Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Man Who Mapped Manhattan

 The Commissioners’ Plan of 1811, showing how the grid plan was superimposed over the natural topography of the island.  It also shows the limits of development at the time it was produced.

We always hear about these “Commissioners” who were responsible for commissioning a street plat design for New York City (Manhattan).  But what about the man who actually carried out all the work involved in effectuating the grid plan?  What about John Randel, Jr.?
Hot off the presses: just published, a biography of John Randel, Jr., his life and times.  Little known anymore, John Randel is the man responsible for the regularized grid pattern of streets and property lots that marches over hill and dale (or what’s left of the natural topography after the street design was put in place) in Manhattan. 
The Measure of Manhattan: The Tumultuous Career and Surprising Legacy of John Randel Jr., Cartographer, Surveyor,, and Inventor by Marguerite Holloway, 2013,

Here is a story from Columbia University’s New York Stories webpage, about John Randel and his biographer, along with a nice little video interviewing the author and showcasing some wonderful historic maps of Manhattan.  See the video at

New York Squared: Marguerite Holloway on the Man Who Mapped Manhattan
“Just a few years after Lewis and Clark’s famous expedition to the great Northwest, another intrepid American set out on a journey through challenging terrain at the government’s behest. In 1808, John Randel Jr., a young surveyor, was charged with mapping Manhattan Island and laying out the street grid that, for 200 years, has shaped and spurred the growth of New York City.
In 2004, Marguerite Holloway, an assistant professor at the School of Journalism, found herself writing about the Mannahatta Project—an effort by environmental scientists to “recreate” Manhattan in its natural state. The scientists relied in part on Randel’s data. Fascinated by tales of the Albany-born surveyor (1787-1865), she says, “I tried to find out as much as I could about him—at the time, there was very little. It became an obsession.”
Holloway’s obsession has turned into a biography of Randel that has just been published by W.W. Norton. Researching the book, Holloway, an experienced science journalist, found herself scouring archives throughout the northeastern United States. “I’m used to asking people lots of questions,” she says. “But this time, many of my sources were long dead.”
Her book, she says, tries to paint a complete picture of Randel, whom she describes as a visionary. He “wrestled the wildness of the island as he imposed his vision upon it: Gone, in his mind’s eye, were the hills and ponds, the towering chestnut trees, the unruly outcroppings,” she wrote in a New York Times piece. “Randel was mesmerized by the image of a magnificent, neatly ordered metropolis.”
Randel was appointed to the task by New York City’s three street commissioners—one of whom was Gouverneur Morris, the 1768 graduate of King’s College who wrote parts of the U.S. Constitution. New York’s mayor for much of that time was DeWitt Clinton (CC 1786) who later as New York’s governor went on to champion a different feat of civil engineering, the Erie Canal.
Randel, whom Morris described as “more ambitious of accuracy than profit,” spent three years surveying the island for the famous Commissioner’s Plan of 1811. Then he spent the next 10 years physically imposing the grid from First Street to 155th Street using more than 1,500 3-foot-tall marble monuments sunk into the ground and, where there was no way to do that, bolts set in rock.
Randel and his men were pelted with vegetables, attacked by dogs and arrested for trespassing—the targets of landowners alarmed by the arrival of right angles in rural areas. Not only were the property lines going to have to be redrawn, but in many cases the imagined thoroughfares went right through barns and houses, Holloway explains.
"We can't say that he came up with the grid plan but he was the person who brought the grid to life...he scratched it into the landscape," she says. "He did it with such precision that surveyors today can follow Rand    l's maps--he got it right."
A longtime contributor to Scientific American, Holloway began teaching at the journalism school as an adjunct in 1997 and took a tenure-track position in 2006; she won a presidential teaching award in 2009. Holloway teaches science and environmental reporting in the M.S. program and in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Program in Health and Science Journalism, part of the M.A. program for experienced journalists.
Living on the Upper West Side, Holloway says, she has long appreciated the Manhattan street grid—“I liked it even before I’d heard of Randel.” She also likes the interruptions to the grid, places like the Columbia campus and Morningside Park, which “give you a different experience within the city”—no matter if the park is one of the “unruly outcroppings” Randel worked so hard to tame.”  — Story by Fred A. Bernstein — Video by Columbia News Video Team

Thanks, Susan McMahon, for sending the link to the story. 

Please also refer back to my post of March 21, 2011, commemorating the 200th Anniversary of the 1811 Commissioners’ Plan at

And now, for the first time, the Randel Farm Maps can be explored digitally, courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York (where there was an exhibit about New York’s grid pattern planning last year to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the 1811 Commissioners’ Plan) at
An excellent book on the 1811 grid was written in conjunction with this exhibit, The Greatest Grid: Manhattan’s Master Plan, 1811-2011, edited by Hilary Ballon. Blurb from Museum of the City of New York website: “Laying out Manhattan's street grid and providing a rationale for the growth of New York was the city's first great civic enterprise, not to mention a brazenly ambitious project and major milestone in the history of city planning.  The grid created the physical conditions for business and society to flourish and embodied the drive and discipline for which the city would come to be known.”


The famous 1962 Hermann Bollmann axonometric (parallel perspective) map clearly displays Manhattan’s famous gridded street pattern, (see my post on Bird’s Eye Views of NYC for more on the Bollmann map and below is a photograph emphasizing the unrelenting grid of mid-town Manhattan. 

