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Look up any conventional map of Boylan Heights, a neighborhood in Raleigh, and you’ll find a more or less organized system of streets, a few icons indicating parks and parking lots, and a whole lot of empty space in between. Look at one of artist and educator Denis Wood’s maps of Boylan Heights, and you’ll see something completely different. Take for example his jack-o’-lantern map. Mystifying at first, eerie even, the image takes on new meaning when you learn its concentration of grinning faces happens to match the neighborhood’s class distribution at the time the map was created. “People without means don’t buy pumpkins,” he remarks drily. The effect is “an island of positive pumpkins in a sea of non-pumpkinness.”

Wood, a longtime Heights resident and internationally renowned author of The Power of Maps, produced this (still-incomplete) “narrative atlas” of Boylan Heights from the late ’70s through the early ’80s with a group of his students. There’s also a map of just street signs; one of power lines; one of the stars overhead; one of autumn leaves; another of the underground gas, water and sewer systems. Each tells a different story about the neighborhood by isolating one of its life support systems, each answering the question “Where am I?” in an entirely different way. “I wanted the atlas to read almost like a novel,” Wood says. Still unfinished, the maps are the subject of a 1998 interview that remains one of the radio show This American Life‘s more popular episodes.

Wood minces no words about what’s wrong with the picture provided by both our standard street atlas and its virtual counterparts: “Google Maps reduces the world to a bunch of automobile pipes. I don’t want to think of my world only in terms of streets.” Wood has spent much of his career as artist, writer and educator arguing that maps influence how we think about every aspect of our environment, from natural resources to economic development, from school assignment zones to voting precincts. “Show me anyone’s life today, and it’s shown on a map, organized by maps and constructed with maps.”

The importance of maps is certainly nothing neweven older than writing, maps have been instrumental in everything from laying out simple farming settlements to colonizing the New World. The most obvious recent change in mapping is in the technology. Over the past 30 years or so, software based on the geographic information system (GIS) model has become the standard in professional cartography, changing the kinds and quantity of data that can be made available by a single map interface. At the same time, the digital revolution has made it easier for more people to get involved in mapping through free programs like Google Earth. But most of what’s distinctive about today’s maps comes down to the same key factors as any form of communication: what they’re being used for, and for whom they’re being made.

Besides Wood, there is an emerging network of people in the Triangle interested in mapping. They don’t all know each otheryetand some of their projects couldn’t be more different, but among the things your city government, a team of UNC students, a Duke sociologist, a prominent blogger and a historian have in common, there is a desire not only to learn more about how to get around the Triangle, but also to figure out how it works: the communities, economies, geographies and experiences, good and bad, that make it run. And not only do they want to learn, they want to show how communities are connected by things other than roads, bridges and waterways.

The question is, how?

In Chapel Hill, an innovative group of mapmakers is exploring ways to make visual narratives out of the dynamic forces that shape a modern research university. The Counter Cartographies Collective (3Cs), a group operating out of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Cultural Studies department, refuses to see mapping as a passive process. Says spokesperson Tim Stallman, “We’re less interested in making maps that describe the world as it is and more interested in making maps that develop your understanding of the world.” Since its inception in the spring of 2005, 3Cs has been using maps to show how the Triangle’s major biotech and medical research centers and its universities are taking control of North Carolina’s economy, and the effects of these changes on local communities.

3Cs’ most notable mapping project so far is entitled disOrientation 2006, which they passed out to incoming first-year students at UNC. Really several maps in one, it displays traffic patterns, the most dangerous intersections for pedestrians, where to find the densest populations of Triangle researchers, local business information, where UNC faculty live compared with where workers live, where students are studying abroad, and more.

The map’s unifying concern is to figure out what globalization and the so-called “knowledge economy” look like from the bottom up rather than the top down. As 3Cs member Craig Dalton puts it, “Knowledge requires labor to be produced.”

One current project is to outline the development of Carolina North, a controversial new research facility being built by UNC and the Town of Chapel Hill, and what it says about the evolving relationship between 21st-century universities and private research corporations. Studying the planning records of Carolina North alongside the historical development of its model, Research Triangle Park, 3Cs found that the physical layout of the buildings reflect a struggle to adapt to more widespread shifts in the market for scientific research. Old models of planning were designed to support old and increasingly obsolete models of science work. “The Carolina North and RTP ideal comes out of the fact that RTP’s growth is dramatically slowing and it’s not really the center of new R&D work that it once was.” In an attempt to encourage more intellectual independence and collaboration, the isolated compounds of the ’50s are being opened up to include decentralized meeting places, making them almost resemble small cities or outdoor malls: “The model now is much more what you’d see at the new American Tobacco district, where the space is designed for things like coffee shops, places to facilitate chance encounters.” The work of 3Cs provides examples of the sometimes unexpected ways lived space is transformed to suit the needs of its owners.

