The act of making maps is almost always political. Whereas traditional maps represent the will of the state to mark boundaries, other types of maps display the will of the mapmaker to influence the public. Maps can display data such as graduation rates, pollution emissions, and income distribution. By charting two different sets of data mapmakers might attempt to create an association between variables to make claims such as higher income statuses lead to more economic success. Most of the maps I have seen before this class attempted to chart education rates, income, and crime. These three factors alone cannot define a location in their entirety. However, the city of Chicago has often been defined by these political criteria. I wanted to create a map that showed the beauty of Chicago while also demonstrating how students view and interact with the city they live in by confining their experiences to certain locations or documenting their experiences of the city with pictures. Though this map still has its own political message, its purpose is to highlight the beauty of Chicago that is often forgotten, rediscovered in the eyes of mostly new residents.
People are not always critical of the maps they view. They assume the info they see is objective because they can see it with their own eyes. However, mapmakers are not infallible. Even our original world map distorts the size of countries, skewing our perception of the world. John Erksine said “cartographers have dealt with this dilemma for centuries as they have tried to flatten the ellipsoidal earth onto flat pieces of paper. Mathematics simply does not allow the mapmaker to preserve variables such as size, shape, direction, and distance simultaneously. Thus maps inherently distort reality” (Erksine). Furthermore, he claims that no map is entirely true. If even the traditional base of our maps is distorted, we must recognize that mapped data is not entirely objective. This is especially true of world maps in their depiction of Africa. Africa is traditionally shown to be much smaller than it actually is, Sophie Morlin-Yron claimed “that European and North American countries are enlarged is no accident. This system provided more space for Western cartographers to mark towns, cities, roads, etc in their part of the world”. Such a discrepancy cannot be dismissed as innocent for enlarged countries are made to appear “unnaturally powerful and intimidating” (Morlin-Yron).
If maps are capable of eliciting such human responses as intimidation, then it might be important for people to consider the political power of the maps they often view as objective. My maps contain data that is not traditionally considered political. I collected data from individuals in surveys asking them what they found to be beautiful in Chicago. Even though we often think of beauty as an aesthetic quality that constructs our artistic opinions, beauty has always been burdened with political baggage. Standards of beauty in Western society have often been constructed by the subjective opinions of white, wealthy elites. In our modern age, the disempowered have had the opportunity to voice their opinions about beauty by using multiple social media platforms which allow them to share their own artwork and photography. However, this does not erase the history of disenfranchisement which continues to shape individuals’ opinions about beauty standards or norms.
To ask respondents to answer questions about what is beautiful in Chicago is to force them to characterize Chicago in a positive framework. This bias is obvious, but it does not eliminate what we can learn about one another and the city of Chicago by asking the people around us what they have found beautiful here. I could have instead easily asked participants to name places they think are ugly or buildings they think should be demolished or to simply share a photo of Chicago, I did not. I admit that this map of Chicago was meant to be a positive display of Chicago in which we can consider how we interact with the city and in which ways many of us do not interact with the city, failing to distribute their answers to wide distributions on the map, the locations people gave were often centralized to the northern or central parts of Chicago.
I designed these questions around a hypothesis based on my own experiences. This was that if I asked people to attach a photo of a place in Chicago which they found beautiful then many of them would respond with places in downtown Chicago or Hyde Park. I assumed this because I know other students and myself do not regularly leave Hyde Park or visit neighborhoods outside of downtown Chicago. That is not to say we do not travel outside of these areas ever, but simply they are not the first places we visit. For more than half of my current eleven participants my hypothesis was true.
Then I asked students to describe a place in Chicago which was beautiful. They didn’t need to share a photo, but I asked that they chose a place outside of Hyde Park and downtown. three of the four participants who already responded with a place that was not in those places chose the same place again. It is possible that the one participant who did not repeat his answer did not have a photo of the place which he truly found most beautiful.
When I asked my friends to respond to the survey, I was surprised to find out how many people did not have one beautiful photo of a place in Chicago which they wanted to share. Many wanted to remain genuine, so they did not simply submit a photo of Hyde Park because it was convenient. This is a potential bias from respondents which we must accept as true. Many students have not seen the whole of Chicago so we cannot objectively determine what we would consider to be the most beautiful part of Chicago, we can only share what we know.
In no way would I claim my map to be objective, for beauty is something which will always be inherently subjective. The one objective truth which we can observe in the data is that people are most likely to appreciate beauty in photographic form when they are touring a place. As new students, we all toured our own university and we were probably struck by certain aspects of the gothic architecture, whether it was its expansive circumference or the ivy which crawled up the buildings, at one point our campus was novel to us. Downtown Chicago is novel in a different way. It is bursting with activity. I recently heard one student describe it as a sort of amusement park.
The students I surveyed have been outside of Hyde Park and downtown, yet they did not have photos to share of these outside spaces. I do not claim to be able to interpret the complexities of the human mind to understand why they would have photos available to share of one area they found to be beautiful and not the other. However, there were still many students I asked who did not complete the survey because they had no photos readily available.
Even once the location they could chose was restricted, students mostly chose places that were close to the lake or downtown. I believe that this is not because there are not beautiful places spread throughout the majority of Chicago, but rather there are certain places in Chicago where students are unlikely to go. In a way, this map shows quite explicitly how beauty can be politicized by the confines of our lived experiences. The survey answers were characterized by our situation as students of the University of Chicago, and I hoped to show that by forcing students to reevaluate their answers by restricting the boundaries of the locations they could chose in their second response. Should one conduct a similar survey asking Chicago citizens to submit responses, we might eliminate biases. Or, we might simply observe new ones.
When I started the map project I wanted to chose a topic that was not overtly political, haven forgotten that nearly all maps are inherently political, even the one we use to simply display the flat map of Earth which we traditionally see is not completely objective. I created a survey to observe simple biases. However, to evaluate these biases in more depth it might be useful to have a similar map with respondents from different backgrounds from which to compare.
The goal of this map however was not simply to see if respondents would fit my hypothesis, which was that they would struggle to think of areas to share outside of Hyde Park and Downtown. The goal was also to simply force people to view Chicago with a positive lens. For Chicago is a city that many characterize by its rates of crime, poverty, or the failure of its public schools. While these dimensions are always important to remember for issues of safety, wellbeing, and to avoid callous gentrification, I think it is also important to remember that Chicago is a beautiful city that can be enjoyable for visitors and citizens even when there are no large festivals or baseball games pulling people into a city which they might later discredit. I wanted to create a map which did not evaluate the negative perception of the city that many are already familiar with through discourse and negative media. Though this does not eliminate the challenges Chicago constantly faces, as large cities often do, it might remind people that Chicago is defined by more than a sum of its negative attributes. I admit, I asked my fellow students partly because they were a convenient source of data, but also because I believe us students at the University of Chicago have often been quite capable of acknowledging the fact that Chicago is still a beautiful city, even when our old peers or family members fail to recognize it for that.
Erskine, John. “Politics and Cartography: The Power of Deception through Distortion.” Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, Carnegie Council, 11 July 2018.
Morlin-Yron, Sophie. “Why Do Western Maps Shrink Africa?” CNN, Cable News Network, 23 Mar. 2017.