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Mapping in 19th Century New York City

Essay by   •  March 23, 2012  •  Essay  •  1,099 Words (5 Pages)  •  1,890 Views

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The significance of a map is dependent on two things: the duration of time it is used for, and the way in which it is examined. A map that is purchased at a gas station by a tourist who just realized he drove himself in a circle, has what you might call directional significance. The tourist will use it for a day, maybe two, and then tuck it away in some drawer and subsequently forget it exists. Hence, this map has a rather short life span, and in turn, a lower value.

However, consider a map that has been preserved for centuries, and is examined in conjunction with other maps of the same geographical area. This map is not a traveler's tour guide, but something else entirely. This map is a teacher. Rather than tell us where we need to go, old maps, especially when analyzed against other old maps, tell us where we have been. They chart the course of change in the place whose geography it illustrates. It elucidates, in quite simple terms, how the region has grown and altered. It points us in the right direction, not in terms of walking or driving, but in terms of how to piece together the history behind a given area. This, so it seems, is the way in which maps were intended to be used.

Early maps of New York City are a prime example of the idea that maps have a higher purpose than to help some absentminded traveler regain his bearings. In A Plan of the City of New York, a map created by T. Maerfchalckm in 1763, there are countless features of importance to consider. The 'Harbour' and the 'North River' are labelled loud and clear, highlighting the vital role the water passages play in the maintenance and advancement of the city's success. The large pond toward the upper righthand side of the map is also quite noticeable. The 'Common' is located in the center of the map, and 'Broadway' stretches diagonally from the center to the westernmost part of the map. Significant establishments such as the 'Trinity Church' and 'Custom House' are labelled with letters A through V (excluding U, for some reason), and noted in a key in the upper righthand corner. The vast majority of these establishments were either religious institutions ('Church', 'Meeting', 'Synagogue', 'Chapel") or political institutions ('Office', 'House').1 This detail, although small, provides insight into the institutionalized character of the city at that time. The fact that these were the notable places of the same shows the observer that a large emphasis was placed on religion and government, and the struggle between the two, at this period in city history. When analyzed in conjunction with historical figures, and government records, and major events of the time, this small detail could prove very elucidatory.

The true discoveries, however, begin only when one such map is examined against another. An even earlier map of New York City, anonymously constructed in 1695, is much more vague and spread out than the one from 1763. Instead of words, it has boats to represent bodies of water, and only the main streets, such as Wall Street and Prince Street, are labelled. Additionally, the establishments featured in the "key" are much more varied, and specific, than those featured in the map from 1763; the assortment includes places such as the 'plot of ground for the E. Minister's house', the 'stockade with a bank of earth on the inside', 'Ellet's

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