How it all works.

I'm trolling New York City collecting maps from flyers, government reports, informational brochures and such with the notion that all these maps will all somehow join together to create a complete map of NYC. The maps have to exist in real life- no downloads and cannot be rescaled or cut to fit.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Method of Collection

Also, quite often people ask me by what method I gather the maps that make up the pieces of the Great New York City Mapping Project; where I go, how I come to the decision to go there, and what I do when I get there. Well, the method I use to collect the maps has evolved since the random meanderings of the beginning of the project which, while providing a perfectly sound solution for densely mapped Manhattan, would prove to be woefully inadequate for the wastelands of The Bronx and Queens.

It was after two such useless forays into the South Bronx that I developed the method by which I find the maps. See, it’s easy to wander aimlessly in Manhattan because shops are everywhere and generally on the avenues and no shops on the streets. This is not the case in The Bronx where shops and restaurants are much less obviously placed than in Manhattan and where, in any case, it’s very hard to tell which is avenue and which is street. 

Since about 70% of the maps I was able to collect are from restaurants, I thought it would be a good idea if I started making a route for myself using Google maps. I pick a nice area that I think I can walk around in about 4 hours (after 4 hours my brain starts to melt), the Google finds all the restaurants in the given area, and I plot a course using that information. If there are some other interesting features like a park or a hospital or such I add those addresses in too. I write the addresses down in a filthy old diary which is the easiest way of doing things. It looks like this:

I choose the area to be explored based on the area I last explored. For reasons beyond my ability to write about in an interesting way, doing things in order in this fashion is the only way to make a big complex map like this. Anybody who works like this will already know and anybody who doesn’t will not give a damn. Basically, I discovered after much trial and error that it is easier to fit the maps together in Photoshop if they follow a steady movement in one direction. For a while I was obsessed with this aspect of the project and I would sit on the toilet staring at a street map planning routes and areas of discovery and figuring out where I would be in one week’s time and two months’ time and what I will find when I finally get to Staten Island. It was a wild time. 

Then it’s just a case of getting to the neighborhood, finding the shop or whatever it is and asking the fellow if they have a little menu or such for me to look at just to see if it has a map on it and having a little chat with him about his wee shop and about the neighborhood. Ha ha, just kidding, that’s not how it works. How about not talking to anyone, sullenly lurching into their place of business, mumble some incomplete greeting and rifle through their flyers and menus and shit. I then leave without thanks and without looking back. Well that’s one way of doing things. That’s my method when I’m tired and hungry. I usually feel bad after a session like this because I don’t remember much about their neighborhood and I vow to go back when I’m in a better mood and fed and rested but I never do. It is better when I sit and chat with people about the place and about the project and things. Those are the good times. I get better photos and more maps and everybody’s happy but it’s not always convenient.

I used to return menus that had no maps, but too many restaurateurs seemed saddened or offended that I gave their menu such short shrift. I can’t possibly explain to everybody that I’m looking for a map for some weirdo project, they wouldn’t understand, so now I take their stupid menu outside and throw it in the bin.
When I get home I take a highlighter and colour in the area I completed on my big white map of Queens and Brooklyn I got from Greiner Maltz. That’s the best part. I assess my haul, scan it into the computy and arrange them into the Great New York Mapping Project. For the interest of some select people I include a haul from a recent run. This is a good haul. Sometimes I get nothing. You can also see how they incorporate themselves into the map. It’s the most fun I ever had.
I’m supposed to write about that area too but I don’t because I’m lazy and stupid. Months later I write about it at Eli’s when I’m supposed to be working. I don’t like that part so don’t do it nearly enough. I’m also very bad at it.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

How it all began

Very often people will come up to me in the street and say, ’Martin, how is it you started your map project anyway?’
‘Well,’ I reply, ‘let me bring you back to that chilly day in November when it all started.’ I straighten out an old half finished cigarette which I produced from my shirt pocket and light it, pulling deeply on the smoke and I begin. ‘You see,’ I say, ‘I was walking through Bed-Stuy with my girlfriend and our mutual friend Chela Edmunds when I saw an old restaurant menu lying on the ground. Now, rubbish on the ground is no rare thing in Bedford-Stuyvesant but this piece of rubbish had a little map which intrigued me at the time. The map helped illustrate to the viewer the exact location of the restaurant by showing a few blocks, the names of a couple of streets and an arrow, as I’m sure you’re familiar with. Following a habit I had observed in my father, I put the menu in my pocket.