Increasing integration with private industry, assisted by local governments, is all part of the race for modern universities to redefine themselves as global institutions. Their local environments can’t help but be changed in turnglobal universities and global corporations require “global cities.” Maps can be used to help mark these changes, usually lumped together under the “gentrification” heading. “If you crunch out the statistics,” Stallman says, “the top 1 percent of landowners in Durham County own 50 percent of the land … and if you include Duke and the City of Durham, it jumps to 75-90 percent. The maps we’re working on now are asking, ‘Where are these properties, where are they concentrated, where most turnover in home sales is happening, where most new construction is happening,’ things like that.” According to Wood, an admirer of their work, 3Cs’ maps accomplish “what so many [other] maps fail to doto make a point.”

The collective’s other plans include a community cartography exhibit for Triangle residents interested in maps to showcase their work, tentatively set for September through mid-October, a reprise of another show they put together two years ago.

Since 2004, Duke sociologist Gary Gereffi has been working with his students on studying North Carolina and globalization, but with a very different scope and perspective from 3Cs. The starting point of his North Carolina in the Global Economy project is to recognize that the success of some N.C. industries (biotech) and the decline of others (manufacturing) can no longer be understood strictly on the state or national level. It’s not just N.C. vs. other states, but N.C. vs. … China. In his presentation to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission last year, he argued that “in many ways, North Carolina is a microcosm of the U.S. economy,” typified by a loss of manufacturing jobs to countries like China, and an increasing level of competition (sometimes from those same countries) in high-end growth sectors like biotech, finance and higher education.

As of now, the most detailed maps on the project’s Web site consist of color-coded info tags in Google Maps and Google Earth. Since they’re designed to follow the “life” of a product across local boundaries, Gereffi’s theories are hard to represent geographically. In a sense, the “real” maps are provided by the flash-animated “value chains” hovering above the images of North Carolina. By showing where “value” is added in any given production process, regardless of location, they represent the ideal form of the global production process to which the state must adapt. It’s a vision of the world designed to be sold to professional clients, who today range as far afield as Korean corporate boardrooms and as near as the N.C. Department of Commerce. According to lead Web designer Shawn Miller, in the future they would like to provide more services to the layperson, by adding new features like 3-D imaging, live updating and more opportunities for community input.

These days all major cities in North Carolina have a GIS division. GIS can integrate zoning, hydrography, parcel boundaries, police beats and almost everything else into a single mapping tool. GIS data is shared among individual agencies and standardized across the state, allowing for, among other things, assisting the Department of Social Services place foster children and shorter 911 and emergency response times. North Carolina is has been very successful in implementing GIS systems, with N.C. OneMap pushing to integrate all 100 counties and every GIS-using municipality, annual events in celebration of GIS Day and a biennial conference that can draw hundreds of users from across the country.

As with the other Triangle cities, Durham has an interactive GIS available online, though it’s not particularly user-friendly. Still, a tremendous amount of information can be accessed, such as aerial photography, FEMA data, surplus property, park locations and crime statistics, with new material added all the time. “We try not to limit public information,” administrator Marcus Bryant says. “We get a lot of feedback.” The suggestions, which are usually met, tend to be for more information to be made available. “The more tools we provide online, the fewer requests we get,” Bryant says. Unfortunately, without training and money to buy the full program, there are not many options for the amateur to make their own GIS mapswhat is useful for government is not always meaningful or even legible to the rest of us. In no case can Durham’s GIS see far back into history. But a dedicated blogger in Durham, using only Google Maps, has been doing just that.

If there really are contradictions between spatial maps, narrative storytelling and democracy, Gary Kueber of the popular Endangered Durham blog may be the most likely Triangle dweller to break them down. He started the blog in August ’06 “really because there wasn’t a go-to resource.” The focus has been on preservation advocacy for Durham’s underprotected historic buildings. Mapping Durham’s architectural and social history is a closely related interest. “A lot of people come here from somewhere else and don’t know Durham. That knowledge of how things have changed, that context, is not present for a lot of people here.”

