On the Map

On the Map: How digital maps are changing the way people interact with and think about New York City

by Matt Collette

Digital maps — like the ones you’d find on your smartphone or computer — are now far more common than paper ones. And their prevalence is dramatically changing the way we interact with the world we live in.

Act 1: Particular Versions of New York
Act 2: Crowdmapping
Act 3: The New York Panorama



Series introduction

Run time: 1:04


HOST: For about as long as it’s existed, New York City has inspired mapmakers. From the orderly grid that makes up much of the island to the tangled mess of streets downtown, Manhattan has particularly transfixed cartographers.


Today Matt Collette brings us stories of New Yorkers using maps to better understand this city. Most maps today are digital, not the print and paper ones people have used for centuries. And those digital maps — like the Google directions you’d pull up on a smartphone — are changing the way we think about space and the world around us.


In this three part series, two artists find new ways of representing New York by asking New Yorkers to draw their own maps — and what we lose in an age where we’re less likely to get lost. Then, the New York Public Library has been storing centuries of historic maps of the city; through crowdsourcing, the library’s Map Division is bringing the massive collection to life like never before. And finally, a visit to the Queens Museum, where a scale model of New York City – originally made for the 1964 World’s Fair – continues to provide new insights about the five boroughs.



Part I: Particular Versions of New York

Run time: 9:54


HOST: Paper maps are becoming less and less common. Today most of us get around with the help of a digital tool, like a map on their phone or computer, or a GPS system in their car. But small group of New Yorkers is still making their own maps of the city. In the first of a three part series on maps and the role they play in how we understand our world, Matt Collette talks to two artists who are collecting hand drawn maps of New York and a social scientist who says that, in the age of online maps, there’s still good reason to get lost.


COLLETTE: Becky Cooper doesn’t have a great sense of direction.


COOPER: One of the ironies is that I’m hopelessly lost, always. (0:03)


So when she moved to New York for a summer internship a few years ago, Becky had to find her own way to get around.


She didn’t have a smartphone. So before she’d leave her summer internship to grab dinner or meet up with friends somewhere in the city, she’d pull up a map on her computer. Then she’d sketch out her route onto some little scrap of paper. And she wound up saving them all.


COOPER: I have this record of napkins of where I had gone after work to dinner or to a show or something. (0:12)


At her internship, she worked on a formal map, one that identified every piece of public art in the New York City. It was painstaking work, and the map became so complicated that Becky didn’t think they was actually very useful or engaging about it. But her hand drawn mapshad started piling up at her desk, and Becky started to think that maybe they offered a better way to understand New York.


COOPER: I realized they were an interesting way to see the story of my summer, but also a sort of more honest portrait of the city. (0:07)


Becky wondered – what maps would other New Yorkers draw? So she learned to use the letterpress machine in the basement of her dorm and printed up a couple hundred blank maps of Manhattan on fancy cardstock. Each showed the island’s outline and just three landmarks: Central Park, Broadway, and Houston Street. The next summer, Becky started walking all over the city, asking anyone she met to fill one out. Sometimes a friend tagged along and shot video of Becky as she introduced herself and the project.


FADE UP SOUND: Cooper handing out maps on Broadway


MAN: Say that again, you’re giving out blank maps of Manhattan to do what with?

COOPER: To map the borough in whatever way is meaningful to them.

MAN: So I gotta give it back to you?

COOPER: You mail it back to my PO box. It has a stamp already. (0:10)


That summer, Becky walked the full length of Broadway — from Inwood uptown all the way down to Battery Park — asking hundreds of strangers to draw their maps of the city.


COOPER: It’s addressed to my PO box and it has a stamp on it. You can mail it in anytime in the next month.

WOMAN: OK, I’ll do it.

COOPER: Great. Be as creative as you’d like.

WOMAN: OK, thanks. (0:10)


Becky wound up with a couple hundred maps. Those turned into a book, “Mapping Manhattan,” which was published last year.


COOPER: It was so astonishing that perfect strangers would feel so invested in the project and their particular versions of New York. (0:10)


Most of the maps were hardly maps at all. They were love stories. And each brings to life those “particular versions of New York.” Now the High Line is the story of where a couple meets and falls in love. And Columbus Circle’s a place where, after four decades together, a couple releases two red balloons up over Central Park.


