Maps, They Don’t Love You like I Love You

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
I’m sorry, but if you don’t love maps, I don’t think we can be friends anymore.

Rebecca Solnit:
I think there are people nowadays who’d admit that they don’t love puppies and kittens and children, but nobody’s going to admit that they don’t love maps.

Roman Mars:
Maps are awesome. As art, as story, as representation of truth, as representation of lies.

Rebecca Solnit:
Really interesting visual information is a little bit like a puzzle. You’re solving it. It really engages your brain, but it also is an invitation in a way nothing else is, you know? Music, somebody else is playing it, but the map, it’s a score for you to live your own life, to go there and do that. Even if you’re looking at 12th-century Siberia or something. It’s just the kind of map I really like along with maps of my own neighborhood.

Roman Mars:
And if your only experience with maps is a AAA road atlas, then Rebecca Solnit’s new book with blow your mind.

Rebecca Solnit:
This is Rebecca Solnit with “Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas.” It’s both a collection of maps and a proposition that any city is infinite because it can be described in infinite ways.

[No one map tells you everything about a region.]

Rebecca Solnit:
It’s 22 maps that want to be beautiful and want to celebrate old-fashioned map-making with paper, with drawings, with old cartography, with a sense of wonder and with practical information you can actually go to. We each contain multitudes of maps.

[music]

Rebecca Solnit:
If I say to you there were 99 murders in San Francisco in 2008, you’d think it was deplorable for the three seconds before you completely forgot about it. But if I show you the actual map, it makes you think ‘this person died here and that one over there.’ You see a pattern. You see that most of them are on the east side of town. You know, it becomes particular and specific, it becomes places you could have been. It could have been you. You can go to them, you can bring flowers.

Roman Mars:
And in the San Francisco Infinite City atlas, these murder sites are represented on the city map as red dots, but alongside them is an array of green dots that represent all of the living Monterey Cypress trees in the city. It’s new, ugly death and old, beautiful life side by side, sharing a map because… I mean, just because. Because you can make a map do anything!

Rebecca Solnit:
My story is my story, but a map is also your story because you can literally enter what’s shown on the map. You can go there, you can walk it, you can be there. And so maps give you a different sense. They quantify and locate and invite in a way that no other medium does.

[Would you like any other maps that show other kinds of information?]
[Sure!]

Roman Mars:
One of the Infinite City maps is a treasure map, with a panoply of treasured sites in San Francisco.

Rebecca Solnit:
You know, the Mission Dolores graveyard, Mona Caron’s murals, the African Orthodox Church of St. John Coltrane, some labyrinths, the nesting site of the great blue herons on Stowe Lake. We have treasure. And this is the map to help you find it.

Roman Mars:
But the most curious feature about this map is that San Francisco isn’t depicted as that little thumbnail at the end of the peninsula’s thumb that it actually is. San Francisco is drawn as an island.

Rebecca Solnit:
On the treasure map, San Francisco not only has the north coast, east coast, and west cost you all know and love, it has a south coast.

Roman Mars:
There’ s a fictitious blue ribbon of water just north of San Bruno mountain.

Rebecca Solnit:
There’s a lot of ways San Francisco really is an island, in terms of its difference from the rest of the country ecologically, geographically, and culturally. Before the bridges, you basically came in out of San Francisco by boats, as though it was an island. And I just wanted to make that literal in the wonderful way maps always are literal. So Shiz the cartographer, Ben Pease’s wife Shizue Seigel, obliged me by making San Francisco into an island.

Roman Mars:
Maps are powerful objects. They give direction, they hide secret places, they can support imperialism and oppression. A newly designed map can create a nation-state, and present a false sense of absolute truth. They change the way we see the world.

Rebecca Solnit:
I joked to some of my friends while I was working on this project that owning racehorses and castles is as nothing to commissioning maps when it comes to a sense of power and luxury. It’s pretty amazing.

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible is produced by me, Roman Mars, with support from Lunar. It’s a project of KALW, the American Insitute of Architects San Francisco and the Center for Architecture and Design. Find out more at 99percentinvisible.org.

  1. Andy Liggett

    I laughed out load, (in a room all by my self) when the song Maps by the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s came on at the end.

  2. listening to some old episodes… this episode is great. anyone know what the orchestral piece is in the middle? it is fast-tempo strings and a repeated figure. high energy and pretty kickass sounding. thanks.

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