Airport Planning in 1966
Poole Creek, Blair Village, and the Meaning of “The Projects”

Illustrated Maps, Illuminated Places


I've been thinking about illustrated maps and how they are still wonderful and necessary, despite the omnipresence of Google, Bing, and Apple Maps. First of all, they are so much fun to "read," especially as they age.

While the maps in my iphone are up-to-the-minute and authoritative, they can't capture the personality of a place and time, or give me a clue about what's special about a neighborhood. That kind of big data is not generated or captured, but interpreted and expressed by an illustrator. 


How does someone illustrate the experience of a place? It's a painstaking process to inventory the landscape, puzzle out the connections, and then hand render it with style. I think of an illustrator creating these carefully detailed tableaus of the Atlanta airport area and it seems so tedious, it has to be a labor of love. Like those illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages, drawing a map is a solitary, meditative discipline meant to preserve something sacred. The reader gets a taste of that too–a sense that this place is beloved.


When someone asks me why I live in East Point, or refers to the airport area as a "no man's land," I want to show them the illustrated maps at Boyd Tire Pros. This is an old school tire shop on the northern edge of the airport that's been there since 1967. The wood-paneled halls of their office and "customer waiting lounge" look like they haven't changed much since the '70s, and they include a fine collection of gold-framed promotional maps of the airport area. I imagine the chamber of commerce commissioned an illustrator to produce these pieces, with sponsorships from local businesses like Boyd Tire.


I know these aren't exactly illuminated manuscripts, but nothing better captures the spirit of a once-thriving southside like these maps. This one by Alex Black feels like an early sketch for the Plane Crazy piece I found last year. Badly faded and totally obsolete, these maps are remnants of a lost world.


Since my visit to Boyd Tire, I have noticed that art of illuminating places through handmade maps is very much alive. I picked up a recent promotional map of Hapeville at Beer Girl by local tattoo artist and Hapeville native, Dee Claborn. It's full of inside jokes and hidden spots that even I didn't know about, like the Airport View Restaurant, a lunch cafeteria overlooking the north cargo area off Loop Road.



Then the Bitter Southerner posted a gorgeous Atlanta map by artist YoYo Ferro. It depicts a quirky and personal experience of the city, including obscure sites like the Bankhead Bridge. I love that it doesn't attempt to be all things to all Atlantans, just one person's loving tribute to ATL, circa 2015.


Finally, for my birthday last week, I received a stylized Atlanta map by Archie's Press. It's actually quite helpful for understanding how Atlanta's neighborhoods are connected, but I was slightly annoyed that  certain hoods are emphasized over others (Buckhead vs. East Point, even though E.P. is much bigger geographically). Archie's methodology is unique and his resulting "Map of the Mind," is subjective. It's a reminder that the process of interpreting city data is the tricky part–the human part–of the practice of urban design, because it involves selection and judgement. But how else are we supposed to get at the unique psycho-geography of a place, especially unloveable places like Bankhead or Hartsfield-Jackson?

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The upshot of my little fixation on illustrated maps is that I am now regularly using Etsy in my research as an urban designer. This week I learned about Rustbelt pride and Great Lakes identity by searching the handmade works of artists in Toledo, Ohio. Their hand drawn and hand letterpressed prints are as valuable to my understanding of place as  time spent in wandering the spooky corridors of Google Street View. And they're a lot more fun and inspiring to look at.



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