Mapping Manhattan - Inspiration for Life Maps

When Becky Cooper was a senior at Stuyvesant High School, she was heavily influenced by one of the books she read in her English class. 


 “Invisible Cities” by Italo Calvino presents descriptions of exotic and seemingly imaginary cities described by Marco Polo to Kublai Khan.  What most changed her perspective was the final idea, presented by Marco Polo, that in fact every city he described is simply a different version of Venice.

According to Cooper, on the last day of class, her English teacher told the class, “You may be able to come back to Stuyvesant but you will never be able to visit this invisible city again.”

This experience was surely the inspiration for Cooper’s well-publicized project in which she distributed maps of New York City to many different people as she walked up Broadway.  She asked them to create their own annotated maps of the city and send them back to her.  She compiled the ones that she received in a book that was published in April 2013 titled “Mapping Manhattan: A Love (and Sometimes Hate) Story in Maps by 75 New Yorkers.”

“Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places,” Calvino wrote in his famous book.

Becky got more experience with maps when she became involved one summer with mapping public art in New York City.

“Because I hadn’t designed maps before I was acutely aware of the subjective decisions I was making while trying to be as objective as possible,” she said.

It was during this experience that she began to think up the project that would eventually become “Mapping Manhattan.”

“I dreamed of having as many New Yorkers as possible map there invisible cities,” she explained.

Initially the plan was to leave the maps hidden around New York with instructions on how to send them back.  When she wasn’t getting enough responses, Becky decided to distribute them herself, walking up and down Broadway handing them out personally to people on the street.

“I would always do the walk down Broadway with a friend and we would always naturally gravitate towards grey haired men reading the newspaper in the park because those interactions were always the nicest,” she shared.

Often she found that passersby were reluctant to get involved until they had formed a personal connection to her or the project.  She spoke of one older man who seemed skeptical until she told him that she was twenty three and he remembered moving to New York for the first time when he was twenty three.  He took a map and sent it back to her.

Another woman was quiet and unresponsive when Becky explained the project to her.  Becky asked her when she experienced her first snowfall in New York.  The woman took a map and walked away.  At the last minute, she turned around and said, “1936.”

Becky said that her favorite part of the experience were these interactions with people.  She was able to engage with people and hear stories that she would not have otherwise heard in her day to day life.  And she came out of all of it with a beautiful book of maps that reflect love, loss and life.  Her experience has changed the way she thinks about her own life and the maps that she travels through.

“As my geography of a place gets more laden with memories and more layered in terms of the archeology of a place, its positive and negative connotations overlapping, my maps have gotten more complicated and woven over time.”


Check out some other cool map related art projects!

Walking Stories: Mexico City

Six Contemporary Artists Who Use Maps in Their Work

Creative Cartography

The Map as Art

DIY Cartography

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