Not everyone is a fan of the grid, some calling it robotic, uninteresting, lacking in imagination, and mind-numbingly uniform, the enemy of spontaneity.  Others say the plan maximizes land use, was “visionary,” and tout its “modernity” and its transformative characteristics – the grid becomes the backdrop for whatever we want to project onto it.  
Rem Koolhaus, in his seminal 1978 book, “Delirious New York: A Retrospective Manifesto for Manhattan,” focuses on the grid as the enabler of Manhattan’s “culture of congestion,” calling New York a “metropolis of rigid chaos.”  He describes the grid as an “artificial domain planned for nonexistent clients in anticipation,” a negative symbol of the short-sightedness of commercial interests with no regard for interaction between fragments or spontaneity.  On the other hand, the grid is celebrated on the cover of his book as one of the defining elements of NY, with the iconic Empire State and Chrysler Buildings lying down in a bedroom where the area rug is a piece of the grid, and the bedside table lamp is the Statue of Liberty’s torch.   
Tourists to the city tend to like the grid, because of the ease it creates in getting around the city, and the unlikelihood of getting too lost with the regular pattern and numbering system.  Of course, getting lost sometimes is half the fun of being a tourist, and romantics prefer cities like London or Paris which have little of the regularity to their street patterns, reflecting development over a long period of time, rather than a city platted basically in one fell swoop.  Naturally the real winners in Manhattan’s grid plan were the real estate developers who wanted a consistent and replicable way to develop and sell property.  The standard lot size of 25 x 100 (perfect for the attached townhouse format) made property development particularly lucrative.  The grid allowed for a predictable scheme for street access, ease of traffic flow, and infrastructure installation, and thus was a developer’s dream.  
Prior to the 1811 Commissioners’ Plan, New York’s street pattern developed in a series of growth spurts that created a hodge-podge design.  There was the mediaeval tip of lower Manhattan, (still largely extant) with its organic maze of streets, and similar to what you would find in most European cities of the 16th century.  Then there were several areas built independently by large-scale land owners, such as DeLancey and Rutgers, both holders of large farm estates who subdivided their lands for commercial sale, and laid out streets in a grid pattern of their own devising.  These independently-developed street grids tended to collide with other adjacent gridded areas.  In this 1847 map of Manhattan, we can see the various colliding grids built prior to the 1811 Plan.  
For better or worse, New York City would not be NYC without the grid, and the history of NYC’s physical development is a fascinating one.  

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Happy 540th Birthday, Nicolaus Copernicus!

Google Doodle of Copernicus' Heliocentric model of the Solar System

Happy Birthday, Copernicus!  February 19, 1473 – May 24, 1543

So, any of you who opened up Google today doubtless saw their shout out to Copernicus, the mediaeval Polish astronomer and mathematician. Why they (Google) decided that 540 was a particularly significant anniversary is anybody's guess, but they featured on their home page an “animated Google Doodle,” of Copernicus’ heliocentric (or heliostatic) model of the solar system, showing the Sun at the center with the planets, including the Earth, highlighted, revolving around it.   Best known for his treatise "On the Revolution of the Celestial Spheres," Copernicus asserted that the earth revolved around the sun - contrary to the mediaeval belief that the earth was the centre of the universe (geocentric).  He is considered the patron saint of those who question the rules (and thus one of my heroes!) and of course the Church branded him as a heretic for challenging the belief that the Earth is at the center of the universe.  Luckily for him, most of the controversy actually started after Copernicus’ death in 1543.  In fact, at the advent of Copernicus’ theories, the Pope and various cardinals seemed very well-disposed to entertain these theories as interesting and useful. 
Cardinal von Schonberg, Archbishop of Capus, wrote to Copernicus: “Some years ago word reached me concerning your proficiency, of which everybody constantly spoke.  At that time I began to have a very high regard for you... For I had learned that you had not merely mastered the discoveries of the ancient astronomers uncommonly well but had also formulated a new cosmology.  In it you maintain that the earth moves; that the sun occupies the lowest, and thus the central, place in the universe... Therefore with the utmost earnestness I entreat you, most learned sir, unless I inconvenience you, to communicate this discovery of yours to scholars, and at the earliest possible moment to send me your writings on the sphere of the universe together with the tables and whatever else you have that is relevant to this subject.”
It fell to later astronomers, like Galileo, to actually prove Copernicus’ theory of heliocentrism, since Copernicus made his discoveries with the unaided eye.  When Galileo later used a telescope to confirm the theory, that’s when the Church started going ballistic.  After Galileo, Kepler, and others brought the heliocentric model back into the limelight, the theologians started taking issue with Copernicus, stating that heliocentrism was against Holy Scripture, and was “philosophically untenable and theologically heretical.”  All who held Copernican beliefs were considered heretics.  But by this time, Copernicus himself had been dead nearly a century. 
Copernicus was an interesting fellow.  Born in what had been Prussia, but shortly before his birth had become part of Poland, (although a German-speaking area), he probably identified more with his German-hood (or rather his Prussian-ness) than his Polish-ness.  It is even dubious that he spoke Polish very well.  However, the family supported the Polish cause in the 13 Years War with Prussia.  He attended Cracow University (in those days instruction was in Latin, the universal language of learning and the Church) and he was considered a polymath, having interests and expertise in law, economics, medicine, art, and the classics, in addition to what he is best remembered for today, astronomy and math. 
He discovered the variability of the Earth’s eccentricity and of the movement of the solar apogee in relation to the fixed stars, and based on these and other astronomical observations, he created a reformed version of the Julian calendar for the Pope.  Although several Popes during Copernicus’ lifetime were pleased with his heliocentric model of the universe, he held off on publishing the book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium for fear of backlash and censure from the Church.  Legend has it that he had the book published only in his old age, and the first copy of it that he ever saw was placed in his hands on his deathbed right before he died.
Interestingly, Copernicus and Kepler both are honored in the Episcopal Church by a feast day on May 23rd.  Who knew?  This is especially ironic, as it seems to have been the Protestants who hounded him (or at least, those who ascribed to his theories) the most in the early 1600’s.  However, the Catholics, even worse, kept Galileo under house arrest until his death.  Well, there are those even today in these enlightened (benighted?) times who are afraid of acknowledging scientific truths for fear of what it will do to upset their worldview.  As Craig Ferguson, the late-night talk show host and comic, often says “ReMIND you of anyone?” 

