A Book of Maps, History, and Fiction

For our final project, we designed a book that visually maps four key periods of Manhattan’s history, relying on the novel Open City by Teju Cole as our primary source and inspiration. Using computer-generated illustrations made by myself and my partner, Jonathan Andrews, the book is divided into four periods, each of which contrasts and compares two key themes: the historical moment as Teju Cole’s protagonist Julius describes it, and the historical moment as represented in historical documents. Through this comparison, the reader can examine the subjective perspective of the book’s narrator against the broader, more nuanced picture provided by the archival record. The four historical periods we selected are Lenape Native American settlements in 1609, the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam in 1664, the Civil War Draft Riots of 1863, and the terrorist attacks of September 11th. As the purpose was to map out palimpsests, we determined that the best way to articulate the layers of history was not only through a series of axonometric drawings, maps and diagrams, but also through the pages of a book.

In order to open each layer to the viewer, I have identified important locations for each geographic area and have attached images to each of them. The images serve several purposes. Some of them give the viewer a better idea of the environment, the people, their culture and the nature of daily life during their respective time period. Other images of artifacts, locations and news clippings demonstrate the broader social impact and importance of that historical moment. In order to provide a multi-sensory experience, the PowerPoint version of this project includes audio clips. Victoria Wang, a partner on this project, did extensive research on the sonic landscape for each period. Some of the clips include folk songs, sounds for violence, and sounds meant to trigger specific memories.

Detailed Explanation of Map Order in Each Chapter

The book is titled OPEN City. The first pages provide a broad illustration of the four historical periods with two exploded axonometric drawings, or exploded axons. The first axon shows the geographical transformation of Manhattan from 1600 to the present. An important element to note in this first axon is how Manhattan’s southern coastline has been expanded three times over the course of this period. The second axon, which we call a programmatic axon, shows the various events of each period and the locations where they took place on Manhattan’s contemporary grid.

Following this visual “introduction,” the book’s periods are chronologically organized into four  ‘chapters,’ one for each era. At the beginning of each chapter, the reader is first presented a comparative axon showing the event/timeframe overlaid above contemporary Manhattan. This image illustrates the environmental impact of human ‘intervention’  over time, as farmland gave way to street grids and buildings and the southern tip of the island expanded into the sea.

The next map of the series focuses on the specific historical period. For New Amsterdam, the Civil War Draft Riots, and September 11th, we developed a map of the settlement and street grid. We researched and identified key buildings and landmarks and even timelines of events (for the Draft Riots) that we marked out on the maps. New Amsterdam proved the most manageable, because the settlement was relatively small and we were able to render the town in one image. However, for both Native American, the Civil War-era, and 2001-era Manhattan, we developed a map that honed in on ‘regions’ or ‘neighborhoods.’ The Native American map indicates settlements with a series of dots, while the neighborhoods affected by the Draft Riots and September 11th are highlighted to distinguish them.

It should be noted that we made an alteration to this formula for the Native American layer, choosing to elaborate on the ecology of Manhattan, as we saw the forested landscape as their “street grid.” Prior to European colonization, Manhattan’s landscape had already undergone dramatic human intervention as a result of slash-and-burn agriculture. Open spaces, or areas without forestation, are meant to indicate the effect of these agricutural practices.

These historical maps are all followed by a contemporary street grid that shows where these places would be in the 2017 cityscape. This allows people to appreciate the difference in use and occupation patterns relative to the past. New Amsterdam posed the least challenge in this respect because contemporary lower Manhattan follows the same street pattern that the Dutch Settlers laid down. As the Dutch followed Native American trails when they laid down streets in 1626, these were also not difficult to represent. Broadway was the name given by the Dutch to part of the Lenape Wickquasgick trail. The most difficult streetscapes to map are those which no longer exist, such as Five Points.

The next series of maps gets into the ‘meat’ of the historical and fictional narrative of the period using more detailed maps.  For some areas, such as Civil War-era neighborhoods, we needed to have two maps for each area: one articulating the broader neighborhood, and one or two that was ‘zoomed in’ to specific areas within it. An example is a map of the Gramercy Park region, where we then zoomed in to show the Armory, the Union Steam works and Gramercy Park. The locations are marked with numbers and a short explanation of the sites’ significance. We indicate sites related to Julius’s narrative with a purple diamond and included a quote from the novel.

Finally, following each ‘detail’ map are a series of archival photos or links to music relating to each site. On the upper right hand corner of the images is the number corresponding to the site on the previous map and a symbol articulating what type of archival material –  artifacts, maps, sound, acts of violence, and photograph, painting or illustration – is being presented.

