The counter-intuitive answer is not only “yes,”–but by over twice as much, as the early navigators of New York Harbor would have had no time negotiating, especially if you considered its large submerged land mass. But the familiar continuities of land and water have been increasingly displaced and erased by the transit geography and density of different barons, how far removed in time and space from a time when “Manhattan” could be called “York Island,” in this 1740 harbor map–one fo the first to name the Hudson River.
For although few early mappers would have neglected the size of Staten Island, that perhaps neglected borough of an otherwise racially diverse metropolis, its actual landmass–58.69 square miles to Manhattan’s mere 22– Staten Island indeed almost approaches the size of the sprawling borough of Brooklyn, but remains the least inhabited by far, with fewer than 500,000 residents, and seems at times epistemically as well as politically removed from other boroughs. Is the low density of its habitation part of the reason that it has for so long held a lesser role in the spatial imaginary of most New Yorkers, and indeed the spatial imaginary that is projected to the nation and to much of the world? Even if it has been amplified by landfill, and lost its marsh, the larger size has been radically reduced, in the spatial imaginary of Manhattan residents.
The growth of Staten Island’s current far more suburban character makes it the least populated–and the whitest–of all of New York City’s boroughs, as well as the last of the boroughs to be incorporated in the city–as the island was not only joined with Richmond County, but known as Richmond long after the city’s incorporation in 1898, and only changed its name in 1975. The cultural distance that existed between the boroughs was such that when Leontyne Price sang the first notes of Anthony and Cleopatra in the new Metropolitan Opera stage in Lincoln Center in 1966, “determined to do her country proud,” she confessed to being overcome from the very first note she sung by the “thought I was singing to Staten Island,” the amplifying acoustics of the concert hall seeming to amplify her voice across a cultural divide: Staten Island evoked the huge distance the new opera hall might have even allowed her voice to travel.
Was the overpowering nature of bridging a divide mere cultural elitism? Not at all–removed in politics from much of New York because of its distinct demography, the perceived image of Staten Island was reduced in the mental geography of most New Yorkers–as it is in the geography of mass transit that is perpetuated by New York City’s MTA, that common proxy arbiter of transit distance, despite its obvious distortions. For the universal authority of this symbolic map of the New York subway system, one of the most-read maps in the city, even if it has been often redesigned, distorted the relative size of the boroughs to increase the legibility of the network of trains.
For this former refuge of French Huguenots, if joined to the city’s 1898 incorporation, was long mapped–shown here a decade prior to the incorporation of the boroughs, in 1889, as something belonging also vaguely to the offshore, containing far less congestion and less defined by a fixed north-south street grid in the manner of other boroughs, and indeed with small settlements on its shores, even if the map was titled “Staten Island,” the name was oddly all but absent from place-names on the map’s face, running along the interior of its southernmost shore.
As well as having the ring of a quiz show challenge, the question comparing the current borough’s geographical size seems such a surprise because the proportion of the clty’s residents, using data from the 2010 US Census, is so disproportionately distributed, as was revealed so cleverly in one of Benjamin D. Hennig’s cartogrammic warpings of the space of each borough of New York City, shrinking the borough in proportion to its population–which both illustrates and shows by re-rendering the borough’s size to correspond with its number of permanent residents.
But the counter-intuitive nature of question may also be based, to cite Streetsblog, that the quite pastoral area to which one often arrives by ferry on one of the few remaining free pleasure-rides, offering an easy opportunity for photo ops in the New York Harbor beside the statue of Liberty, is also among the “least walkable” of areas in the city, and despite its interestingly old architecture and churches, often finds passengers boarding the next ferry to return, rather than explore the less densely populated site of residence that they reach by taking the sole remaining remnant of the ferry system that once connected residents of boroughs in an era before such bridges as the Verrazano or Triborough were erected.
More surprisingly, hence, Staten Island’s population produces considerably more garbage and waste in comparison to other boroughs–at least to judge by the mapping of some 274,000 tons of trash that New Yorkers generated in five boroughs in September of 2011. The tally of collective trash, made before the dispersal of urban refuse to such far-flung sites in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and South Carolina, found that some 99.4 lbs of trash and recycling combined were generated by its residents per person–over twice that generated in Harlem’s eleventh district, in what seems to illustrate a stark citywide difference in patterns of consumption. As well as being considerably larger, the scope of garbage generated in the city’s borough reveals a disproportionate increase in the amount of trash–recyclable and not–coming out of the less populated expanse of Staten Island.
And if the island is not the largest of the boroughs, by any means, if one includes the large if submerged sand bars that form part of its landmass–if they are rarely registered on most land maps—the extent of “sandy Staten Island,” whose sandy Raritan Bay was a site for oyster cultivation, rich with shellfish, is both of greater expanse than many other boroughs, but a considerably greater geomorphological presence in the region–as early nineteenth-century nautical maps of the arrival in New York Harbor reveal-at a time when the Island was sparsely settled on its shores.
Despite the size of the island, the cognitive dissonance of Staten Island’s considerable actual expanse seems echoed in its relatively diminished size in metro transit maps, those urban symbols of the spatial relations in the city that are encountered almost every day.
