Manhattan, Here and There

Contributor’s note: Rebecca Cooper wrote this in the Year of Dairy Products from the American Heartland, give or take some subsidized time.

“No no no. So let me tell you. I did this quiz in the New York Post: ‘How Much of a New Yorker Are You?’ Or some shit. Man, I've lived here my whole life, so I was like, I got this shit. But shit man. The quiz was hard. It's like I don't know this stuff: ‘'What's the highest Subway station in New York?’'”

I shrugged.

“Smith-9 Street in Brooklyn. What!” the man continued, his flailing arms almost thwacking a girl in a fuchsia jumpsuit. She mashed her gum loudly. The man didn't notice. “Who knows that shit? That's not New York. Here's the one I got.   What's the only borough that's connected to the mainland?”

I should know this. I'm walking down the length of Broadway to hand out blank maps of Manhattan to strangers. My roommate Ama Francis and I have 480 more maps and just over 12 more miles ahead of us.

“The Bronx?” I say.

“Yea! My friend liaves there ‘cause it's the only part of New York that's connected to the mainland, so if shit goes down, he can just keep running. You know. Cause elsewhere, it'd be like: Run—water! Ah!”

The stranger pretends the boundary of his concrete block is the edge of the island.

Run!” He hits the crack in the pavement closest to me. “Water! Blah!” He spins 90 degrees and runs north on Broadway toward 214th Street—“Run!”-- until he hits the edge of the concrete tile, spins again over his right shoulder, runs away from me, his black high tops practically screeching on the hot July pavement—Water!—spins again, runs. He looks like a pinball or a frenetic toddler in a tiny playpen.

“But in the Bronx he could just keep running.” He breathes hard. “9 /11 did different things to people.”

The summer air hangs above the asphalt as if it’s thick enough to stir.

“Anyway, girl, I'll take your map. I'll do it for you. You want me to map the shit that means something to me? What Manhattan is for me? Okay. You got it, babe. Good luck.”

My blank maps are 3.5” x 7” postcards with a cartoon outline of Manhattan on the inside. The island looks like, as Truman Capote puts it, “a diamond iceberg” floating between the East and Hudson Rivers. Or as Pat Flanagan writes in his postcard to me, months after handing him a map, “an abdomen without the appendages necessary for life,”, “a halved steer,”, “a leg of lamb” one meat hook shy of a slaughter house.   I think it looks more like a jalapeno pepper, with a vein down the middle for Broadway, a transverse line for Houston Street, a rectangular blemish for Central Park and a baby pepper, or maybe a stray leaf, by its side for Roosevelt Island.

It’'s nearing the end of the first hour, the noon sun is just about standing over us, and Ama and I are finally past Inwood Hill Park. We’'ve handed three maps to the Watchtower ladies sitting on the edge of the park, giving out the religious pamphlets. In return for their accepting our maps, we took our own reading material—two brochures, one on depression and the other on “Global Warming?”. I hand a map to a woman tending a churros stand at the corner of 198th and Broadway by trying to pass my Italian off for Spanish.  Draw your mind is the phrase that finally got her to take it. A post office worker, dripping with sweat, palms one without listening to the explanation.    

Ama spots a tall, burly man leaning against an M100 bus post on Dyckman Street, where Broadway meets with the final segment of Riverside Drive. A baseball bat and a duffel bag large enough for four basketballs drape from his sides. Ama approaches him. Even with the sun almost directly overhead, she stands in his shade.

“Hi! We're doing a mapping project of Manhattan and we were—--”

He pulls out an earbud from under his sweatband. “Huh?”

I realize it looks like he could eat her.

“We're doing a community art project, giving out blank maps of Manhattan, and asking people to represent Manhattan in a way that'’s meaningful to them. You can draw, write, label. And—--”

“Wait what?”   

“We... we want you to record the stuff in Manhattan that makes it home. Whatever you like. ”

“I take this and draw anything I want on it?”

We both nod.

“Anything?”

“Anything,” Ama says, “and then you mail it back to us.”

He puts out a hand. The skinny map looks even more miniature in his grip.

“Thanks!” Ama says, turning back south on Broadway.