COOPER: He makes a note that the balloons are still there. I wanted so desperately to find some evidence that these balloons really existed over time, that this love was still so real that you could find these red balloons and have this history still be so relevant. (0:34)


Becky’s maps are self-contained – each is its own version of Manhattan.


Nobu Aozaki is a visual artist who’s also collecting personal maps of New York. He asks people he meets on the street to draw quick sketches of their neighborhood. He then pieces them together to create one big map of the Manhattan. These disparate maps, he says, merge into one big collective idea of what New York City actually is.


Nobu Aozaki’s originally from Japan. When he moved to the city, it took him him a while to learn his way around. To get his bearings, he let himself got lost.


AOZAKI: I like being lost because you discover things you never expect to, kind of, discover. And then also it helps to construct my own map. (0:12)


Nobu’s mental map of his surroundings helped him understand New York in a way he just couldn’t from a guidebook or an online map. And the idea for this art project came on a day when he’d become particularly disoriented. He stopped and asked a guy for directions, and the guy just quickly sketched out a little map for Nobu. It was such a clear way of understanding where he was that a few blocks later Nobu asked someone else to do the same thing. Then he held those two maps — drawn to different scales, by people who’d never met and hadn’t even put much thought into the task — side by side.


AOZAKI: And I noticed the map got longer if I connect. And I imagined, what if I ask all over the place, and then make a map of the entire city? (0:10)


Nobu recently finished his MFA at Hunter and this art project — “From Here to There,” he calls it — fits into the other art he does, be it cataloging all the different ways Starbucks baristas spell his name or drawing portraits of strangers on those take-out bags with yellow smiley faces on them. And in this project, while Nobu knows he’s making art, the people he approaches on the street don’t.


AOZAKI: Often time when I do this project I carry a shopping bag of the Century 21 shopping mall and I wear a brand new New York souvenir shopping cap. So I look like a tourist. Also, as you hear, my English is not so perfect, so it also sounds like a tourist. (0:17)


The project is a work in progress, and it grows as Nobu gets more maps. Right now it’s about 12 feet tall. That means each foot on the map is equal to about a mile.


AOZAKI: This area is lower Manhattan. This area is Battery Park, and then this is Tribeca. (0:11)


He overlaps these drawings – scribbles on napkins and receipts and loose sheets of notebook paper – until they start to form the island of Manhattan. And even though each map looks different, Nobu manages to make them all fit together.


AOZAKI: Sometimes people only write down the name of the restaurant, text only. This is just a big address. (0:13)


In the end, the project merges all these personal glimpses at New York geography into one big, collective look at the city. Yet each map remains distinct– though it’s not clear who made most of them, each ones gives Nobu little glimpses into who the creator was and how he or she thought about their world.


AOZAKI: I felt these individual maps are kind of lenses to kind of render the invisible mind visible. (0:09)


Nobu wants these maps to be drawn from memory, not from looking at a smartphone.


AOZAKI: Oftentimes people show me a smartphone or some other devices. But I kind of insist, ‘Could you draw me a map?’ because I will forget. Which is kind of true. (0:15)


The idea behind that no phones rule is simple: Nobu wants to see how people actually understand their city and where they fit into it. He thinks a smartphone stops people from doing that.


Katie Davis and the education scholar Howard Gardner, her mentor at Harvard, would agree. They wrote a book called “The App Generation.” It looks particularly at how new technologies are affecting young people’s development, but a lot of what they’ve found applies to anybody with a smartphone. They write about this idea of being “app-dependent:”


DAVIS: The defining characteristic of app dependence is that our actions and decisions and thoughts are wholly shaped and determined by what the apps suggest. (0:17)


Instead, Davis says, we should strive to be “app-enabled.” We use apps as tools to solve a problem, but not in this non-stop, all-encompassing way that takes over our entire lives. For example, you may look at a map on your phone, but you don’t rely on it so much that your eyes don’t leave the screen.


Davis says that when digital maps eliminate any sense of uncertainty about where we are, we lose something. This is especially important for kids.


