We’ve seen a lot of maps in the past six months, but a multitude of maps doesn’t necessarily translate into an expanded sense of the territory. It can be awfully hard to find one’s place. During last fall’s US presidential election, voter maps of the United States reduced complicated demographics to the visual equivalent of sound bites. The maps tallying the final results for the presidential race split the country into stark binaries of red and blue, popular and electoral. State-level maps showed gerrymandered districts that made divisions even starker and weirder. In the face of these particular maps (and the implications of their information), it can be difficult to remember that there are other ways of mapping ourselves, other ways of looking at the wide range of similarities and differences that give shape to a place and a population.
But there are maps that tell a more nuanced story—maps that catalogue social and cultural complexity, and teach us to engage with difference in productive and generous ways. One compelling model of such mapping is the trilogy of atlases organized and edited by Rebecca Solnit, along with Rebecca Snedecker and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro. Each volume in this series explores a single American city—San Francisco, New Orleans, and New York. Map after map surveys the many worlds that intersect in each of these places, attending to the complicated details of what one contributor calls “the geosocial constellations of our lives.” From these concrete, individual portraits, a more abstract idea of the city emerges, a nexus of individuals and systems, forgotten histories and hidden patterns, outside influences and inner lives.
Infinite, Unfathomable, Nonstop: the titles of these volumes all speak to the capaciousness of their subjects, and each atlas uses a wide variety of scales and configurations in order to capture the rich, embodied experience of a particular place. The New York atlas’s 26 chapters cover the five boroughs and look beyond the city limits to places as close as New Jersey and as far as the Caribbean. They explore the questions of New York’s future raised by both the Occupy movement and the city’s playgrounds and grade schools; and they examine the city’s history in publishing and whaling. The atlases for San Francisco and New Orleans likewise present both intensely local and expansively global aspects of the city. The former contains a map that traces a 4000-year chronology of San Francisco’s eastern coastline; the latter one that reflects on the Arab American community in New Orleans.
The energy of this work derives from Solnit’s conviction that “Every city is many places; the old woman and the young child do not live in the same city, and the rich and the poor, the pedestrian and the wheelchair-bound, black and white inhabit different but not completely separate realms.” This aim of exploring but not “quite reconciling” the many versions and many worlds drives the scope of this project, and the formal and compositional structures of the atlases themselves reflect this generative tension.
Each map is created by a different artist or cartographer and accompanied by a short essay. As with the maps, a wide variety of contributors supply these texts. The volumes’ editors situate the unique authorial voice and cartographic perspective of each map-essay pair within the project’s broader scope by way of a brief comment at the beginning of each chapter. Map and essay work together to trace the trajectories of lives and identities, stuff and sound, across a variety of spaces, systems, and scales. This move effectively unsettles any notion of a definitive sense of place. Instead, maps and essays bring together pairs of unlikely topics, exploring connections and disconnections that often are as illuminating as they are surprising. The gorgeous map “Monarchs and Queens: Butterfly Habitats and Queer Public Spaces” and the companion essay “Full Spectrum” meditate on questions of sanctuary and the beauty of disguise. They record the joy of unfurling one’s bright new wings, and the need for safe places in which to fly. The chapter that includes the map “Of Levees and Prisons: Failures of Containment, Surges of Freedom” and the essay “Lockdown Louisiana” takes up policies of control driven by ideas of “public safety.” The map shows patterns of flooding and stagnation as the devastating effects of decades of prejudiced policies that disproportionately affect poor black communities. In the essay, Lydia Pelot-Hobbs writes, “While it has been forcefully argued that the policies of levees-only and mass incarceration have made southern Louisiana more secure, what these policies have actually done is illuminate whose lives are deemed valuable and who has been rendered disposable time and time again.”
The maps here do not just show the variety of the city; they are products of it.
These conjunctions of disparate topics do not coerce us into imagining artificial resolutions. Rather, they show the friction of intersections and imbrications—the ways in which lives, identities, policies, and the natural world shape and resist each other. In a way, juxtaposition is the textual embodiment of the project’s broader interest in charting the endlessly overlapping problems, perspectives, and crosscurrents that define the places we inhabit.
The project’s visual imagination is also driven by juxtaposition, with many maps combining a variety of styles and cartographic configurations to illustrate the unexpected convergences of experience and systems that form a city. “Archipelago: The Caribbean’s Far North” and “The Mission: North of Home, South of Safe” reconfigure global geography, floating New York’s islands alongside Caribbean ones and placing San Francisco along the US–Mexico border, respectively. This spatial compression, of course, illustrates close social and cultural connections that come with long-term patterns of trade, travel, immigration, and settlement. The unexpected cartographic juxtaposition also enables the maps to chart worlds that are not congruent with geographical contours. In these topical and visual juxtapositions, the books rethink the work of atlases and resist conventional generic claims of definitive representation and mastery over the territory.