Such maps perpetuate a deeply distorted view of Staten Island as limited to the Upper Bay, and excluding the regions nearest to New Jersey or the Jersey shore, may have been all too easily falsified by the spatially disproportionate coverage of the five boroughs in the MTA subway map, which marginalizes the sizable island–which lacks major lines of subway service–out of scale, by showing it at a reduced size in the lower corner of a map where a hypertrophied Manhattan occupies and expands across its center. For the talismanic transit map is a document of the spatial imaginaries transit-goers citywide, after all.
To be sure, the PATH map suggests a similar slighting of the borough’s expanse, in entirely omitting its very existence:
And the ferry map is not gracious to Staten Island outside of and apart from St. George:
But the disproportionate coverage of the inset view of the borough in the MTA transit map on the tiled wall of each and every subway stop in New York City which distorts Staten Island’s size most profoundly to confuse the spatial imaginaries of all subway riders.
However, this was not always the case: in fact, the lure of Staten Island was indeed rendered more pronounced in one of the early maps of the Statin Island Rapid Transit Railroad Co., of 1893, which adopted quite the reverse strategy in depicting the topography of the sizable island as a destination of pleasure and unparalleled scenery–at least, as the promotional pamphlet announced, “the Most Beautiful Scenery within a hundred miles of the Metropolis,” and the “Finest Bicycle Roads of any suburb of new York,” making it well worth the excursion to future borough that was suggestively promoted as “the Wage-Earner’s Paradise,” “The Family Man’s Refuge,” and “The Married Man’s Friend.”
Boasting the “Finest Marine View in the country [sic],” the map that these legends beckoned one to unfold portrayed an island of compellingly detailed topography, inviting readers to take the cruise to the “People’s Playground” and “Greatest of all Summer Resorts” offering “Exquisite Views,” if not the “Beautiful Cloud Effects” that could be witnessed from “Excellent Roads” suitable for “Easy Riding” of up to some twenty miles round-trip distance:
Whereas the boroughs of Manhattan, Jersey City, and Brooklyn are two-dimensional street plans, Staten Island unfolds for the viewer in full glorious shaded relief, using shading to suggest impressively dramatic changes in elevation of hilly terrain in oblique fashion: the mountainous topogrpahy of Staten Island is rendered in detail by shading their slopes by hachures to give presence to sloping hills of the borough showing them in a tactile elegant relief, complimented by the streams that run to its beaches, as if to conjure a clearer landscape for the map-reader’s eye. The detailed landscape appears almost rural, as if to compel city-dwellers to voyage to the island that is shown with such greater topographic concreteness than other boroughs.
While the one-time Staten Island Rapid Transit Company pushed a different sort of pleasure tour as an itinerary than most contemporary MTA maps, which boast continuous coverage of four boroughs, the separate transit system of the other island borough in the late nineteenth century suggested the unique terrain that it sought to offer for all New Yorkers, in a truly democratic medium of leisure. Since then, the marginalization of transit-systems to a rubric of spatial inter-connection has led Staten Island to be reduced to the position of an inset view in the MTA transit map–reducing the sense that it is both actually so close to Coney Island, and creating a false spatial imaginary for many New Yorkers until they take the Ferry ride. But the distinct demographic, lifestyle, and voting preferences of the borough force it to stand apart, perhaps distanced from the city as a whole, and maybe bearing less attentive observation within the city’s melting pot.
Indeed, this 538 mapping of Facebook likes of the Presidential primary of 2016–here, Clinton in Green and Trump in Tan–suggests the Democratic/Republican fault lines that seem to plague the calculation of a Staten Island v. Manhattan divide, and somehow spatially distort the relation yet once again–and, perhaps, another reason for distancing the proximity of such highly contrasting political preferences within the electorate. Indeed, in terms of its voting patterns, Staten Island–as many of the outer areas of the boroughs–stands apart and at a decisive remove from the more densely populated boroughs of New York City, and is perhaps all the more mentally distant from city politics.
The great equalizer is, of course, death, and the binding together of the city in the face of COVID-19 has, perhaps, been a striking equalizer, proving that even a non-living virus knows no boundaries between space or time, although not even the decreased population density of Staten Island has saved the rate at which the novel coronavirus has infected inhabitants, even if the island long seemed so spatially removed.
We do well to see through maps, Denis Wood enjoined, urging us to detect the “human landscape” that lies superimposed upon the land in maps, and uncover the ways that the landscape has been changed–and orient ourselves to those changes that have been wrought by the “huge arrogance” that “we can name and we can claim.” Maps demand to be interpreted by scratching their surfaces, aa task of uncovering how one might best “see through them,” to explore the landscapes that lie underneath the layer of words that lies on their beckoning if often all too opaque surfaces. To take stock of how maps work by asking us to go about imagining the landscape that lies beneath those words is a way of uncovering their arguments about territories.
The linked map invites readers to explore its surface, in web-based maps of the London Sound Survey by using links to explore soundscapes that would otherwise lurk beneath cellulose surfaces. Web-based maps such as Sound Survey of London’s waterways offer modes of remapping the known environment of the city: and the choice to map the riverine network that is rarely seen in London by the conventions of Harry Beck‘s almost universally recognized diagram of its Underground.