Concerning Archival Materials

The images come from a variety of sources and represent multiple perspectives. For example, illustrations of Native American sites include contemporary renderings made by artists commissioned by the National Museum of the American Indian. Unfortunately, many earlier portrayals of the Native American presence in Manhattan, ranging from the 1600s to the 1800s, are hardly accurate.  An image of Lenape-Algonquin’s farming renders them in a western stylization, their figures sculpted and knees pivoted into contra-postos in an allusion to classical Greek statuary. The etching is part of a series of copperplate prints made in the 1590s by Theodore de Bry, and were part of a book titled America. Despite the images representational inaccuracy, this text remained the foremost authority on Native American history and culture until the nineteenth century. Thomas Jefferson sent the book to Louis and Clark prior to their expedition, indicating his reservations about its accuracy in an accompanying letter.  Nonetheless, he acknowledged the book’s historical importance if not its accuracy, and we followed a similiar logic in our selection of several images from it.

This raises several problems. If the objective is to open these periods into accessible worlds for the viewer, in what way do images that portray western objectification of the other serve that purpose? Image of Natives Americans as portrayed by Native Americans do not exist in the archival record before the 1600s. In some cases, we have decided against direct representation, using instead images of their artifacts and a famous etched Lenape stone representing hunting and fishing practices. Yet, we also wainted to point out that an important part of the history of Manhattan involved objectification of its Native American past, as Teju Cole acknowledges in several historical allusions. In a roundabout way, these  “inaccurate” representations shed light on the worldviews of both the natives of Mannahatta and settlers. In this way, they do open a world for us.

Imagery representing New Amsterdam, though varied in medium and style, is in many ways less problematic than images of the Native American presence. Over the past century, there has been great interest in New York’s Dutch colonial history. The City of New York has demarcated several important building foundations including the Stadhuis (State House), Lovelace Tavern and Slave Market. Drawing on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collections, a period Dutch-colonial room, furniture and Dutch renderings of period interiors allows us to visualize and contrast the Dutch colonists’ lifestyles with that of English colonists. The Dutch settlement was carried out by the Dutch West India Company and was primarily concerned with using New Amsterdam to develop their interests in the fur trade, rather than as a settlement colony. This is why many images involve coats of arms, imagery of beavers and slaves. African American slaves played an important role in the running of New Amsterdam, composing twenty percent of the population, and images of African-descended people often appear in period decorations and images.

In relation to Julius’s narrative, two things must be addressed in the New Amsterdam map. The first is that no images could be found of Cornelius Van Tienhoven, stylized as The Monster of New Amsterdam. In the book, he is described as a powerful man who committed various atrocities against the Native Americans. Through my research, I determined that the probable reason there is no image of him was his minor importance compared to the Company Director at the time, Willem Kleft. Kleft was notorious for his policies concerning the Native Americans. Since the Dutch West India Company ran the colony like a business, relations with indigenous people were important to ensure smooth commerce, but his actions so antagonized the indigenous inhabitants of the area that the company recalled him to the Netherlands to answer for corporate mismanagement. Van Tienhoven served a brief few months after Kleft was recalled before being fired by the new Director. Shortly after, he went missing and his hat was found floating in the river. For the sake of irony, we have placed his marker between the Stadhuis (State House) where he would have worked and the Hudson River, where he ended up.  In an effort to represent him, I have included a Dutch tile with the image of a Dutch colonist shooting a gun, an engraving of a battle between Lenape Indians and the Dutch (who hired a neighboring tribe as mercenaries), and three documents that belonged to him.

The second inclusion related to Cole’s novel is Trinity Church. Trinity Church was built in the latter part of the 1600s, following the surrender of New Amsterdam in 1664 to the British. Because of its importance in the novel, we felt empowered to take some artistic and historic license, including it in the map as part of the Julius walking trail. The reasoning behind this choice was that historical periods weave into one another in the author’s narrative, and, in this respect, we decided to mirror the author’s choice.

Trinity Church also plays an important role in the history of the African-descended peoples in Manhattan. Prior to British occupation, Africans could be buried in the same plots as the Dutch. When Trinity church was established, the first rector, William Vesey, along with Governor Benjamin Fletcher, who purchased the land under a charter from Queen Anne, ruled that Africans could only be buried outside of the walls of the settlement itself. In short, the building of the Trinity Church is directly connected to the establishment of the African Burial Ground located at what is now 290 Broadway.

While imagery of Native American and Dutch-occupied Manhattan depict settlements, foodstuff, key figures, architecture and other aspects of their ways of life, the layer depicting the 1863 Draft Riots and September 11th attacks do not. The reason for this is that these layers depict a specific event, not a temporal period. As a result, when doing research, much more pointed archival material detailing the events that took place took precedent. For the Draft Riots, illustrations of rioters, destroyed buildings, looters, victims, police officers and soldiers were the most prevalent. For the World Trade center, images from the day of the attack and its aftermath were utilized.