The story, such as it is, may have ended right there at the pocketing of the menu had I not found a second menu a little further along the road. This menu was from a different restaurant than the first and although the menu had a map, it showed a slightly different area of town than the first, illustrating its different location. I found to my delight that when I put the two maps together they made a larger, yet contiguous area. I surmised, foolhardily that if one were to walk the whole length and breadth of the vast metropolis one may very well gather enough such maps to build a complete map of New York City.’

So The Great Map Project was born and I have talked about little else since, to the detriment of friends and strangers alike.

Early on I set some basic rules for the project. The first rule is that the map has to be an actual physical object; I can’t just pull Jpegs off the internet. This rule has eroded somewhat since many documents exist only as PDFs, especially in the current economic climate, paper being the price it is, environmental considerations and such (ahem). So I pull the odd PDF, but no Jpegs.

The second rule became important as I began to use Photoshop- no resizing, no cutting no nothing. You have to use the map as you found it and use the whole map, no cutting out the bits you need or stretching it so it will fit. Some people think I’m crazy for having this rule, it’s certainly made things more difficult but the authenticity is important.

I decided to begin at the beginning- Downtown Manhattan and I gathered a great swathe of maps in one swoop, in a month I had gathered maps from Bowling Green to NYU, although Tribeca took an eternity to finish and the Lower East Side is still shitty even now. So anyway I glued all these maps down to a 1 foot by 3 foot board imagining that this would be a sufficient size for at least Manhattan. The board was much too small and by gluing the maps down before they were all gathered I was unable to place maps underneath.

I started again and this time I loosely built the map on my bedroom floor. Breezes, pubes, dust and cat prints forced me to adopt my third and most successful method of organization. I bought a scanner, scanned all the images into my computer and played with them in Photoshop. The actual maps are now in folders in a drawer in my studio. I found that this is the best place for them when, a year into my project, in the very early hours of a frosty January morning my flatmate’s room caught on fire and threatened to spread to mine also. The only way out for me was a 30 foot drop into the alley below. After dressing, calling the Fire Department and my girlfriend I threw my computer down into a trashcan below. I put the physical maps into a suitcase with some books I had yet to read and threw that down too. Those were the only things I wanted to save. With my head out the window because my room was filled with smoke I thought about, what? I don’t remember. I remember feeling lonely.

The Fire Department came within minutes and put the fire out before it spread to my room. It looked for a while that the only thing I lost in the fire was the computer but the thing started right up when I finally summoned the courage to plug it in. Thanks Julian Dumont of Practical I.T. Solutions of Colorado Springs, CO for building such a marvelous, impact resistant computer.

So the map existed only digitally for a long time before I finally printed it out. Here it is on 72 pieces of  8.5 x 11 glued together with Pritt stick and hung with masking tape. It was on the wall for a long time when, while we were away in Spain, the cats tore it down chasing a house centipede. Lisa, the house sitter rolled it up as best as she could and left it on a bench in the studio. The cats tore it up and used it as a bed and then pissed on it. I threw it away.
So the project continues and I explain more later.

Monday, July 18, 2011


There’s a newspaper I get every Thursday, it's called Tokion, I believe. It is written in Japanese. Of the contents of this newspaper I know nothing but one article and I’m there every Thursday at Sunrise Mart ripping out the article putting the rest of the paper back. I used to throw the paper away but it seemed like a waste. Anyway, this article is very interesting to me because in it the author chooses a NYC subway line to follow, visits each station and describes some things that may be found around and about, including a nice little map. The map of course interests me and it has provided some cheerfulness in drab corners I never thought I would ever find a map for. Also, it provides a bit of continuity, stitching great areas together with uniform cute blue maps.