Short video on Copernicus:

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Kiss of the Oceans – the Meeting of the Atlantic and Pacific

The Kiss of the Oceans – The Meeting of the Atlantic and Pacific - The Panama Canal

We recently heard President Obama, in his 2013 State of the Union address, talk about the need for infrastructure spending to spur job creation and the economy.  He mentioned the 70,000 failing bridges (scary!) in the US as an example of why this needs to be done, and soon.  However, as important as maintenance and fix-up projects are, he offered no grand vision of what REAL infrastructure projects might be, and what they could do for the country. 
When we look back at other times in US history, we see that major infrastructure projects have had huge and lasting effects on not only the economy, but also the hearts and minds of everyday people.  Not to mention the beneficial impact on lives (and other, perhaps less sanguine, unintended - or at least unforeseen - consequences).  Initiatives such as the 1825 Erie Canal (which almost single-handedly turned New York into the Empire State, making NYC the country’s premier manufacturing location, port, and trade center throughout most of the 19th century, and helped open up the western territories to more rapid settlement); the 1883 Brooklyn Bridge (which was a major impetus to the creation of Greater New York in 1898, joining the here-to-fore independent cities of New York (Manhattan, etc.) and Brooklyn into one extra-formidable city); the 1950’s inter-state highway system (which, although having the ostensible military objective of making the country ready to mobilize, if need be, to repel invasions, had the effect of spreading population from the urban centers to the suburbs, and making our country the automobile-centric society that we still are today, and changing forever the American landscape).  There are many other examples of major infrastructure projects, which reflected a vision on the part of their creators about the direction our nation should be going – the Hoover Dam, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) regional plan and rural electrification project, the Trans-Continental Railroad.  Not all of these were strictly government-led and financed projects, but all succeeded because of government support and encouragement in some way. 
Some might say there is no place in the world today for these grand gestures, no money to think about providing today for benefits to the future generations.  Despite all the guilt-trip talk from the Republicans focusing attention on our national fiscal responsibilities, and whether or not we want to saddle our grandchildren with today’s debts, we seem unwilling to really think about our legacy and responsibilities to the future.  What will future generations see about us, how will we be remembered as a generation?  Although this is not the main reason we should move to do something, it is sad to think that our time will be remembered for its high partisanship, gridlock, paralysis, intolerance, rejection of good governance, and lack of clear direction.  It is as though we are just muddling through, from one crisis to another, with temporary quick-fixes and a band-aid approach to solutions. 
Some might also question the wisdom of embarking on projects for which we don’t know the long-term impacts, and certainly some of these past infrastructure schemes were ill-advised in terms of how they affected significant portions of the population and, of course, the environment.  Many of these infrastructure projects had/have pernicious effect on the environment, with dams being the ultimate consumers of land, highways hollowing out cities and enabling urban sprawl, and the invasive spread of settlers via canals and railroads hardly benign to the landscape, ecological health, or indigenous populations.  Hopefully today we have the wisdom gained from past experiences to try to prevent environmental depredations and environmental injustices when planning for major projects like these. 
In a time when Tea Partiers and Republicans in general (and not a few Democrats, too) believe that government should be smaller, less obtrusive (except in regulating personal matters!), less spend-y, it is probably not the time to contemplate major infrastructure projects, not even ones which might heal the economy, boost the feelings of national confidence and pride, and provide inspiration to the future.  Everyone is too timid these days to propose anything on a grand scale. This cautiousness will not stand us in good stead as we face the challenges of the 21st century - energy needs, global climate change, transportation, housing - which cry out for bold infrastructure planning and investing. But perhaps the days of big, bold initiatives are over.  Maybe what we need is a big, bold vision for lots of smaller projects that together can address the issues. But without an organized plan to combine these projects into a meaningful solution, it will not work.  
NASA MODIS satellite image of the Panama Canal Zone (2003).  White areas represent clouds, dense jungle areas in green.

We are coming up on the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal, the “Kiss of the Oceans,” that long-sought-after short cut between the world’s two largest oceans.  America’s involvement in the project is still controversial, and our continued occupation of the Canal Zone (until 1999) was surely a sore point in Pan-American friendships and dealings. Coming on the heels of America’s 1898 empire building activities in acquiring/annexing Hawai’i, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines, plus briefly Cuba, the building and subsequent ownership of the Panama Canal sealed American’s emergence as a global Super Power.  Despite the imperialistic overtones of the US involvement in the Panama Canal, the creation of the Canal also represents some of what is best about America – ingenuity, perseverance, and optimism in the face of adversity. 

