Map class and the Motor City

In June, I had the pleasure of attending a Three Day Map Making Workshop, given by Connie Brown, a map artist from Connecticut. I met Connie over a year ago. I had decided to make maps the focus of my sabbatical, so of course I went to Google to find others who were interested in maps. I found the New York Map Society, and Connie was Vice President. I checked out her website and really liked her work. I emailed her, out of the blue, and asked more about her classes and if she would speak to me about my project. She agreed to chat!

She has been extremely helpful. She’s put me in touch with many people, including Alice Hudson, former Chief of the NYPL Map Division. I did join the New York Map Society and everyone there has been just as helpful and supportive of me. (Shout out!)

I had to wait a year, but finally the class was here. I chose to create a map about a visit I made to Detroit in 2015 to see the urban landscape and check out a great American City. This is an interest of mine – to see once flourishing cities, now derelict, with abandoned buildings and weed choked, chain link fenced industrial areas. These long closed factories, mines, buildings and neighborhoods are our American “cathedrals.” They are our monuments to American history.

It’s good to see they are getting a second life – coffee roasters, bicycle manufacturers, artists and tech companies enjoy the low rent and pioneer feel (much like when I moved to the East Village in NYC… I won’t say how many years ago.)

Yes, we did go in abandoned churches, factories and schools – searching out ruin porn, as it’s called. Amazing. One thing I kept thinking was how cut off the actual downtown area of the city is literally choked by freeways, each developed to whiz you downtown, in your car, of course. Don’t stop until you are at the parking garage. Of course there were abandoned lots everywhere, you could see this from the plane when we landed. But there were some magnificent buildings as well. The Fisher Building, the Guardian Building and my favorite, the Penobscot with its Native American motifs and fabulous map of Michigan looming over the lobby! All are functioning today as office buildings – hopefully they are not slated to become expensive residential condos.

Prior to arriving for the workshop, we were asked to create a basemap to trace. The maps were to be manuscript, no use of computers, except for reference and the basemap. I brought my laptop with photos from my trip. I knew I couldn’t include everything, so I tried to use what stood out to me. I knew I wanted to feature the freeways as sort of ropes, with tangled knots for intersections, around the city. Perhaps I could actually draw them as ropes. Maybe I could use typography that resembled the car names that are on fenders steering wheels. I wanted to feature the car somehow, but also include¬† the run down qualities of the city. I didn’t want the drawing to feel sad. I wanted it to highlight the significance of the automobile to this city, good and bad.

During the workshop, we flushed out the details. We weren’t expected to finish the entire map, although one person did. I poured over automobile imagery, thinking I could borrow fenders, rear view mirrors or tires for motifs. Fenders and various car parts just didn’t feel right to me. I don’t know anything about cars and I’m not particularly interested in them, so why am I trying to draw them? I did think a speedometer could be used somehow. Then it hit me – why not create a cartouche that looks like a highway map cover? And a key for a compass rose. I had spent a few hours at the NYPL looking at old Detroit maps in preparation for this class. When checking out maps, you are never quite sure of what you are going to get. I was given a large folder of highway maps, dating from 1937 to the present. That could be a whole blog post in itself!

The map is not finished yet, but the foundation is there. That’s my task once the days are colder in London (we’ve had amazingly wonderful weather so far). The class was challenging, but a lot of fun. Everyone’s maps came out great, evidence that maps are a good cross over project to teach non designers about design. You’ve got layout and composition, hierarchy, storytelling, imagery and typography – it’s all there.

I’ll post an update when I finish it.

Various sketches during process.
Planning the composition with over and underlays.
Tracing over the Google base map.
setting up
Color studies.
Factory photo illustration in a broken window. The diagonal lines are an extension of a highway that will overlap the illustration.
Highway knots.

More about finishing up the map.

Click here to see the final map.

Assorted Links for this page