Wednesday, November 28, 2007

“Maps in the Public Square” Exhibit Explores Chicago’s Past, Present and Future

Maps are not only tools that get you from Point A to Point B. They can also expose visually an important story about resource patterns and trends of a defined area. They tackle social questions like, “Are Starbucks an indicator of gentrification?” or “Do lower-income communities have less access to fresh produce?” Depicting instances like these help community members and planners better deal with the needs of an area that may not always be clear.

This year, Festival of Maps includes an online exhibit, “Maps in the Public Square: An Atlas of the Next Chicago Region”, highlighting the creative combination of mapmaking and public policy in the Chicago region. The region’s groundbreaking advances in regional planning, sustainable urban development, and community decision-making have been supported and given shape by equally groundbreaking cartography. The exhibit draws on both the deep Chicago well of public discussion and the newest mapmaking technologies to create an annotated atlas of the best of the recent work in this area.

With contributions from CNT, Openlands, and Chicago Metropolis 2020, to name a few, these maps tell historical stories about the region and also reveal future implications through different topics like ‘work’ ‘moving’ ‘plans and visions’ and ‘play’.

Where are the emerging art-focused neighborhoods? Where are the ‘food deserts’ in Chicago? What is the average household transportation expense in a particular district? These are just some of the fascinating questions that can be explored at this online exhibit that runs into 2008 and will then become an online atlas. The exhibit contains over sixty map images as well as links to online mapping website and is curated is Mark Bouman, Professor of Geography at Chicago State University.

Peruse the exhibit at

Friday, November 9, 2007

Rome Reflected in Many Mirrors: Or, The Travelers’ Guide to Rome: 16th Century Style

All maps really do lead to Rome in the display currently on view in the Special Collections Department of the University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library. The exhibition centers on excerpts from Antonio Lafreri’s 16th century Speculum Romanae Magnificatae—the title for a vast series of engraved images that translates as “Mirrors of the Magnificence of Rome.” Antonio Lafreri was a Frenchman from Besançon who relocated to Rome to establish a career producing engraved images and maps of the ancient city. Images range from maps that recreate the layout of Rome at various points in its history, to depictions of the still-extant ruins and statuary as recorded by 16th century artists. Lafreri’s ambitions reflected what was, at that time, an intense interest in Roman antiquity. As engravings deriving from clearly well-worn copper plates demonstrate, Lafreri’s elegant and elaborate image-making met the demands of his consumers. His work quickly became immensely popular and was distributed widely throughout Europe. At the center of the exhibition thus lies the theme of Rome observed and mapped through the eyes of the traveler.

The exhibition positions many of these images as “virtual tourism,” because they represent Rome to those who, for whatever reason, required a depiction of the city that they would not see in person. Other Lafreri documents appear as individual pieces, which probably originated as special souvenirs for travelers who wanted to commemorate a trip to Rome. Still others appear in bound folios that were made-to-order at the time of their inception: a precursor, if you will, to the contemporary coffee table book. These custom bound folios served as one-of-a-kind treasures for the libraries of well-to-do travelers, who might later consult their collection of images as references for private architectural or design projects.

Other items in this rich exhibition establish Lafreri within larger historical contexts. Some of the texts on view seek to make a contrast between “virtual” tourism and “actual” tourism. Indeed, in some display cases, Lafreri’s folios are interspersed with pocket-sized volumes, clearly meant for consultation by visitors making their way through an unknown city. Many of these guidebooks have a well-thumbed appearance, revealing the trace of a tour or pilgrimage to Rome long since completed. These charming volumes, minus the woodcut images and leather bindings, bear a striking resemblance to the Michelin guides we tote today.

The exhibition’s curator poses huge questions regarding the composition, origin, and ultimate “legitimacy” of these latter-day maps of Ancient Rome. And beyond Rome, she raises further questions about the challenges faced by the producers of maps and how they organized and spatialized history. One of the most provocative pieces on display is an image of the ruins of the Roman Forum dating from 1550. It depicts not only tourists wandering through the scene, but multiple artists as well, clearly identifiable with their drawing pads and canvases. The artists sit in various places within the decaying structure, each lost in his own work. In one corner, two artists gaze at a single statue from opposite sides. This visual metaphor makes the point that the “same” historical space is always subjected to differing perspectives and imaginations. All these questions remain pertinent to our ongoing attempts to understand history through maps.

