-Schapiro marshaled for the task.
Personal elements guide the reader through the maps’ densely intertwining themes. “Each pass I make through the city uncovers more of its texture but also reminds me that much is hidden,” writes the book’s editor-at-large, Garnette Cadogan, describing 24 hours spent circling the entire city by foot (mapped in poignant detail on the preceding page). “I’m not seeing the tip of the iceberg—I’m seeing the tip of a wing of a bird on the iceberg.” Accompanying a map that carefully charts housing lost to fires in the Bronx alongside locations important to the invention of hip-hop in the 1970s, the late philosopher Marshall Berman writes, “This was the point at which a generation of kids filled [the subway’s] grim cars with dazzling color and its gray spaces with musical structure, dancers’ grace, wise-guy irreverence, and life stories. Hip-hop gave New York just the kind of energy we needed to survive the crap that was being dumped on us.”
As with the first two volumes in Solnit’s three-part urban atlas series (Infinite City for San Francisco and Unfathomable City New Orleans), it’s not just that the maps taken together represent a diversity of stories and chronologies. Many of the maps in Nonstop Metropolis use New York City as a geographic frame to put two place-based stories in dialogue. The Bronx map is one example. Another intertwines geographies of queer and non-conformist dance styles with common habitats for New York City’s urban wildlife. What emerges throughout is a vision of a highly “rational” city, marked at every corner with resistance to convention. In other maps, one theme is explored exhaustively within the confine of a single borough, de-centering Manhattan from its usual presumed cartographic and cultural prominence. One stunning entry plots hundreds of languages spoken in Queens, with special attention to endangered tongues like Guarani and Sarnami Hindustani.
Cities, with their countless revisions of organized human life, might be the most untamable of cartographic subjects, and the most ripe for politicization. A map of New York City’s neighborhood boundaries may reveal more about the perspective of its creator than the communities themselves. Mapping income statistics may seem an objective way to talk about poverty, but such maps can convey ideas of neediness that don’t always resonate with the neighborhoods they purport to help. Solnit’s atlases remind the reader that a map is not a fact, but a starting point—an opportunity and challenge to fill in its “blank spots,” to read what’s not there yet. “Maps demand work, and this kind of cerebral work can be exhilarating,“ she writes. This book is.
Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas, by Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, $29.95 at the University of California Press.