Our Personal Maps

When I first moved to the neighborhood I live in now, I generally followed the same route to walk from my bus stop to my house.  Not always, but mostly.  I would walk down a street I’ll call “Main Street,” turn right on “Before Street,” and then turn left on “Home Street”.  My route looked something like this:

One evening, I was walking home, turned down Before Street, and happened upon a man who tried to rape me.  Or at least, our meeting felt like happenstance to me, though I later learned he had put in a reasonable amount of effort to be in the right place at the right time.  All at once, Before Street held immense power.  I didn’t want to walk down Before Street ever, ever again.  I adjusted my route home so that I walked down Main Street, passed Before Street, and turned right on After Street.

At first, I avoided Before Street out of fear and aversion.  Walking quickly past Before Street on  my way to After Street was a daily intention that I practiced with my fullest concentration.  My mental map of my neighborhood was centered around a throbbing Before Street, with the rest of the street grid cowering in its shadow.  It seemed the smallest lapse of attention would allow the force of Before Street to pull me in.

Some months later, I began avoiding Before Street more out of habit.  If pressed, I would have said that the thought of walking down Before Street made me anxious, but luckily, I didn’t have much cause to think about it.  I had a route home, and that route involved After Street.  In my mind, Before Street wasn’t really a street that people walked down.  And that was that.

For years, it seemed the most interesting part of this story was the part when I was walking down Before Street and found myself being pushed to my knees in a gangway, a knife held to my throat as a warning.  When the bright stars of a concussion scattered across my vision.  When the neighbors who thankfully stopped the attack told me that, with their television turned up, they at first mistook my screams for the yowling of a feral cat.

However, my life has continued, and this story has continued as a thread within it.  And in some ways, the most interesting part of this story came recently, when I forgot that Before Street existed.

One day, I was walking home and accidentally turned down what I thought was After Street.  I immediately noticed something wasn’t right – the houses had been shuffled, perhaps, or everyone had remodeled at the same time.  When I realized that I had in fact turned down Before Street, I was incredulous.  A few days later, I made the same error.  Turned, became disoriented and confused, doubled back.  I had avoided Before Street for so long – over four years – that my mental map had accommodated me by erasing Before Street altogether.

Several years ago, China Miéville published a book titled The City & The City, the events of which take place in two distinct cities that occupy the same geographic space.  The occupants of each of the cities “unsee” people, buildings, and events belonging to the other city.  Accidentally or purposefully seeing the city one is supposed to ignore is a crime known as “breaching” and has serious consequences to keep the populations in check.  But for many residents, over time, the process of unseeing becomes one of second nature.  The City & The City teaches us that we are all given the power to be our own planners and architects.  Each individual creates their own street network daily: the roads they choose to know and roads they don’t.

Luckily, in cities, there are enough of us living in close proximity to one another that no one street is left out of our collective mental maps entirely.  As a society, at scale, we are able to keep each street alive.  Despite the fact some of us, when we return home each evening, feel the need deep within us to take out our erasers and slowly but persistently wear away at our personal maps.

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