You’ll look up and down streets. Look ’em over with care.
About some you will say, “I don’t choose to go there.”
With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet,
you’re too smart to go down any not-so-good street.
-Oh the Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss-
I wouldn’t put it past Dr. Theodor Seuss Geisel to have been an avid explorer. His writing is indicative of a person so engaged with the world that he had to find completely new and different ways to describe the contents of his imagination. New vocabulary, new ways of putting letters together to form words that confuse and buzz and zing and fill your mouth up with foreign sounds. I can imagine that he had a great sense of place, whether that was in the places he created in his mind or in the places he actually lived.
As Dr. Seuss’s whimsical books seem to connote, there’s something very satisfying about developing a sense of place– finding your favorite spots to shop, sit and write, look at views, find comfort, etc. Over time, we get to know and love a place so well that we are able to draw maps in our minds. Streets that intersect and divert, curve and continue straight, leading us to our destinations both familiar and yet-to-be-known. I remember the happiness I felt after I had successfully imagined San Francisco. This, of course, happened after a while- a summer of examining the MUNI map and taking BART downtown as well as a month or so of working towards my goal of visiting every library and using every bus line in the city. It was certainly a process developing this sense of place, but eventually I could envision which neighborhoods each transit line ran through and where I would need to transfer to the next location. If one bus was running late, I could immediately think of alternatives. My body reached a certain state of rightness, of accomplishment, at knowing my place so well and being able to anticipate its quirks- which street careened unexpectedly to the side and which streets ended conveniently in stairways, which would guide me downwards. I also got much joy out of showing other people around my places.
I have always been an urban explorer, from the earliest days of tromping down the quaint stairways of my neighborhood with my mom when I was an infant. Gridded neighborhoods have always been boring to me as my true challenge in urban exploration is knowing areas which have unexpected surprises- streets that wind around counter-intuitively, streets that aren’t numbered, hidden stairways, and covert alleyways between houses. And, as I have alluded to earlier, it is ultimately maps that help us sort out all these things, or at least help us get a better sense of what is really there. I remember my first summer back from college, when I became enraptured with the neighborhood of my childhood- I fell in love with it again, in its forested, columned-house, horse-hitched, historic glory. But, being re-ignited with a love for this place didn’t just happen spontaneously on its own. I found a walking map of SW Portland at the SW Community Center, marked beautifully with a fully-stocked key: streets, bike paths, pedestrian-only paths, stairways, schools, grocery stores, etc. I became obsessed with finding all the stairways within walking distance from me, a practice that I am still fascinated by today.
Along similar lines, I spent last week poring over a Google map of Northeast Portland. I was doing outreach in many neighborhoods around this quadrant for Portland Parks and Recreation, advertising their outdoor preschool program. I mapped out my route from one destination to the next (schools to grocery stores to libraries), trying to envision what this trip would be like, the people I would meet, the streets I would walk or drive by along the way. The map was a preparation tool, a meditation almost on the task at hand, giving me a preview of the lay of the land from above, devoid of trees or buildings to obstruct my view or understanding of geography. Mapping each transition eased my mind and stimulated my visual memory. But it wasn’t until I got out on the roads that the world I had previewed came alive. Students walking across the street, schools hidden down small, unmarked alleys, the exhilaration at finding my destination materialize after just seeing it on the map. I discovered school gardens in their winter rest, tiny bookstores disguised as cabooses, and visited two libraries, one of my favorite places to be. And, as usual when putting on my urban explorer hat, I imagined I was a local, venturing into my neighborhood Whole Foods to buy and apple and some yogurt.
In contemplating my relationship with cities, I cannot imagine my reckless sense of discovery without the aid of maps. They are practical, they lay out the truth, they are always reliable, and they prepare our minds to discover a new area. But, they inevitably fall short of the wonder that is reality. I’m not saying maps are lackluster, in fact they can be works of art, but at the end of the day, in their functionality, they are just preparations for our love affair with places rooted in reality. Especially these maps we use in our daily lives- the Google Maps and the GPS systems- they are flat and contain little color, but can enlighten us on the cut and dried street names and intersections. As I said, functionality.