The image offers an apt way to invite viewers to excavate audible aspects of the city absent from a drawn map, in a truly phenomenological map of the circuit of hidden waters beneath London. If subways are often noisy, the sounds that the Survey has compiled offers a somewhat synesthetic compilation of the hidden waterways that might be seen as corresponding to metro stations, less as a disembodied circuit–as Beck’ map–than as the subsurface lying underneath the engineered world. Beck’s map sanitized the subways in streamlined fashion to attract Londoners to the Underground, readers are asked to explore the waterways that emerge only in its parks, bridges, and channels linked to watery paths which we rarely see which run under and about its surface before they enter the central artery of the Thames.
Rather than by mapping the city’s space in reference to its individual streets or intersections, but by placing the rivers of the Survey maps waterways’ sounds in ways that recuperate their perhaps forgotten presence. Wood remapped the lived community of Boylan Heights so that is not only as a place in Raleigh, North Carolina, but charting the “metabolism” of the community in maps of the light street lamps cast, lit jack o’ lanterns placed on porches at Halloween, paper routes Wood ran with a tightly knit cohort in his youth, or “squirrel highways” of aerial wires, which collectively serve to unpack the often invisible ways of “how it works.”
One might compare to this set of maps the ways in which maps in the London Sound Survey invites readers to enter an overpowering pointillist accumulation of local details, and similarly serve to map a setting in which everything sings–or at least we can enter its audible surface at distinct points.
The question of what axes indices and axes might be adopted to best orient readers to the ways that the place works are ingeniously organized by the Sound Survey through the colored lines and stops of the transit map that Harry Beck proposed for London’s Underground in 1931, a network-map whose revolutionary simplicity seems to have been devised when the draftsman in its Signal Office, Beck adopted paths of circuits to map the intersecting pathways of the Underground at a time when the city needed to encourage less traffic in its streets: the powerful success of Beck’s map shifted Londoners’ attitudes to urban space. A rewritten version of the familiar iconic network of the London Underground appropriately provides the syntax to uncover the hidden network of non-tidal streams, brooks, creeks, pools and channels that run, partly exposed, partly underground, around the river Thames. Territories are less the question in the map of London’s waterways, which progress from trickling streams to waves slapping against the locks of the Thames.
The result is to conjure not a mythical, lost London, as did James Shepherd Scott’s 1884 History of London, a work concerned to show “the origin and growth of the present condition of the suburbs” of what was the “largest city of the world,” but which began with the tabula rasa of “London Before the Houses”–with two streets running about marshy region in a network of rivers–but to remind us of a watery network that still lives under the city’s paved streets–even though it also echoes Scott’s illustration in recreating a London that is now lost to the senses for most readers.
If Scott’s map served as the frontispiece for a volume that described the city whose growth has been “very rapid in modern times,” and “an ever-widening tract of country covered by the buildings of a city already so large that it is equalled by no other in the world” (1), the cosmopolitan metropolis is excavated in the map of the London Sound Survey. While Scott mused that “as the houses advance, the natural features are obliterated,” and, at the conclusion to his list of changes, “the brooks no longer run” (2), the survival of the brooks and streams as vital parts of a living landscape are documented in the qualitatively detailed survey’s sounds.
In charting paths of the waterways hidden even to London’s own inhabitants, the sound map is especially successful in charting the dissonance between the forms of symbolization and lived experience–and by doing so through the conventions we immediately recognize as indicating London. While imitating or offering a cartographical homage to the Underground map, the surface of the map is punctuated with sonorous glimpses of the lived space of London today–offering actual stops where we can pause to hear a sound file of a minute or so of the water that trickles between it can be heard from the surface, in evanescent moments the symbology of the map cannot hope to record created by rivers, feeder streams or brooks, and canals. Each “stop” is an observation station–to perceive or note the gurgling of a brook over a weir near Wimbledon or follow the course of the Brent through a culvert and along a viaduct, beside ambient noise of work, honking geese, and quacking ducks. That the rivers don’t exist makes the map a recuperation of how London lives beside the water today, and to attune oneself to its changing environment in which the tributaries of the Thames are more often trickles than rapidly flowing streams. While dismembering Beck’s circuitry, the paths of rivers, streams, and waterways that flow into the Thames are something of a melancholy look at a world we have lost, but also a snapshot of their survival in an urbanized environment.
The cartographical poetics of the Sound Survey map are immediately recognizable. By adapting the iconic conventions Harry Beck pioneered in his immensely popular modernist mapping of the circuits of metropolitan transit in his 1931 Underground map, the map needs no identification of where it is–London–and provides something of a counterfact of an image that today is separable from the city, despite its considerable influence as a model of mapping transit networks. The map’s almost-universal influence on how metros are mapped in urban landscapes has not altered the distinctive iconography of the Underground map: its conventions establish a quite different perspective than orienting readers to its built underground, however, as it used similar streamlined conventions and colored lines to trace the paths water takes in London’s built environment. The conventions invite readers to explore the topography of where water rises to the surface of the urban space: by clicking at the site of any “stop,” to link to audio clips along the indicated waterway, marked, as trains, by curving colored lines almost identical Beck used to diagram the city’s Underground–yet rather than create a unified network, they trace currents that flow into the Thames–the river that runs through London, and sole point of external reference in Beck’s now-classic modernist map of the London Underground.