Map of the Canal’s major elements

There is a very nice interactive map on the Panama Canal and all its innovative elements, from the PBS TV series “American Experience.”  The historic map used as the basemap is a 1906 map of the Panama Canal compiled by surveys from the French and U.S. governments, and was printed by the Millroy Publishing Company of Dayton, Ohio, a copy of which could be “mailed to any address upon receipt of 25¢”

New Caledonia in Panama, the failed Scottish experiment in New World colonization and trade, circa 1690.

The idea of the Panama Canal is a very old one – first floated in 1534 by King Charles V of Spain, only a few decades after the European “discovery” of the New World.  It was recognized early on what a boon the short cut would be to whomever could control it.  And famously, it also inspired the doomed Darien Scheme (alternatively referred to as the Darien Disaster).  The Caledonia Colony was supposed to put Scottish settlers on the isthmus, controlling the overland trade between Atlantic and Pacific (similar to the Dutch East India Company's control of trade in Dutch colonies) in an immense profit-making-turned-boondoggle - a project by the then-independent country of Scotland.  The subsequent abysmal failure of the colony bankrupted the country through a kind of a burst financial bubble, Ponzi scheme, and led directly to the necessity for Scotland to join in a Union with England in the 1707 Act of Union, which created the United Kingdom.   The Darien Scheme had bankrupted the nation, by dissipating over 30% of the country’s total liquid wealth, and most of the Caledonia colonists died in Panama. 

New Map of the Isthmus of Darien in America, The Bay of Panama, The Gulph of Vallona or St. Michael, with its Islands and Countries Adjacent, 1699.

In the 1860’s, the French got serious about building a canal across Panama’s isthmus, after the success of their Suez Canal linking the Mediterranean and the Red Seas, thus connecting Europe and Asia by a shorter water route than shipping around Africa's Cape.  After 8 years of set-backs, including earthquakes, yellow fever, malaria, and floods, the French gave up on the Panama Canal and left, and plans for a canal lay fallow for 15 years or so.  Eventually, the Americans picked up the idea, and the design and construction of the Panama Canal absorbed some of the best technological and engineering minds of the day.  There were many geological, political, climatic, public health, and technical impediments, and the struggle to complete the canal took over 10 years.  A good history of all the engineering challenges, break-throughs, and triumphs can be viewed at   
There are any number of good books written on the engineering marvel that is the Canal, including David McCullough’s 1977 classic The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914;  Julie Greene’s 2009 The Canal Builders: Making America's Empire at the Panama Canal;  Matthew Parker’s 2007 Panama Fever: The Epic Story of One of the Greatest Human Achievements of All Time - The Building of the Panama Canal.
Being constructed in the early 20th century, the thousands and thousands of workers needed to build the canal were not treated according to today’s standards, turn-over was very high, and there were severe disparities depending upon race.  Workers were divided into “skilled” or “non-skilled” labor, but those were merely code words for white workers versus black, native, and asian.  Many of the non-US and non-European workers came from the West Indies, especially Jamaica.  To this day, many Panamanians can trace their ancestry back to Jamaica, Barbados, and some of the other islands.  In addition to discrepancies in pay, housing accommodations, and food between whites and West Indians, the white workers routinely received better health care during the inevitable disease outbreaks, although potentially anyone could die (and did die) from smallpox, yellow fever, malaria, typhoid, dysentery, and even bubonic plague.  There were also differences in the actual work assignments, with West Indians primarily being assigned the hardest and most dangerous jobs, such as dynamiting, and excavation, with the ever present risk of landslides.  Due to their poor housing and food, West Indian workers were more vulnerable to disease and injury, and had a significantly higher death rate than their white counterparts.  Suicide was also prevalent, as were deaths from snakebites.  At least 25,000 workers died during the canal’s construction, most of them West Indian, and most of those, Jamaican or Barbadian.  There are some good books written about the Canal’s labor force, such as Michael Conniff’s Black Labor on a White Canal: Panama, 1904-1981;  Lancelot Lewis’ The West Indian in Panama: Black Labor in Panama, 1850-1914;  and Velma Newton’s The Silver Men: West Indian Labour Migration to Panama, 1850-1914.

Coup d'Etat, 1903

  This cartoon portrays the intervention that Roosevelt and the US military undertook to support the Panamanian rebels in their revolt against their Colombian overlords.  In helping Panama achieve independence from Colombia, the US received important financial and legal concessions in their negotiations for building, maintaining, and profiting from the Canal.   Note the gangplank "The Roosevelt Doctrine," which can be seen as an extension of, or a departure from, the Monroe Doctrine of the US objecting to intervention by European powers in Latin America. 

The Canal, being seen as a very costly (and “foreign”) endeavor, was not universally embraced by the American people.  Teddy Roosevelt, the Republican president who spearheaded and championed the project, came under harsh criticism throughout most of the construction phase.  Delays and cost overruns were rampant.  Newspaper Cartoons that lampooned the project abounded.  

Note the small "Teddy" bear with the telescope to the left of Uncle Sam, a well-known reference to Teddy Roosevelt. Uncle Sam is saying "My, My, Such Possibilities." Library of Congress

The President in Panama - The Washington Post.  Note again the small Teddy Bear behind Roosevelt with the binoculars. 

Roosevelt made a trip to the Canal Zone in 1906, however, and after his impressive speech to Congress, the tide turned, and support from the American people was more forthcoming, and even became a point of pride for decades afterwards.  (See what a difference an inspirational speech can make?)  See a transcript of Roosevelt’s speech at

Postage Stamp commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Panama Canal. Note Yankee Clipper plane (carrying air mail) coming in for a landing. 

