Tag Archives: city maps

Natures of San Francisco

A man in the city,” wrote American novelist William Gass, “has no natural thing by which to measure himself.” But self-measurement is increasingly difficult to gauge in an age of global warming, and increased catastrophic weather. We are with less of a rudder than in the past. When Gass wrote, two thirds of the way through the last century, he was describing cities on the east coast of the United States with the wry bitter logic of a longtime midwesterner.

But the nature of San Francisco is particularly striking, and has long been tried to be mapped. If measurement has been outsourced to numerous devices–from not only height and weight, but caloric intake, income, carbon footprint, and racial identity, the mapping of the proximity between nature and the city in the Bay Area is concentrated in San Francisco, bound by beaches, hills, and habitat. As a Midwesterner, Gass was aghast at the notion of nature in the city, and of the reduced relation to nature in urban life: “Nothing can live and remain free where he resides but the pigeon, starling, sparrow, spider, cockroach, mouse, moth, fly and weed, and he laments the existence of even these and makes his plans to poison them,” Gass writes with acid specificity, winding up to the final punch: “His parks are potted plants.” The reservoirs of alleged rurality and green that interrupt the urban footprint of San Francisco are often overlooked. But the revaluation of the new relations of urban and rural that have animated many west coast cities has created a demand to reconsider and to remap relations of “urban” and “rural” that were once clear dichotomies, pushed by the increased absence of open spaces that once surrounded cities like Portland, Seattle, or San Francisco. Indeed, if the Golden Gate Natural Recreational Area, a Marin-based park that hosts two thousand plant and animal species over nineteen distinct ecosystems shares the largest boundary with an urban environment of any national park, the focus on conservation that brought together what has been heralded as a “new urban park” was created by cobbling together public and private lands that redefined the value and relation of the constellation of interconnected parks to urban space that presents a compelling model for a new urban park” outside of the growing city, and a new relation of nature to the city than Gass experienced.

Awareness of the biophilic needs of urban inhabitants for contact with urban greenspace, that has prompted active redesign urban environments in an overpaved world, responding to evidence greenspace reduce stress and mental illness, mapping the presence of nature in the city cannot be reduced to parks. As our contact with nature and the natural is endangered or at risk of deterioration, the perspectives that open space around San Francisco offer on the ravines of built space make the case for remapping urban space and open space a Nature in the City has worked to do, focussing not on human settlement of built space, but privileging the inversion of how habitats intermingle with the built environment of a city like San Francisco, shifting a tacit prioritization implicit in all maps. San Francisco is, of course, the beneficiary of the huge area of the nearby Delta, through which over 40% of run-off from the Sierras have long flown, bringing with them sediment from the mountains that flows to the sea, creating alluvial deposits that have made it a nexus for fifty mammal and fish species, from salmon to striped bass to sturgeon to steelhead trout and endangered smelt, and a stop on the Pacific flyaway from Canadian geese to sandhill cranes, and a habitat for over two hundred bird species, twenty reptiles and amphibians, attracted by sediment-rich marshes of the watershed’s historic wetlands and open lands. Can we map their presence in the city nearby? Or do we not have to do so better than in the past?

1. In ways that invite the recession of the “city”–just barely visible as a skyline a full three quarters across the view form Loma Alta Open space, in Marin–the Nature in the City map inverts the equation, by asking us to view the city in its relation to surrounding habitat that still presents a living ecosystem that enters the city’s paved streets.

San Rafael Bridge and San Francisco Skyline Seen from Loma Alta Open Space, Marin CA

Long before politicians railed against cities, asking where the heart of the nation’s heart lay, this icy put-down summoned the identity of the interior to dismiss the paltriness of urban parks as poor replacements for the nature world. But the if the built centers of San Francisco have grown in recent years–both in its downtown skyline and neighboring Oakland–as any departing airplane can see–the maps we make of our changing cities demand we attend to how they invite us to explore and navigate urban space in all its dimensions–including the role of the city as an ecosystem, as much as a built structure.

