11 New York City Maps from Mapping Manhattan

Abrams Books
Abrams Books / Abrams Books

In 2007, Becky Cooper became an accidental cartographer. It was the summer after her freshman year at Harvard, and she was hired to write the travel guide to a map of all the public art in Manhattan—but things didn't go as planned. "The map wasn't yet complete," Cooper tells mental_floss. "My boss took me over to the computer that first day and tried to open the file, but the program self-destructed. My job for the next three months was to see that map to completion." Over that summer, as she placed 1500 dots representing public art on the map, she found herself making subjective decisions "about whether the art in public schools is public, or whether a carousel is art, for instance," she says. "I realized that all maps, no matter how thorough they strive to be, are inevitably selective. They show as much about their mapmakers and the time they were made as they do about the place they intend to represent. I dreamed of having thousands of cartographers make thousands of tiny maps of Manhattan instead of just having me be the sole cartographer on a giant map of New York, and I hoped that maybe Manhattan would emerge in the series of their particular visions."

And so the project that would lead to her book, Mapping Manhattan: A Love (and Sometimes Hate) Story in Maps by 75 New Yorkerswas born. Cooper designed simple maps of Manhattan with friend Dan Ashwood and turned them into polymer plates; with the plates in hand, she spent "hours and hours and hours" printing 3000 maps on the letterpress machine in the basement of her college dorm. Each map went through three times: "Once for the front of the card, once for the map, and once, without ink, for the grid pattern that is so integral to the geography of Manhattan," she says. "I wanted the maps to force people to stop and think. Because is a map is a filter, it necessarily sorts out the noise from the essence, and that process takes time. And I thought the best way to have the maps themselves encourage the mapmakers to think was by letterpress printing them."

To distribute the maps, Cooper started at the top of Manhattan and walked down, at first tucking them into books and leaving them in taxis or bathrooms, and eventually approaching strangers on the street. "It's always been a dream of mine to be able to go up to strangers and ask them to share their story with me," she says. "I was excited to have these passports into strangers' worlds—excuses to leave mine and travel into theirs." As the project grew, she reached out to well-known New Yorkers to see if they'd like to participate. "I think it really speaks to the power of people's connections to New York, the extent to which the city itself has played a role in shaping their lives, that people like David Chang or Neil deGrasse Tyson or Philippe Petit would take the time to do this project for a stranger," she says.

Of the nearly 3000 maps she's distributed, Cooper has received almost 300 back, and she put 75 of them into Mapping Manhattan. We asked Cooper to pick her favorites—from notable New Yorkers as well as anonymous ones—and tell us why she loves them.

1. Neil DeGrasse Tyson

"Dr. Tyson maps Manhattanhenge, a term he coined, to describe the two days a year that the setting sun aligns exactly with Manhattan's grid," Cooper says. "On those days, if you look west—on the main streets of Manhattan in particular, 14th, 23rd, 34th—the whole city seems to be illuminated by a blinding light. It's gorgeous."

2. "Met my Wife"

"This map really celebrates and highlights the idea that a map is a filter," Cooper says. "Out of all the noise of the city, the only thing that filtered through was this moment when the mapmaker met his wife."

3. Yoko Ono

"Yoko's map is for me a bit of New York magic," Cooper says. "I had the courage—and the address—to write to her because a friend from out of town told me a story about his friend who had run into her ten years before. That friend had pulled out a piece of paper and asked Ms. Ono to sign it. She took the paper, ripped it in half and said that if he came back and met her at that exact spot exactly ten years later, she'd rejoin the halves and sign the paper. He did, she did, and he eventually gave my friend the address to send Ms. Ono her copy of the map."

4. "Good Kissing Bad Kissing"

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Cooper likes this map because "the honesty and the self-aware tone [make] it heart-wrenchingly beautiful."

5. Harvey Fierstein

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"I love this sassy map of Fierstein's trysts," Cooper says. "The 'moving violation' in the center of it—turn the map sideways—is particularly great."

6. "Watchtower"

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Though most of the mapmakers are anonymous, Cooper believes she knows who sent her this particular one, which she handed out on her first walk down Broadway. "I came across ladies at the base of Fort Tryon park who were handing out Watchtower Brochures," Cooper says. "I stopped and chatted with them and they took maps. This was one of the maps that came back, I'm going to assume, from one of the ladies—she also included another pamphlet with the map. A year later I did another walk down Broadway and came across some more Watchtower ladies. I stopped to give this pair two maps, and one of the women looked at me and said, 'I remember you!'"

7. Markley Boyer

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"Markley Boyer is the illustrator for the book, Mannahatta, that recreates Manhattan as Henry Hudson likely saw it when he arrived in New York's harbor for the first time in 1609," Cooper says. "This moss-filled map calls back to New York's wilder days, when Manhattan was truly 'the island of the hills,' where its name derives."

8. "Disneyland for Old Folks"

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Cooper didn't just distribute maps along Broadway; she also went to Houston Street and Central Park, where she met this mapmaker. "I only know this because we talked about how old he was when he first came to New York—exactly the age I was when I handed the map out to him," she says.

9. Malcolm Gladwell

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"'Williamsburg: keep threatening to move there' is my favorite part of this map," Cooper says.

10. Philippe Petit

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"Philippe Petit, the man who tightrope walked between the Twin Towers as captured by the documentary Man on Wire, retraces—and distills—his life in the city into three simple steps," Cooper says.

11. "Ava is Here"

This map came to Cooper with a note: "When someone passes away, they are everywhere and Ava is nowhere more than at every turn I make in the city. I struggled for a long (long!) time deciding how to realize my idea and then it hit me. The problem wasn't how to insert Ava into the map. The problem was that it wasn't just Ava who belonged there. My whole family is my life in the city, and the city courses through our veins, carrying us along its life like a river. So here we are! The city is us, and we are the city."

BONUS: The map that got away

"I would have loved to include John Tauranac's map of New York," Cooper says. "He designed the subway map of New York—the one we've been using in slightly updated versions since the city replaced Massimo Vignelli's graphic design masterpiece in the 1970s. We were in touch, [and] he tried for a while to make one, but ultimately the way he maps the city, he said, didn't work on the format I had provided. He wanted to be more accurate than my map allowed."

All images are courtesy of Becky Cooper's book, "Mapping Manhattan: A Love (and Sometimes Hate) Story in Maps by 75 New Yorkers," with a foreword by Adam Gopnik and published by Abrams Image. See Cooper in person at the Powerhouse Arena on May 16 or at BookCourt on June 6.