Julius’ depiction of the Civil War Draft Riots is brief, discussing the event as part of a sort of personal illusion or dreamscape. Summoned from watching a nearby protesting crowd by Penn Station, he has a ‘vision’ of violence, imagining a hanged black man during the Draft Riots, more than a century past. Like nearly all of the layers that we address (and others that we did not), Cole’s Julius speaks to the violence done against “the other” on the isle of Manhattan.

Within the first day of the Draft Riots, seemingly organized protesters that had gathered to oppose the draft lottery coalesced into a violent and destructive crowd. Within the first twenty-four hours, they turned their vitriol away from the authorities and towards African Americans. Properties and civic centers were destroyed, a black children’s orphanage was burnt to the ground, one child was struck in the head and killed with a brick, and several men were lynched.

In order to articulate this with imagery, we first mapped out diamonds (representing episodes from Julius’ narrative) throughout the city where these violent events took place. This created a large repository of images depicting anti-black violence. We hoped that visually, for someone trying to access these spaces, seeing how widespread the events were would help convey the scale of the horror.

What Has Been Achieved, What Could We Have Done

At the beginning, our original intention was to develop a walking app that revealed the palimpsests of Manhattan’s history in a way that was reflective of Teju Cole’s Open City. Upon reflection, I began to perceive the project more conceptually than practically. Visualizing the project as a game became a mental exercise. It allowed me to develop a step-by-step method of plotting out and journeying through history in an accessible and visual manner. My real intention was thus to create a research project that used visual tools to map fictional narratives of history.

Because of my subconscious expectation that this project was more about digital humanities research than a real game, the project largely remained faithful to the original plan. I followed through with a multi-media approach that reflected Cole’s experience as a writer, photographer and historian by layering digital mapping techniques with historical data, multi-media visuals and references to literature. Deviations from the proposal came about as we were forced to compromise in the face of technical challenges or lack of sources.

To put it bluntly, I had no idea how much energy would be required to build the maps for each period. In my original proposal I suggested using two kinds of software: WalkJogRun for mapping in contemporary Manhattan and VisualEyes for creating interactive historical maps. Originally, we planned to upload archival maps of each time frame into the platform to serve as the ‘ground’ of each layer. Then we were going to annotate the maps with key historical moments, attaching links to sound and archival materials. It seemed simple.

As soon as we started looking for historical maps, one for each era of our Palimpsest game, we came up against the limits of the documentary record. Over the 500-odd years of time that the project covers, cartography changed significantly. Further, each map varied in completeness and comprehensiveness.

We resolved to fall back on more common mapping tools, Rhino and Adobe Illustrator, in order to build customized maps for each period. Little did we know how much time each layer would take to build (approximately a week per layer). This timeframe encompassed three stages: research, drafting, and annotating (with both text and illustration).

In terms of the information we would include, we decided on a mixture of elements from Teju Cole’s depictions and historically-accurate information drawn from research. We noticed early on that Julius’s perspective of the periods he referred to was rather parochial, indicative of his unique perspective. The historical background surrounding his references was much more extensive. We wanted to illustrate the relative differences between the two.

We researched maps, personal journals and newspaper clippings, illustrations, sketches and illuminations. We referenced secondary historical literature on the history of Manhattan, guided by an interest in representing different scales, streetscapes, the timeline of events and how people interacted with the space alongside a visualization of contemporary residues and erasures of those historical moments.

Drafting was tedious. Each line, each building, each plant had to be drawn in. But it was not enough to build the maps; we needed to figure a way to order them, and to highlight certain parts of them to force the viewer’s attention to a particular area. I am still not sure whether we accomplished this goal.

The formula we developed, although hybridized for the different landscapes of each period, was a success. But I acknowledge that of the four layers, September 11th is the weakest. Both Victoria and I ran into a wall when it came to representing the space, albeit for different reasons. I was thirteen when the event happened, and am part of a generation that approaches the tragedy with a mixture of sorrow, trepidation, respect and, admittedly, denial. I could not wrap my head around curating which visual materials should be included in the project and so settled for a series of generic images that communicated the basics. For my partner, there was a similar sense of trepidation, but it drew from a need to respectfully approach that which she did not remember.


Upon reflection, I wish I had more time to creatively investigate ways of representing the spaces. Victoria’s explorations into music as a means of representing celebration, cultural events and violence greatly inspired me. I would have liked to create an appendix at the end of the project that explained the images I used in greater detail. I also would have liked to write an introduction to the project. In terms of execution, I wish I were able to master VisualEyes in order to apply the information in a more traditional digital humanities platform.

Moving forward with the project, I would like to partner with Yale’s Digital Humanities Center and the School of Architecture (which has voiced an interest in collaborating with American Studies scholars on mapping projects in the past) to rework and publish this project. Based on what I have researched, there is no digital humanities project that attempts to map out Manhattan’s history and attach archival information on the same scale as mine does. I believe that reworking this into an interactive project where scholars can visit historically accurate, three-dimensional grids of Manhattan and attach archival information to sites would be very valuable for students, teachers, and the general public.

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