A first step is to make accessible material from libraries and other archival sources, such as the fragile 1959 aerial photographs he’s been posting recently courtesy of the Durham County Library. In a recent blog entry, one of them is put alongside several other photos, maps and written accounts, variously borrowed from the Herald-Sun, Duke’s special collections and a few of Kueber’s readers, to tell the story of the forgotten Lakewood Amusement Park and its transformation into Lakewood Shopping Center. Ghostly images of the park’s many atractions (including a merry-go-round, roller coaster and pool) and the trolley system it was intended to popularize are given historical context by a written account, and located in Durham’s contemporary strip-mall landscape with maps.

Kueber wants to move on from the Google Maps application programming interface he’s currently using to mark the sites from his blog posts to a Web 2.0-based approach that would allow for freer exchange and collaboration. “I’d like for there to be a temporal version of something like Google Earth,” he says. Despite the limited functionality of Google’s programs, their ability to quickly and easily reach a large audience makes them attractive to mappers of limited means. But the dream of blending scope with finesse remains. “It might be ideally that Google Earth ties in with a diversified local content, so when you drill down to the local level maybe it’s not coming from Google servers, but Duke servers, and maybe the state is providing hydrology layers and whatever else … a relatively seamless marriage between, say, the Google content and our local content.”

Duke historian Trudi Abel’s Digital Durham project shares Kueber’s interest in replaying Durham’s forgotten history through the medium of computer technology. Since 1999, Abel has been steadily building an online archive documenting Durham’s rapid process of industrialization, dating from around 1880 to the early 20th century. Supported by Duke’s Center for Instructional Technology, the site includes public and private records, photographs and, of course, maps. While nearly all the material comes from Duke’s special collections library, it is now far more widely accessible than ever before. People are noticing. The maps, she tells me, are “a really big search term,” and one of the resources she was most eager to upload.

One of the first questions Abel asks her students begins with the 1887 map of Durham County: “What piece of town do you live in today? Can you find that area and figure out who owned that piece of land and where they lived?” The maps currently online range from 1881 to 1921 and include parcel data, roads, an aerial tableau, businesses, even ads aimed at developers. They serve as useful counterparts to both the experiential detail of the photographs and personal correspondence and the impersonality of government records.

“One of the things that I learned from working with kids in schools, if I only showed them census data, that wasn’t so interesting for them,” Abel says. “But if I showed them a map, it became a really exciting way of reaching the students.”

Blending all of these primary sources gives the sort of multifaceted view of history usually reserved for professional historians. Whether eighth graders or undergraduates, Abel’s way of teaching history is to expose her students to as many primary sources as possible. It’s even better if that experience can spread outside the school to the amateur researcher and concerned citizen.

Abel hopes Google Earth will be able to provide a new dimension to understanding Durham. “I’d like to think of it as time travel,” she says. Although on their way to having a historical Google Earth “layer” ready by fall, Abel and her assistants have been frustrated by the very thing they’re trying to study: the haphazard way Durham’s urban environment has changed over time.

“One of the challenges with Durham is we’ve lost almost all those old structures on the 1881 map,” Abel says. “Right now, there’s only a few structures or landmarks that are left that we can use as a starting place to orient the map and align it with the new satellite imagery.

“There is only one downtown building that predates the 1881 mapit’s the oldest building in the American Tobacco campus, at the corner of Blackwell and Pettigrew streets. Every other structure is gone.”

There is something intrinsically ghostly in the thought of Durham’s booming past being mapped on to its redeveloping present. “One of the things we can see from this map we’ve been doing,” Abel says, “is that when you look at all those parking lots downtown, what used to be there was, for example, a furniture store. There are parking lots hiding what used to be a lively commercial center of the city, but you wouldn’t know that from staring at the empty lots on a Sunday.”

While we’re waiting for various technical problems to be overcome, it’s not clear that fancy technology of any kind is needed for making maps. Wood, who has seen mapping trends come and go, admits that user-friendly programs like Google Earth have changed things: “For people who have never thought about making maps, it’s tons easier. There are people making maps today who never would’ve made maps 10 years ago.”

But he is less enthusiastic about the way mapping technology is being relied on in general. “I haven’t seen any change in quality.” He scoffs at new digital capabilities like representing complexity, or a new ability to display large quantities of data. “The goal of many of these GIS dreamers is to do precisely that, to encapsulate all that data in an icon, in a meaningful form. And that is so, so hard to do.

“Most people think [maps] represent the world,” Wood says. “My argument is maps propose the world, then bring it into being through enforcement policies.” Although the technology is making it easier for non-specialists to interpret their environments, making a good map, Wood insists, “isn’t a question of tools. It’s a question of imagining how things could be visualized.” There has never been a better time to experiment.