Nonstop Metropolis edited by Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro

nonstop-metropolis.jpgIt is impossible to capture a city on paper, but Nonstop Metropolis comes close. In this collection of twenty-six brilliant, layered, informative and imaginative maps, accompanied by essays written by a diverse group of writers and residents of the city, Nonstop Metropolis manages to translate a little bit of the essence of a city into art, words, marks on a page.

In the introduction, Solnit writes:

“A city is a machine with innumerable parts made by the accumulation of human gestures, a colossal organism forever dying and being reborn, an ongoing conflict between memory and erasure, a center for capital and for attacks on capital, a rapture, a misery, a mystery, a conspiracy, a destination and point of origin, a labyrinth in which some are lost and some find what they’re looking for, an argument about how to live, and evidence that differences don’t always have to be resolved, though they may grate and grind against each other for centuries.”

The maps that make up this book explore this meandering, contradictory definition of a city. Cities, in so many ways, are infinite. They exist in so many dimensions. Cities are not merely their physical geography and their history, but the sum total of the thoughts and emotions of those who live in them. Cities extend outward, upward, inward, across. There are so many ways to experience them, measure them, understand them. This book gives you a sense of that untamable scale.

It’s impossible for one book (or a thousand books) to capture a place as complicated as New York City. These maps are like a cross-section. Twenty-six ways of looking at a city. Of course, there are infinite other ways. But the maps in this collection explore so many different parts of what makes New York New York. It’s a just a taste, but it’s a powerful and fascinating taste.

I am not a city person, though I appreciate them from time to time, and I’ve spent very little time in New York. But I loved this book anyway. I loved its specifics. It was a wonderful way to think about such a big and complicated place in bite-sized chunks. I loved looking at the maps of brownstones and basketball courts in Brooklyn, of the various places riots have erupted in the city, from the 1700s through the 2000s, of landmarks important to whaling and publishing in the Manhattan of Herman Melville, of the famous theaters, jazz clubs, churches, and mosques in Harlem. Each map was its own fascinating story, and the essays, which were both personal and historical, brought the maps to life.

I was astounded by the depth and creativity of each one of these maps. So many of the maps explored two disparate ideas–sometimes things in direct conflict with each other. This is mapmaking at its most complicated, maps as a way of understanding discord, contradiction, and inequality, as well as community and connection. The most powerful maps were the most discordant, the ones that gave me a vital sense of a city in constant flux, a city constantly fighting with and reinventing itself.

In ‘Love and Rage, New York City became a maze of colored dots, representing community gardens, 311 animal abuse complains, felony assaults recorded by the NYPD, public library branches, and popular places to propose. In ‘Public/Private’, New York’s inherent inequality is made clear in a map which shows public and private schools, nanny agencies, youth and family shelters, preschool admissions consultants, and other symbols of the very wealthy and the very poor.

In ‘Burning Down and Rising Up’, a map of the Bronx in the 1970s showing both housing units lost to fires and the geographical record of the birth of hip hop, the city became something like a phoenix rising from the ashes: reinvention birthed from destruction. ‘Wildlife’ is a map that shows the ways in which the non-human wild–the animals that inhabit New York City–and the human-wild–the visionaries and the dancers, those who dared to break from the mainstream–coexist.

Another thing these maps do so well is illustrate the true stretch and extent of the city. ‘Archipelago’ reimagines New York as the Caribbean’s northernmost island, illustrating how deeply the city has been influenced by Caribbean immigrants. ‘Trash in the City’ illustrates the lengths New York City’s garbage travels–some of it is transported as far away as Ohio, Kentucky, South Carolina, and Virginia.

 

Nonstop Metropolis is a book about New York, but it’s also a book about cities, and more broadly, it’s a book about place: how we interact with the places that we live, how those places shape us and how we shape them. Like all the best writing about place, it is both a love letter and a criticism, a celebration and a fugue. It’s a big, raucous, colorful ode to a beloved city, but it does not shy away from all the darkness and horror that is also a part of New York’s identity.

Though I live on a tiny island, nowhere near the size of New York, I can already envision the kinds of maps that could be made about my home. I could happily read an atlas like this about every place I’ve ever been, but I’ll have content myself with all the new ways of thinking, seeing, imagining and connecting places to people to ideas to that Nonstop Metropolis has given me.

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