Monday, June 9, 2008

Home and Away

One of the defining moments in my pre-cartographic life was my first time in London (England) in 1983. I did a lot of wandering about, and had an old-fashioned Bartholomew’s map of the city (hand lettering and cross-hatching, spot colors, etc.). I took some longish walks exploring the city, and then would get out the map to see where I’d been. Because London is such an un-gridded city, I’d find myself approaching places I’d been before from new directions, and later, tracing my route on the map, I’d realize I’d sometimes been only a block or two from a previous day’s walk.

In this case, the map provided an obvious framework on which I “draped” my own experiences. I’ve found that for large-scale maps in general, this process of using the map as a common base for explorations makes places make sense—especially urban spaces (I’m not much of a wilderness walker).

To me this is central to what a map is good for, but it is of course only a small part of what maps do in the world: it only really happens using large-scale maps: maps of states and countries don’t have the sort of visual information that ties direct experiences together.


Every so often these days, I’ll find myself approaching a familiar place from an unfamiliar direction, and I find the jump from one to the other to be a sudden change in attitude. When i drive through unfamiliar places, I pay attention to the generic: interstate highway signage, billboards, franchise stores. It makes me a little sad to see this generic quality, when I am interested in seeing something new and different; it makes me think a little of John Steinbeck’s rants against growing uniformity and generic-ness 50 years ago in Travels With Charley.

On the other hand, I see the same signage, billboards and franchise stores in my own back yard, and they seem simultaneously normal (they’re always there) and locally rooted (they’re landmarks, and they employ or otherwise have to do with my neighbors). A Burger King on the corner near my office closed earlier this year, and while I won’t miss it as a place to get food or as a neighborhood social hub, it was a little disturbing to see the marker of the corner of 18th and Central change.

My point is, depending on whether I’m home or away, my responses to these generic landmarks change. When I’m in unfamiliar territory, they are the only things familiar to me. And in fact when I’m on the road, I tend to seek out specific generic national brands for the sake of being reasonably sure of what I’m getting. When I’m on familiar turf, these generic brands are just part of a familiar landscape more shaped by my past experience and those of friends.


Where am I going with this?

When I cross under an anonymous freeway bridge (and is there any other kind, really?), it makes a huge difference in my attitude if I can see in my mind’s eye that it’s a bridge I’ve crossed myself. It becomes a “home” experience. When it’s an unfamiliar road, all I see is the bridge; when it’s a familiar road, it becomes part of a mental map of the familiar.

I think of the experience of driving a new bypass on a formerly familiar route. The landmarks all look right, and then suddenly I’m seeing familiar places from the wrong angle, and then familiar places from elsewhere on my map, or features I’d never seen before.

This to me is where large-scale maps can be very useful. They let me make sense of new experiences like this, and ground them amongst my existing experience. I find it a kind of exciting thing to edit a map to show a new road alignment (call me weird) in part because it’s about a new experience of a familiar space.

But interestingly, those maps are themselves built of entirely generic graphic materials. So they can’t and don’t actually transmit local sense of place. They are all grammar and syntax, all the graphic equivalent of journalistic speech, without any sense of direct experience or personal lives lived. When I project my experience on them (as JB Harley did in his famous essay on an Ordnance Survey map of his former home town), I am essentially draping experience over a framework. This process is similar to the way I approach a new place via landmark, directional orientation, and street grid, and then build experience on top of that.

So what I think I am approaching here is a way of looking at maps that needs to incorporate more than the map itself. Studying cartography separate from experience, especially studying meaning and implicit content of maps, is like studying syntax and grammar and sentence structure without ever acknowledging one can be moved by literature.

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