We bristle in San Francisco at the dismissal of our built environment, or verticality as a measure of cosmopolitan urbanism. From the seat of the departing plane, one might forget that the city not only borders significant greenspace across the Bay, but that San Francisco and the East Bay are living habitats–an area we who live there are more sensitive as a site of potential loss, whose greenspace demands preservation as an ecology that many city dwellers often fail to note. As more mindful outfits like the Nature Conservancy seek to preserve a public consciousness of the need to mitigate incursions of urban areas into the urban greenspace, we might ask not only how to convince public planners and developers to be more conscious of such incursions–and the serious problems that they create for fire, as well as compromising ecology and habitat. While the most rigorous conservation plan. based on the Bay Area “Greenprint”–a model soon to be expanded to all California–suggests the proximity of critiical ecosystems in need of protection in their “Mitigation Wizard” that takes a base map of sensitive species’ habitat–

–the intersection it creates between habitat and potential extra-urban growth is designed to better help us negotiate the futures that the Bay Area might meet. Tracking the density of species in critical ecosystems lying in proximity to the Bay Area’s urban agglomeration, different levels or criteria of conservation can be entered against current natural science observations of sensitive habitats of up to one hundred species around San Francisco’s wetlands, forests, and grasslands that can create a dialogue between areas ecological sensitivity in close proximity to urban growth. The hope is to offer a baseline for mitigating the effects of urban growth–and to elevate those concerns to a level comparable to the attention to property that is increasingly seen as vulnerable to sea-level rise, the aridity, fire risk or soil subsidence as consequences of warming and temperature rise, acknowledging local ecosystem integrity as consequences of anthropogenic change.

2. There is a need for pictorial maps to inspire us to orient ourselves to habitat in urban space. We who live in the city are more accustomed to see a unique sort of habitat, and a confluence of not exactly rural but open space and green corridors in an urban environment. Even as vertical crowding may eclipse its green, the urban ecosystems they nourish prevent the symptoms of urban dysphoria associated with built environments, and notwithstanding threats of seismic disturbance or sea-level rise. Novelist William Gass’s rather bone-chilling evocation of the coldness of rural isolation eclipses the real work of nurturing deep ties to a abundant ecosystems in San Francisco’s built space. And in an age when trees, and urban greenspace, face threats of car pollution, extreme weather, and the uprooting of trees to make way for construction sites or trim branches for urban safety or interference in above-ground power lines in many Bay Area cities, the value of absorbing CO2 and preventing floods by absorbing water have created a virtual boom of greening urban space.

Increasingly, we are attendant to the urban habitat they offer, beyond the cult of verticality as a metric of urbanity. Trees have been increasingly seen as presenting a basis for the future flourishing of cities and sustainability of urban space, with the growth of greening projects across the developed world: since 2007, an active New York City overseen by Bloomberg rooted over a million trees in urban space, and have taken root in London, where Mayor Sadiq Khan aims to make it the first “National Park City” while Paris is building four inner-city urban forests by 2020. While building heights provided a measure of a metropolis in the twentieth century, projects of urban greening have led to a search for more climate-tolerant trees–including “resilient” non-natives, like the three-toothed maple, even if urban planners are wary of invasive non-natives: Ireland’s commitment to plant 440 million trees by 2040, and hopes in Ethiopia to plant five billion seedlings in a year suggested a positive project of greening before the coronavirus pandemic, and an optimistic foot-forward re-engineering of the urban biome of unprecedented scale.

1. It was not always that way, and the spate of overbuilding in San Francisco has led it to aspire to a vertical landscape, as if out of envy of urban skylines of the east coast. If environmental dysphoria might be countered by planting of trees, San Francisco has gained a skyline of something like skyscrapers–as if in spite of its seismic risks–

–while the place of nature in the city in San Francisco, rather than on its outer bonds or beyond its walls, even before construction of a looming Salesforce Tower, we seek still to see as a site for outdoor recreation–

–if we may, as in a recent encomia to the city’s often beleaguered transit authority, bracket its impact as a building by reducing its size, and presence on our skyline, by continuing to render its towers as roughly equal to the TransAmerica Tower familiar as a point of reference that once dominated it in the past, as if its skyline remained roughly uniform.

The transformation of overpaving urban space has led to city maps that are more reliant on a strictly automobilistic perspective, as Google Maps and Bing are drawn from the perspectives of a space that is inhabited by cars, more tan the wildlife of the city: the perspective of the walker in the city is less easy to approach, in maps that are biased by their exclusion of open space that is so important to one’s mental health and sense of place: if the American West was once defined by its open spaces, “where the pavement ends,” the pavement that spreads out from cities to the burgeoning Bay Area makes it a sort of transportation hub, where cars move along its freeways and downtown, often clogging Market Street, increasing a market for new navigational tools of traffic flow, rather than the open spaces that drivers might even neglect if they did not also wander the neighborhoods off the beaten path: the decal of urban wildlife associated with the car’s perspective is, unsurprisingly, marked the pigeon as an urban inhabitant of peaking into this automobilistic world as if from an Archimedian point–

–whose cocked beaks and blank eyes emerge from the car door’s gleam to note the increased compromising of a biophilic relation to urban space.

