COLUMN: Mapping Out Boston’s History

When I was a little kid, I used to draw maps of places that I would invent for myself, and any fantasy novels that incorporated a map instantly piqued my interest. I enjoyed being able to trace the paths of the main characters. Being able to follow a map as I read a story made it feel all the more real. Although maps are meant to display a literal representation of what lies within certain borders, there is something about the creation and visual of a map that I find intensely creative, as if the land-or at least one’s understanding of it-did not exist before it was put down on paper.

My childhood propensity has followed me into adulthood, as I still appreciate the tangibility of a map. Now, I am fascinated by the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library.

Created in 2004, the Map Center is a non-profit organization that houses a collection of 200,000 maps, 5,000 atlases, and a website that includes more than 5,500 digitized maps. Currently, the center is presenting an exhibition called Made in Boston that will run through March 10. According to the Map Center’s official website, the “exhibition affords a unique perspective on the ambitions, anxieties and sense of identity that animated colonial Bostonians.”

I find the Map Center’s assertion that a city’s identity can be found in maps both intriguing and truthful. While the center’s current exhibition focuses on maps from before the American Revolution, one type of map that I feel touches upon a key part of Boston’s identity is any map that traces how Boston has grown over time. Much of Boston’s land mass was created by filling in waters surrounding the formerly narrow strip of land. The Back Bay, for example, which is now one of Boston’s most recognizable neighborhoods, was not converted into inhabitable land until the 1880s.

Once that land was filled, the task did not grow any easier. Take, for example, the construction of Trinity Church in the Back Bay. The church is supported by some 4,500 wooden piles that are driven down 30 feet beneath the ground. The piles are constantly immersed in the water table of the Back Bay-if they were not, they would rapidly rot when exposed to air.

When one looks at a map that depicts Boston’s expanding borders over time, one should not underestimate the sheer human ingenuity required to produce such a transformation. When I think of the industriousness, brilliance, and intensive planning that must have gone into constructing a city quite literally out of the water, I am more amazed by Boston’s history than when I think of almost anything else.

I reflect now on the maps I would create as a child-I would take a pencil and draw whatever my mind imagined on a page. One may look at this as childish, but I was exercising a very human impulse. Boston, with its expanded borders, serves as living proof of the notion that mankind can work together to create absolute wonders. Unlike my childhood self, Boston’s mapmakers did not likely consider drawing space for dragons or giant fortresses in the mountains, but I digress.

But just as drew maps as a child to tell imagined stories, the maps created to designate Boston’s new land tell stories that came true. Now, you can stop by the Map Center to “read” how that story unfolded.

To those who say looking at maps is a boring waste of time, I say that those maps are the very ground on which you are walking. Remember that the next time you are in Boston-the streets upon which you are walking are the product of the imagination and ingenuity of those who came before you.

Don’t take it for granted.


January 29, 2014