Mapping Manhattan: A Love (and Sometimes Hate) Story in Maps by 75 New Yorkers

By Becky Cooper
Published by Abrams Image, April 2013

June 25th, 2013

Loving New York as we do, when accidental cartographer and Harvard graduate Becky Cooper released her book Mapping Manhattan: A Love (and Sometimes Hate) Story in Maps by 75 New Yorkers, we were immediately intrigued by her collaborative project. Carrying hundreds of blank maps she hand-printed on the letterpress in the basement of her college dormitory, Cooper walked Manhattan from head to toe, handing out her minimalist treatment of the instantly recognizable island to strangers asking them to fill in the blanks by mapping their version of the city. Stamped and addressed to a P.O. Box, the people she accosted were only too happy to send in their handiwork and Mapping Manhattan is the result, containing 75 maps that are as wildly varied as the individuals that produced them. Perhaps initially an exercise in post-modernism, Cooper has produced a book that is a testament to the radically different realities we face daily – with surprisingly quirky, raw and charming results.


At a summer job where Cooper was hired to design a map of all the public art in Manhattan, she quickly realized maps are not the objective guides they appear to be: the inevitable decision-making involved in creating such a diagram means map-making is a necessarily subjective enterprise. Instead of trying to obscure these biases, failures in memory, and interpretive whims, Cooper celebrates them in Mapping Manhattan in which each page gives voice to the parallel universes that exist all at once, none right or wrong. Looming large in our collective consciousness as a city of great reward and great despair, these maps reflect the grit, energy and emotion of the metropolis and we were often surprised by the brutal honesty laid bare on the pages. One extremely romantic participant has simply marked an X indicating that is the spot where he met his wife; the facing page has another map marked with dots for wives 1 through 6 and lovers 1 to 3. A version titled Finding Home reads in small, tight script “I was raised in a small city in Connecticut, a generally conservative Catholic area. Trapped by perceived social expectations and strictures, I lived a lonely, masturbatory life. A decade ago, I moved to Manhattan, and I have attained a happiness and satisfaction with who, what and where I am that in my previous 30 years, I never thought possible.” On his map, this author has indicated the spot which marks his first brush with homosexuality in a porn shop on 8th avenue. Some have ignored the form of the city altogether and applied imagery or a graphic or graffiti-like treatment, flouting the schema, orientation and scale. Inevitably a rash of unrelenting green dots represents the Starbucks that have overrun the city. A collaged rendition includes the text “in New York, people think we are rude; we just have MONSTER ambitions”. Another contributor scrawled just one word across the page: struggle.

Yoko Ono

Yoko Ono

Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell

Cooper also appealed to some well-known New Yorkers to participate. Yoko Ono has penned “memory lane” in sprawling calligraphic script across the graphic, claiming the whole city as her turf. Vahram Muratyan, French graphic artist who created the witty illustrations comparing Paris vs. New York, has marked his favourite spots: the first place he would discover? Central Park. Hungry? Hit Shake Shack! Go to a movie in Bryant on a summer night. New Yorker staff writer Malcolm Gladwell points out where he had his first apartment, his favourite 6-mile run, where he was when the Twin Towers fell on 9-11, and where to get the best coffee in the city.


These 75 maps create a dynamic, collaborative portrait of the city laden with personal histories, emotion and memory. But as Cooper states “maps are more about their makers than the places they describe.” In the end, looking at these personal texts and images, it becomes apparent that the participants didn’t map Manhattan – they mapped themselves.

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