And if we may still sense the city is present in nature, overlapping with bodies of water in ways one can still smell in its oxygenated ocean air, one want to map its relation to its environment, and find environments of living species that coexist in and with it, from raven nests or occasional hawks and odd coyote, or the pleasures of the butterfly, cormorant, and heron–that we too often fail to notice and to see, as if to cut off aspects of urban livability to create the environmental dysphoria we seek to avoid.

The sense of San Francisco as surrounded by the Pacific and freshwater basins, and a confluence of saltwater and freshwater, and a terrain whose sandiness and lack of bedrock has limited its urban growth. But the clear and unmistakable sense of being on the water, or lying close to it on three sides–defines a sense of what it is like to move in its micro-climates, and indeed the rewriting of its shores, while expanded by landfill, have resisted the possible dramatic change of an elevated freeway that bound its edges. If one can look back wistfully at the redefining of its relation to land and sea, there is a sense that even if some of the shorelines around the Embarcadero have clear breakfronts, and that undersea rivers, underground shipwrecks, and some bays are overpaved–

–that the older pre-1854 exists in the ocean air that enters its shores, if the coast is fixed. For if the low structures around the shoreline reflect in large part seismic risk, there is will to remain a model urban area, unique and exemplary even in an age of globalization and climate change, not entirely low-lying, but facing significant threats from sea-level rise. The overlapping of ocean and land environments are nicely captured in the species, from shorebirds to insects to thistle to prehistoric radiolarian, that populate the surface of San Francisco in the elegantly dynamic, if static, full-color map from Nature in the City, which presses web-sources and online data into a new illustrated paper form.

3. Fostering of a changed relation to urban habitat has left the Bay Area and city far less insularly defined in relation to nature than most other places in the United States: Rebecca Solnit rightly observed the old geographers were wrong only in one–if one significant–way in describing California as an island, which extends to San Francisco. In California, one finds, still, significant surviving greenspace, cultivable land, and open space, that while under threat, in proportion to much of the eastern seaboard extends to San Francisco and much of northern California, and significant parts of the southern coast. If the state is known for giant redwood forests and sequoia groves, strikingly significant habitats enter San Francisco’s own natural ecology in its urbanized space.

The recalibration of the place of nature to which San Francisco has been long open has long been measured as something that is threatened and endangered in its scarcity, as paving of asphalt and concrete have dramatically changed its landcover, toward a shift to appreciate and embrace its nature, and indeed embrace the benefits of cultivating not only plants, but rather ecophilia. The celebration of an urban environment far often reduced to being mapped for seismic peril and proximity to fault-lines offers a deep picture of the specific formation and sustainment of a rather unique coastal habitat, both based on accurate data and pushing the boundaries of data visualization to excavate a rich record of–and promote a wonderfully tactile relationship to–broad concerns of ecology and environmental history.

The engaging design of the 2018 map commissioned by Nature in the City begins from a datapoint of each and every tree and green space the city offers, but fosters a productive way of looking at the urban environment, different in that it focusses far less on the pests we often seek to eliminate from our homes with urban fastidiousness, than to appreciate the range of species beside which city dwellers live, despite their frequent focus on roads of paved concrete: in a map that embraces the city at the end of the peninsula from bay to sea, the living cornucopia of habitat that spans the urban environment offers a new way to understand this urban space.

Nature in the City/2018

Although ecosystems are the most living areas of cities, they remain hidden from view on city maps of the built landscape or paved roads that define the mobility of “urban” life.  

But we often fail to orient ourselves to the extent of urban environments in most maps–especially as we privilege the images of the city seen from the air, as if on landing and take-off, rather than on the ground. The changing vulnerability of cites to climate change and extreme weather has directed increased attention to the vulnerability and instability of urban space, in ways we are still taking stock through maps, the question of what maps best orient us to the future of the city have provoked increased attention from maps of sea-level change, to maps of vulnerability to earthquakes and seismic risks. No city has been more subject to such demands for recalibrating its lived space, perhaps, than San Francisco, the city that is most conspicuously built on several fault lines–so much that the expansive recent downtown rebuilding is cast as a “seismic trap” or a disasters waiting to happen–showing the spate of high-rise construction–

–against the backdrop of the widespread urban devastation of the 1906 earthquake on its hundred and twelfth anniversary, as if to suggest that the memory of that devastating event has receded into the past of public memory.

And if San Francisco was long haunted by the devastating downtown fire that spread through the city with the earthquake of 190 destroyed a good section of the inhabited city, as if it is burned into public memory. The recent shift in rebuilding of elevated buildings allowed to be constructed in the downtown region half almost reflexively prompted the worries or concern of a “seismic trap” in which recurrent seismic tremors threaten the city, and an incursion of nature of underground plate tectonics might even more consequentl disrupt the urban plant once again.