The Canal was undeniably a force in America’s ascendancy, the start of the American Century, and although often viewed as just another instance of American Imperialism, it did indeed benefit the entire hemisphere, and probably the world, in many respects. 
By the way, some observant readers may have noted that although the Canal was completed and opened in 1914, the Kiss of the Oceans image has a 1915 date on it.  That is because this artwork was created for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, California, which was meant as a celebration of the opening of the canal, but with the additional alternate purpose of showcasing the city’s revival after the 1906 earthquake. 
Here is another example of a poster related to the Exposition – it is advertising a flying-around-the-world competition “under the auspices” of the Exposition.  This one, interestingly, features one of my favorite map projections, the Cahill Butterfly Projection. For a post on the Butterfly projection (and why I like it) see

There were numerous versions of the Kiss of the Oceans poster, here are just three more.

And here are a couple of great cartoons of the day, bashing the US's empire building and involvement in foreign "nation-building."  The US was still in its isolationist phase, and popular opinion was large against the expansion of US territories outside the continent. As today, many celebrities and prominent people were against war and government interference in other nations' business (Mark Twain, for instance, was Vice President of the Anti-Imperialist League, as was Samuel Gompers, the labor leader, and Jane Addams, women's suffrage and world peace activist), and also as today, business and industrial interests won out.
 As Waldo Tobler would say “Everything is related to everything else…..” And The Map Monkey is out to prove that, given enough time to meander, one can start a geography story on just about any topic (i.e. national infrastructure), and end up almost anywhere else (i.e., Panama Canal, Scottish New World Colonies, World's Fairs, Butterfly Projection, American Anti-Imperialist League). 

[This post is dedicated to my Dad (Daddy-o) who often spoke about the 7th Wonder of the Modern World, the Panama Canal, and always said one of the highlights of his life was traveling through it and experiencing it first-hand.  He was born in the year the Canal was completed, and would have celebrated his 99th birthday this week.]

Friday, February 15, 2013

Maps as Art, Art as Maps

“Contemporary Cartographies” An exhibit of artwork using maps as their foundations.  February 5 – May 11, 2013

Maps are very “in” these days.  Everywhere we go, it seems, we see maps as framed wall art, murals, clothing, furniture, cell phone covers, and in every which way incorporated into daily life.  In one of my next posts, I am going to explore some of these trendy uses of maps, which are legion!  In this same vein, maps, now more than ever, are being incorporated into art.  So in addition to the “low-brow” use of maps for commercial appeal and as a design motif (mainly employed to sell stuff – some pop culture maven pronounced that maps are cool so now everyone thinks so!), maps also have acquired a caché as a “high brow” motif in “fine art.”  (I put “fine art” between the quotes, because not everyone agrees with the artificial and tortured distinctions between the practical arts and the fine arts, including myself.  But it remains a fact of life that galleries sell fine art, and stores sell the other kind). 
So there are maps used for “commercial” purposes, and then there are maps as fine art.  Then, (and let’s not lose sight of the fact) there are the maps created for a particular (actual geographical!) purpose by cartographers (and would-be cartographers since now – since Google Earth and VGI - “anyone can make a map!”).  There is a fine line, and one might even say not a boundary line of demarcation at all, but a blending, between the cartographer as artist and as scientist.  I think that many of my blog posts have demonstrated the combined art and science of cartography, and that is what so many people find fascinating about maps.  In addition to being beautiful, maps are also informative, and I would argue that many of these would fall under the heading of “map art,” telling us everything from how to get from Point A to Point B, to where all the oil rigs are in the Gulf of Mexico, (a nice example of a Google-type map with user-added thematic info) to a way of visualizing from which countries immigrants come and in what proportion they make up the immigrant pool in the host countries, via typographic maps (maps using text – typography – to create the map image), to maps making a political/social point such as the number of inhabitants per doctor in the world (using ratios/numbers to make up the landform shapes).   to “cool” street-wise views of urban life, such as "The Street Wear Map,” a mapping of the various brands of sneakers hanging from power lines between the Orange and the Red line subway alignments in greater Boston, using ArcGIS, Google Street View, Illustrator, and Photoshop, by David Buckley Borden at 