I discovered it right at the beginning of the map project, a map the Mott St station of the Far Rockaway A line, which is right at the beginning of that route. Had I put two and two together at the time I would have many beautiful maps of areas I despair of ever finding a map for. By the time I rediscovered it, the A train had been over and done and the author was in the middle of doing the J train. I have been collecting them ever since. I even went to their office on Lafayette where a nice lady called Keiko gave me a load, but not enough old papers to chop up.

Last Christmas the J train reached the last stop at Broad St and my life was filled with great excitement as I waited to see what the next train line would be. I was kept waiting for three whole weeks! They waited for the holidays to end, they were snowed in during the crazy snowstorm and then, then they brought out an issue. It was the D train, very good- I don’t have any of that area at all. Sigh, anyway the next post will be better, I promise. I include an early version of Bed-Stuy for illustrative purposes, Bed Stuy looks much better now.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

East Williamsburg

The fearful neighborhood consists of two elements- the residential and the industrial, both of which are delightful to me. I like nothing better than tearing around the filthy, dusty streets on my tricycle scraping past roaring lorries, 16 wheelers and dump trucks and always have. Past the abattoirs, bag factories and junkyards where hard men graft, doing things as a child I had no comprehension of and as an adult have only little more understanding. The feeling of excitement and trepidation is the same as when I was a kid, the feeling that even on the public street I am a trespasser. I am unknown and unwanted. The alien landscape and the steel buildings, their function unknown and arcane, the men issuing out…anyway, I get my kicks elsewhere nowadays. But still, it is a reminder that New Yorkers actually make something tangible although on closer inspection the buildings appear to consist of distribution facilities for things that were made elsewhere. Except for the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant which processes some genuine homegrown Brooklyn Product. The treatment plant is really in Greenpoint where the photo was taken but the industrial district here runs along both sides of the Newtown Creek filling in parts of Maspeth, Greenpoint and East Williamsburg. You can ride your tricycle around it all and see such sights.

The Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant opens its doors to the public during Open House New York weekend Is well worth a visit to this and many other fascinating locations normally closed to the public.

East Williamsburg starts properly in my definition on the other side of the Brooklyn- Queens Expressway, stretches east to the Queens border, south to Flushing Avenue and west to Broadway although many residents, landlords and real estate moguls are calling anything outside of Williamsburg East Williamsburg. The artists are calling East Williamsburg Bushwick when Bushwick is a dreary, violent neighborhood a little further out along on the L line. Anyway. I got there at 2 in the afternoon when East Williamsburg was just getting out of bed, wiping the sleep from its eyes and just about to go out for brunch. It was suffering from a massive hangover and what with the incredible selection of bars available, who could blame it- King’s County, The Wreck Room, Harefield Rd, The Legion, Barcade, Huckleberry mmmmm blagh.

The food situation has taken longer to arrive. Time was that Life CafĂ© was the height of eating round my way, its dreary renditions of its uninspired menu a sorrowful way to begin a Sunday. Roberta’s arrived a little while ago for fancy, tasty pizza, head cheese and pig cheeks pasta and I met a man, Philip, I think who opened a Japanese place called Momo. He good people= food good too? Behind Roberta’s there was some delicious daytime drinking going on. Big crowd.

Art. Fucking Art. There’s lots of fucking art here too, a lot of it in the street art vein and when it’s not headed down the road of pedoporn rococo decadence is sometimes surprisingly good. To avoid the hit and miss, far flung nature of the scene, go to Bushwick Open Studios, the bulk of which occurs in East Williamsburg.

