An idea is a powerful thing. And some may agree that an idea can be even more powerful when it’s explored on the streets of New York City. The contagious thought ‘anything can happen’ is amplified in this urban playground. From cross walks to subway rides, if you look closely you can almost see the ideas that are planted deep in New York minds. Some people, you can just tell, are simply daydreaming while others are working to make something of their ideas–and will most likely succeed. Becky Cooper was one of those wandering, deep-in-thought souls, and she succeeded in turning her big idea into a reality.
The summer after her junior year in college, Becky got the idea for her project. She studied literature at Harvard University and she was inspired by the novel Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. It’s a book that offers an alternative approach to thinking about cities, how they are formed, how they function, and how human nature is a constant foundation for them. For better or for worse, every New Yorker has a story of their own. Nostalgic. Gloomy. Romantic. Scandalous. Bittersweet. Happy. Becky wanted to slow people down, have them think, and share with her their special New York stories. Instead of just having conversations with those people, Becky wanted them to illustrate those stories. With the help of her friend Dan Ashwood, an animator, Becky designed a map of Manhattan and letterpress printed it.
At first, Becky wanted this project to be completely serendipitous and initially didn’t make direct contact with the strangers. She hid the maps, with directions for completing them and her P.O. box address already marked on the back, in random parts of the city for New Yorkers to find. She placed the maps between the cracks of the Waldorf Astoria doors, inside copies of The Catcher in the Rye at Barnes and Noble, on benches that sat on The High Line, and anywhere else she felt like anyone would be pleasantly surprised to find the small blank canvases. But as time went by she found that the maps she was distributing among the streets of NYC weren’t showing up in her mail.
Determined to make the idea work, Becky decided to take the bold approach of directly walking up to individuals on the streets and speak to them about her Mapping Manhattan project. In the beginning, she would just explain the idea, offer them a map, and walk away. As she approached more and more strangers, the end result of the project became less important as she began to focus more on the connections she was making. Swapping stories and creating ties became the reason she was stopping these everyday New Yorkers. She walked for hours, exploring Manhattan neighborhoods, and aimed to meet as many different types of minds and souls that she possibly could. As the weeks went by, the maps began rolling into her mailbox, proving that connecting with a person face-to-face was much more impactful than sprinkling maps in “strategic” parts of the city.
The finished illustrated maps were overwhelming for Becky — they were diverse, creative, simple, and beautiful. She received maps that were splattered with colors, to maps that were inked in words of wisdom or wit. She received a map of the different locations where one’s ex-wives resided, a map of a painted brick wall from Inwood to Battery Park, and a map describing the different parts of the island between “Fear” and “Relief”. The project gained so much momentum that she even received maps from high profiled individuals, such as Yoko Ono. From the beginning of this project, Becky tinkered with the idea of publishing a book of the maps. As the maps continued to roll in one-by-one, she realized that the book could actually happen.
When the book was published, Becky knew that it was worth every step she took down Broadway and Houston and every avenue in between. She charmingly titled it Mapping Manhattan: A Love (and sometimes hate) Story of 75 New Yorkers. These collection of maps, paying homage to the love-hate relationship one has with this concrete jungle, can hit a few emotional spots (from the feel-good to gut wrenching) for any city dweller.
“This project will always be ongoing. My P.O. box never closed. That would just be a shame.”
- Becky Cooper
We invite you to contribute our artist community and be part of the creative process by entering our Mapping Manhattan Contest; download and create your own artistic rendition of what Manhattan means to you. Keep it for your personal inspiration or send it in to add to Becky’s growing collection. Submit your map by May 31 for a chance to win the Mapping Manhattan book and a framed art print of your choice.