Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro's Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas

Reviewed by Maeve Montalvo


Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas is the third installment of a trilogy that seeks to explore, as editors Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro put forth, “what maps can do to describe the ingredients and systems that make up a city and what stories remain to be told after we think we know where we are.” Giving voice to untold stories is the predominant theme of this literary atlas. The writers, cartographers, artists, and researchers who join Solnit and Jelly-Schapiro on this journey do their best to shine light into the hidden corners of New York’s past. Told through twenty six original maps and accompanying essays, interviews, and editorial commentary, the story of New York grows increasingly complex as each interpretation of the city is layered upon the next. But Nonstop Metropolis is not so much a history as a manifesto. With Solnit at the helm, the atlas is a defiant statement of reclamation, with voice after voice sharing their New York story, thereby claiming the city as their own. In the process, the work critiques the forces of power -- money, gender, and race, among others -- that have kept these stories from being told. Fascinating, unnerving, and moving, Nonstop Metropolis reflects the cacophony of opinions and the diversity of lived experiences, challenging new and old New Yorkers alike to see their city through different eyes.

Maps are tools of discovery, says project leader Rebecca Solnit, as well as tools of colonization. The maps in this book are intended to help readers discover new connections, question long-held assumptions, and broaden their perspectives on the city and on what constitutes a New Yorker. Many of the maps do this by featuring atypical juxtapositions of people, places, or events. Map 9, “Archipelago: The Caribbean’s Far North,” for example, imagines the “archipelago” of New York City’s five boroughs as an extension of the Caribbean, placing the many islands of both places side by side. Cuba stands alongside Staten Island; the Rockaways point toward Puerto Rico. Illustrations of trading ships and enslaved men and women -- repurposed from an 18th century atlas of the West Indies -- highlight the histories of trade, profit, and human suffering that link the Caribbean and the northern city. This is one of many powerful visual statements by Molly Roy, the cartographer and artist responsible for producing the maps in the trilogy. The essay that accompanies this map, “Of Islands and Other Mothers,” by Gaiutra Bahadur, explores the colonial history of Guyana and how that history and contemporary migrations affect the Guyanese -- predominantly women -- who now account for the fifth-largest group of immigrants to New York City.

Other maps bring seemingly unrelated topics into conversation with one another, such as “Harper’s and Harpooners,” which traces the 19th century histories of the publishing and whaling industries in and around the city. While the pairing at first seems odd, the masterful storytelling by Paul La Farge in his accompanying essay “Sailors and Scriveners” illuminates the many connections.

Each map is visually distinct, and it is clear they are meant to be appreciated as the colorful works of art they are rather than as navigation tools (which they only metaphorically claim to be). In Map 1, “Singing the City: The New York of Dreams,” the demarcation lines of the five boroughs are almost invisible under the wordcloud-like rendering of New York song titles, a vision of the city as delineated by lyrical text. By contrast, Map 26, “Oscillating City: Manhattan, Day and Night,” uses almost no words, relying on minimalist grayscale color to present the striking contrast between Manhattan’s population density at 3:00 pm and at 3:00 am.

The essays that accompany the maps also vary widely in tone and form. Some examine the city through a historical lens, sounding academic and authoritative in their treatment, while others are memoirs detailing a slice of city life from the author’s unique perspective. Co-editor Jelly-Schapiro’s masterful “The Best City Money Can Buy” is one of the most successful examples of the historical; it accompanies Map 2, “Capital of Capital: How New York Happened.” His tale begins in 1524 with explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano noting the value of New York’s harbor, then proceeds at breathtaking pace through the financial highs and lows of the next five centuries, culminating in the 2008 financial crisis and the Occupy Wall Street movement. By the time he finishes invoking Kara Walker’s 2014 artwork, “A Subtlety” (a giant sugar sphinx that held court in Brooklyn while commenting on the ties between slavery, racism, and the sugar industry) the reader is left with a comprehensive sense of money’s central role in shaping the city.

Suketu Mehta’s essay “Tower of Scrabble,” on the other hand (accompanying Map 24, “Mother Tongues and Queens”) examines the city through a more personal lens. His tale begins with his Gujarati-speaking toddler’s first days at school in Manhattan and flows into meditations on the idea of language as cultural identity. Reflections on immigration and the death and revival of languages are interspersed with accounts of a walk through the linguistically-diverse neighborhood of Jackson Heights with Daniel Kaufman, co-director of the Endangered Language Alliance. “Tower of Scrabble” is a beautifully structured emotional journey and one of the strongest essays in the book; it serves as a counterpoint to both the historical overviews and some of the more anecdotal essays and interviews in the atlas.