Are the danger of such seismic shocks a different image of the sudden entrance of nature into the city?

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Filed under data visualization, ecology, environmental geography, San Francisco, urban ecology

Bombed Out Landscapes over Time

When the Germain army declared, in April of 1942, as accelerating violence of global war brought the arrival of the British bombing of German towns, the wartime Nazi government boasted that they would use native maps in the public domain to destroy valued buildings in England with impunity. In blood-curdling claims that prefigure the American threat to violate international law by targeting of historical sights in Iran, the Teutonic boast that ‘We shall go out and bomb every building in Britain marked with three stars in the Baedeker Guide” suggests the terrifying slippage between German superiority in objective tourist maps once tied to educational formation to the superiority of airstrikes from the German Luftwaffe’s arial blitzkrieg that was determined to destroy historical sites, using V-1 flying bombs and V-2 rockets to act as “Vergeltungswaffe” or vengeance weapons, in an air-launched arsenal designed to destroy whatever was celebrated on the map.

The experience of a bombed out landscape was hard to distance oneself from–and all but impossible to map. During the blitz, Graham Greene gave it his Eton best, chiding Anthony Powell with customary sarcasm how the bombing raids made London “extraordinarily pleasant these days with all the new spaces” as rocket bombs had torn through buildings: Greene distanced himself from violence by affecting admiration for the “rather Mexican effect of ruined churches.” He was not only being picturesque, but looking back on the hatred he felt for the Mexican landscape whose ruins he had officially visited in 1937-8, while investigating Socialist outlawing of Catholicism in Mexico; the dark sarcasm no doubt concealed fears rockets rendered the capitol akin to the landscape he saw as a periphery whose poverty and dishonesty he loathed as “a state of mind” without morals, economic precarity, bad food and drink, and bad faith. Whatever churches Greene saw in Tabasco and Chiapas were empty of ritual or priests by state decree, secret Masses confined to private houses by priests who register with civil authorities after agrarian and land reforms stripped the church of property. If Mexico seemed a periphery, London seemed in danger of becoming one, as Britain’s bombardment by Germans hoped to reduce England’s capitol to ruins; he disdained American superiority to Mexico whose wealth they had extracted, and thought little of the “cold, snarky chambers” of Mexican ruins in the seventh century Mayan city of Palenque, but the bombing of London by “vengeance weapons” threatened rapidly to reduce the metropole by a Third Reich that hoped to triumph over Britain by consigning it to the past to bring to a close an early historical epoch. If Mexico was “a country to die in and leave ruins behind,” the specter of silent, majestic ruins were hard to map onto London.

The evocation of a ruins was telling at a time in the almost exactly eight month bombing campaign from October 1940 to early June 1941. V-2 “vengeance weapons”–or simply “revenge weapons”–were unlike earlier types of war, definitively shifting military hostilities to a home front. If Graham Greene had imagined Mexico as the glamour site of the adventures of Pancho Villa in his childhood, the dangerous landscape of wartime suggested , the start of a campaign whose targets were chosen from a travel guide was a metaphor of how bomb strikes might close a historical epoch by sheer application of force, confirming the imperial destiny claimed for the Third Reich, and reduce London to the material traces of a past Germans long studied of Rome’s Empire and ancient Greece. It was hard to watch the raids at a stoic remove. The emigre bookseller and intellectual historian Chimen Abramsky tied to wacth at close hand London’s bombing unfold by binoculars from the roof of his Highgate residence, scanning the urban landscape for the sight or sound of bombs’ inevitable before joining fire brigades to rush to the scene to mitigate flare-ups in urban neighborhoods, stunned “London was on fire, burning from four sides,” as if the Nazi invasion of Poland, Belarus and Russia had followed him and his father refuge. The V-2 bombs were perhaps only a rehearsal for the aggressive carpet bombing of the Siege of Stalingrad of late August 1942 they preceded; the utter destruction of those air raids challenged novelist Vasily Grossman’s points of reference–“Everything burned down. Hot walls of buildings, like the bodies of people who have died in the terrible heat and not yet cooled down . . . miraculously standing–amid thousands of vast stone buildings now burnt down or half-destroyed,” he wrote in his notebooks. Stalingrad became a landscape of historical ruins, “like Pompeii, caught by destruction in the fullness of life.”

Is it an an oddly English response to try to map this destruction in poignant pastels, as in the header to this post? The elegant maps of the destruction of buildings that were tallied with care during the Blitz cartographically process the bombs’ arrival in an array of watercolors, as if to hold at distance the violence done to place with which each writer–Greene; Abramsky; Grossman–struggle to frame in a language of ruins that suggest historical breaks. They affirm the continuity of the landscape, rather valiantly, against Ordnance Maps, as if to chart hopes for rebuilding.

