With all the travel blogs and wanderlust-fueled social media feeds out there, maps can often seem all about zooming out. Like the cross-stitched map my grandparents used to have on their camper door, filling a map can feel like marking an accomplishment. But with family members who drove bus routes and worked in appliance repair, I grew up with people who – though their maps were more limited – could navigate local areas down to the smallest side street by memory. I grew up admiring people who could zoom in.
Like many pre-GPS families, we filled the pockets of our car doors with maps. We had big, folding maps for highways, city maps for downtown, and trail maps of our local parks. But getting around the Greater Cleveland area usually came down to a thick book with a red cover and a crowded index of every street name in the area tagged by page number and grid location. As kids, we became experts at flipping between pages to follow roads from E1 on page 13 to B8 on page 45. Watching street names pass as you ran your finger across the page was comforting. When I got to college and geology classes dropped groups of us off on the side of the road with pick-up times and locations marked on the map, I felt at home. When I moved to Hamburg, getting lost meant wandering to the closest bus stop or subway station to put my finger back on the map and place myself back in the world.
So it’s no surprise that, after more than a decade of renting, some of the first things my husband and I chose to hang on our own walls were maps. Specifically, we have one map for each place either of us ever lived printed to (approximately) the same scale. Hanging them side by side contrasts the relatively dense population of suburban fringe with rural landscapes. One map has more people in a small corner than another has in the whole frame. Visiting friends and family enjoy finding themselves among our maps, pointing out childhood homes or past jobs. Some of them can navigate every major event in their lives in a single frame.
But the fun has been localized to the places we’ve lived, with disappointment following when a favorite landmark or childhood memory falls just off the map. But now the New York Times has released a new, interactive map marking every building in the US. I lost an unflattering amount of time exploring it. It is fascinating at almost every scale. Zoom out and you can get a sense of just how much open space there is out west. Zoom in a bit and you can see the curves and gaps of the mountains and rivers that have shaped the lives of the people living on them. Scroll around and compare rural landscapes and urban grids. As someone whose maps have always been relatively full, those white spaces hold vast lessons about how policies designed for one location can completely fail to serve another. I get lost imagining what hospital access, school bus routes, or natural disasters might look like in each place. I could go on, but I would rather you spend some time zooming in and discover something new for yourself. Enjoy.