In ‘Mapping Manhattan,’ a Point by Point Love Letter to New York (Photo)

In ‘Mapping Manhattan,’ explore the city via 75 New Yorkers’ personal geographies. By Allison McNearney.

©Becky Cooper

Where would we be without maps? From the early explorers’ beautifully drawn pieces of navigational art to the smartphone app in your pocket, humans have constantly been trying to chart our world and figure out where we fit into it. 

But no matter their incarnation, maps dictate how we move around and see the world, something Becky Cooper understands well. “I am always lost,” she confesses.

During an internship the summer after her freshman year at Harvard, Cooper was hired by CultureNow to create a map of Manhattan’s public art. As the project grew increasingly large, and the dots marking the works she deemed “art” started multiplying, she began to question her work.

“Why do I have the authority to do this?” Cooper thought. “Even though I was placing the information on the map, I was making incredibly subjective decisions,” she said. With no background in art, she was “particularly aware that I should not have the authority that I had.”

She quickly came to the realization that no map is entirely accurate, or inaccurate for that matter. Each map is made from the subjective decisions, interpretations, and memories of its particular mapmaker. So she decided to put blank maps of Manhattan in the hands of ordinary—and extraordinary—New Yorkers to see how they viewed the city.

In Mapping Manhattan: A Love (and Sometimes Hate) Story in Maps by 75 New Yorkers, Cooper persuaded a stunning array of New Yorkers to map the stories of their lives onto this great island. The curated collection, published by Abrams Image, forms a delightful tribute to the city of Cooper’s birth.

©Becky Cooper

Hearth & Home

Walking the length of Broadway, from tip to tip of Manhattan, Cooper distributed her handprinted maps to a wide range of strangers she met along the way. They landed in the hands of street vendors and artists, students and cops, the professionals that run the city and the characters who seemed ... a little less professional, the people who had lived in Manhattan forever and those who were just passing through.

She was surprised by how open most people were to her pitch. Cooper found that once she overcame the initial skepticism, “you could see in their eyes they were sort of melting. They would say thank you a lot of the time.” Cooper estimates that around 75 percent of the people she approached accepted a map.

©Becky Cooper

Patricia Marx

But more astonishing is the variety of entries that Cooper received. The maps in the collection range from works of graffiti to chronologies of a life lived to bold statements about the city (one simply reads “struggle” in large letters). Some chart a single-minded focus—theater shows seen, the location of one man’s lovers around the city, or the sheer number of gloves lost to the streets, an agony every New Yorker has surely felt. Others show a dizzying array of impressions and memories that fill the entire area. Cooper was touched not just by the number of people who made the effort to complete and mail back their maps, but that they “would not just do it in a literal way, but would understand the spirit of the project.”

©Becky Cooper

Disneyland for Old Folks

Many of the maps are covered in beautiful, personal black handwriting, documenting all of the important places in the life of the cartographer. “That’s what I appreciate most about a city,” said Cooper. “I love the way people live their lives within those boundaries.” Cooper takes the reader on her journey down Broadway, wrapping in some history of the island with her observations walking down the central thoroughfare and illustrations of her encounters. We meet some of the hundreds of strangers she interacted with along the way and see the maps they subsequently returned to her.


Monster Ambitions

Cooper has always appreciated maps. “I think because I am sort of so geographically hopeless, I love maps as aesthetic objects, and I love them for the way they tell stories.” Beyond helping her navigate her way around the city, “they’re these sort of scientific objects, and yet when you look at them you can tell something about the mapmaker, something about what its purpose is.”

©Becky Cooper

Markley Boyer

In addition to ordinary New Yorkers she met on the street, Cooper also sent maps to famous residents who she felt were “integral to the city.” Cooper explained, “I wanted to do it because I think there’s something special from knowing the person behind the map, too. You get a double portrait.”

The author of this map, Markley Boyer, is the illustrator of Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York, which explores how the island looked during the days of Henry Hudson.

©Becky Cooper

Yoko Ono

Another celebrity resident, Yoko Ono, was on Cooper’s dream list. In one of those magical “small world” coincidences that are so surprising in the big, crowded city, she made that dream come true. Showing a Parisian friend and his Greek guest around New York City one weekend, Cooper mentioned her project and wondered whether the famous artist was still living at the Dakota. The Greek visitor surprised her by saying he believed she was ... and that he had an address for her there. Through a random set of events, he had corresponded with her a few years before. Not knowing if Yoko Ono was currently still at that address, Cooper sent her a note with the map attached ... and was pleasantly surprised when it came back!

©Becky Cooper


With the sheer variety of charming maps in the book, it’s no wonder that Cooper can’t settle on a favorite. But the one pictured here holds the honor of having made her cry the most. The anonymous contributor named his map after his late wife, Eve, and documented their four-decade love story across the island. Beyond the touching red dots and hearts that note the sites of romantic memories, Cooper loves his use of ellipses that cause the viewer to “fill in the blanks with more color than had he said anything.” And then of course, there’s the all-black dot that ends the love story at the place where Eve passed away. It’s maps like this where people “lay themselves so bare” that are Cooper’s favorites. As Adam Gopnik says in a foreword to the collection, “maps ... are the places where memories go not to die, or be pinned, but to live forever.”

©Becky Cooper

Becky Cooper

To close Mapping Manhattan, Cooper drew her own map of the city she loves. She explained that “because I’m so geographically challenged, the way that I construct the city is through points that I know.” In this depiction, she blends together the key locations that mark her life so far, the “emotional pegs” for the important memories she has of growing up in the city. In her introduction to the book, Cooper boils down the meaning of her project:  “It’s a love letter to New York and to the people who shape it. To a place of restlessness, constant motion, and passion. A city of contradiction. But also to a place that’s so much more.”