The exhibition is characteristic of the University of Chicago’s meticulous scholarship. A collection has been assembled here that is not outwardly imposing in size, but nevertheless explores a massive historical dialogue between the present and at least two multifaceted pasts: one that is ancient and distant, and another imbued with the complicated perspectives of the 16th century.

Written by Nik Lund

Thursday, November 1, 2007

A City Too Fast for Maps: Images of Chicago’s Past and Future

The exhibit, Mapping Chicago: The Past and the Possible, at the Chicago History Museum invites visitors of all ages “to consider the relationship between maps and imagination.” The exhibition is highly recommended for those who enjoy maps, less as an accurate reference to the present than as an image of a vanished past or imagined future. The curators of the show have brought together a highly diverse collection of maps and have arranged them so as to invite freer associations between them. In this way, it is indeed a show to tempt one’s imaginative faculties.

The exhibition reminds viewers that a map always represents an historical document, with its own historical origins. Moreover, in a city like Chicago, which has seen such phenomenal change in a relatively short time, the “aging” of a map can be a startling revelation for later viewers. For example, an 1834 Chicago land-holdings map is accompanied by a quote from one Joshua Hathaway, Jr., who, while marveling at the exploding real estate market, observed: “Indeed, in Chicago, every map is out of date before it leaves the press.” Clear evidence of this rapid change is offered by an 1892 map showing the complete network of coal-carrying freight trains. The Pacific, Michigan Southern, Chicago, and Rock Island railroad tracks merged then at the spot now occupied by Millennium Park. Considering the appearance of that area only 15 years ago, the “out-of-dateness” of these maps is quite apparent.

Another important section of the exhibit features the historical links between the mapping of the city and the mapping of its citizens. Chicago, of course, has a long and complicated history regarding the segregation of its African-American population. Many maps from past decades plot all too clearly a pattern of discrimination that situated this population to their “own place” on the map. Nevertheless, this important social critique is contrasted with maps that show Chicago as a place of extraordinary ethnic mingling and diversity. One finds crazily complicated maps that attempt to color code the arrival of immigrants from every imaginable origin onto the city grid. I was not surprised to see a large Polish contingent emerging on the West Side, north of Chicago Avenue, around the turn of the century. But I was indeed unaware of the large Swedish population that came to dwell just north of the river around the same time. On one of the maps commissioned in 1976 specifically to plot the ethic distributions as they appeared in 1900, the notes dryly state: “The locations of these groups is approximate…The neighborhoods were never totally homogenous.” And indeed they were not.

Especially inspiring to the imagination are maps that plot the future. Perhaps the most tantalizing items on display are satellite views of the city provided by the architecture firm Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill with overlaid points indicating the sites that have been proposed for the 2016 Olympic Games in Chicago. A placard beneath summarizes—with somehow perfect Chicago inflections—comments that reveal the polarized debate between persons alternately thrilled or horrified by the idea of Chicago as an Olympic host.

The exhibition subtly addresses some of the other debates currently “on the map” in the city. One section juxtaposes some of Daniel Burnham’s beautiful 1908 renderings of his proposed lakefront with an 1836 Cook County Clerk’s office map depicting the stretch of land between Madison and (now) Harrison, and East of Michigan Avenue. Written on the 1836 map, in an elegant and clear script, one reads: “A Common to remain forever Open, Clear, and Free of any buildings or other obstacles whatever.” This is precisely the motto championed today by the many groups attempting to halt the building of the proposed Children’s Museum adjacent to Millennium Park. The debate remains open at present, and the historical precedent recorded here certainly resonates with modern sentiments regarding the preservation of Chicago’s lakefront.

Anyone who loves the way maps take the imagination across the dimensions of time and place should treat themselves to a trip to the Chicago History Museum.

Written by Nik Lund