Two Books Map New York’s Invisible City
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New York City is a metropolis of extreme light and darkness. It is not only a cultural and economic capital; a tourist hub famous for the blinding lights of Time Square. It is also home to stark paradoxes, massive and unjust disparities. The image that the city projects and the actual of experience of those who live within it are starkly contrasted.
Recently, two books, Tales of Two Cities and Nonstop Metropolis, address this issue. Though they differ in vision and method, at the core, both ask similar questions about the same place, with the understanding that inequality in NYC is increasing. They seek to answer: how do we make sense of a city that is both glamorous and demoralizing, the center for “capital and for attacks on capital” a “labyrinth in which some are lost and some find what they are looking for,” Rebecca Solnit writes in her introduction to Nonstop Metropolis, the final instalment of a trilogy of atlases including New Orleans and San Francisco.
In his introduction to Tales of Two Cities, John Freeman writes about his brother who stayed in a homeless shelter while he lived in an apartment on the Upper West Side. He writes of this uncomfortable and awkward family divide of economic disparity, “The reasons it exists are as complex as the reason why my brother wound up in a shelter. Inequality is not an issue of us and them, the rich and the poor. You often see these same so-called divisions within one family, like mine.”
Writers including Junot Díaz, Jonathan Safran Foer, Zadie Smith, Teju Cole, and Lydia Davis illustrate how capital both plays a role in these narratives and is an all encompassing part of it: an actor in the story and its director. Díaz writes of his house getting robbed when he was a teenager. A few days later, he realized that the friends he was telling about the robbery were actually the robbers themselves. Díaz took the money back from his former friends’ house without their knowledge. The next day one of them casually complained to Díaz, “This place is full of thieves.” to which he replied, “No kidding.”
The 26 maps of Nonstop Metropolis chart and rewrite New York’s political and economic landscape through a vastly different lens. They prompt and provoke the viewer to see the city, and what might otherwise be invisible, through new angles. These are atlases of the hidden and the blatantly apparent. “Oscillating City: Manhattan, Day and Night” is a two map series which illustrates the population density of the city at 3pm and 3am by neighborhood. The stark difference of Midtown and Wall Street during work hours and at night show how much the city’s population balloons during the day, more than doubling: 1.6 million commuters come into Manhattan for work on weekdays, essentially “micro-migrating” into the city’s hub, or simply “the city”.
The maps track the way stories intersect, coexist and clash: “Multiple stories in spatial relation become the geo-social constellations of our lives.” They capture what is invisible, subterranean, and in the case of capital, so apparent, that we do not think it needs mapping. The maps, and the making of them, are political. “Mother Tongues and Queens” documents every language spoken in Queens, one of the most linguistically diverse locations in the world, including the endangered ones.
The maps also hone in one aspect of socioeconomic disparity, such as K-12 education.“Public/Private: A Map of Childhoods” delineates Manhattan’s public and private schools and the main institutions associated with education: preschool admissions consultants, SAT tutoring centers, nanny agencies, and youth and family shelters. In her accompanying essay, “Playgrounds I have Known,” Emily Raboteau recounts her experience of navigating the zoning rules and the harsh competition parents face in the name of giving their children a future with possibilities.
The two books are similar in the sense that they employ several voices, perspectives and genre in order to capture an image of an oscillating city. Tales of Two Cities features narrative and poems, both fiction and nonfiction, some that tackle the topic of inequality head on, and others where the topic hovers around it. Often, the stories of Tales of Two Cities center around labor and work culture, and how the narrators experience relationships formed and governed by economic exchange. In “Service/Nonservice: How Bartenders See New Yorkers”, Rosie Schaap addresses how the relationship between bartender and customer shines a light on values her customers might prefer to keep hidden. In “Every Night a Little Death”, Patrick Ryan writes about his first job in New York as a word processor in a law firm. Working the graveyard shift in the city that never sleeps is equally jarring and exhilarating. New to the city, his coworkers are the only people he interacts with, the closest he comes to calling friends. He finds intimacy in the gaps between work, and the elevator ride up to his office, for example.
Both books tackle and attempt to make real a concept that often presents itself as abstract, through visuals and story telling. But why focus on these questions now? In the Nonstop Metropolis essay, “Falling and Rising in Lower Manhattan” which accompanies the map “Crash: Crises and Collisions in 21st-Century Lower Manhattan” Astra Taylor writes of her involvement with Occupy Wall Street, noting that it is not only the knowledge that the economic divide has grown,“like the shocking statistic that eighty-five people control half the world’s wealth and all the power that wealth can buy.” It’s also that, “people have come to recognize that capitalism is more than willing to circumvent democracy — which is time-consuming and inefficient by design — as an unacceptable impediment to maximizing profit.” Capital is both everywhere and nowhere, invisible and omnipresent. Where and how does one address, comment and protest against something so pervasive it can appear normal? In a city like New York, where much is defined by proximity, it becomes impossible to ignore and necessary to address.
Similarly, in Tales of Two Cities, Sarah Jaffe’s “A Block Divided Against Itself” writes about how her neighborhood of Crown Heights has split into two, and her involvement with the Crown Heights Tenant Union. But this stems from the bitter cold New York winters and a landlord who won’t fix the heater. In the essay, Jaffe tries understand and map out her neighborhood in both personal and political ways, only to discover that the topic of gentrification is contradictory and convoluted rather than black and white, she can’t actually separate her lived experience from the political understanding of it. In many ways, both anthologies attempt to extract the sociopolitical from the everyday in order to map it, only to find that doing so creates a map of personal lived experience.