Ian Rawes has long recorded London sounds to preserve its sensorial world; the map of waterways allows us to enter aural environments at parts of the city by a smattering of precise sensations of water passes whose collective accumulation overcomes its readers: while mapped as if a site of imaginary metropolitan stops, the stops are in fact spots where waterways aside from the Thames are audible to city-dwellers, as if to synthesize insider’s knowledge how the urban space overlays an unseen web of currents, exposing them in a map as Beck foregrounded the space of transit lines to orient urban travellers.
Harry Beck’s original map of the London Underground (1936 version)
When London Sound Survey mapped the city’s hidden urban waterways, it used data from observation stations to revisit formerly overlooked spaces where water emerged, at least aurally, in the city. These sites are rarely mapped, but the interactive audio files allow users to hear sounds of a watery web which one might have earlier recognized. Each observation site appears evanescent moments at scattered sites in the city, but reveals, as a sort of historical base-line, the levels at which water flows through multiple sites in the built environment. The website gestures the organic notion of the flows of circuitry in the Beck map–now iconic–around the flow of the Thames, and perhaps, by orienting itself to the Thames River, so different in its smoothness than the hyperactive transit maps of Japan Rail in Tokyo, whose integrated circuit seem spectacularly stripped of reference to physical landmarks or phenomenological relation to the world.
When Ian Rawes sought to encode over 1,500 discrete recordings in the London Sound Survey but in plotting the courses of the audibility of otherwise-hidden waterways plots, the Survey organized what seem curiously subjective perspectives to map what can be heard at different sites in the space of a single map of the hidden streams that run through the metropolis; the act of apprehending the submerged underground network is pleasantly reorienting, focussing our attention on where they reappear and intersect with birdsong, dripping waters, passing individuals, or local sounds of construction and transport in the city: the discrete sites assemble, collectively, both a map and an aural environment that most maps)cannot capture. Each discrete sound seems impermanent, but also suggests, collectively, the ways water briefly reappear in a built environment, as rivers, streams, and canals enter lived life in ways not detectable on an actual map. At each “stop,” we enter an observation-station where Rawes recorded the ambient sounds around waterways.
1. The resulting mapping of the soundscapeof London’s waterways offers a multiple points of entrances to soundscapes outside the city’s built environment. The permanence of the pathways of canals, rivers, and underground waterways rightly map of the sounds of the system of waterways as intersections with a riverine underground. Explicitly designed as an “auditory tribute” or homage to the circuit-like color-coded design of Harry Beck’s modernist map which clarified complex pathways of the tube for commuters earlier only “about as legible as a bowl of spaghetti” for its riders. Beck’s draftsmanship elegantly schematized the pathways of London’s Underground to allow their legibility in an icon not only of urban transit but accessibility, but of the city itself: at a time when the city’s subway had become so geographically far-flung to be a challenge to condense to a legible fashion, the map effectively persuaded commuters of the ease of navigating its totality, while living in its suburbs, by mapping the pathways of its trains by angles at increments of forty-five degrees to increase their legibility, and foregrounding its interchanges.
Ian Rawes cleverly adopted the diagram first designed to promote a readily legible record of commuter rail, by straightening out their course and contracting the distances at regular intervals to allow aural access to sound files through a web-based interfaces. Whereas Beck’s intent was to expand the utility needed in a transit map for audiences in ways that riders to navigate its multiple lines that was readily appreciated by riders, Rawes’ map is an opportunity for noticing the overlooked, and invite them to follow the paths with which waterways intersect with other lived environments. The cooing of pigeons and drips of water under the Greenway bridge at “Channelsea” off the Lea complements the hum of traffic overhead, as if an epiphany of the evanescent; the passing train near the Roding at “Alders Brook” suggests a moment watching passing urban traffic on a viaduct, as the trickle of water at “Paddington Basin”–not Paddington Station–almost concealed by the loud whirr of air-conditioning units and an intermittent power-saw from a nearby construction site. The Brent flows under the observation station “Greenford Bridge” pierced by the referee’s whistle at an amateur football game mixed with players’ cries. The registration of lived experience sets something of a watermark on the sounds of London circa 2012.
The physical expanse of Rawes’ aural map is an a propos homage Beck’s diagram. The soundscape map reveals the similar permanence of overlooked waterways that link to the Thames. By collating short sound-files at points where they emerge from the built environment, preserving a uniquely personal reaction to place of the sort that often eludes city maps. Where Beck preserved a mental image of the sites at which access to the London Underground was permitted, at a user’s click, a range of ambient sounds peek through the observation points noted by the stubs with which Beck rendered Underground “stops” in his iconic map. Beck’s map was immediately popular among commuters as a way to re-render the urban space. It has since gained such sustained popularity as a model for similar subway systems–it encouraged urban expansion in Sydney (just eight years later) and encouraged Beck to submit maps for other cities’ transport systems in future years. Indeed, the image has become so a successful a symbolic rendering of London’s space for its conventions of colored lines and combining of circular hubs of interesecting lines with stubby stops to orient access to London’s underground. By using the streamlined circuit-like conventions by which Beck had oriented riders to the expanding Underground and navigate their commutes, Rawes recuperated the lost sounds of the city’s waterways as if to remind readers of the distance at which they stand from them.
