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25 8 / 2009
In the fall of 2000, just back from Paris, with the sounds of its streets still singing in my ears and the codes to its courtyards still lining my pockets, I went downtown and met a man who was making a perfect map of New York. He worked for the city, and from a set of aerial photographs and underground schematics he had turned every block, every highway, and every awning—every one in all five boroughs!—into neatly marked and brightly colored geometric spaces laid out on countless squares…
The kicker was that the maniacally perfect map was unfinished and even unfinishable, because the city it described was too “dynamic,” changing every day in ways that superceded each morning’s finished drawing. Each time everything had been put in place—the subway tunnels aligned with the streets, the Con Ed crawl spaces with the subway tunnels, all else with the buildings above—someone or other would come back with the discouraging news that something had altered, invariably a lot. So every time he was nearly done, he had to start all over.
I keep a small section of that map in my office as a reminder of several New York truths. The first is that an actual map of New York recalls our inner map of the city. We can’t make any kind of life in New York without composing a private map of it in our minds—and these inner maps, as Roger Angell once wrote, are always detailed, always divided into local squares, and always unfinished. The private map turns out to be as provisional as the public one—not one on which our walks and lessons trace grooves deepening over the years, but one on which no step, no thing seems to leave a trace.
The map of the city we carried just five years ago hardly corresponds to the city we know today, while the New Yorks we knew before that are buried completely. The first New York I knew well, Soho’s art world of twenty years ago, is no less vanished now than Carthage; the New York where my wife and I first set up housekeeping, the old Yorkville of German restaurants and sallow Eastern European families, is still more submerged, Atlantis; and the New York of our older friends—where the light came in from the river and people wore hats and on hot nights slept in Central Park—is not just lost but by now essentially fictional, like Narnia. New York is a city of accommodations and of many maps. We constantly redraw them, whether we realize it or not, and are grateful if a single island we knew on the last survey is still to be found above water.”"
Through the Children’s Gate: Of a Home in New York (3,4)
25 8 / 2009
I love this quote, and I agree with it wholeheartedly, except on one point: I’m not sure I agree that our private maps bear no trace of our old steps and learned lessons. Maybe it’s just the way I construct my personal map, but on my inner portrait of the city, each successive memory—instead of erasing and replacing the past—just layers onto the previous ones. The rocks by the southern entrance of Central Park, for example, are both where someone told me he loved me for the first time and the starting point of the second map drop expedition. I can flicker from one memory to the other at the rocks, or I can be strangely aware of both simultaneously—like the optical illusion of the old woman and the young lady; depending on how I look at it, the drawing is either of a beautiful young lady in profile or of an old, haggard woman with a witchy nose. My favorite thing to do in front of this illusion, though, is to stand back and cross my eyes to blur the image. With both out of focus, seeing neither woman, I’m for once seeing both simultaneously.
So it is less a question of, does today’s personal map of New York “correspond” to the one from 5 years ago, and more a matter of, what weird resonances are created and patterns emerge by juxtaposing these two maps? (How does it feel to be aware of both the old woman and the young lady concurrently? To know that both exist. That both are equally true.)
The last paragraph of the Gopnik quote does allude to this layering through the metaphor of submersion, but it seems to imply that the burying process is irreversible. For me, the past may be sandwiched by the present, but everything is still just as true and relevant.
So a suggestion for your mapyourmemory map: if you’re stuck on what to draw: use it as an opportunity to expand out the strata, to show what’s buried at each particular point.