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This Book Will Forever Change the Way You See NYC

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Courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Forget your GPS—Katharine Harmon’s latest book is the only map you need for a trip to the Big Apple.

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When Katharine Harmon was in the third grade, her teacher dragged a six-foot relief map out into the hallway, and then instructed the class to take off their shoes and walk, barefoot, across the world. “It was a memorable day,” the Seattle-based author, editor, and curator, says, “not just because we ran loose in the hallway, but because of this idea of walking on a map and feeling the texture of the world—feeling the Himalayas between your toes.” Something about that experience must have stuck, because Harmon’s latest book, You Are Here: NYC, a collection of 200 maps that chart the five boroughs of New York City, will be released this November. 

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“This book is really a follow-up to my first book, You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination,” Harmon tells me over the phone, “But this time it’s specific to New York City.” Consistent with her other collections, the maps in You Are Here: NYC are not what you would expect from a conventional map. Contrary to the concept that a map’s purpose is to find the best route from point A to point B, the images in Harmon’s book are an invitation into another kind of cartography—one that includes the mapmakers’ relationship to the past, the present, and, above all, the imagination. In other words, while you may not be able to locate the cross-street of your hotel, you will be able to pay a visit to the headquarters of the Men in Black, the Avengers, and even the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (see “The Ultimate Nerd Guide to New York City” (2011) in the slideshow below).

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Harmon admits she’s not a big fan of conventional maps, but says there’s something about the images and pictures in them that make sense to her: “The key, the symbols, and the way that the lines and colors are represented,” she says, “it’s a language that speaks to me, and I see it everywhere—even in the cracks of the sidewalks.” Her favorite types of maps focus more on experience. “Forest & Stream,” the work of Heidi Neilson and Nicholas Fraser, is a perfect example. In 2009 the duo transformed 14th Street by identifying the natural landscape of that very site, 400 years back, with colorful chalk stencils. The outcome was a walkable map, upon which passersby pondered the “marshy meadow stream” or the “coastal oak-pine forest” that once was, buried beneath the cement.

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“New York has to be one of the most mapped places in the world, and it’s a place where you never end up with a shortage of ways of looking at it,” Harmon says when I ask about the decision to focus the book in New York. “It’s a city that looms so large in many people’s imagination. Many people long to belong to it. To leave their mark on it—you know the saying: ‘If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.’ So it even relates to mapping in terms of being able to put yourself, figuratively speaking, on a map.”

During her research, Harmon cataloged more than 1,000 maps and eventually broke them down into six categories: “the city’s development, neighborhood life, transportation modes, cultural terrain, personal geographies, and ability to inspire awe.” For anyone who has ever visited, lived in, or dreamed of New York City, a flip through the pages of You Are Here: NYC is a truly wild ride. You’ll come across maps from the 1600s to 2015, including a computer-generated illustration of the bacteria found in the subway system, and the best places to sit down and read a book in lower Manhattan, as well as entire city replicas made out of gelatin and torn pages of banned books. “I think human beings are made for mapping,” Harmon says, “We are invested in where we are. Where home is, where safety and adventure are. When we talk about being lost, or being found, we are using metaphors that mapping has given us.” 

Take a scroll through the slideshow for a sneak peek at You Are Here: NYC, and keep an eye out for the book’s release on November 1, 2016, by Princeton Architectural Press. And meanwhile, check out Rebecca Solnit’s newest book, Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas, from UC Berkeley Press (coauthored by Joshua Jelly-Shapiro). If you enjoyed her previous map-related books on San Francisco and New Orleans, you won’t want to miss this one.

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