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The Google map is not the territory

a conversation about Mapping Main Street

Berkman Center intern Anna Kim interviews Jesse Shapins and James Burns, creators of Mapping Main Street and recipients of a Harvard Graduate Student Award from Berkman for their interdisciplinary collaboration (Jesse and James are speaking at today's luncheon (live webcast at 12:30pm ET)):

When politicians and the media mention “Main Street,” they evoke one people and one place. A singular image of a small Midwestern community comes to mind. It would be the kind of street that is generally peaceful throughout the year and busier during the summer when children come out to buy ice cream from the local grocer.

But actually, a multiplicity of places exists. In New York, there is a Main Street in every single borough. In fact, there are over 10,466 streets named Main in the United States, and as Mapping Main Street (MMS) found, some Main Streets in the country could not be further from the standard image to which politicians and the media refer. MMS is a collaborative documentary media project that aims to create a new map of the country through stories, photos and videos recorded on actual main streets and hopes to challenge people into reconsidering accepted turns of phrases and political mythologies.

I interviewed two creators of this project – Jesse Shapins, an urban media artist pursuing a PhD at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, and James Burns, a PhD candidate in the Department of Economics at Harvard, to discuss their motives and aspirations for this project.

What does ‘Mapping Main Street’ mean to you?

This project began with our recognizing that turns of phrases are important to democratic culture because terms shape political sensibilities. The term “Main Street” had become one of the most popular mythologies and turns of phrase in the media, but what made it particularly interesting was that this political mythology was uniquely spatial. In our case, we had data and information about various Main Streets that we visited, but we sought to make this statistical data meaningful by using artistic mediums. Essentially, we sought to bridge the gap between the social sciences and the humanities.

How many collaborators have you had so far, and how many ‘Main Streets’ have you covered?

250 people have joined and about 130 have contributed in documenting over 300 Main Streets. In May, the MMS team started a road trip across the country to visit Main Streets and took photos, shot videos and interviewed people, but now, the collaborative work has overwhelmed the work that we have produced. And we expect collaboration to continue to grow.

I’m curious about the collaborative aspect of your project. How large was the average person’s contribution? Did most people contribute small chunks, say by uploading 1 photo and contributing a video and then would somebody else come along and add more photos and videos to finish what was started?

There has been a lot of variety. Some people were just very interested in getting their Main Street out on the map and others were inspired by the project to find Main Streets that they had never been to. We had a guy from Philadelphia write us that he had been inspired to go to several different places in the city, and a high school teacher from Salt Lake City contacted us, letting us know students were using MMS as a learning tool. By uploading photos and videos and writing about their experiences on their Main Street, students’ voices could be heard on new forms of media.

There are also some professional photographers who have contributed to the project such as Jim Hair who shot black and white shots of people in Richmond. Not only is there variety in contribution, but there is also great variety in terms of style. For example, black and white portraitures sit next to photos of crowds in Utah. This project isn’t just about geographical relationships, or the relationships that people have to their streets; it is also about the relational connections between people.

Could you talk a little about how the MMS website is structured?

We draw on the pre-existing strengths of the web – the pre-existing habits and resources that exist on the web. For example, Flickr, Vimeo and Youtube each have big user bases, and by allowing people to upload photos and videos on pre-existing sites, we were able to draw on a habit that people already had.

We wanted to step away from a rigid Cartesian map of the United States. There has recently been a huge growth in digital mapping, particularly with the rise of Google Maps Mashups, and we got a little anxious about people getting used to this image of a map. We wanted to step away and create a different form to express the relationship of people to maps and actually encourage people to go to places in the real world.

One of the criticisms of the Internet has been that it creates alienation and reduces actual face time between people, but your project seems to bring people together.

Yes, but we don’t see ourselves as techno-utopists. We are skeptical about whether technology alone can improve relationships between people. We found that new media arts tended to focus on the technology and started a project by saying, “Look, there’s GPS. What can we do with this new technology?” In our case, we wanted to start from a place. We wanted to ask, “What is an issue that’s important to society today?” And go from there.

What are the political aspirations of your project?

Our first story for NPR was about Chattanooga, Tennessee – an area where blocks of downtown had been revitalized. But its Main Street is a prostitution strip, and our story centered around a couple that lived and worked on it. The woman worked as a prostitute, and her long time partner was a crack addict; and our story was about the relationship between the street and the couple. It’s a kind of story that doesn’t normally fit into “Main Street” dialogue.

Our story produced a healthy and vibrant debate about the city because many people felt that the story was one-sided and that it was a complete misrepresentation of the area. They argued that Main Street had farmers markets, a newly developed arts district with galleries and upscale restaurants that our story didn’t cover. Others, however, brought attention to the fact that the street had been a successful revitalization but believed that there was not enough attention given to other issues like homelessness and prostitution. Our story provided a context for this discussion. A political discussion doesn’t have to be exclusively about things that are traditionally understood as political. There is political relevance to things that people have unquestioned responses to, and we hoped to work within an artistic medium to provoke different way of thinking about previously unquestioned concepts.

You started MMS by embarking on a 12,000 mile journey across the country. What was one place that really stood out to you?

One place that was incredibly surprising was the town of Lewistown, Montana. The city was located in the geographical center of the state – east of the Rocky Mountains and also situated on the edge of the plains. It was in a part of Montana you don’t normally think about. The town had 6,000 people, and it looked and felt like what a typical American Main Street would be like.

But what differentiated this town was that it had the largest artesian spring in the world and it flowed right through the town. It went under the bar of the local tavern and the owner had cut a hole in the floor so that he could access the creek and fish while he worked. The creek had become a rite of passage. People would float through the town, under Main Street in the pitch black.

When we first arrived in Lewistown, we didn’t know that the creek was there and we just let the story unfold before our eyes. This is a very different way of storytelling from say, producing a news piece where you start with a story in mind.

Could you tell us about your future plans and projects?

We have received a strong response from educators, and we plan on working with WNYC, a radio station that works with youth in the city. They approached us to do a workshop using MMS, and we will be working with youth in Flushing, Queens. We'll also be producing stories for KUOW in the Puget Sound region this winter as part of their Program Venture Fund grant. Also, while we're there, we'll be creating exclusive experimental content from the road for PRX's Sirius satellite stream Remix Radio. And in February, we will be showing an exhibit at Chicago’s Filmless Festival. For the general future, we are interested in developing an academic component to the project.

MMS is a project that was created by the fusing of different backgrounds ranging from social sciences to the arts, and the product is a unique map of the country – a moving and talking portrait of America.

MMS can be accessed at, and the NPR piece about Lewistown, Montana was aired on Friday, 17th October and can be accessed at