Atlas of an Infinite CityNew Book “Nonstop Metropolis” is a Love Letter to New York

In the 2002 Spike Lee film 25th Hour, Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) goes on a long rant about New York City. It’s homophobic, xenophobic, racist, anti-Semitic, and hate-filled, albeit extensive—it spans the Upper East Side to Brighton Beach, Bensonhurst to Chelsea, 47th street to Wall Street and spews a litany of hatred for the city and the people in it. Well, Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro’s new book, Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas, is the equally cohesive antithesis of Norton’s contorted face in a mirror spitting insults and rage toward “this rat-infested city.” Instead, with the same breadth, and with careful curation, the book celebrates the city with all its “triumph of coexistence, interrupted by people yelling at each other.”  It focuses on underrepresented and rarely documented people and stories, holding them up to the light, allowing them to sparkle.

Twenty-six maps and essays make up this final volume of a trilogy of atlases—the other two cover New Orleans and San Francisco—that Solnit and collaborators compiled to explore “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.” They present New York City’s multitudes, its dichotomies, its curiosities, its tragedy, its beauty. This book will resonate with those who have lived in New York, loved within its walls, traveled through the veins of the subway, gotten lost in Chinatown on a sweltering summer day, found a haven in the masses, and learned about the city by walking through it.

Nonstop Metropolis is a book of convergences and collisions. Solnit remarks in the introduction that “[a] city is not one or the other of these things but all of them, contradictions and conflicts together, forever churning and spitting out new possibilities.” Each map in the collection presents a dichotomy: love and rage, wildlife and nightlife, whaling and publishing. It explores the unsung, the unexplored, the not necessarily charted: riots, women, the multitude of languages spoken in Queens, trash, climate change, the Wu-Tang Clan’s Staten Island (as Shaolin), Jewish identity, Brooklyn villages, public and private schools, basketball and brownstones, parks, Latin radio, and the songs of the city from the Ramones to the Chantels, to Gil Scott-Heron, to Mos Def and Talib Kweli.

This is a book of intersections: One map, “Burning Down and Rising Up,” displays the housing fires in the 1970s in the Bronx alongside the birth of hip hop. In an orange and red map, b-boys and girls break and fires blaze. It’s paired with an essay by Marshall Berman who writes, “You can come from ruins, yet not yourself be ruined.” Another map, “Wildlife,” gorgeously displays wildlife coexisting with nightclubs alongside an equally stunning essay by Solnit. In it, she references voguing (“Watching an after-midnight session of voguing in midtown in 2015, I was struck by how much people seemed liberated from old definitions of gender as they declined to be male, without embracing the old stereotypes of being female. It felt like a realm in which people set themselves free, another transient capital of the other city”, and the wildness of humans (“New York has remained a place of wildlife but also of wild life and wild lives, of lives lived for other purposes, of merging and reaching out for ecstasy and delight and wonder, for the mystical city”).  Another map features “Love and Rage,” “the two emotions in particular that animate this city.” In a deep maroon and slate gray map, animal abuse complaints, community gardens, popular locations for marriage proposals, and felony assault charges comingle underneath a white heart designed after Milton Glaser’s “I Love NY” logo. But this time it’s a real heart pumping (it “looks a lot more like the fist of a muscle that thumps inside the chest of each of us”), redesigned by Adriana Krasniansky.

Maps also tell stories, as each map in this book does. As Jelly-Schapiro is quoted in the introduction, “Every map is a story, and by implication every story contains a map.”

Next to a striking interview with RZA by Jelly-Schapiro about growing up in Staten Island is Garnette Cadogan’s “Inexhaustible City.”  In the essay, Cadogan stands on a New York City sidewalk: “I stared up at the buildings and the darkness in the windows tugged at me. Suddenly these sidewalks where I had walked dozens of times before became a place more revealing and more mysterious. New York City does that to you—it sneaks up on you. It sneaks up on you and promises that there is always more to see, to hear, to know. It surprises you with inexhaustibility.” It brought me back to a moment when I lived in Brooklyn in 2010. The winter was approaching. I had just picked up takeout at my favorite phở place. In the crisp night, I looked up at all the air conditioners lodged in the mouths of windows, stack upon stack of person, and simply marveled at the opportunity to live in a place with so many people all at once. “I catch a glimpse of a face or overhear a voice that expresses surprise at the vibrancy or eccentricity of this city, and my capacity for wonder is refreshed.” Cadogan articulates this perfectly. Her story merges with my map. It is why I, and many others, return to New York.

Nonstop Metropolis is an extensive, inclusive exploration, and, above all, is a collaboration between essayists, cartographers, and designers. Solnit describes the experience of making the book as like being a “ringmaster of a very talented circus, as well as a herder of brilliant cats.”

This book is gorgeous, exhilarating, a collage of most of the things I love in one place. The only time the book faltered was during Emily Raboteau’s essay “Playgrounds I Have Known.” Her repeated and flippant allusions to giving her dog away are insensitive and out of place. Because her new apartment didn’t allow animals, she didn’t bring her dog. She remarks: “So much for my principles. My address mattered to me more.” We find out later in the essay that, “Back when I was single, I traded my dog for a used bike…” Maybe the collection should have included another map that shows what happens when New Yorkers get tired of their pets. A quick jaunt through any animal shelter in Brooklyn will give one an idea how serious a problem it is. One would think that such statements in such a careful collection would be questioned, rejected. While Raboteau’s prose is strong, and her point about New York becoming “the playground of the rich” rings true, her essay was lost on me. However, the entire book is such a visual and lyrical treat that this misstep is nearly forgotten by the end.

One of my favorite maps, “City of Women,” displays where notable women lived in relation to the subway by showing a regular subway map with their names as stops. Solnit notes that “New York City is, like most cities, a manscape.” Historically, the city’s streets, parks, and buildings have been named after men, and only five statues of named women exist. The map builds “a feminist city of sorts, or a map to a renamed city of women.” From Cyndi Lauper to Audre Lorde, Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Joan Didion, Kara Walker to Suheir Hammad, a spectrum of women are featured.

In its corresponding essay, Solnit says, “When I watch action movies with female protagonists, I come out feeling charged-up, superhuman, indomitable… Lately I’ve come to wonder what it would feel like if instead of seeing a dozen or so such films in my lifetime, I had the option at any moment of seeing several new releases lionizing my gender’s super powers… I can’t imagine how I might have conceived of myself and my possibilities if, in my formative years, I had moved through a city where most things were named after women and many or most of the monuments were of powerful, successful, honored women.” Well, Solnit has again succeeded in creating media that champions those who are not always given the front seat: After reading Nonstop Metropolis, you’ll feel charged-up about culture, your city, and the maps of your own.

Jaime Lowe is a writer, photographer, and critic. Her work has been published in Slate, WIRED, T, BUST, McSweeeny's and others.  Follow her on twitter @jaimelowe.

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