“Wait. Have you guys been to Inwood?” he asks, pointing uptown. “Some great basketball courts up there. Real good places to picnic.”

“We just passed by—”

“Because one time in that park I saw this hummingbird by a flowering tree, just like beating its wings a million times a minute. And I walk up close and that thing is beating faster than anything I’ve seen in my life. Its little heart going ba-boom ba-broom in its chest. Have you ever seen a hummingbird?”

Ama says in Dominica, where she grew up, yes.

“I can map that?” he asks.

“Of course.”

“Because really. Have you seen a hummingbird from up close?”

Broadway runs north-south across the length of Manhattan. It starts from Bowling Green in the south and cuts northwest across the island from 10th Street to 79th, where it unkinks itself, rejoins the grid, and forms the spine of the Upper West Side. From there, it runs almost perfectly straight the rest of the way to Inwood, jumps over the Broadway Bridge, continues through Marble Hill, a sneaky little part of Manhattan that'’s not actually connected to the island, and goes up through Yonkers and Sleepy Hollow before disappearing into Route 9.

It used to be a Native American path, cut through the brush and swamps of old Mannahattan, called the Wickquasgeck Trail. When the Dutch came, they took it as their main highway and renamed it Breede Weg. Then the English won out, and anglicized it to Broadway. But it wasn’t until 1899, when Mayor Robert Van Wyck signed a law changing the name of Western Boulevard—the segment above Columbus Circle—to Broadway that the whole avenue became unified under the same name.

It’s hour three and it’s starting to feel like Broadway' is a conveyor belt with Manhattan zipping by on either side. English appears out of the Spanish. Awnings for “CA$H LOAN$” and C-Town morph into red brick facades laced with ivy. The metal skeleton of the IRT subway line sinks into the ground at 122nd Street.

Ama and I have started taking bets on who will and won’t respond agreeably. A woman hobbles out of RiteAid near 110th street, dragging her left foot behind her right. Ama says no. I say yes:

“What? What do you want? Directions or money?”

“Actually we’re doing a mapping project...”

“And how much do I have to pay for it?”

“Nothing.”

“Oh in that case, thanks sweeties.”

Empirically, the hipsters are too snide. Three of four Columbia undergraduates stop, but the Columbia Medical Students can’t be bothered. Ama considers doing a sociological project in tandem with my cartographic one.

An elderly man, hunched over his empty shopping cart, shuffles uptown on Broadway. We both bet no. He looks up from staring at his brown orthopedic shoes when I ask him to join the project.

“Map my memories? All my memories are from here for the last 80 years.”

His accent is the thick Polish-Yiddish one I imagine my father’s grandparents had when they settled in the tenements on the Lower East Side. He lingers on the r’s. I wonder if he was around as Jewish Harlem changed to Italian Harlem and changed again into Spanish Harlem. I wonder what he thinks of the Whole Foods opening 10 blocks away. Or of the mannequins in mesh underwear bent over in the American Apparel store window behind him.

He takes a map.“This is all I know. Is that okay?”

In 2000, the city of New York dedicated a division of the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunication (DOITT) to geographic information system (GIS) mapping. Its prize creation, NYCityMAP, is possibly one of the most complete maps of any city ever made. It was designed to be the first fully integrated map of the city, for use when multiple agencies need to be working from the same document, like in the event of a water main break.

They’ve released an online version for anyone to use.   Click on any building in the five boroughs and the map will tell you the year it was built, the real estate owner, the number of floors, the approximate number of units. Select from the menu on the right and you can see all the subway entrances, all the traffic cameras, every garage and off-street parking lot. Last month they added the ability to scroll between aerial views of Manhattan in 2008, 2006 and 1924. Now you can watch old Penn Station emerge from where Madison Square Garden currently buries it.

The Map “may be the first great map in which the old cartographic function, to point a path, matters less than a new one: to provide a picture of everything, in depth, in case, for now,” Adam Gopnik wrote in 2000 when the base map of NYCityMap was unveiled. “Yet the Map, being all maps to all men, will, in its nature, remain forever unfinished.”[1]

On 86th and Broadway, Ama and I spot in a floppy fisherman’s hat man surveying the table vendors selling old books and wire jewelry. Pat Flanagan, he says his name is.