The Underground map was, of course, famous as a remapping of urban space, as much as an icon of London. The diagram placed stations at a remove from actual distances or locations, but replaced an image of the actual geographical relations in the city by highlighting their routes on clearly colored paths that run in uniform lines to prominently render interchange stations, filtering out any reference to the city’s physical topography save a quite schematic rendering of the Thames; the image was quickly affixed to every station on account of its highly readable ways by which it oriented city-dwellers and allowed them to gauge the crucial question of the number of stops–rather than the actual distances–to their destinations. If Beck’s map collapsed space, the map of waterways orients readers to the transit that water took across its expanse, in ways that seem irrelevant to spatial geography. Beck straightened the river’s course in the name of clarity in his diagram, in line with the straightening of trains’ routes for readers to allow them to better visualize routes of travel and the exchanges they would need to make.
Such is the conceptual clarity and considerable staying power of Beck’s diagram to navigate London’s underground makes it in fact quite difficult to view the actual pathways taken by Underground trains–yet Beck’s system of reference remains so powerful a symbolic form to conceptualize London’s Underground that it is disorienting to be presented with the actual courses train lines truly take in the city. As a symbolic form of what Rudolf Arnheim called “visual thinking,” the diagram encouraged Londoners to take to the Underground as a way to navigate their commutes or daily travels with such success that an actual groundplan of the interface between the individual lines and the city’s space seems disorienting in how it reveals the meandering pathways that train lines actually take, the actual sinuous curves of the Thames, and the apparent failure of trains to turn at increments of 45° along their true courses.
We are far more ready to map the familiar transit lines displayed in a reference key and shown in the maps by pronounced paths of colors, as a network that existed as if autonomously from the city, to better find what he called its interchange stations. The notion that the network was made up of discrete lines proved immensely influential in all later transit maps.
Beck’s Original Reference Key (1931)
For Beck’s crucial insight of simplifying the courses of trains by mapping subway lines in increments of forty-five degrees allowed riders to imagine the paths of trains as a network independent from the street map. It has been expanded, accommodating the multiplication of transit lines reflecting the city’s explosion:
Beck’s streamlined routes of the diagram offered Rawes a quite fitting medium to map each waterway’s aural settings at observation points. Each “station” presented readers with a chance to look under the map to hear the sounds that peer out from it, at a click: linked sound files map unmapped–and perhaps often forgotten–waterways from the River Lea, Wandel, Roding, the New River, Brent to Beverly Brook. Rawes’ legend link multiple listening stations, linked on a similar spectrum of color-coded lines to orient viewers, even if each sound-file disperses one’s attention to the city’s surface in way that are wonderfully unlike the fixity of Beck’s coherent system–the map individuates specific points where readers can descends to join not the Underground lines, but watery courses below an inhabited surface. Each waterway is assigned a uniquely colored path that approximates the hues of the current Underground, and are given the names of the actual waterway, transposing the natural and the man-made.
Beck’s diagrammatic streamlining of the Tubelines provided an apt set of conventions quickly identified with underground transit routes of built conveyances. He used them to chart hidden points at which the constellation of urban waterways intersect with the city’s lived environment. The resulting soundscape map situated the emergence of waterways in the city. The result is to suggest the points at which an otherwise hidden network of waterways reveal themselves in the soundscapes of docks, bridges, marshes, creeks, reservoirs and parks that we so often consider the built city to have replaced.
Pushing this avenue of investigation, Rawes invites readers to revisit and investigate a hidden network of waterways running under the city that are hidden from the familiar map’s surface. In a metageographical terms, Rawes’ sound-map acts as a comment on the folly of conveying an actual level of continuity to the quite specific sites where water appears to be heard, and the relation of the transit of water in the city to the historically built means of transit–from traffic to the sounds of footsteps, joggers, walkers, the drone of airplanes, industry, or as well as ambient birdsong–and allow the unique poetics of an imaginary landscape to emerge that results from the situation of London’s actual hidden waterways. To be sure, the role of the cartographer is as a disinterested observer–Rawes preserved this role, it seems–but offers archivally dated sound files of each place that the reader can savor in one-minute clips.
2. The river, of course, runs through it. The London Sound Survey of Waterways present a palimpsest of urban topography. The location of the individual urban soundscapes offer a counter-map to urban space, exploiting the ways in which online maps invite us to go beyond this reading of the imaginary in an eery way. By linking the mapped space of the city in an almost joyously synesthetic fashion with urban sounds, the sound survey of London’s waterways provides a way of tracking urban experiences around is hidden waterways, suddenly bringing them to the surface from the very tools of mapping London that are perhaps the best known. By inventively embedding sound clips of tickling rivers, birdsong, traffic, droning of substations, cries of gulls or terns, trains, and even boats on the Thames, we see the city in new ways that recreate a map with an almost subjective intensity that is almost always inherently absent from a map’s face. Suddenly–unlike the original–we find the waterways of the inhabited city peeking into the stylized format of Beck’s transit map, as the submerged riverine paths are given a prominence most dwellers of the city ignore.