DAVIS: Part of what getting lost and unlost involves is drawing on your internal resources and developing a sense of autonomy and self-sufficiency which is an important task of adolescence. (0:26)


And many kids today are self-sufficient less and less frequently — with a cell phone, it’s sometimes just too easy to call someone for advice or, if you’re lost, have an app chart a new course.


DAVIS: We have given some thought to this idea that you may get from point A to point B using your GPS, but do you really have a good sense of place and where you are in relationship to that place? That, I suspect, probably not. (0:19)


Davis says the big difference comes down to how the brain works when you’re thinking for yourself versus just being told what to do. When you’re working something out on your own, you engage a lot more of your brain and retain more of what you’ve learned.


DAVIS: It’s two very different ways of learning and two very different ways of being in the world. (0:05)


So maybe the next time you get off the subway, and you’re not sure not sure which direction to head, maybe don’t look to Google maps just yet. You’ll make it to your destination — on your own terms — eventually.


Matt Collette, Columbia Radio News.


HOST: In the second of this three part series on mapping, Matt Collette takes a look at how the New York Public Library is using the power of the crowd to look at the city’s past in a whole new way.






Part II: Crowdmapping

Run time: 6:48


HOST: As much as digital maps are changinghow we’re able to look at the world, there’s definitely no reason ditch them altogether. Sometimes, after all, there’s a reason to alter your understanding of place — say when you’re looking for something that just isn’t there anymore.


The Map Division of the New York Public Library has about a half-million maps, and some 20,000 books and atlases. And for most of its history, researchers who wanted to see what a section of the city looked like years ago had to find a physical map from somewhere in the collection. And there’s only so much you can do with a physical map — it’s fragile, you can’t take it with you, and you certainly couldn’t mark it up. But as Matt Collette reports in this second of three stories, new tools being developed by the library itself, are changing all that.




COLLETTE: It’s a recent weeknight here at the New York Public Library. Mishka Vance, a staffer in the Maps Division, is leading a class called Citizen Cartography.


VANCE: We don’t have a deLorean, we don’t have a really cool phone booth. We don’t have any of these things. But we need to start thinking about way that people can actually go back in time. (0:10)


There are a handful of people in the room. They’re here to learn how to use some of the library’s online mapping tools, like one called the Map Warper.It lets anyone align an old, archival map with today’s street grid, which lets you see what was at, say, the corner of 7th Ave and 14th Street 100 years ago.


And because all this work’s done online, each individual update helps future researchers see how these thousands and thousands of historic maps fit together.


VANCE: We actually couldn’t do a lot of this work without people like you guys. Map nerds, interested folks, historians, researchers just cool people. (0:12)


It’s people like the ones learning to use Map Warper — part of a broader, collective crowdsourcing effort — that’s changing the library’s massive map collection. Digitization means today’s patrons don’t need to wait for a resource to be pulled from the stacks or from the library’s massive storage space beneath Bryant Park, and it also means they’re able to contribute notes and annotations to a growing collection of maps. Those notes, in turn, help more researchers down the road.


Matt Knutzen heads the Map Division, located in the main library building on 42nd Street.


KNUTZEN: This is our reading room. This is the reading room of the Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division. As you can see, it’s been spectacularly restored. (0:10)


He says a lot of the visitors are professionals — many are “urban archeologists” — who do research on an area before a new building goes up. But sometimes it’s just regular people, like the couple in Chelsea who found an old oven when they started renovating their basement — it turned out to be the original oven from the original site of the Thomas’ English muffin bakery. Other times, visitors are there to solve a mystery — like how did an old ship wind up among the wreckage of the Twin Towers? According to the maps, the place that then was being called Ground Zero actually used to be water.


KNUTZEN: A lot of our sort of Power users I would say are people interested in New York City and in, effectively, sort of peeling back the onion of representations of geographic space that are on these maps. They are peeling back this onion, they are digging back into data from the past. (0:18)


A lot of the time, those layers of the onion are based on old fire insurance maps. Massive fires destroyed much of lower Manhattan in the mid-1800s, so companies needed a way to know what was built where and what it was all worth. These incredibly detailed maps offer a ground-level look at the city — block by block, building by building.


