topo NJ

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I have always loved maps. As a kid, I collected them. I have road maps that they used to hand out at gas stations, fancy topographic maps that I didn’t quite understand at the time, and ones that were inside novels. I also started to draw my own maps.

I have written here about maps before, so I don’t want to down those same roads again. But I came upon another map lover. Denis Wood is an artist, author, poet, cartographer and is best known for his book The Power of Maps which was considered pretty radical when it was published.

It was called part of the “new cartographies” and papers were written about maps as “socially constructed arguments” and things like semiotic codes were thrown into the conversation.

I first heard about him on This American Life and what interested me in Wood was that he obviously loves maps and loves to make maps that often don’t look like what many people would consider to be a map.

What if you drew a map of your neighborhood and it focused on basketball hoops, barbecue’s and swing sets? You would have a very different kind of map.

One of the radical things about this book is that he looks at areas where many maps don’t go and he looks at things like a  mapmaker’s bias. The power part of the book is his examination of the ways maps are not impartial. They are ways to communicate and persuade and that gives them power.

He compares them to paintings. But he doesn’t just mean the art of maps (which is what attracted me to them as a kid) but because they express a point of view.

Of course, I love the illustrations and examples, even though some of the maps are not beautiful and don’t try to be. Examples range from Peter Gould’s AIDS map, Tom Van Sant’s map of the earth, U.S. Geological Survey maps, and a child’s drawing of the world.

Plenty of other people have taken this do-it-yourself (DIY) approach to mapping their own part of the world in unusual ways.  I have read articles about this that say that maps do not  “represent” reality. They represent nothing. But, they are someone’s argument about the world created through their choices of content and how they arrange it graphically at a specific scale.

One of Denis Wood’s projects has been an atlas of the Boylan Heights neighborhood in Raleigh, North Carolina. He’s been working on it since the mid 1970s. I don’t believe the atlas has been published in its entirety (the working title seems to be Dancing and Singing: A Narrative Atlas of Boylan Heights) but there are many of the map images online. Some of the place-inspired maps show crime, fences, graffiti, textures, autumn leaves, sewer pipes, lines overhead, stars, and jack-o-lanterns on the steps of homes.

Some of these might sound silly, frivolous, a waste of time. What can a map of jack-o-lanterns tell us about a town or neighborhood? Is it a map about the ages of the residents, where children live, or affluence?  That’s part of the idea of this mapping.


Boylan Heights, North Carolina, 1974, size of the circles indicates the number of times a household was mentioned in the community newsletter.

One thesis in this kind of mapping is examining how we construct the world we see. What are our perspectives or lenses? What are the scales we use to measure it?

Wood has already written a sequel with Rethinking the Power of Maps. I haven’t read that one yet, but online descriptions say it describes how cartography facilitated the rise of the modern state but also the limitations of mapping practices.  I probably will enjoy the illustrations even more than the text: U.S. Geological Survey maps, electoral and transportation maps and the newer participatory mapping and map art.

How would you see your world on paper?

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