Beck’s diagram of the Underground intentionally abandons scale or correct proportions for regularity and apparently straight lines in his own schematic rendering of waterways. Beck’s aim was to produce a quite stylized format to grasp facilitate urban communication and both plan and recognize routes of commutes. The immediate success of Beck’s formal innovation of how to mediate he underground to its passengers of course now offers not only an icon of London, but served to helpfully map the city’s physical space, even while the diagram sacrificed exact spatial correspondence or measurements: indeed, many visitors to London are regularly reminded to disregard the plain distortion of the Underground map, much as visitors to New York may need to be reminded that the walking distance between apparently nearby stops is greater than the map implied. Beck diagrammed the Underground as a record of routes of transit not corresponding to their spatial organization. Rawes invested similar regularity to the waterways that fed the River Thames, which he gives a prominence in his map, to which each of the waterways linked, though few have commerce with one another: if Beck streamlined the Underground lines, Rawes “Beck-ified” London’s waterways to better distinguish a network of streams hidden from public view and register their sounds, often overwhelmed by ambient noise.
In appropriating the conventions Beck pioneered for London’s Underground, the course of the city’s hidden but barely heard waterways are mapped to suggest the hidden streams running under the city, and bodies of water from canals to brooks to rivers with which the city’s inhabitants rarely recognize. Rather than orienting viewers to the course of London’s rails, the map tracks waterways and reservoirs–the natural life and urban life–over which were built roads and buildings and the tube itself–and reducing the Thames to something like a mere geographical marker. The sounds of the city, not only of its inhabitants, is meant by Ian Rawes to offer something of a more accurately embodied record than a map could offer in words and drawing, or might otherwise go overlooked. (Despite the clearly modernist–almost futurist–rationality of Beck’s diagram, its circuit-like nature is notably less evident in the 1931 map Beck designed, which gives less prominence to a Circle Line, because it was primarily intended to carry folks to the city’s centers from outlying regions.)
Harry Beck’s 1931 “Underground Map,” courtesy London Transit Museum
Beck’s diagram of the Underground nicely lends its recognizable structure to tracking the submerged waters of the rivers in ways that one can explore their relation to city sounds. Sounds are removed from the graphic purity of Beck’s modernist design. A barely concealed aspect of Rawes’ homage to the draughtsman who designed the Tube Map is no doubt that Beck symbolized the Thames to appear innocuous in the Underground map–orienting viewers to the paths of rail-lines of commute that link London’s previously quite discrete neighborhoods, but which echoes the apparent straightness and gently curved lines of laid track, and, reduced to a light blue abstraction, recedes into the visual background of the mapped field and is, in fact, no longer an obstruction to movement. In Beck’s map, the Thames’ pale blue almost sinuous curves are only as a sign of spatial reference. In sharp contrast, the River Thames is ever-present as one approaches at different basins or boatyards, the irregularity of the canals and lesser rivers are shown as similarly stylized lines on which the viewer can use to click at a range of sites–rather than stops–to find a range of epiphanies manqués that underscore the incompleteness and selectivity of the map–or any map at all.
In the Sound Survey of London’s waterways, the ways that Beck translated the network to terms passengers might best negotiate relinquished geographic accuracy, but became a basis to negotiate the city’s geography: the presentation of the clickable map of urban soundscapes of water offers a counter-map of the city, and allows the online viewer to indulge in the multiple dimensions of the natural settings in which the track of the city’s Underground was built–and the sites of confluence of natural and man-made in today’s city. If Beck’s image was quickly affixed to every station as a shared model for orienting city-dwellers to trace their paths of commute, the success 1931 printed map provided a framework whose popularity has endured, because of its remove from the city’s lived landscape, its interchange stations set against a blank white background to ensure its greater legibility by commuters. There is something truly telling in that the map was commissioned to reduce the intolerable and untenable density of foot-traffic on London’s streets.
Victoria and Albert Museum, “Underground Map” (1936)
3. The sounds on which one click fill the diagram of waterways with an immediacy unfamiliar to maps. In way that transforms viewers’ relation to the city, Rawes’ counter-map re-purposes the stylized simplicity of the lines of transit to show the proximity of the waters to urban settings: the map focusses on waterways relegated outside the underground in Beck’s diagram. The insight of preparing a set of lines that oriented viewers to how lines link to one another–more than the urban streets above–to suggest the autonomy of the system into which Londoners’ entered, as limiting the lines of rail to angles of forty-five degree increments, indeed oddly naturalized the streams that commuters would ride along and across the Thames: Rawes organized his record soundscapes on rivers that followed as they entered its path.
The urban observation points, if rendered by Beck’s symbolic conventions, offer a distinct system to orient oneself to the map’s surface–in far less pointedly utilitarian ways. While Beck’s map presented cues by which the train-passenger can orient themselves to the landscape of London in tacit fashion, in order to better orient themselves to its non-exact spatial scale, the city is absent from the diagram. One function of the map is to place oneself in a close proximity to the water–on bridges, by viaducts, on a quay, by a lock–that can rarely, if ever, be recreated in a static map or web-based map, as well as to a complexly variegated aural environment of birdsong, workmen, planes, and passersby. Viewers of the London Sound Survey can be immediately transported, by one click, to relate to the city’s space in distinctly news ways–and a wonderfully synesthetic manner that few maps are able to offer, inviting a perceptual world into the map that defies its oculocentric organization as a surface that is only scanned.
