You Are Here: NYC: Mapping the Soul of the City

You Are Here NYC: Mapping the Soul of the CityAn exhibition taking place now at the New York City Library, Picturing the City: Illustrated Maps of NYC, features 16 pictorial maps from the Library’s collection of illustrations. Running until 9 April 2018, it’s curated by Katharine Harmon, whose book, You Are Here: NYC: Mapping the Soul of the City, came out last November from Princeton Architectural Press. Here’s an interview with Harmon about the exhibition in Print magazine.

This seems as good an excuse as any to take a closer look at You Are Here: NYC. Past time, actually, since I’ve had a review copy in my hands for a year now.

You Are Here: NYC is the third of Katharine Harmon’s map books. The first, You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination, came out in 2003, the second, The Map as Art: Contemporary Artists Explore Cartography, in 2010. Harmon’s distinctive style in editing and curating these books, carries over to the present volume.

First, none of the art is presented bare: Harmon provides one or more full paragraphs providing background and context; like its predecessors, You Are Here: NYC is also peppered with short essays by guest contributors discussing specific pieces in more depth.

Second, Harmon has an expansive view of what constitutes art. There is a great deal of the sort of art that hangs in galleries, but sculptures, textiles and physical installations (represented photographically) are also included. There are also many examples of functional but beautiful maps: not just illustrated works like bird’s-eye maps or pictorial maps, but even geologic maps, maps rendered by computer, and more. Even the Mannahatta Project is included.

And third, Harmon juxtaposes the maps in ways you might not expect: an 1859 map is presented face-to-face with a map from 1967; the maps have nothing to do with one another except that their designs have resonant similarities. These similarities are found across styles of art as well as centuries: nautical charts and fire insurance maps are mixed in with the deliberately artistic and the whimsical.

Fine and good. That Harmon applies her method to maps of a single city may raise eyebrows. Can a single city provide enough material—enough art, enough maps—to fill a volume? Yes, if the city is New York. To map a city like New York is to map a living organism: it comes down to the significance of You Are Here: NYC‘s subtitle (or sub-subtitle): Mapping the Soul of the CityAs I wrote in my review of Rebecca Solnit’s Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas, “Not every city has a soul: some are decidedly soulless. But while I’ve never been to San Francisco, it seems to me that it, at least, is one that does. Cities like that can be magical places: they don’t just have histories, but mythologies, too.” I’ve never been to New York, but I recognize it in Harmon’s pages. I see its pulse, its breath. There are a few other cities in the world that could also generate sufficient artistic and cartographic grist for Harmon’s mill. But not many.

I received a review copy from the publisher’s Canadian distributor.

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