But then there are actual artists, who make no pretense of being cartographers, per se, and aren’t particularly interested in showing us how to get anywhere via graphics, or in showing us a new way to visualize quantitative data.  These artists work with maps and map imagery as an underlying basis for their art, but maps are more of a backdrop for them, or a way to explore the relationship in art amongst space, time, color, texture, emotions, and narrative.  Maps are so evocative.  Who isn’t put into a reverie, or even a trance, when faced with a map?  In many cases, these artists use map imagery to express the geography of their souls. 
Now, at the Lehman College Art Gallery in Da Bronx, they are showing some contemporary artists who use map imagery in their work.  The exhibit is called “Contemporary Cartographies,” and its curators describe it as follows: “The exhibition will include a group of contemporary artists who uses the language and imagery of maps to communicate an array of ideas.  Artists in this exhibition work in various styles, adapting, manipulating, and inventing maps to giving them new meanings.  Some of them use fictional narratives and create imaginary cartographies; others conceive a work that updates the new geopolitical orders. Still others approach the map aesthetically or as material in itself. Humor too plays an important role in defining these borders.”  From
            One of my favorite map artists (I would actually term her a cartographer if I had to chose between that occupation and artist) is Paula Scher, whose work appears in the Lehman show.  You can check out her stuff at  and also on various of my blog postings, such as the one on typographic maps at
Here’s one of hers –South America.  I love it because it shows the Galapagos and the Falkland Islands as little inset vignettes, floating as bubbles in the ocean. 
There have been other art-map exhibits such as Pratt Gallery’s 2010 “You are Here: Mapping the Psychogeography of New York” which was featured in my blog about unconventional NYC maps   You can see more of the Pratt exhibit at  Artist Liz Hickok and several work-study students worked morning til late-evening for 10 days to build "Fugitive Topography: Jelly NYC, View From the Staten Island Ferry."
A similar exhibit of art-maps was assembled last year (November, 2011) by the Central Booking Art Space in Brooklyn called “Mapping the Surface.”  Maddy Rosenburg, the gallery’s director and curator, writes: “We are accustomed to looking at maps in attempts to find direction, our relationship to a physical interpretation of the land. But that land can be more than a city or country, it can help us to navigate our bodies, to understand our environment beyond its physicality into the realm of cultural space, and to grasp an understanding though the visceral. Cartographers can tell us more than just the routes from one point to another, they can map terrains of landscape or psychological space, that amorphous state that adds up to a sense of a place beyond mere cataloging. They can also reduce all to the basic, the pure essence of line and plane. We may glide across the surface but there always seems to be a rumble below it, roaming around a skin that is, as skin is, porous and organic.” 
This description is getting very close to psychogeography and emotion mapping, as I discuss in my post on the topic.  Most of these types of maps come across as “art” to me.  Many of these works are not too distantly related to mental mapping, as well. 
I have put together a little collection of my own (recent and otherwise) favorite art-maps, or maps as art, or art as maps, for your viewing enjoyment, starting with the grand-daddy of interpretive maps, by Jasper Johns, his 1961 “Interpretive Map of the United States.” 

Jasper Johns, 1961, Interpretive Map of the United States

And here’s Nam June Paik’s 1995 "Electronic Superhighway," from the Smithsonian

Artifacts (detail) 2011, water-soaked map fragments, adhesive, paper 30 x 44 “Shannon Rankin’s intricately patterned installations explore the relationship between physical place and intangible experience.”  “In search of finding connections between geography, anatomy, and botany, I combine the visual elements of maps, anatomical illustrations, and natural forms to explore themes of travel, healing, and time.  I create installations, collages and sculptures that use the language of maps to explore the connections among geological and biological processes, patterns in nature, geometry and anatomy.  Using a variety of distinct styles I intricately cut, score, wrinkle, layer, fold, paint and pin maps to produce revised versions that often become more like the terrains they represent. These new geographies explore notions of place, perception and experience, suggesting the potential for a broader landscape and inviting viewers to examine their relationships with each other and the world we share.”  Shannon Rankin

The Keeper by selflesh (who appears to be the alter-ego of Shannon Rankin).  Image measures approximately 8" x 14"  An archival print of an original map collage made with vintage maps, embroidered with blue thread and painted gouache dots.

Beirut Caoutchouc, by Marwan Rechmaoui, 2004, Engraved rubber, 3 x 825 x 675 cm.  The Saatchi Gallery 
Marwin Rechmaoui is a Lebanese artist whose work often deals with themes of urban development and social history.  His Beirut Caoutchouc is a large black rubber floor mat in the shape of Beirut's current map.  Embossed in precise detail with roads and byways and segmented into 60 individual pieces demarcating neiborhoods, Rechmaoui's installation scrutinizes the physical and social formation of one of the world's most conflicted cities.  Through this piece, Rechmaoui highlights there divisions to question the underlying causes and consequences of cultural difference, affiliation, and identity, and explore how the city's troubled history has both impacted and shaped the everyday lives of its inhabitants.  
Detail from "Cambridge," Human Geographies, by Ed Fairburn

A couple by Bill Will, Portland, Oregon installation artist, and teacher at the Oregon College of Art and Craft.  I love that, on his website, he lists the lat-long coordinates of his studio location!  

1000 Chrysler Drive, Auburn Hills, Michigan, from the series “Anthropocene,” kaleidoscope-inspired aerial images from Dublin photographer David Thomas Smith
“Composited from digital files drawn from aerial views taken from internet satellite images, this work reflects upon the complex structures that make up the centers of global capitalism, transforming the aerial landscapes of sites associated with industries such as oil, precious metals, consumer culture information and excess. Thousands of seemingly insignificant coded pieces of information are sown together like knots in a rug to reveal a grander spectacle.
Questions of photographic and economic realities are further complicated through the formal use of patterns that have their origins in the ancient civilizations of Persia. This work draws upon the patterns and motifs used by Persian rug makers, especially the way Afghani weavers use the rug to record their experiences more literally with vivid images of the war torn land that surrounds them.
This collision between the old and the new, fact and fiction, surveillance and invisibility, is part of a strategy to reflect on the global order of things.” From the artist’s website, and check out some of his other images at
Also check out the website Rorschmap.  It creates the same type of composites (albeit, in lower quality) using Google Street View images.

Antarctica Penguin Map Collage, by dadadreams at

 The Hudson River and its Watershed, hand-drawn map by Redstone Studios
I am not sure it we should categorize these two as "art" or "cartography," but all the maps by Redstone Studios are like this: hand drawn maps, commemorating personal events or interests, usually by commission, and all incredibly detailed and beautiful.

Attribution unknown.  Indiana Map Girl

Hieronymus Bosch - The Garden of Earthly Delights - The exterior (shutters).
And here are a couple of oldies but goodies: the outer panels (exterior shutters) of the triptych “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” by Hieronymus Bosch, 15th century Nederlandish artist.  It shows the creation of the world, probably on the Third Day, during the creation of plant life, but before the appearance of animals and humans.  This stark grey-green world is in sharp contrast to the inside of the painting, the vivid and lustful garden of paradise, paradise lost, and hell. 

Pencil Sketch of “The Days of Creation,” by Edward Burne-Jones, 1871.
This one I just came across recently on the excellent “The History Blog.”  It is a study sketch by one of my favorite Pre-Raphaelite artists, Sir Edward Burne-Jones, and coincidentally also depicts the creation of the world.  It was a study for a painting, but there was also a series of stained glass windows fabricated by William Morris for a church in Northamptonshire based on the same sketches.  “The picture is divided into six compartments, each representing a day in the Creation of the World, under the symbol of an angel holding a crystal globe, within which is shown the work of a day.  For instance, in the first compartment stands the lonely angel of the First Day, and within the crystal ball Light is being separated from Darkness.”  Wow.  From:

And don’t forget to (re-)visit my post about the memorable and creative “Bogus Art Maps” by students in Geovisualization and Analytical Cartography class a couple of years ago, where the maps are created in the style of various famous artists, at , and David Carter’s painting of Europe According to Vincent van Gogh at  Also, also, see the Hand-drawn Maps at the London Museum

So, this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of contemporary and past art-maps.  If any of you have any favorite art maps, please e-mail them to me at and I will post them, as appropriate. 

UPDATE: Feb 20, 2013
For all of you interested in mental mapping, memory mapping, psychogeography, etc, I recommend taking a look at the website
about Bath's Annual Fringe Visual Arts Festival (Bath, of course, as in Bath, England, the locale of the famous Roman baths and a beautiful Georgian crescent city).  Anyway, this year they are focusing on mapping their city, kind of citizen mapping, and exhibiting the results in something called "Is This Bath?"
Some of their suggestions for making a personal, unofficial map of your city are really nice, and I would love to see someone do something like this in NYC.  Very cool! 

Here is part of what they say, but check out some of the actual maps on the site. 
"Call for Submissions:
Opportunity to create and exhibit your own map of Bath as part of Fringe Arts Bath.
An invitation for work that creatively ‘maps’ an individual’s interpretation of Bath. Not judged on geographical accuracy, inventive submissions based on genuine experience will be merited. Work might enlighten the visitor, amuse the local or challenge a perception of Bath.
What have you experienced in Bath that 'official' maps of Bath don't communicate?

The possibilities are endless, for example....
* A map of your dog's favourite walking route
* The best cider pubs (and what happened there!)
* Places you've worked
* Memories of a student past
* Benches you've eaten a pasty on
* Holiday encounters with Bath
* Pigeon hotspots
* The location of your dream property portfolio"

UPDATE February 26, 2013:
Also see
for my February 23rd, 2013 presentation on "Cartography and Communication: Telling the Story with Maps," in conjunction with the "Contemporary Cartographies" exhibit at the Lehman Art Gallery. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Crime and Lead in the Environment

Could exposure to lead in the environment be the cause of excessive violence in the 20th century?  In New Orleans, lead levels [in the soil] can vary dramatically from one neighborhood to the next—and the poorest neighborhoods tend to be the worst hit. At the neighborhood level, these match up well with crime rate maps.  Maps by Karen Minot in “America’s Real Criminal Element: Lead” from: 

