Handmade maps describe a city of loves and losses
If you drew a map of Manhattan, what would your landmarks be?
For one man, a smattering of dots marked six wives and three lovers. Notably, the third, fifth and sixth wives were plotted about a block apart.
Another map-maker left his map nearly blank, but for a small “x” in the southeast corner of Central Park with the note: “met my wife.”
A third cartographer noted at the tip-top end of Manhattan: “ruined a kickball game by kicking ball into Hudson.” Slightly further south is the note: “FIRST CRUSH I was 27.”
These maps, and 72 others, are part of a collection by Becky Cooper, titled “Mapping Manhattan: A Love (and Sometimes Hate) Story in Maps by 75 New Yorkers,” out of a public art project Cooper started in 2009.
She handmade hundreds of blank maps using a letterpress at school, and initially hid 300 of them around the city, in the Waldorf and the backseats of taxis, hoping people would stumble across them. She printed her P.O. box number on the back, expecting people would fill them out and send them back to her.
But she said that none came back, until she had a conversation with a boutique owner downtown who caught her trying to stash a map in the store. Cooper explained the project and a week later received a map in the mail that she knew was from that woman.
“The conversation had invested her enough in the project to return the map,” Cooper said. After that, she and her roommate walked the length of Manhattan, from Marble Hill to Battery Park, with a shoebox of maps, and handed them out to strangers.
Her book chronicles that walk, recounting little stories about the people she encountered. The text of the book is, in fact, her own map of Manhattan.
When she first considered producing a collection of the maps, she spread them all out on the floor and tried to group them into categories. A lot of people used to maps to chronicle numerous lovers, and it was then that it occurred to her that the maps were little love stories.
She noted the lost or haunted feeling that can come after a breakup, the disorienting feeling of traveling through a city pockmarked with memories.
“You feel like you’re in a ghost town,” Cooper said.
Cooper recounted the words of a friend after the end of a five-year relationship: “She’s never lived in New York without being with him. She was like, ‘My whole map of the city is skewed. I don’t know the city without him.’”
Cooper hesitated when asked if she has a favorite map.
“I feel like it’s like picking your favorite child,” she said. “I definitely have maps whose circumstances I remember more than others.”
She said the second-to-last map in the book, which portrays a four-decade-long relationship with a late wife, broke her heart when she received it.
“There isn’t an overwhelming amount of emotion that would allow you to distance yourself from it, but you can feel his loss.”
That sender had put his own return address label on the map, so she searched his name online and discovered the eulogy he wrote for her in a local paper.
“He said, ‘She was the most wonderful person I’ve ever known,’” Cooper recalled. “I just lost it.”
Cooper had the chance to meet that mapmaker at a reading recently when he approached her to express his gratitude at seeing his map in her collection.
“I knew his name because I love his map so much,” she said.
He told her that making it had helped him to remember things about his wife as he was trying to cope with losing her.
“He thanked me for allowing him to capture that particular Manhattan,” Cooper said.
Cooper is still collecting maps. Blank ones can be accessed here, or found on the cover of Tuesday’s Metro New York. She will be giving a talk and signing books at BookCourt in Brooklyn on Thursday, June 6 at 7 p.m.
“Mapping Manhattan: A Love (and Sometimes Hate) Story in Maps by 75 New Yorkers”
Book Talk and Signing with Becky Cooper
Thursday June 6
BookCourt 164 Court Street, Brooklyn
Follow Danielle Tcholakian on Twitter @danielleiat