These Creative Maps Remind Us That Neighborhoods Are Alive

When you are asked to draw up a map of your neighborhood, it’s likely that the first thing you’ll illustrate are its roads, buildings, and key establishments. But to artist Denis Wood, mapping his neighborhood isn’t limited to geography.

In 1975, Denis began creating an atlas of his neighborhood – Boylan Heights in Raleigh, North Carolina. The project was his attempt at teaching environmental perception to his landscape architecture students at North Carolina State University.

Rather than taking a street-based approach, he wanted to show his students a new way of looking at the landscape:

If Denis’ students weren’t going to focus on the streets, what were they going to map instead? They were going to map everything else:

“I used mapping as a way of selectively focusing their attention on those aspects of the landscape that, in the instrumentality of their training as future professionals, they were apt to overlook: the way the land smelled, the way it felt in their legs when they walked it, the sound of the wind in the oaks after all the other leaves had fallen, the way twilight made all the difference.

This meant that they had to look at Boylan Heights as more than just a place in Raleigh, North Carolina. It wasn’t just a defined space with some hills, a pre-Civil War mansion, a prison, an asylum, and some railroad tracks. It was a community with its own relationships, habits, and secret lives.

The result was like a novel. It was an intimate visual narrative of what it was like to live in Boylan Heights. Even if Denis had already lived there for years, these maps helped him uncover layers of his neighborhood that he hadn’t seen before.

For example, what does it mean when an address is frequently mentioned in the neighborhood newsletter – regardless of who lives there?

“Our big discovery here was how important the address was. It didn’t matter who lived at the most frequently mentioned address. Whoever it was, was always most frequently mentioned. This took us into the social geography of the neighborhood, and how it maintained the social structure built into the neighborhood by its original planners.”

Newsletter Prominence. This map shows how often an address was mentioned in the neighborhood newsletter.
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Another fascinating finding was that the addresses that displayed Jack O’ Lanterns during Halloween were the same addresses that were frequently mentioned in the newsletter.

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The correlation between the placement of Jack O’ Lanterns and newsletter prominence might seem trivial at first, but Denis soon realized that this told him something important about Boylan Heights.

While he was going around taking pictures of the Jack O’ Lanterns, he ran into a young man at the edge of the neighborhood. The young man ended up sharing his frustrations about carving his own pumpkin:

“He’s carved out a mouth and a nose, but he can’t figure out which direction the eyes go. That cultural cue isn’t somehow built into him, and he’s paralyzed. He’d left the house to call a friend to find out how he should make the eyes. I knew there was a concentration of pumpkins around the part of the neighborhood that I lived in, but I didn’t realize until then that there were big spots in the neighborhood without a single pumpkin.

And that encounter was a revelation:

“When I met this guy, I realized that the pumpkin was, in a way, a representation of cultural capital of some kind. You were tied into the culture or you weren’t: you saw the pictures, you made the paste-up things in elementary school, you paid attention, or you didn’t—and if you didn’t, then you didn’t know how to carve a pumpkin face. That’s what I was looking at in this map: marginality. Then, when I made the map of how many times different addresses were mentioned in the community newsletter, I said, “Oh my god, the marginal pumpkin areas are precisely the areas marginally mentioned in the newsletter.” And guess what? They correlated perfectly to assessed property values and the Kelsey and Guild [the original developers] plan to lay out a neighborhood with stratified class structure. All of these things just piled up.

The Many Maps of Boylan Heights

Here are the other maps that Denis and his students have created over the years:
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“The thing that’s fascinating about this image is that the traffic signs are, of course, by and large for people who don’t live in the neighborhood. So their density reveals those streets where strangers are going to move through the environment.

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“I knew I wanted to situate Boylan Heights in everything, that is, in the universe, but it wasn’t simple to figure out how to pull this off. When it came to us to map the stars as they spread themselves over the neighborhood we knew it was right – the stars in the neighborhood – but it sounds easier to do than it was.”

Detail of “Bus Ballet” map. The different bus routes of Boylan Heights.
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Shotgun Bungalow Mission. Illustrates the different types of houses in the neighborhood.
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Pools of Light. Shows the pools of light cast by each of the neighbourhood street lamps.
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Wind Chimes. The many wind chimes of Boylan Heights.
Wind Chimes. The many wind chimes of Boylan Heights.
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Neighborhoods are Living Organisms

Given all these maps, it becomes clearer that neighborhoods are more than just a collection of streets and buildings. They are alive. And Denis knows this: “It is a living organism. It’s absolutely what it is.”

What does this mean for the individual who lives there? It means that he or she is part of something greater, with many intricate mechanisms and relationships. Most of which can be mapped, if you want to understand them.

With more accurate mapping and location-based resources such as Google Maps, Foursquare, and GPS tools, it’s easier than ever to find and customize maps. But all this accuracy also makes it hard to imagine neighborhoods as anything other than stopovers between where we are and where we’re going.

Maybe that’s why we should also try and see each place beyond its streets and buildings. While accuracy is practical and convenient, it often lets us forget that the neighborhoods we quickly pass through – and even the neighborhoods that we live in – are completely alive in ways we can’t even imagine.