Solnit bases this intervention on a provocative distinction between the comprehensive and the infinite. In her introduction to the New York atlas, she writes, “None of the atlases in this trilogy pretends to be comprehensive; each instead is meant to illustrate a few of the myriad ways a city can be described and understood, and thereby to encourage you to recognize that beyond our maps … are endless other ways to map, describe, explore, and imagine cities, these three and every other one. The books are finite, but they try to indicate the infinite possibilities.” The project here is not to show everything but to develop a form of representation that points to the many worlds that lie beyond its own boundaries. And so the atlas must in some ways be separated from conventions of comprehensiveness, totality, and universality. The infinite city needs an endless atlas.
In presenting these cities as capacious, heterogeneous, non-singular places, Solnit repurposes the atlas—a genre long driven by aspirations of comprehensiveness. In its earliest form, the atlas was a collection of maps remarkable for its ability to survey the whole world. The great Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theater of the World), made by the Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius in 1570, was the first book to take the particular form of the atlas: a compendium of maps presented as an aggregated view of the entire planet. In making the Theatrum, Ortelius combined two already-existing forms: the idiosyncratic collections of maps assembled by individual collectors and scholars, and written geographies that surveyed the earth in parts. The Theatrum presented, for the first time, an assemblage of standardized maps that added up to a comprehensive cartography. It fashioned a comprehensive world picture out of detailed miniatures.
This claim of comprehensiveness did not imply that every single topographical feature would be displayed. Rather, the atlas’s aspiration to totality lay in the idea that the contents of the entire world could be organized into smaller categories ranging in scale from continent to nation or territory, from city to rural communities. Whether much or little was known about any given location, it was situated within the broader global picture so that the entire world was accommodated in and defined by these cartographic parcels.
For Ortelius and the Renaissance mapmakers who contributed to later versions of the book, the aggregated structure of the atlas was useful in building a project that aimed at universality. More maps could always be included in the collection. Such additions zoomed in, elaborating on territories that had already been represented at a bigger scale. In this, the first atlas established a system that seemed to accommodate the entire world while also making room for what had not yet been discovered, planned for, or imagined. The maps contained even what they did not explicitly represent. Such formal expansiveness accommodated the rush of new information that came with the early modern exploration of the new world. The book could represent the entire world—not just conceptually or symbolically, but in its capacity to keep up with current knowledge, and to expand along with the world itself.
Solnit repurposes this expansive spirit in her own atlases, presenting them as works that are necessarily limited but have the potential to go on forever. In this case, however, additional maps would not strengthen some definitive reading of a given city, but rather expand the already expansive, multifaceted versions presented in the current books. These atlases work against claims of universality or comprehensiveness by presenting many worlds embedded in the same place. Rather than establishing and reinforcing a single interpretation or lens, each map explores how different categories and other organizational schema shape the experience of a city.
Rebecca Snedeker, coeditor of Unfathomable City, the atlas of New Orleans, writes in its introduction, “There is a shadow atlas, or several, lurking down several forking paths we did not take, and we know that twenty-two maps could only hit at some of the lineaments of a complex city and offer an invitation to settle in.” The self-conscious announcements of the limits of exploration is a move that does not undermine the richness of those explorations but instead serves to keep the openness of the structure visible to readers, to keep the aggregated form visible. This project uses the atlas’s capacious form to organize a sense of lively indeterminacy rather than universal definition. The potentially infinite expansiveness of the collection reflects the wild infinitude of the cities themselves.
In this co-option of the aggregated form, Solnit’s atlases make room for the complications of lived experience and convey a sense of embodied place. Here, too, this modern trilogy reconfigures the intellectual and rhetorical conventions that have historically defined the genre. Traditionally a form of information storage and representation used by the powerful to define a place on their own terms, atlases often ignored or occluded something like a local sense of space and its contents even as they documented the world on a local level. In fact, early modern atlases were useful precisely because they condensed the natural variety of the world into standard conventions of representation.
In these three city atlases, the personal, the local, the political, the civic, and the sheer physical size of the city get tangled up in the maps, essays, and illustrations. Each chapter traces interactions between massively different social, natural, and political scales. This work reflects, rather than reduces, its multifaceted subjects. This is not to say that the maps abandon consistency; they retain a level of cartographic uniformity that allows for legibility. This general visual regularity also reinforces the idea that these are views of a single geographical point. Coastlines remain familiar, and street grids, rivers and parks, the subway system, and neighborhood names appear regularly. But none of the maps indicate the scale at which they are drawn, as if to emphasize that the proportional relationship of image to real territory is only one of many scales that these maps deal with.