They are far leess abstracted than recent dense collection of red datapoints of where bombs hit in the recent webmap “Bombsight” charts, which illustrate the overpowering reach of the rockets but makes it hard to comprehend the scale of their effects by the density of these crowded datapoints on a Google Maps base map–even if one zooms in on closeups on individual neighborhoods against the muted generic landscape of a base map. The unprecedented intensity on London, temporally collapsed, challenges the viewer to process the impact of eight months of rockets in totality. The preservation of a set of hand-painted Bomb Damage Maps created to assess the rockets’ devastation in real time offer keys to navigate that experience, as records of the cartographic reaction to the modern violence they wrecked and the transformed urban landscapes that so many Londoners continued to inhabit.

Mapping the World War II Bomb Census: Rockets Targeting London, October 7, 1940-June 6, 1941
Bombsight

As the destruction of these cities fades from collective memory, the online sources of like “Bombsight” that aggregate actual geodata placing the density with which all rockets and bombs dropped on the city in individual time frames offer something like a slider bar to view the violence, without the fire and death, remotely on our screens. But how to describe or take stock of the scale of such devastation, let alone to do so in a map, or to make contemporary maps and accounts to be embodied in an adequate spatial form? For the journalist Grossman, bombs that fell amidst the flames of burning houses over Stalingrad redefined the place as it had been known from maps, and redefined the lived space of the city that were unable to take stock of by a single observer. “It was no longer a matter of individual explosions; all space was now filled by a single dense, protracted sound” of the howls of bombs, air cloudy with white dust and smoke, the characters of his novel search for images of Pompeii, wondering if any one will remember them, the thunder of explosions and crack of anti-aircraft guns marking time against the howl of a bomb that grew in volume, altering one’s sense of time as “howling seconds, each composed of hundreds of infinitely long or entirely distinct fractions of seconds,” erased desire, memories, or “anything except the echoes of this blind iron howl.”

Whether referencing the obliteration of space by the Baedecker guides was a conceit of historical migration of empires or conflated cartographical superiority of touristic guides with the precision of aerial bombardment suggests the crossing of categories of bombarding civilian populations. The obliteration of clearly demarcated lines haunted Stalingrad’s bombardment included modern incendiary bombs, for Grossman, as tens of thousands of which small canisters that could tumble out of in containers of thirty-six filled the air with a distinct screeching unlike the whistles of high explosives, a screeching that echoed the screeching of the V-2 bombs that Thomas Pynchon employed as the arresting auditory perception of the mesmerizing opening sentence of Gravity’s Rainbow focusses on the “new sound” then unknown of “A screeching came across the sky” . . . Grossman focussed on the “new sound” bombs made in Stalingrad as unlike the whistle of hunters of high-explosive bombs, but “penetrated every living being [from the] hearts of those about to die [to the] hearts of those who survived–all hearts clenched in tight anguish,” so that “there was no one who did not hear it as they plunged into the city, rendering “building after building joined in a single blaze and whole burning streets fused into a single, living, moving wall . . . as if a new city of fire had appeared over Stalingrad,” introduced by the distinct sounds that follow the arrival of “planes coming from north, west, east and south [that] met over Stalingrad,” whose descent on the scientific “seemed to be the sky itself that was descending–sagging, as if under dark, heavy storm clouds, under the vast weight of metal and explosives.”

To register the new city rendered by daily destruction, lest the earlier city by lost, the London City Council undertook in a valiant act of cartographic preservation during the air attacks from September, 1940, just after the Germans had planned to invade Russia, to 1941, and amplified with the attacks of V-2 rockets by 1944, to ensure a level of destruction more sudden and more terrifying than the incendiary bombing of Stalingrad. The ways that the British Army mapped the destruction that V-2 rockets of terrifying precision were able to carve out of the city of London had been long lost, but the recovery of these map provides an eery echo of the historical models and precedents of civilian targeting of historical sites that haunts the contemporary world. For he scars of ethanol-fueled V-2 rockets that speedily struck wartime London seventy years ago are a good place as any to start to map the systematic bombing of civilian spaces.  As if mapping the liquid-fueled fantasies of destruction of Wernher von Braun, the V-1 and then, subsequently, V-2 bombs silently arrived to create a psychologically searing topography of death that transformed the city, immersing civilians to new topographies of fear.

