In a very real sense, the island of Manhattan is a place created by a diagram: The Commmissioner’s Plan of 1811, which laid out the future streets north of Houston Street and south of 155th Street, was essentially a map disguised as a planning document. So there’s real conceptual beauty to Antonis Antoniou and Steven Heller’s new book, Decoding Manhattan, a rollicking, wide-ranging visual compendium of more than 250 maps, diagrams, and graphics, all related to that incomparable chunk of bedrock. It’s a fascinating, visually vibrant book, often quite funny, and catnip for someone like me, obsessed with New York City–themed historical images. I recently talked to the authors about the genesis of the book.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
AA: Antonis Antoniou
SH: Steven Heller
What’s the origin story of the book?
It’s the fermentation of my love of all things cartographic, diagrammatic, infographic, mixed with my fascination with New York. When it clicked that some of the most famous images of Manhattan are actually diagrams, the idea started to take shape. After a long research, I presented it to Steve, who was my first and only option to collaborate. Luckily, he liked the project.
Antonis came to me asking for my help. I loved the idea, being a fan of both New York—I’ve done five previous books on NYC themes—and of architectural cutaways. I showed my editor at Abrams, Eric Himmel, and he loved it.
What drew you to the idea of the book, telling a visual history of Manhattan through graphic representations and maps?
There are, as they famously said, 8 million stories in the naked city. I figured that this was one that had not yet been told. What’s more, dataviz and infographics are a hot theme these past decades.
I’m very interested in visual storytelling. This is how I like to learn. When the material started coming together, I knew this had to be shared with the world.
How did the two of you collaborate on the book?
Antonis did the heavy lifting. Finding much of the material and the citations, going after the permissions. I went after repro from artists that I knew. I wrote most of the text and made sure that everyone was happy.
I’ve admired Steve for a long time—his work, his writing. I knew early on that we had to work on this project together. He has this special relationship with the city and its visual culture that had to be present in this book. The book structure was more or less in place at this point, so we had fun with chapter titles and the text.
What was your process of research?
The research started many years ago. It was a more free-flowing affair at first and then, as the idea was better defined, the research got more systematic while looking for inspiration outside the usual sources. What guided the process was to expand on the concept of what makes a diagram, and searching for this schematic sensibility related to Manhattan.
Search and find. With such a narrow topic it was not less easy, but it served to focus our vision.
Where did you find stuff?
Everywhere. Libraries, museums, old magazines, books, ephemera, diving deep into online archives and specialized blogs. Just keeping an eye out. I loved just how much Manhattan was used as a measuring unit for so many things. I believe it still is today. It’s a testament to its fame, but also its readability as this liveable artifact.
And then, once you had amassed all of the material, which covers a wide range of things, how did you decide how it would be organized?
There was a lot of material to choose from, and the book structure went through various iterations in order to understand the scope and respect the limits of the book. The dialogue between the images is very important, so spreads showed the way rather than the individual images. We tried not to divide it too conventionally in chapters like Architecture, Transportation, etc., which would miss the point. Concepts like mutation, species, or motion seemed much more appropriate because they can be applied to many different levels and disciplines, and the material can open to different readings.
There were some obvious groupings based on theme or medium. And some less obvious that demanded interpretation.
I was drawn to the book, due to the urban planning aspect of it—because the modern island of Manhattan was created by a map, the original grid that laid out the streets, long before most of those streets were built. In a way, Manhattan was drawn on a map before it fully existed.
Exactly! This was part of the reasoning behind the idea of the book, the abstract conception of modern Manhattan as a diagram. I come from an architecture background, and Delirious New York was a big influence on me as a student. Koolhaas writes about this wonderfully in his unique storytelling style. His influence is echoed in the book.
Manhattan is a game board. The game was who owns what and how that ownership was carved up into neat pieces. I guess it is a miniature version of how the American territories were divided up. The old states and old city are kind of a hodgepodge of shapes, then order is imposed, the grid becomes the essential means of apportioning space and determining value.
Steve, you are born and raised—and forever—a Manhattanite. You probably know more about the island than anybody I know. What did you learn about it in creating this book?
That I don’t know as much as I thought. Manhattan is small yet huge, and it’s been around only a short time, but has been in the consciousness forever. I learned that as long as New York City has existed, it has been graphically rendered.
Antonis, what’s your relationship to Manhattan, and what did you learn in doing the book?
I have a fetishistic relationship with Manhattan. I still experience the city, devouring its news and culture, and following its adventures in urbanism.
Was there a certain amount of sadness in working on this book about Manhattan during Covid, when the city really seemed to be struggling, and people were questioning its future viability?
The sadness was about having to postpone the publication of the book as Covid raged. We finished it right before the virus hit. We discussed adding something Covid-related but decided not to.
There was an element of sadness covering everything during this time, but there was a lot of optimism while doing the book. We saw in its pages the resilience and vitality of a city who’s managed to come back on top time and time again.
Featured image: Steven Guarnaccia and Pentagram New York, A Walk on 53rd Street, map for 53rd Street Association, 1987.