That Mehta’s contribution is more memoir than chronological accounting is in keeping with the driving vision of Nonstop Metropolis. Above all, this book is not a history so much as a collection of artful and intentionally thought-provoking commentaries on the city. Solnit is a writer, historian, and activist with twenty books to her name, including Men Explain Things to Me (and its recent follow-up, The Mother of All Questions) and River of Shadows. Her official biography describes her works as focusing on “feminism, western and indigenous history, popular power, social change and insurrection, wandering and walking, hope and disaster.” The intent of Nonstop Metropolis is likewise to critique the usual history of the city while giving voice to its many pasts.

To ensure a diversity of viewpoints, Solnit and Jelly-Schapiro -- who is a geographer and writer -- engaged a veritable army to weave the many tales of New York featured in this collection. Writing alongside authors and historians are artists and film directors, journalists and architects, novelists and musicians. Like Mehta, many of the contributors to Nonstop Metropolis write in the narrative nonfiction style and bring their experience creating art and cultural commentary to this project. The result is a rich tapestry of highly personal critiques and explorations of the city.

The short-form writing and single-spread maps make Nonstop Metropolis easy to read in segmented bursts. But be warned: this is no book to enjoy on the subway or while waiting in line for a latte. The tall, heavy format is cumbersome. Most New Yorkers, certainly, won’t be hauling it around on their commutes. Yet the book’s size and physicality are integral to the experience; it is presumably for this reason that no ebook version exists. In a way, flipping the page from one birds-eye vantage point to the next mirrors the physical experience of crossing a boundary between neighborhoods. The general layout remains the same, but there is a an unmistakable difference in the impression.

Overall, this is a book for pondering, like atlases of old. Saying it is a compelling read does not capture the fascination that arises from exploring the maps and essays in this book, nor the emotions engendered by the stories it tells. The unusual juxtapositions make even familiar history stand out. Therefore, I recommend Nonstop Metropolis as a novel way to explore New York City and as a useful counterpoint to more academic treatises on the city’s history.

However, two cautions. The first is that readers should not expect Nonstop Metropolis to be a reliable reference guide. Fact and opinion are integrated throughout, without footnotes, sources, or other references to support further exploration or corroboration. Second, take the editors at their word when they say “maps demand work.” While the maps and essays are topically related, the majority of essays are independent from the maps. Those wishing to know more about the places, names, and historic incidents indicated on the maps will need to go elsewhere for their research.

For me, the most frustrating instance of this was in the pairing of Map 10, “City of Women,” and Solnit’s accompanying essay “The Power of Names.” The map imagines a New York where every subway stop is named after an influential woman, thereby dispelling the “horde of dead men with live identities [who] haunt New York City” by substituting in Maria Tallchief for Columbus Circle, Nico for Astor Place, Louise Bourgeois for Rockefeller Center, etc. In the essay, Solnit urges the reader to imagine how different the power balance between men and women would be in a world where women’s names were as visible and celebrated as men’s. Her language is evocative; her examples compelling. Yet she spends half the essay listing the landmarks named after men and mentions scarce few of the hundreds of female names on the reimagined map. I was eager to learn more about the women who had made an impact on the city, and hoped to be able to celebrate their stories. I was disappointed that the essay was a call to arms but provided no historical information about the women whose names were featured on the map. However, as a testament to the book’s intent, a male friend of mine who had not previously thought about the issue of unbalanced commemorative naming called out this essay as one of his favorites, saying he found it eye-opening and provocative. Where it stumbles in providing comprehensive historical information, Nonstop Metropolis succeeds in making you reexamine your world.

Solnit and Jelly-Schapiro write that “New York is a center that pulls people in and a centrifuge that spins them out into the world.” Their metaphor is an apt summary of the book as well. Nonstop Metropolis pulls you into the voyeuristic fascination of observing the city through other eyes, then spins you back out to do your own research and follow the authors’ leads. As a thought-provoking, imaginative critique of the city, it is a worthwhile read and a useful counterpoint to the more typical written histories of New York.

Maeve Montalvo, M.S.Ed., oversees the Andrew W. Mellon Predoctoral Fellowship in Museum Education at the Museum of the City of New York, where she teaches museum education to Ph.D. candidates and New York City history to the city’s public and private school teachers. She is a native New Yorker.