Anyway, my day. I went to a poor rained-on little fundraising flea market for St Francis of Paola church which is fated to close forever. I brought them a little bit closer to their goal buying $4 of cds in the midst of which I discovered that Deer Tick were a great band. Further on I discovered a pile of really nice buildings in the midst of this dirge which after some research I found out to be an old hospital, I didn’t take any pictures of it figuring that someone else already did, with a better camera. And they did! And they got in, too!
And then I took some pictures of the creek and there was a man learning to ride a big motorbike there. I stumbled upon the open studio for the International Studio and Curatorial Program where I drank mimosas and talked to no one at all, I’m afraid. The quality of work was good, it seemed. I didn’t care, they had a map. The first map all day. A map and free booze. And grapes.

If anybody knows this part of the world it is because of  Pumps, The Titty Bar. The International Studio and Curatorial Program is across the road from Pumps, a dreary, yet dynamic place, as far as remember. From long ago.

So there it is, the factories, a thousand great bars, several great restaurants, a simmering art scene what else? Nice Italian delis, a leftover from the previous wave of immigration (special mention San Giglio festival ). What else? Oh yeah, the Puerto Ricans and Dominicans who make up the bulk of the natives. I nearly forgot, get drunk in a hipster joint and eat breakfast in a Spanish joint. It’s not even slumming it.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The mad cockerel of East Elmhurst

There was a brief lull during this terrible, terrible winter when the temperature rose above the mid thirties, well into the mid forties and promised to stay that way until sundown wherein it would rapidly plummet to somewhere in the teens bringing with it atrocious, bitter winds. It was in the face of such a forecast that I set off on my ill advised trip to complete Astoria.
The afternoon was pleasant as I detrained at Ditmars and I quickly picked up a bevy of maps of the junction between 31st St and the Triborough Bridge. It is a well mapped place. Earlier that week I had trolled the Northern reaches of Astoria for naught but the exercise- all of Ditmars, Steinway, Rikers Island and a bit of East Elmhurst and nothing. Rikers Island is a big prison complex so I’m not really surprised they didn’t want to give me a map, but the rest of them? Bastards.
As I trudged along the still snow covered sidewalk of Astoria Blvd the temperature quite perceptively began to plunge. The filthy puddles of melted snow so recently created through the balmy afternoon began to skin over with ice. The wind took my breath away and I zipped my hood up like Kenny McCormack to keep out the cold. I could hardly hold my list of addresses for the cold but a noble voice from within urged me forward, would mere cold keep me from mapping Queens entire by the year’s end? Nonsense! Forward!

By a seemingly senseless quirk of my route planning process, of which I shall explain in due course, I rarely know en route where it is I am going or what it is I am looking for. So it was as I found myself still walking down Astoria long after the commercial and residential aspects of the road had abruptly ended and the four lane highway began. As the cars and trucks blasted past me I bleakly beheld what surely was my intended destination. There on the right lay a snowy, forsaken graveyard penned in between highways and no entrance in sight. Cursing the day I was born I skirted the fence until I found an entrance several hundred yards further along. Past rubble and building sites, past the grave stones of dead Germans and Italians, the wind still bitterly blowing and the temperature dropping further I walked towards the US flag atop a pole sensing graveyard attendants gather under the colors. I was right and I collected my prize- a map of St Michael’s cemetery- beautiful but unfortunately too big to use.
After pissing and uttering some gibberish to the kind ladies in the office I took my leave whereupon, almost immediately, I got lost among the winding paths and German and Italian gravestones. After several minutes of wandering I was about to turn back to the kind ladies when I met with the most extraordinary vision. Standing right there in front of me, blocking my way, even, was the most enormous white cockerel sporting a quite blood red head. I stopped dead in my tracks astonished beyond all telling and attempted to ascertain the amount of danger I may be in. The cockerel moved not one inch during this time except for a beady yellow eye so I decided somewhat reluctantly that I could pass the creature without incident. Possessed now with calm sobriety I saw that the creature was not enormous as I had feared put merely standing there in the tundra with its feathers puffed up for warmth but why it should pick such a bleak and windy spot was beyond my reckoning and as I was eager to leave such a place, beyond my patience. I took the vision of the cockerel with the blood red head as some kind of portent and decided to forego the rest of my damned list of addresses and make directly for home and with my hackles raised did just that.
Some time has passed since my meeting with the cock and my thoughts do turn to it from time to time. Could it be that a cockerel lives wild here in New York City, albeit not a very fashionable part of the city? Or was the creature a figment of my imagination, brought on by the intense cold? Was its presence for good or evil or was it a neutral force in a world existing for its own benefit only and amusing itself by lurking eerily to frighten passers by. I suspect a simple phone call to those very nice ladies who so kindly helped me with the map would clear up most of these questions but in God’s name where would the fun be in that?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Fucking finally! Astoria.