The contemporary graphic tabulations of damages in recently published Bomb Damage Maps  orient one in chilling ways to the progress and degree of bombing wartime London in purples, violets, oranges, and light blue on London’s familiar plan.  The pastels are disarmingly tranquil if not placid in tenor, but seem to conceal within a Benjamin Moore-like in their variety, which seem to reveal a of destruction wonderfully measured concealment  resistance of a British culture of grim-faced exactitude to the horrific episode of wartime destruction, generations away from the bombardment of images of bombed out landscapes in Beirut, Syria, or so much of the Middle East and Libya today.  If these pencilled sketches seem oddly antiquated and removed, the poignant attempt to come to terms with the radically escalation of destruction in the  devastatingly regular tempo of accelerating bombardment that is known as the London Blitz–even if they cannot capture the panic, commotion, terrified screams or chaos, in the muted pastels in an aerial perspective that affirm the organic city that once existed in a still alive past.  

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Filed under London Blitz, military maps, Vietnam War, war crimes, World War II

The Recent Resurgence of Manually Made Maps

A somewhat celebratory survey of the recent rage for manually designed maps affords a veritable visual smörgåsbord of aesthetic pleasure and innovative graphical design.  It is interesting and tempting to compare them to the craftsmanship of manuscript maps, a subject discussed in an early post in this blog.  But the survey oddly makes little reference to the notion of the ‘counter-map’ that resists the omnipresence of the digitized map, and the manner we have come to be immersed in the traffic and generation of digitized maps.  To be sure, these are images suitable for framing.  But the appeal is in part a knee-jerk reaction to the satellite photo or the schematic land view.

In mediating a more fully stylized map of first-hand knowledge of urban areas clearly reacts to the increased hegemony of Google Maps–add your own business here!  map your way to work!  note your favorite coffee shop or restaurant near work!–as a plastic form of collective memory.  And, of course, a data resource on which Google can draw  in its own work.  The hand-drawn map is the map stripped of metadata and made without surveying instruments.  For the self-made map re-invests the format of mapping with a vibrancy and immediacy to enliven inhabited space once more–and indeed enliven the medium of the map that seems to slip out of our grasp as it turns up on our hand-helds, and even tracks our own habits of shopping, physical movement, data usage and cel phone use.  When we see the self-made map–and we buy them because of this–on Etsy or in the house of hipsters, we re-recognize places, and subscribe to how they define our emotional relation to space in ways that many other web-based maps make us feel more alientated.

If our memories are recorded in our maps, which note centers of interest, sites of pilgrimage, historical buildings, or public parks, the processing of how we track places worldwide in Google Maps is not somehow wrong or diminished, but has the sad effect of erasing any sense of specificity.  There is a display value of the map that is diminished from its reappearance on a tablet or smart phone, but also a dramatically reduced range of semantics or iconography:  it’s hard to imagine Charles Sanders Pierce, who enjoyed his spell of work on the conventions of map making and determination of spatial coordinates for the US Geodetic Survey, dressed in a neon shirt emblazoned with a corporate logo, using his expertise to boast of the benefits of Google Maps in tutorials.  The semantics of the Google Maps project is geared not toward innovation, but streamlined synthesis and ready access, after all.

And there is something of an erosion of display-value of the digitized map approximating Walter Benjamin’s concept of aura, since the refinement of data in digitized form approximates a concept of disembodied mechanical reproduction:  the emotional tie to the map is in a sense severed, the trace of the hand absent, the physical touching of the map’s surface gone.  These maps provide the clues and signs to reconstruct a mental map of place in one’s mind’s eye, rather than synthesizing the authoritative satellite composites whose clicks release downloaded data, but draw fewer associations from synaptic ties.  The focus of enriching the map’s metadata removes any trace of the hand.

Mapmakers like the artist Jenny Sparks set out to recuperate the specificity in place that still exists and see the map as a medium to invite the viewer to explore.  While there’s a tendency to map a uniform green, Sparks’ comprehensive imaginary but copiously detailed ichnographic stark rendering of the collective architecture of elevated skyscrapers in New York in 3D, in ways that collapse street-view into a crisp crowding of built boxes.  The map, interspersed with memories and words, includes Bob Dylan on 4th Street; Beatniks in Greenwich Village’s Washington Square; and the Farmer’s Market on Astor Place, and is interactively enriched with text.   Sparks winks at the zoom function of Google in the elevated buildings  of Manhattan, each carefully drawn, and words that unpack the cornucopia of memories that the built space of the city holds, as some sort of metonymy for its residents.