KNUTZEN: The beauty of what these maps do though sort of extends in a multiplicity of reasons beyond fire insurance for the researchers. (0:10)


Neighborhoods changed, or sometimes simply ceased to exist. New buildings went up, new streets were constructed, and the insurance maps show it all.


KNUTZEN: Not only do we have a single sheet showing the 1850s, or multiple sheets showing the 1850s, we have a sort of animated archive, in essence, in paper – and increasingly in the digital world – of the city’s built environment and all of its manifestations. (0:17)


That means you can pick an address and see what it looked like in 1850, then in 1860, all the way up to today.


Once that first set of insurance maps was scanned in the system, the library staff got to work annotating each one, digitally tracing every building and inputting data about its construction and uses.


KNUTZEN: But it is laborious – it takes forever. (0:03)


Continuing at the speed in which the library staff inputted and cataloged that first set of maps, the whole collection would take nearly 1,000 years. That wasn’t going to work.


So the Map Division paired up with the library’s in-house research and development division, NYPL Labs, to find a solution. They held a hackathon, inviting the community to find new uses for these digitized maps, which led to the development of a computer program that would do that manual data entry at a wildly faster pace. It used a process called “vectorization,” which turns hand-drawn elements of the maps into shapes the computer can recognize.


KNUTZEN: And the vectorizer transcribes all of the building footprints in about 23 hours. It took the entire dataset that we had taken a long time – many many months – to do, and it did the whole thing, at least the tracing part, in 23 hours. (0:19)


The results were good, but not perfect. The program couldn’t always trace the buildings effectively, so there needed to be a way to screen the thousands and thousands of results. So NYPL Labs created a separate tool, a website called Building Inspector. And while most of its other creations are pretty strictly used as tools, this one was designed to be a game that presents sites analyzed by the computer program for review.


KNUTZEN: It passes these in front of people and asks: Does this look good? Does it need to be fixed? Or does it not look good, just throw it out? (0:08)


The site turned out to be addictive – a sort of treasure hunt that illuminated little bits of city history. The site launched in October and users finished reviewing those thousands of results in just a couple weeks.


KNUTZEN: Suffice it to say, we’ve got a good problem on our hands, and we’ve got a lot more where that came from. (0:07)


The goal is to ultimately get the library’s entire map collection digitized this way, and the tools are open-source, meaning other institutions can use them too. Ultimately, they’ll let someone zoom into a particular place and get access to maps, data, and media from throughout the city’s history.


And that’s basically what the Map Division has been doing all along. The tools may be changing, but the work stays the same.


Matt Collette, Columbia Radio News.


HOST: In the final segment, Matt Collette takes you to Queens, where a massive model of New York City — first constructed for the 1964 World’s Fair — continues to change how people think about the city.





Part III: The New York Panorama

Run time: 4:54


HOST: Finally, Collette takes us to the Queens Museum, home to one of the oddest maps of the city – an enormous scale model of New York City. Constructed for the 1964 World’s Fair, the panorama became a massive urban planning tool for Robert Moses, the man who did more to shape modern-day New York than perhaps anyone else. As planners and architects started to use computers to model the city, the panorama became a museum piece — a glimpse of a New York that was. Yet in an age when anyone can go online and get a bird’s eye view of anywhere in the world, a place like this continues to give a view like no other.


MUSIC: Intro music from archival Worlds Fair report.


COLLETTE: In 1964, the whole world came to Queens. It was the third time New York City hosted the World’s Fair and Flushing Meadows-Corona Park became a city all its own.


In the middle of it all was the Unisphere, a 14-story tall globe built for the fair that’s become an iconic landmark of New York City.


THOMAS: Although my pose may in some small way resemble that wonder of the ancient world, the Colossus of Rhodes, actually I’m Lowell Thomas, standing in front of standing in front of what will soon be one of the wonders of the modern world. (0:26)


That’s newsman Lowell Thomas describing the Unisphere. And directly across from where he was standing was the New York panorama.