    “…And within a few minutes we were speeding through the wastes of Queens,” so wrote John Malcolm Brinnen in his 1955 biography Dylan In America as he describes picking up Dylan Thomas from Idlewild (later Laguardia) airport and driving him to Manhattan in 1953. To be sure, half a century later, there are great swathes of land- terrible, bleak housing estates- soulless and desolate that make up a large part of Queens but there are sure to be very many interesting and exciting parts there also, right? Exploring 109 square miles of Queens borough starts at the top left hand corner, in Astoria.

Astoria is New York City’s most diverse neighborhood, so they say in every real estate, food and shopping article ever written about Queens and it’s not for nothing that they do, as I was to find out. Many parts of Goodfellas were filmed around Astoria and, where I started, that’s what a lot of it looks like. Nice, civilized detached or semi-detached single or two story houses with a bit of a yard around them with nice civilized families living in them. Good hardworking middle class men called Paulie and Stewie who work as chief fire officer in your office tower or own the extractor fan concern off by the highway live there, and why not? Its quiet, fairly inexpensive, near some nice shops, the Greek restaurants, Astoria park, the East River right there with pretty Hell Gate Bridge crossing, near the train. Very civilized. All this in an area bound by the Con-Edison plant in the north, 31st St in the east, Triborough Bridge to the south and the East River to the west. The nearer you get to the Triborough Bridge the grimier it gets but not so much that you wouldn’t still call it nice.

On the other side of the bridge is a hodge podge of styles, people, zoning and roads. There’s a whole mess of shit happening over there. There are the remnants of the original Astoria settlement- nice Victorian houses with a nice dazed looking family playing with a dog in the snow in the yard looking quaint and dainty next to the projects which make up the bulk of the housing there. The projects and the people who live in the projects. An appalling Florida Soviet style apartment building and whoever the hell lives there, some light industry thrown in for good measure, messy 21st St with its Gyros and repair shops and there are a colony of pioneering hipsters who are furiously gentrifying the two or three blocks of blight they managed to find. I want to live there. I had the most fun at Build It Green, a furniture and lumber etc recycling venture at 317 26th Avenue.

 By the time I had explored this area (called Two Coves apparently) I was sick to death of walking around with cold wet feet and a hungry belly, I bloody mindedly stuck to my list but noticed not one thing around me and again I am sick to death writing about it.

I lived there for a while, it was fine. Everybody wants to talk about the Bohemian Hall Beer Garden and about how it is the only ‘destination bar’ in Astoria and it’s the only reason for Manhattanites to go to Queens. It’s just people drinking beer in a big, crowded paved yard. You’d be better off with a can of Sparks in a brown paper bag on some church steps than go all the way there for that.

I will say this, Astoria is diverse as hell but none of these people know each other. The kids running Build It Green are nowhere near the kids from the projects or the Goodfellas. The Con-Ed workers may have a meal in a Greek restaurant, maybe but then they’re off home to Nassau County and New Jersey. The Goodfellas know nothing but their own neighbors and how to get on the highway, the Indians and Bangladeshis on 21st St don’t seem to live there, the people from the projects aren’t eating in the Greek restaurants but that’s the way diversity works, I suppose. People are different and staying different makes it interesting for people who live elsewhere to go there and write about how interesting and diverse the people who live there are when it’s just a load of people doing things just to live and pass the time in the best way they know how.

Next week I cross 31st St and discover that part of the world. See you then.