Emily Badger’s Awesome Paragraph About an Old Map and the Retrospective Politics of Place

This may sound counter-intuitive, especially given what’s happening in my backyard: I don’t hate the suburbs and I don’t have a hip, a priori antipathy toward life there.  After all, as John Updike and Nick Andopolis remind us, suburban basements are where rock stars come from.

That said, I believe that walkable, green cities are the way forward and that the growth of the suburbs over the last 50 years had little to do with free market choices and everything to do with government subsidy. I believe in living in and working in the City, because I believe in what the City was and what the City can be.  I believe these things are important because I believe the systemic poverty and educational challenges our urban cores face can be overcome if enough people give a damn.

But I don’t share Atlantic writer Emily Badger’s coming-of-age urban experience.  I grew up mostly in a suburb of small brick houses that were built on a cornfield in the 50s.  Not exactly John Cheever’s or Don Draper’s Ossining.  But I do happen to love these paragraphs from Badger this week, especially the second one:

My map – “a map of the British and French dominions in North America, with the roads, distances, limits, and extent of the settlements” – is inscribed in the lower right-hand corner, inside an elaborate inset of palm fronds, plump angels and supplicating natives, by the Earl of Halifax’s most obliged and very humble servant, John Mitchell. His world dates to 1755.

The United States doesn’t yet exist. We haven’t yet decided what we’re going to call the Great Lakes, or whether we want to honor the Indians who named them first. Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia all theoretically extend inland more than a thousand miles in hand-colored stripes of fading pink, green, and yellow. To the north, the pink patch that is New York expands greedily all the way to Nova Scotia. Opposite the Atlantic Ocean, the map ends abruptly at the 107th meridian west, beyond which Mitchell runs out of things to say.

I love this map for one miniscule reference that speaks to a modern geographic rift John Mitchell never saw coming in the 18th century. Just below the Great Falls on the Virginia shore of the “Potowmack” River, in something like 4-point type, he notes the existence of a port town sizable enough in 1755 to warrant mentioning to the Earl of Halifax: “Alexandria.”

Across the river, the District of Columbia does not yet exist. There is nothing there worth mentioning. And this is Exhibit A, the place where I begin my argument. See, Alexandria was here first, in the pre-Revolutionary age of the Iroquois and the unknown West. Clearly, it can’t be a suburb.

Read the rest here.

2 thoughts on “Emily Badger’s Awesome Paragraph About an Old Map and the Retrospective Politics of Place

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