By clicking at a toponymy quite unlike that of Beck’s classic map, one enters a sonorous site whose power almost asks one to resist the city as a cohesive collective and focus on moments of the transcendent. For we are struck by a barrage of closely observed sense-based observations, on a gamut of individual sounds cumulatively overwhelming as site-specific perceptions of London’s canals, rivers and streams so as to reveal a “sweet inland murmur” that echoes the revelatory manner that the Romantic poet William Wordsworth evoked, while returning to its banks of the River Wye that he had often remembered as “a landscape to a blind man’s eye.” Wordsworth’s elegant formulation of the sense of transport as he stood “by the sides/ of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams” led him to apostrophize the “sylvan Wye,” whose sounds seem a form of local transcendence, as a place of blending perception and creation–a pastoral whose “tranquil restoration” lies not only in the perception of waters “rolling from their mountain springs,” but a recognition how at their sound “the picture of the mind revives again.” Could a map offer similar restoration?
One does not perhaps feel the same ecstasy sort of transport Wordsworth had described at each minute of sound, but all transport us to another place, and to conjure the flow of water beneath the map. Each station force one to sort out the flood of discrete sense-based perceptions that one registers with immediacy; Wordsworth described being overcome by the sublime of “sensations sweet,/Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart” in Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey (1798). The sensations its sounds and sights provoked he knew well, were re-felt as he saw it again as if for the first time. Although few observation stations in contemporary London offered the opportunity to “hear the mighty waters rolling evermore,” individual “observation stations” offer points of ingress to hone in on places absent from Beck’s map, to access a similar “sweet inland murmur” of waterways and city sounds. In an age of global warming and the recession of ocean waters, and when the water levels of major rivers have dropped worldwide, it is not that one arrives at a redemptive sublime beneath the map of Wordworthian proportions by listening to the sounds of London’s waterways, or takes stock of being newly attuned to one’s past memories of a sight and placebut that the lived city appears, through the sounds, to one’s mind.
As the names of pseudo-stations in the Sound Survey’s version of Beck’s map provide names linking to Rawes’ sound files, auditory perception is linked to place through the magic of the map in ways that seem a sort of local sublime. Clicking on stations not only orient readers to place, but transport readers to a mental image of a glimpsed landscape, if in pointillist fashion: each offers a revelation of the traces of the waterways that fed the Thames or canalized water in the city. The salient waterways and canals are suddenly made evident, and able to be traced, below what we usually consider the city’s physical plant. And as the reader encounters equivalents of the “sad music of humanity,” the cries of adults and footsteps of passersby, moving both in and out of the water that flows around the city and birdsong about its canals, rivers and streams: the “stations” conjure the sounds urban inhabitants might have once recognized, navigating its rivers as they run through and reappear in parks, channels, reservoirs and zoos.
The poetics of the soundscape map seems truly Wordsworthian: the click of a cursor offers readers the opportunity to revisit the city’s waters, and by revisiting the sonority of settings around the city take stock of their changing relation with its actual environment, but create images of place in the mind’s eye. While the relatively rapid adoption of the iconography of the “Underground Map” situated rail-riders in London in ways that rapidly habituated them to a new understanding of its expanse, the sounds of waterways access a hidden set of sensations London. One hears the ducks and gulls that circle above the West Reservoir in North London with a chill, as the roar of traffic recedes, listens to the overlooked but immediately recognizable appearances of sounds of water and nature in the built city. (The textual descriptors that appear after clicking on each “stop” catalogue the impressions, but cannot fail to capture their experience. The sounds of coots chasing one another at “Welsh Harp” suggest that Beck’s map, and the project of cartographical modernity, has been directing our attention to the wrong things all the time.) When one clicks on the sound survey of urban estuaries, rendered at points as if rail stations or stops on the underground, lived moments pierce through the familiar symbolic surface of the map, as lived experience breaks through it surface, as if the offered points of entry ways to an underground station; a click transports one beneath the map, in ways that seem to break through the symbolic surface in ways that remind us of the distance between mapping and the aural environments the mapmakers recorded. The ecstasies of “dizzy rapture” calls our attention to the often unnoticed flow of waters about the built city, and aural particulars of the environment that escape almost all maps, as “every common sight” delivered seems chanced upon, and as a moment “present pleasure” “upon the banks/Of this fair river” was recast as actually “Apparell’d in celestial light.”
Is Wordsworth in fact an apt reference for the sort of transport that the designers of the Sound Survey Map intended, rooted less in actual spatial itineraries than the sort of reflection on water, place, and perceptions that Wordsworthian poetics had invited readers to focus their attention?