So what are the value of maps, in an increasingly technologically-dependent society? Is their value only in their flat, colorless, navigational purpose? What is the place for maps as helpful tools when people are becoming directionally-illiterate? As a city-phile and explorer who grew up in a household where atlases of the United States were reading material (ahem, my dad), this concept of directional illiteracy is so sad to me. How can I keep this culture of map reading alive? Can maps be more than just navigational tools? Can they be windows, previews if you will, to a wonder-filled exploration of place?
As a matter of fact, just a few weeks ago, I just happened to catch the first few minutes of one of my favorite radio shows on OPB/NPR called “Think Out Loud.” It is “a daily show about politics and global issues, music and sports, books and the environment — anything and everything that can sustain an hour of live, unscripted conversation.” In other words, an incredibly interesting public interest radio show of conversations about a myriad of topics with fascinating professionals. NW community members also have the opportunity to call in via phone to weigh in on the issues. In this particular episode, they happened to be interviewing Dave Imus, a cartographer from Eugene, OR who recently won The Cartography and Geographic Information Society’s Best in Show award for his 2010 map, The Essential Geography of the United States of America. Lauded for his clarity and beauty in map-making, Imus spent twenty minutes discussing the philosophy and virtue of maps and what their place is in this technological age. One of his most prominent points is that maps do create a sense of place, through their interpretation of land. As Imus puts it, maps show us what lies over the horizon before you’re there. He also characterizes the cartographer’s job as akin to a curator, a curator of geographic information. After all, it is the cartographer who ultimately chooses what is important on the landscape and what should be imparted on a map.
Imus also stressed the artistic side of maps. As you can see above, Imus is a talented cartographer, aptly merging within his maps the practical aspect of navigation with a sense of clarity that reflects his artistic eye. When cartography is viewed as an artistic endeavor, it an represents the pride of the place. In the most literal sense of “Pride,” I recall a specific map that represents this concept perfectly. Rebecca Solnit’s book Infinite Cities, which I have discussed at length in this blog, is an atlas of incredibly creative maps. She constructs a “treasure map” of San Francisco, imagining it as an island akin to Robert Lewis Stevenson’s creation and maps “Monarchs and Queens,” butterfly habitats paralleling queer public spaces, among many others. Though Solnit’s maps are not necessarily for navigational purposes, her question, “What makes a place?” rings loud and clear, echoing my thoughts on the purpose of maps that I detailed earlier. Solnit and Imus agree that cartography is an incredibly active process, as the cartographer, the curator, gets to creatively connect many possible strains of association that we can place on landscape. (For instance, Imus has highlighted many birthplaces of Presidents in his big map of the United States).
Ultimately, my concern still stands. People want to be told where to go, not figure out by themselves. And most people do not even think twice about intentionally learning more about the place in which they live, relying on lackluster maps and digital voices to tell them where to turn. As we integrate ourselves into a physical landscape and map it in our minds, as well as place ourselves in the context of geographical history, we have the possibility to impart more meaning to our daily actions. As one of the listeners of “Think Out Loud” commented on their Facebook page, “Maps teach perspective, relationship, scope, problem solving, awareness for detail, the joy of discovery, they ground me and provide a sense of possibility unfolding.”
When I asked my dad, the atlas-reader, what his thoughts were on the matter, he was excited to reply. And to my delight, he responded in a similar way to what I had already written. He told me that he reads maps because, “It gives you a two-dimensional grounding for imagining what the ground is like where you’re going to travel. [Reading maps] helps me plan ahead.” Outside of a base navigational purpose, he also said that it is entertaining for him to “imagine going to another place” by reading maps. He and Dave Imus would enjoy sitting down over a cup of tea, as Imus discusses this exact concept. He calls it “Armchair Traveling.” Evidently, maps are exciting tools. They can be used for navigational purposes, helping us get where we want to go. They prepare us for an enhanced exploration of place, giving us a preview of what we can expect. They help us be more aware of the world around us, pointing out destinations we wouldn’t have ordinarily noticed. They can be pieces of art, demonstrating a clarity of landscape and interpreting a place culturally, geographically, historically, etc. And as Dr. Seuss seems to imply (though he doesn’t necessarily reference map-use), maps impart the beauty in possibility, showing us places we may desire to visit someday. Oh! the places we’ll go!
And just for fun: