How did The Great New York City Mapping Project begin?
Very often people will come up to me in the street and say, “Martin, how is it you started your map project anyway?”
“Well,” I reply, “let me bring you back to that chilly day in November when it all started.” I straighten out an old half-finished cigarette, which I produce from my shirt pocket, and light it. Pulling deeply on the smoke, I begin: “You see,” I say, “I was walking through Bedford-Stuyvesant with my girlfriend and our mutual friend Chela Edmunds, when I saw an old restaurant menu lying on the ground. Now, rubbish on the ground is no rare thing, but this piece of rubbish had a little map, which intrigued me at the time. The map helped illustrate the exact location of the restaurant by showing a few blocks, the names of a couple of streets, and an arrow, as I’m sure you’re familiar with. Following a habit I had observed in my father, I put the piece of rubbish in my pocket.”
“The story, such as it is, might have ended right there at the pocketing of the menu, had I not found a second menu a little further along the road. This menu was from a different restaurant than the first. This menu also had a map, but it showed a slightly different area of town than the first, illustrating its different location. I found to my delight that when I put the two maps together they made a larger, contiguous area. I surmised, foolhardily, that if one were to walk the whole length and breadth of New York City, one may very well gather enough such maps to build a complete map of this vast metropolis.”
So The Great Map Project was born, and I have talked about little else since to the detriment of friends and strangers alike.
You must have walked countless miles, meeting a lot of people along the way.
I’ve no idea how many miles I’ve walked over the last three years to collect all the hundreds of maps that make up the collage, and the hundreds more I didn’t use for one reason or another. All of my routes are written down in the form of lists of addresses. I could enter them all into some kind of “Google maps thing”, and maybe it will tell me all the miles I’ve walked. It feels like more than 100 but less than 10,000 – somewhere in that range. I wish I had worn a pedometer. I hardly ever meet anybody, only when I’m in a good mood in a nice neighborhood, and not hungry or needing to pee or feeling shy and awkward, which is rare enough. I prefer to lurk, at first startling then bemusing the locals.
Have the conversations you have had with people you met along the way influenced your work?
I try to keep a written record of my experiences exploring the different neighborhoods. In this respect, the conversations I’ve had with people while collecting the maps have influenced the work. My natural inclination is to write about a neighborhood, like some kind of embittered but semi-literate P.J. O’Rourke. But after talking with people and getting to know a place a little better, this impulse is usually tempered. People are often good-hearted and well meaning, or at least benign, and it’s not really their fault that they live in an ugly, dispiriting subdivision that is ill-conceived, unimaginative, and blighted through generations of social mismanagement. In the beginning of this project, I focused on the buildings and infrastructure. But a neighborhood is more about the people, and I’ve made an effort more recently to show that.
Do you feel like NYC is more of your home since you started this project, or does it make you feel more like an outsider?
I’ve always felt like a bit of an outsider wherever I’ve lived, and although it’s a cliché to say it, New York City is a very accepting place where you can be or do anything you like – provided you’re not bad at it. If you’re bad at it then this city is brutal. If I feel more at home here, it’s not through any new understanding of the city. Doing the mapping project, and exercises like this, has rather helped me understand myself and my place in the city. This is the first time that I’ve had to think about myself in terms of geography, so I suppose that’s a “yes.” This project has helped me feel more at home here.
What is your most memorable encounter?
As I trudged along the still snow-covered sidewalk of Astoria Blvd., the temperature quite perceptively began to plunge. The filthy puddles of melted snow began to skin over with ice. The wind took my breath away, and I zipped my hood up like Kenny McCormack to keep out the cold. I could hardly hold my list of addresses for the cold, but a noble voice from within urged me forward. Would mere cold keep me from mapping Queens entire by the year’s end? Nonsense! Forward!
A seemingly senseless quirk of my route-planning process is that I rarely know en-route where it is I am going or what it is I am looking for. I found myself still walking down Astoria Blvd. long after the commercial and residential aspects of the road had abruptly ended and the four-lane highway began. As the cars and trucks blasted past me, I bleakly beheld what surely was my intended destination. On the right lay a snowy, forsaken graveyard, penned in between highways and with no entrance in sight. Cursing the day I was born, I skirted the fence until I found an entrance several hundred yards further along. Past rubble and building sites, past gravestones of dead Germans and Italians, the wind still bitterly blowing and the temperature dropping further, I walked towards a flagpole sensing that graveyard attendants gather under the colors of the US flag. I was right and I collected my prize – a map of St Michael’s cemetery. Beautiful, but unfortunately too big to use.
After pissing and uttering some gibberish to the kind ladies in the office, I took my leave whereupon, almost immediately, I got lost among the winding paths and German and Italian gravestones. I was about to turn back to the kind ladies when I met with the most extraordinary vision. Standing right there in front of me, blocking my way, was the most enormous white cockerel sporting a quite blood-red head. I stopped dead in my tracks. Astonished beyond all telling, I attempted to ascertain the amount of danger I may be in. The cockerel moved not one inch during this time except for his beady yellow eye, so I decided somewhat reluctantly that I could pass the creature without incident. Possessed now with calm sobriety, I saw that the creature was not as enormous as I had feared, but merely standing there in the tundra with its feathers puffed up for warmth. Why it should pick such a bleak and windy spot was beyond my reckoning, and as I was eager to leave such a place, beyond my patience. I took the vision of the cockerel with the blood-red head as some kind of portent, and decided to forego the rest of my damned list of addresses and make directly for home. And with my hackles raised I did just that.
Some time has passed since my meeting with the cock, and my thoughts do turn to it from time to time. Could it be that a cockerel lives wild here in New York, albeit not in a very fashionable part of the city? Or was the creature a figment of my imagination, brought on by the intense cold? Was its presence for good or for evil, or was it a neutral force existing for its own benefit and amusing itself by lurking eerily to frighten passersby? I suspect a simple phone call to those very nice ladies who so kindly helped me with the map would clear up most of these questions, but in God’s name, what would the fun be in that?
Originally from Liverpool, England, Martin McCormack is a Brooklyn-based artist who graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Ulster in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He has produced “exhibitions” on various trees, walls, and embankments throughout New York City and in Colorado, in addition to exhibiting in a number of galleries including Leo Kesting Gallery, NY, and Five Myles Gallery.