The intense barrage of imagery Wordsworth’s 1798 poem is evoked in the sound map Rawes designed in 2012. For the density of detail in Rawes’ recordings suggest the illusion of rendering continuity in a map–and preserves the immediacy of the reality that lies beneath any map. The counter-symbolization of London’s cityscape in the sound map offers inverts the near-absence of the Thames in Beck’s map, altering the streamlined simplicity of the Tube Map’s circuitry, as it dismembers the circular pathways of interlinked trains to a web of discretely noted rivers and waterways, and suggesting the irregularity of the river’s bends. Rather than marginalize the Thames as the sole route of water, a wide strip of a set of parallel blue lines, almost external to the mapped system of metro lines, waterways are indeed the system mapped for the London Sound Survey of waterways, Beck’s iconography, tongue-in-cheek, as a way to trace waterways that expand from the Thames as they reveal its feeders:
The pathways taken by water in London are rendered by the standardized conventions to order the aural environments of the birdsong, bubbling brooks, or the dripping water in London’s creeks and minor rivers effectively pierce the smooth and streamlined diagram of Beck’s modernist circuit-like symbolization of the Underground. They allow us to engage with the sound world that Beck’s map intentionally omits: one hears rushing water of the River Lea at “Pickett’s Dock”; faint cries of seagulls at “Camden”, before a train intrudes as it enters Euston Station (not on the map); bird song that arrives from the aviary of the “London Zoo”, with a magpie chattering, adult coots heard in the Reservoir at “Welsh Harp”; “Paddington Basin” (not station) is dominated by the sounds of air conditioning units and powersaws–and puts the sound of trains, traffic, footsteps, human cries, or construction that are heard in the background, as if intruding into a sound environment, as well as being part of it, allowing one to imagine a landscape peeling away layers of history with insouciance for viewers lucky enough to click there. At a click, an aural experience of the lived world of the city emerges from the map as if leaks out of the surface that Beck’s iconography leaks out from the map’s surface. Each small sound clip transports one to a sense of place that unfolds in one’s imagination with a physical clarity that is altogether absent–and indeed banished–from Beck’s more utilitarian (and sterile) transit map. The sound clips transport one to specific sites, rather than allow an infinite number of itineraries to be traced by multiple users, but allow one to explore the city’s aural dimension through a visually and symbolically similar map.
The map invests discrete moments of specifically noted times with new meaning as a collection–and suggest less of an inhabited city than ambient sounds most city-dwellers in London be apt to neglect, which would undoubtedly never be noticed if they had not been recorded. Indeed, the transient sounds of a world filled with water offer a sense of tactile contact with the place described, through a map, that at the same time, unlike a map, suggest the evanescent nature of place, and its fragile beauty. At this point, the map is a map, but it is also a portrait more intensely immediate than any map can be: in the medium of the internet, the immediacy of this map lies in its non-visible parts, which take one down passageways unable to be depicted on paper. Once one gets rid of the cellulose embrace the interface, the flimsiness of the static designation of place–even the not so well-known places in the Sound Map of London’s Waterways. As Mutton Brook flows nearby “Hampstead Gardens”, one seems to be knowing the place with a far more acute immediacy than any name could offer. As one clicks the map, the sounds recorded on specific dates acquire a timelessness. And one experiences, after repeated clicks, an eery impression that the selected sounds seem chosen so randomly to make one aware of the omission of any information in a map–and the mechanized nature of the possibilities of interaction that the map offers. This argument may press the notion of the poetics of cartography to a further degree than the London Sound Survey intended, but it hardly seems a coincidence.
In listening to these sounds, one can suddenly recuperate the ambient sounds that stand at odds with the overwhelming aural experience of the underground, long a deafening roar and clang-and-clatter. We listen, in a focussed and almost Zen fashion, to the rasping of grasshoppers, magnified to be louder than surrounding traffic, at “Tottenham Marshes”, or the birdsong, playing children, and barking dog at “Palmers Green”: seemingly evanescent local sounds are recuperated, as it were, and offer an entry place to creating an image of each site. If they seem in constant tension with the totality of the city, showing the foolhardy nature of any hope of truly comprehending a synthesis of the city’s variegated landscape as a continuous expanse, they allow access to meaningful overlays of sound in specific sites. If reduced to a set of poetic fragments, the city is not only uncomfortably dismantled in the map, reduced to a set of recordings, but the recordings register changing degrees in the presence of water in the built environment and allow us to discover the waterways concealed in most maps. Through them, we discover space by a completely new toponymy than that which usually appears on maps to better create them by the mind’s eye: the result is something like a meditation on the poetics of cartographical creation that Wordsworth might have admired, or at least recognized, as a lover of “the mighty world/ Of eye and ear, both what they half-create,/ And what perceive.”
Dual functions of sense-perception embedded in the London Sound Survey of Waterways cannot fail to appeal to the mind’s eye:
Life falls out of the map, in purely auditory form, and map a gap between the map as construction and the lived cityscape. The minute-long intervals of cascading of water one encounters as one walks beside the Wandle in South London, coots in North London, the Ravensbourne at “Bromley Common”, the faint roar of the Roding at “Woodford”, River Beam at “The Chase”, the trickle of the pools at “Lower Sydenham”, punctuate the monotony of the static form of a printed map, and indeed dramatically shift our perceptions of space: we hear a car moving, hear voices of adults or children in the background, but these glimpses of the day-to-day offer a sense of the stability of the experiential, in ways that few paper maps can ever do. We are not actors who determine this environment, than we are passing through it to appreciate it. Its given names were assigned by humans, but those names, for a moment, actually seem completely beside the point.
We read more maps than ever before, and rely on maps to process and embody information that seems increasingly intangible by nature. But we define coherence in maps all too readily, without the skepticism that might be offered by an ethics of reading maps that we all to readily consult and devour. Paradoxically, the map, which long established a centering means to understand geographical information, has become regarded uncritically. As we rely on maps to organize our changing relation to space, do we need to be more conscious of how they preset information? While it is meant to be entertaining, this blog examines the construction of map as an argument, and proposition, to explore what the ethics of mapping might be. It's a labor of love; any support readers can offer is appreciated!