“I just love this,” he says.  “You know why?   I just moved up to the Bronx, but for the first seventy years, this,” he gestures to Broadway, “this was it. It’s ALL memories. Nights out drinking. Old lovers and heart ache. People think they know this area, but you see that grille?”

He waits until I follow the line of his pointing finger and face the street.

“People pass by this street every day but they never notice that cast-iron fence. It’s got to be over 100 years old. If the subway was built in 1904, and the grilles needed to be there for ventilation from the very beginning… Well let me tell you. Your project is about creativity, yes?”

I nod.

“Well there’s nothing more creative than a bunch of 12-year-olds left to their own devices. I used to hang out there with the neighborhood boys when I was 12 and we would all go exploring. We’d never get in trouble or anything like that… but those grilles are the access points to the subway tunnels. And let. M. Tell. You. It’s like the 19th century down there. I’ll map all of it for you. You’ll be hearing from me, Rebecca.”

The summer after my freshman year of college, I worked on my own Sisyphean project for a nonprofit called CultureNOW: a giant map of all the public art work in Manhattan. My boss insisted that every street be named, every piece of artwork be both labeled and pictured on the front, and cross-referenced on the back, with information about the provenance, artist, location, and material. The selling point of the map, according to my boss, was that it was the “largest compilation of art in the public realm to date.”

For a while, the file was so unwieldy that every time I tried to open it, Adobe self-destructed.

I doubt very much that anyone can make sense of the final product. It’s little more than noise, really—with a super baroque system of organization.

Yet for all that effort to be complete, the map still became, secretly, my vision of the city. Inside my lime green office, I decided what counted as public and what counted as art. Should a carousel count as a piece of public art? What about the statues in the gardens at the UN? Does the UN count as a public space? What about the artwork inside public schools and hospitals?

It’s from this mess that this fractured map project—with its aim to put the work of one cartographer into the hands of many—emerged. The idea was not just to acknowledge, but to celebrate,   the bias of the mapmaker, and to recognize the impossibility of completion from the start.

2PM: Ama and I are skidding just west of Central Park when the sky cracks and it starts to pour. Fearing a shoebox full of  200 moist maps, we seek shelter in the cafe by Lincoln Center where I run into my old high school history teacher. We make small talk; I hide my mid-afternoon mojito.   Rain slides down the sheets of glass. I jot down notes about the expedition—something about New York   starting to feel like a small town, the fear of going up to strangers, wearing off.

The rain lets up, and we stumble out to 66th street. The air smells fresher, and it sticks less thickly. I slip three maps in quick succession through a McDonald’s store window, through the vent in a movie vendor’s ticket booth, into the hands of a Mr. Softee driver.

Just past Columbus Circle, a man is digging through the recycling.. “Can I have two?” he asks. “ So I can keep one?”

42nd street speeds by. Or maybe we speed by it. I’m reminded of David Letterman’s description of it as a petting zoo now that they’ve closed the street down and have reserved it for “pinkening Brits and pooped grandmothers.”[2] I’m also reminded of my Russian roommate’s description of it—it really does look like an airport. But the signs are shiny and the theaters really are impressive. We hand a couple of cops some maps and they stuff them in the fronts of their uniforms.   

34th street zooms by.

Ama and I cut through the Flatiron District, and pass through the nondescript stretch of Broadway between 18th and 13th, where Broadway is the borderland between the Meatpacking District and Union Square. Distracted by some conversation about food—we’re starving by this point--we lose Broadway near 10th street. Finding our way takes 15 minutes. Ama teases me about getting lost in the city I grew up in.

“Where is what you were looking for?” a voice calls after me. High-pitched, giggling.

I look down at a head of duckfluff blonde hair, clumped from the humidity, and further down still at a set of bloodshot blue eyes hidden by glasses. “Truman,” he says, shaking my hand. “And, by the way, what are you looking for?”