Crime rates have gone down in most urban areas over the past 20 years or so.  Politicians and police chiefs (especially in Rudy Giuliani’s New York) attribute this to better policing, stronger enforcement, fighting major crime through cracking down on minor crimes via “broken windows” policies, and higher rates of arrest and incarceration.  Some social scientists have attributed the falling crime rates to the changing demographics – fewer young men in their 20’s after the Baby Boom generation.  Others claim there is a connection between the economy and criminal activity – when one improves, the other goes down, and vice versa.  Or was it the crack epidemic in the 1970’s that led to the increase in crime, and when that had run its course, crime rates plunged?  Or was it Roe v. Wade, legalizing abortion in the 1970’s, and preventing the birth of unwanted children that would have grown up to be criminals in the 1990’s (??!!).  None of these theories is borne out by facts, however. 
So what could be the cause, then, of this precipitous drop in crime? Mark Kleiman, in his book “When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment,” says “Given the decrease in lead exposure among children since the 1980s and the estimated effects of lead on crime, reduced lead exposure could easily explain a very large proportion — certainly more than half — of the crime decrease of the 1994-2004 period.   A careful statistical study relating local changes in lead exposure to local crime rates estimates the fraction of the crime decline due to lead reduction as greater than 90%.” 
On the individual level, high childhood blood lead levels are consistently associated with higher adult arrest rates for violent crime.  On the aggregate, geographic levels, research going back to at least 2007 has shown that there is a spatial linkage between areas with high lead levels and high crime rates.  And the statistics were looked at for many cities in the U.S., large and small, as well as nine other countries, and they all seem to follow the trend: when the lead was taken out of gasoline, crime decreased about 20 years later.  New York City, for instance, had strong childhood lead-poisoning policies put in place in the 1970’s, just in time for the drop in crime when the children born in that period were no longer being impacted by lead in the environment.  “Childhood lead exposure can lead to psychological deficits that are strongly associated with aggressive and criminal behavior.  In the late 1970s in the United States, lead was removed from gasoline under the Clean Air Act.  Using the sharp state-specific reductions in lead exposure resulting from this removal, this article finds that the reduction in childhood lead exposure in the late 1970s and early 1980s is responsible for significant declines in violent crime in the 1990s, and may cause further declines into the future. The elasticity of violent crime with respect to lead is estimated to be approximately 0.8.”  from: “Environmental Policy as Social Policy? The Impact of Childhood Lead Exposure on Crime,” by Jessica Wolpaw Reyes, National Bureau of Economic Research, NBER Working Paper No. 13097, 2007
The Washington Post notes that “The United States has had two spikes of lead poisoning: one at the turn of the 20th century, linked to lead in household paint, and one after World War II, when the use of leaded gasoline increased sharply.  Both times, the violent crime rate went up and down in concert, with the violent crime peaks coming two decades after the lead poisoning peaks.  Other evidence has accumulated in recent years that lead is a neurotoxin that causes impulsivity and aggression, but these studies have also drawn little attention.  In 2001, sociologist Paul B. Stretesky and criminologist Michael Lynch showed that U.S. counties with high lead levels had four times the murder rate of counties with low lead levels, after controlling for multiple environmental and socioeconomic factors,”  From The Washington Post, 2007, “Research Links Lead Exposure, Criminal Activity: Data May Undermine Giuliani's Claims”
“A scatter-plot of the relationship between air Pb and the latent 22 year aggravated assault rate in New Orleans showing the best fit linear solution (r2 = 0.853, p < 0.001).”  from “The urban rise and fall of air lead (Pb) and the latent surge and retreat of societal violence” in Environment International, 2012, by Mielke and Zahran at
I apologize that this figure is so small and hard to read, but you can see the trend line clearly, and the correlation is unmistakable, even without being able to read the axes!  Taking into account lead emissions and aggravated assault, the model developed in this study explains 90% of the variation in the six US cities examined.  “Prevention of children's lead exposure from lead dust now will realize numerous societal benefits two decades into the future, including lower rates of aggravated assault,” (Mielke and Zahran, 2012).
            Of course, even though lead has been banished from gasoline in the US, we are not out of the woods yet:  “As it turns out, tetraethyl lead is like a zombie that refuses to die.  Our cars may be lead-free today, but they spent more than 50 years spewing lead from their tailpipes, and all that lead had to go somewhere.  And it did: It settled permanently into the soil that we walk on, grow our food in, and let our kids play around….. Lead in soil doesn't stay in the soil.  Every summer, like clockwork, as the weather dries up, all that lead gets kicked back into the atmosphere in a process called resuspension. The zombie lead is back to haunt us,” (Kevin Drum, Mother Jones)
The Mother Jones article is really worth reading in its entirety (2 pages) at and see the blog post "The Grime Behind the Crime," by Monbiot for more info on this interesting theory.

Thanks, Shaky Sherpa, for sending me the Mother Jones link, and Julia Radcliffe, over in Glasgow, for sending me the Monbiot link. 

UPDATE, 2/20/2013 “Lead Exposure on the Rise Despite Decline in Poisoning Cases: Leaded gasoline and lead paint are gone, but other sources are keeping the danger high" 

 I just saw this in the Scientific American.  It seems as though we all still have lead levels in our blood that are too high, even if people are not being poisoned by lead as much anymore.  Even though lead is not put in automobile fuel anymore, and lead paint is not as much of an issue, after having been phased out in the 1970's, there is still danger of lead exposure
And although some of the people who commented on the article scoffed at the potential contribution of ammunition to lead exposure, I remember back in the '90s when I worked at the DEP, the big brouhaha that ensued over the clean-up of the NYPD firing range in Pelham Bay Park and the extreme lead contamination that was present. All that soil had to be removed and put somewhere.  This problem is more prevalent and wide-spread than you might think.  (think Vieques, PR, and many other current and former military installations, etc.) 
“Lead Exposure on the Rise Despite Decline in Poisoning Cases: Leaded gasoline and lead paint are gone, but other sources are keeping the danger high” in the Scientific American, Feb. 17, 2013  Excerpt: 
“Lead is still prevalent in our environment for many reasons. Because lead does not degrade, heavy emissions from the past accumulate in soil. Winds, especially during drought—like that afflicting the Midwest for the past year or so—kick it up as dust, and runoff from heavy rains and flooding can re-suspend the particles in the atmosphere. Trees take up soil particles, too, but when forests burn in wildfires, as has been occurring more frequently worldwide with global warming in recent years, that lead is released back into the air. Fires also release lead from old houses and buildings coated with lead paint that was applied prior to the U.S. ban. Lead smelting and refining is still an enormous industry worldwide, sending more of the metal into the environment. Aviation gas used in planes still contains lead.
Lead is still present in drinking water in many communities, where it can leach from lead pipes in homes, apartment buildings and municipal water system, or from brass fittings or solder used in plumbing. Another 25,000 to 30,000 tons of lead enters the U.S. environment each year from hunting and shooting-range ammunition, fishing-line weights, discarded batteries and electronic waste, said Mark Pokras at Tufts University. Coal-burning power plants in developed nations also generate some lead in emissions and more so in ash, and the steep rise in coal power in China has boosted levels worldwide because regulations are more lax.”