THOMAS: And many of our states will exhibit. New York City’s exhibit, a scale model of the entire New York metropolitan area, in astonishing detail. (0:16)


Those details include things like a little airplane that takes off from LaGuardia every minute. That scale model was at the very center of everything in the only surviving building from the 1939 World’s Fair.


FADE UP: Jetsons theme


Posters featuring cartoon characters from “The Jetsons” promoted the Panorama of the City of New York.


The message was clear: the New York of 1964 was already the city of tomorrow. Visitors got to take “Helicopter rides” around the city – not really helicopters, but small four or five person pods that slowly circled around the whole model, which was about the size of a high school gymnasium.


FADE UP: Panorama ambi


The “helicopters” are long gone. Today, visitors walk around the model along a sloping ramp — it starts low near upper Manhattan and slowly loops up past Staten Island, Brooklyn, and Queens, until you’re standing about 20 feet up above the Bronx. There are almost 900,000 individual building here — all made of stuff like foam and balsa wood — at a scale where the Empire State Building’s about 15 inches tall.


FLORES: So you can see the size of the train. In reality a cars like the size on an ant — you can see them on the highway. (0:05)


Georgie Flores gives tours of the panorama to Queens Museum visitors every weekend. He uses a green laser pointer to identify landmarks and small details.


FLORES: Very little dots – they look like grains of rice. So to be in a car, you have to be in a car, you have to be smaller than an ant, at least the head of an ant. Very very tiny. (0:08)


When the ’64 World’s Fair ended, Robert Moses kept the panorama for an urban planning tool. He ordered frequent updates to the intricately detailed model. This unique view of all five boroughs, built and updated based on thousands of aerial photos, proved especially useful in the ongoing development of New York City.


Flores says other than a few new buildings, the map hasn’t been updated since 1992. And that’s especially apparent when you look at lower Manhattan.


DAD: What do you notice about the big buildings at the tip?

DAUGHTER: Taller than the Empire State Building. Well one of them is. (0:09)


A dad’s talking to his 8-year-old daughter. She’s young enough that the model Twin Towers aren’t much more than two tall buildings.


DAD: So what does that tell you about when this map was built?

MOM: Is this a current map?

DAD: Those are the Twin Towers, so this was obviously built before 2001. (0:13)


Eventually, both World Trade Center towers — each about a foot and a half tall — will be replaced by the new skyscraper and memorials that take its place. The towers will stay near the Panorama though, stored in their own glass case. A reminder to visitors of what used to be.


And in a way, that’s what this whole panorama is — not necessarily a look at the city of tomorrow, or even of today, but an altogether new way of seeing the city.


Matt Collette, Columbia Radio News.


HOST: Matt Collette reported and produced these pieces as his master’s thesis at the Columbia Journalism School. Kerry Donahue was his master’s adviser and I’m your host, Caroline Ballard.


Post Script

This piece posed a particular challenge because it uses radio to look closely at a largely visual medium, creating a natural conflict in audio storytelling. But I was up for the challenge — I wanted to do focus on something I was interested in, and I wanted to push myself to my limits as a radio reporter.

One of the biggest lessons I learned on this piece was that I should be recording tape from the very beginning, and I need to structure my time so I can gather more than just the interview. For example, I met with many of the characters in my piece — Becky Cooper, Nobu Aozaki, and Matt Knutzen — before I ever recorded them. This meant I had to schedule a follow-up, which frequently proved difficult — and had to go over much of the same material I’d already covered before. This led me to situations where I knew a lot about my characters and their work, but I still didn’t have any tape.

The project is ultimately the longest piece of journalism I’ve ever produced, and the process has taught me significant amounts about time and data management, writing and editing of long-form pieces, and ways to best develop relationships with sources I’ll be coming back to repeatedly. I had to push myself to master technical skills, particularly related to conducting interviews and gathering tape in the field, which has made me a stronger reporter on other assignments.

Ultimately I benefited greatly from my adviser, Kerry Donahue, who I’ve also had for several classes over the course of my year at Columbia Journalism School. She became an expert on the material I was reporting on, which let her both edit with a solid base knowledge and also so she could challenge my thinking about my storytelling. Her background is as a radio producer and, throughout the process, I felt that I had a very talented producer working by my side.