 

New York map by Jenni Sparks

 

The pop-up three dimensionality of the map plays with the flattened two-dimensional view of maps, but suggests a bird’s eye view into which viewers can peer.  A few close-up details of Sparks’ self-made map of reveal how the skilled placement of words among 3-D buildings in her imagined elevated view draws you into a space linked or bound by the colored avenues of underground subway lines, peering into its so densely cluttered detail:

 

Close-up of New York map by Jenni Sparks

The closer one looks, the easier to see an image of place saturated with the visual interest that Google Maps just fail to afford, as one falls into the map in order to get to know its neighborhoods, suggesting a unique zoom-in function that the clumsy navigability of Street View only approximates:

Sparks' NYC

 

The rise of the hand-drawn map not only is a testament to design or a rebirth of a craft, but uses precepts of design to counter the vagaries of digitization Google so actively promotes, in championing the synthetic properties of a register of businesses, places, and personal routes.  I’ve written elsewhere, earlier in the year, about Becky Cooper’s recent anthology of the recent efflorescence of maps that personalize one’s relation to place, almost a collection of tools to encode personal meanings for a broader audience.  These images recuperate the aura of the map and its materiality, its hand-made status and both the physical practices of encoding place and decoding space.

Something similar is going on in how Stephen Wiltshire draws Manhattan’s skyline from memory, lovingly attending the scale, proportions, and perspective views of each of the many skyscrapers whose sight so impressed Wiltshire on his first trip out of England that he promised to move to New York “in the future,” and claimed to have already designed his Park Avenue penthouse.  Wiltshire’s retention of and fascination with urban environments has been discussed by Oliver Sacks, and is the subject of Cities (1989) or Floating Cities (1991).  But his drawings are the intuitive opposite of a map’s abstraction of place by selectivity and spatial remove.

 

new_york_panorama_banner

 

Unlike Wiltshire’s intuitive renderings of urban space, the abstraction of space of a place underlies these hand-made maps, which sketch something like a hierarchy of relevance within their totality.  There’s a huge appeal in reclaiming the map as an intimate record of place, as well as an art of encoding meanings that encourage further examination, as this “mash-up map” based on the personal experience of Shawn Watts, and might be best described as his spatial experience of a long-distance relationship, compiling the places they had been together not only in his native Montreal, but in Athens, Washington, DC, and Philadelphia, as well as Montesquieu, France, and reflects his own deep pleasure in “hiding secrets in maps” as opposed to publishing information, and a pleasure in using the map’s form to map or be the surrogate for an interior emotional state:

 

Shawn Watt's Shutterbug

 

For Watts, the density of meaning in maps becomes a way to unravel and eloquently express one’s own state of mind in public form, and to invite the viewer to partake in the pleasure of decoding its contents.

 

Hope Mapped

 

This somewhat but only partly legible hand-made silkscreen map of London comes in varied colors, populating areas with figures and words to approximate a paper cut-out hanging as much as a map:

 

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If these maps treat the map as an artwork, the trace of the hand on the map is even more present in the medium of linotype map, recalling Renaissance single-point engravings or woodblocks.  The linotype word-map Marc Webber designed of Amsterdam, a historical center or clearing-house for engraved maps, places front and center the words often absent from Google Earth or many digitized maps to use them to fashion a sculpted cityscape, whose linotype words offer something of an alternate surface to see the city in one’s mind’s eye:

 

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In Webber’s ‘map’ of Amsterdam, the written landscape becomes a site to explore and its very surface a sight to ponder; the texture of its woodblock words gains new textural richness as it is seen from different angles, from which the materiality of place-names on its linoleum-like surface increases in impact:

 

Amst Linotype-Looking at Map's Surface

 

Moving in to examine details more closely, the map assumes status as a surrogate for the world, as if the one-to-one map of which Borges dreamed or described is suddenly translated to words that substitute for things, as well as to the notion of a word-map:

 

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The Central Station assumes a newfound concrete prominence that transcends its place-name, without the curled Stedelijk Museum beside it, from a distorted view of this mapped space:
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Somwhat more derivative or second-generation forms of manual mapping already exist on the market, as the sort of silkscreen word-maps popular in New York that maps the city’s neighborhoods, many of which are as much destinations as the city itself–and might provide a tourist map of realty.  If it is meant to evoke neighborhoods, it oddly recalls  real estate, even as its cartographical transcendence of space seeks to create something like a cascade of memories whose every words might serve as triggers, rooted within lived experience.

 

Manhattan word map

 

If the map seems a bit of a bare-bones realty map to the uninitiated in New York life, it is far less elegant and inviting than pictorial perspective views realtors employed of San Francisco to enjoin viewers to become settlers.

 

Vene! Vidi!  Vicet!