In Nonstop Metropolis, Garnette Cadogan’s essay on walking highlights the difference between the human pedestrian and the size of New York—illustrated in a 24-hour walk designed to have “the exhaustibility of the body meet the inexhaustibility of the city.” In Infinite City, the map “400 Years and 500 Evictions” traces the lives of four long-term San Francisco homeowners alongside evictions of renters that resulted from policies supporting redevelopment rather than tenants. These atlases look at points where the systems of the city come up against individual experiences of the city. In this, they present a decentralized delineation of urban space, conjoining the authoritative and the anecdotal. They ask us to see the human within the system, and the system at work within the human life.
In this regard, these three atlases rework not only the early modern collection but the 19th-century sociological texts in which maps and essays toggle between individual perspectives and demographic categories. Jane Addams, the Chicago reformer whose work with immigrants became a cornerstone for modern sociology, stands behind one such text, Hull-House Maps and Papers. Compiled and published in 1895, the book documents immigrant life through surveys and anecdotes that record personal experience. In her preface, Addams writes, “The residents of Hull-House offer these maps and papers to the public, not as exhaustive treatises, but as recorded observations which may possibly be of value, because they are immediate, and the result of long acquaintance.” These accounts of the city and its inhabitants are useful because they are decentralized and experience-based. They reveal the socially defined spaces that occur within geographical territories rather than simply defining those spaces solely in geographical terms.
Solnit’s atlases, likewise, eschew the claims of exhaustive treatises in favor of a kaleidoscopic view that points to the heterogeneity of a single place. The maps in this project do not just show the variety of the city; they are products of it. And as such, this project bridges abstract cartographic space and the social spaces that work on a human level, as sketched out by theorists like Michel de Certeau and Henri Lefebvre. These atlases enable us to see such convergence by way of their fundamental interest in multiple worlds that cannot quite be reconciled. Local stories—human stories—are often elided in official narratives and generalizations. And the maps in these city atlases capture the joy and despair of individuals within these broader patterns. As such, the chapters in these maps are not just ways of pursuing an abstract, top-down essential definition of these places, but tools for talking about how all of us, whether we dwell in these cities or not, cultivate or resist isolation and connection within our own little worlds.
Like Addams’s work, these atlases are not only sociopolitical reports but calls for increased awareness of and response to people that have been ignored, displaced, or ill-used by the more powerful. The atlases’ extensive, expansive collection provides a space in which the personal, the local, and the invisible might resist silence. It seems especially fitting, then, that these books are but one piece of a larger project that redefines the generic and formal structure of the atlas even further. The project began life at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, with extensive programs and the monthly release of a selected map, available to the visiting public as a free “map-broadside”—a single sheet with a single map on it. The public programs and individual broadsides un-collect the maps, loosening the boundaries of the atlas physically rather than rhetorically. The first book was published in conjunction with this museum work in San Francisco, and with each new volume, the project continues to inhabit multiple forms. To celebrate the release of the final book, last spring the Queens Museum, New York, organized Nonstop Metropolis: The Remix, which included a display of eight map-broadsides from the New York City atlas and two new artworks inspired by Solnit and Jelly-Schapiro’s project. Exhibition, program, broadside, book: this project continues to reinvent the atlas as a multiform collection, with each component giving new shape to the information presented and the action urged.
Solnit makes room for other maps, other stories, other voices, and other cities in the expansiveness built into the collection and the inclusiveness inherent in calls for further observation. She shifts the work of atlas-making from definition to production. There are always more places, more stories, more networks and systems to map. And conceptually, the collection accommodates this expansion. But this conceptual expansiveness poses a practical question. How to translate this generous, curious, receptive way of looking at the city from well-wrought essay and beautiful map to daily encounters?
Perhaps the way to fully read these atlases is to circulate, observe, and research—to make one’s own maps of one’s own places. This is not to ignore the incredible amount of work, information, creativity, heartache, and beauty recorded in these books. Rather, it is to take them as reports of what is and as models of what might be. It is to be inspired by their claims of incompleteness and indeterminacy. How might an atlas of a rural area complicate recent postelection narratives? What would come up in tracing the intricacies of connection in what is often portrayed as a disconnected world? The present atlases cannot tell each reader how to make the next map; rather, they stand as compelling examples and urgent calls for more.