He slips me a piece of paper: “It is a myth, the city, for anyone, everyone, a different myth, an idol-head with traffic-light eyes winking a tender green, a cynical red. This island, floating in river water like a diamond iceberg, call it New York, name it whatever you like; the name hardly matters because, entering from the greater reality of elsewhere, one is only in search of a city, a place to hide or lose or discover oneself, to make a dream wherein you prove that perhaps after all you are not an ugly duckling, but wonderful, and worthy of love.”[3]

I have to admit, he says, that there is something essentially elsewhere about New York. It is a place that people come to precisely because it doesn’t ever offer itself fully.

Truman asks if I can hear it—the typewriter, a mile uptown, going clackety clackety schpling in pursuit of Here Is New York. “There are roughly three New Yorks,” E.B. White bangs out in his room at the Algonquin during the feverish heat spell of July 1948. “There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born there... and accepts its size and its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter—the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. Of these trembling cities the greatest is the last—the city of final destination, the city that is a goal.”

Or what about those shears? Truman asks if I can hear Gay Talese, a few blocks down the street,   splicing together ledes from Times articles.   “New York is a city of things unnoticed. It is a city with cats sleeping under parked cars, two stone armadillos crawling up St. Patrick'’s Cathedral, and thousands of ants creeping on top of the Empire State Building. The ants  probably were carried up there by wind or birds, but nobody is sure; nobody in New York knows any more about the ants than they do about the panhandler who takes taxis to the Bowery; or the dapper man who picks trash out of Sixth Avenue trash cans; or the medium in the West Seventies who claims, '‘I am clairvoyant, clairaudient, and clairsensuous.'’”[4]

New York is always here and there, n'’est-ce pas? he says. You can live here your whole life and never own it. Have it always remain just beyond your reach. It'’s intoxicating. Keeps you on your toes, keeps you drinking coffee, and keeps you walking.

Listen, he says, and Adam Gopnik whispers, “New York is always somewhere else,. “Across the river or on the back of the front seat of the taxi... We keep coming home to New York to try and look for it again.”[5]

“How can you map something you'’re still looking for?” Truman asks and skips off.

Our knees ache by the time we reach SoHo, when the numbered streets give out to “Prince” and “Spring” and “Mercer.” It'’s about 4:30pm and the easy conveyor belt of the Upper West Side has disappeared. We'’re pulling ourselves along now. Fifteen maps remain to give out.

“And what, by the way, are you looking for” echoes in the Canyon of Heroes.

“Merci beaucoup,” I say, handing the last map to a young Parisian girl sitting at the edge of Battery Park,   sketching the water into her book.

Ama and I fall into a bench a few down from her. I’m sore and covered in dirt—literally. I swipe my finger across my chest, and it comes up black and greasy. I am hungry and tired and lost and satisfied and exhausted. We check the time: 6:27pm. I mark it down.

It just feels so good to sit down. To sink into a bench warmed by the summer. We stare blankly ahead, at the pedestrians and the bike riders, at the waterfront just beyond, at the confluence of the Hudson and East Rivers in the distance

I try to remember why this map project meant so much to me. Why I needed to know that I could put a little bit of New York down on paper. Why I would walk 13 miles to capture just a fraction of it. Why I needed to believe that Manhattan would arrive piece by piece to my P.O. Box over the next few weeks.

The waves lap at the base of the Statue of Liberty.   My knees ache, my shoebox of maps is empty. I’ve tried my best to find it. I’m physically unable to go any farther—the street stops and the water laces protectively around. Yet the Statue still rises up in the distance, almost mocking my hereness. The city is still just ahead, essentially elsewhere. There.


[1]  Adam Gopnik, “Street Furniture,” The New Yorker, November 6, 2000.

[2] Lauren Collins, the New Yorker talk of the town, “Zoo York,”The New Yorker, September 14, 2009. http://www.newyorker.com/talk/comment/2009/09/14/090914taco_talk_collins

[3] Truman Capote, “New York” Portraits and Observations, 1946. (p. 10)

[4] Gay Talese, “New York is a City of Things Unnoticed,” The Gay Talese Reader.  

[5] Adam Gopnik, Iintroduction to Through the Children's Gate.