 

There’s far more detail in a linotype word-map of New York City.  The silkscreened map plays with the legibility with which maps use words to arrange space by surrounding Manhattan island with big, looming, isolated blocked fonts–inserting recognizable neighborhoods and cultural monuments in an what seems a more improvised mish-mosh of fonts from a printer’s tray, rather than from a pull-down menu, arranging the text to replicate what might better correspond to the place of regions within our mental geography, all the while emphasizing the extremeley crowded nature of inhabited space in New York boroughs:

 

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Sensitive as always to the particularity of place, Marc Webber’s quirkily detailed ‘word-map’ of Paris is more elegantly artisanal in how it fills the surface of the map, exploiting a range of fonts to arrange historical layers and tiers of class and style from the staid if impressive Opera to the lounging letters of Montparnasse, moving rangily down large streets.

Paris map by Mark Webber

The written city is more demanding of a mastery of fonts, to be sure, since it also depends on the arts of assemblage; the word maps sold in the Bay Area provide a nice counterpart since its patchwork of its complicated topography is so impressively dense, and the only area of uniformity seem the Presidio or the landfill regions of Bayview:

SF Word Map GREEN

An alternative to this sort of mapping, illuminating the micro level of street-names, graces the design of one of Upper Playground’s t-shirts, suggesting the relative size of individual streets by their prominence in a list of names, that lends currency to the idea of the wearable “map”:

Upper Playground Tees SF name map

The diversity and unity of nearby Oakland is aptly captured in this patchwork roughly-hewn word map by Oakland native Ozan Berke of its 146 neighborhoods:  the jumbled density is almost rendered illegible by crowding, but with such dexterity that the artist/mapmaker uses to capture its diversity.  The density of some neighborhoods balance the urban intensity of some areas with the far more light settlement of the hills (Montclair, Sequoia; Claremont Hills; Skyline; Joaquin Miller):

Oakland Word Map

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Writing the unity of the city in a sequence of place-names reconstitute the whole in a new form, as if by magical transmutation or an alchemy of type: this artist adroitly resolves the absence of the seceded largely ‘white’ village Piedmont from the city with the contribution that this town-within-a-city continues to make, writing its “name” as a neighborhood in mirror-writing, the “OMD” among the largest and most eye-catching in the map.

The declarative blending of words with place resonate with the politics of remapping popularized in the urgent signs displayed in the recent Occupy Movement outside Oakland’s downtown City Hall in Frank Ogawa Plaza to the iconography of the protest movement–mapping the helicopters that whirled overhead, but minimalizing their police surveillance to the upper corner of the map, and giving prominence to the placards that protesters held in front of City Hall–the scene at which these maps were sold:

 

Hella Occupy System Sucks

It is fitting to contrast the map to the elegance of San Francisco should be captured in the distinct media of a paper-cutting map, adapting the Chinese art of  Jianzhi (剪纸):

Paper Cut Out SF

The remove that all place cartographical practice from digital media or design is central, I would argue:  the artist reclaims their own synthesis of a unified whole as the subject of the map.  All evoke the late Saul Steinberg’s over-reproduced map of New York, famous as a poster and originally a New Yorker cover, used to suggest the limited global perspectives of its residents or the centrality of the city in a mental map of the world.  That map has its response in the recent satire of Mad magazine’s “Slimeball” mismapping mediated by and poking fun at the recent failures of Apple Maps.  The revision of the classic Steinberg view of the New Yorker’s View of the World  plays with the spate of failures that app by calling attention to the radical disconnect between even a familair place and digitally mediated map, as if to suggest the depths at which we’ve been had!

 

MAD-Magazine-NewYorker-View2-2012

 

The growth of such a range of hand-drawn maps seems to me a reclaiming of place–as well as of mapping skills–that has come to gain a special niche of its own in the craft economy.  We are discontent with the proliferation of maps from which we are increasingly alienated–and which abstract information in ways confined to, say, only three viewing preferences.

There is still a possibility of changing less the digitized reconstruction of space than the notion of what Google defines as information, of course:   and perhaps the range of hand-drawn maps suggests some ways that this might be done.  The above view of New York, or rather its prototype, makes me wonder about maps that reprioritize the structure of information imposed on the templates of Google Maps:  a map, say, that would not note the Russian Tea Room or Trump Center and Empire State, but create historical layers of Automats, bodegas, Chock Full o’ Nuts, and 5-and-10 stores or the shifting confines of invisible ethnic neighborhoods in the city, and the impact of waves of migration.  This falls back on a map of memories.  And then, after all, it probably wouldn’t be hand drawn any more.

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Filed under Aura, Charles Sanders Pierce, digitized maps, hand-drawn maps, Jenny Sparks, Jianzhi, linotype map, Marc Webber, Oliver Sacks, Saul Steinberg, Shawn Watts, Stephen Wiltshire, Street View, Walter Benjamin