Vol. 3 | Drawing Detroit | Alex B. Hill

Drawing Detroit
Alex B. Hill

In human geography, mental mapping may be the most prescient form of understanding a city. Detroit has a bevy of mental mapping examples from the 1960s to present day. In Michigan, people are familiar with using their hand to display the mitten shaped state. Other cartographers have made fun maps with their hands such as finger planning in Portland and hand turkey maps of Boston. Detroit reigns supreme with a near perfect match between the spread of one’s fingers and the city’s arterial roadways with an additional sixth finger for Fort Street.
Hand map image adapted from original, Alex B. Hill, DETROITography
This hand based map of Detroit comes from the Field Notes I, Discussion Paper No. 1, led by William Bunge. The Detroit Geographical Expedition (DGE) needed a way to help orient its “field members,” typically students, many from “out of town.” This example comes from a Checker Cab taxi driver named Lee in 1968. Supposedly in the 1960s this was taught to school children and people in the streets would use it to give directions. Field Notes I included a series of other mental mapping examples for Detroit by Jeffery Gordon. The Detroit River and main roads always feature prominently.
The DGE had collected anecdotal information from a Checker Cab driver in 1968 and started using the “hand map” of Detroit to help visiting students and researchers to get around. In 2014, I began asking residents to draw their own maps of Detroit using their hand as a guide. Among all the geographic information systems (GIS), parcel surveys, and other technological means that aren’t always accessible – your hand is a map right in front of you. Many of these maps have been collected anonymously while others have chosen to sign their maps.
Redline 8 Mile, Anonymous, 2014
Matt Hampel, 2014

In 1978, the Detroit Free Press asked readers to submit mental maps of the city as part of a discussion around the many different ways that people “see” Detroit.

Again the Detroit River and prominent roads of Detroit feature in these mental maps. A number of the hand drawn mental maps placed the Detroit River at the top of the paper (South as up), which was a fascinating alternate view than what the standard “official” map of the region would depict.

Susan Slameka, Lafayette Park resident, 1978
Jonathon McClinton, Greenfield (Westside), 1978

Participants of the “Data, Mapping, & Research Justice” workshop that I run through Co.Open and Allied Media Projects (AMP) spend time creating analog maps of Detroit using only their hands and their creativity to tell their stories. They agreed to share their maps here for all to see. I was particularly impressed by their use of emotions and social issues related to their spatial/ geographic awareness of Detroit.

At the end of our first class in 2014 we held an excellent discussion on research justice and how to balance narrative information with “hard” data; numbers and statistics. We tapped into the long running debate on the merits of qualitative data versus quantitative data. Our conclusion was that both are important to use and often times quantitative data can open the door for policy makers to begin listening to the qualitative stories and experiences of the people behind the numbers.

Marisela Castaneda, 2014
We started off the workshop with the hand map exercise and participants were asked to “map their Detroit” and the values and experiences they have gained from Detroit. Each of the participants had a different story; different sets of experiences, yet everyone spoke about the importance of people and the need to focus efforts on getting people what they need. I could never do justice to explain the details of every person’s hand map, so I will just summarize a few key points:

There are pockets of development in Detroit, but they aren’t connected
The suburbs are segregated enclaves surrounding the city
The East/ West divide highlights areas of Detroit we may still not know and people we haven’t yet met.
St. Louis to Detroit, similarities in segregated metropolis
Don’t forget Highland Park and Hamtramck
A lot of hope for Detroit as it is growing
Water is a critical need for everyone
Pockets of investment and areas of need
Boundaries of and within Detroit that limit us, need to reach across

Muna Danish, 2015
Prema Qadir, 2015

Nothing beats a
good mental map.

Boggs students, parents, and staff, 2016

I’ve been participating in the Data Discotech’s put on by the Detroit Community Technology Project (DCTP). In a 2016 event held at the Boggs School, we shared the hand map example to help students understand the geography of their city.

Hand maps are rarely accurate, but help build a conceptual understand of the world around us. The Boggs students taught us as much about the geography of Detroit as we hoped to teach them about spoke streets.

Detroit is a big city with a deep history and so many old and new things happening all the time that it can be near impossible to give anyone a “brief” introduction to the city.
If you’ve ever talked with me, you know that I always start with a hand map. I find it gives people a quick relatable reference. People know more than they think and when they can place the Fisher Building related to Belle Isle they are on track.

The funny part of the hand map is that it often focuses geography within Grand Boulevard. Most people try to use their whole hand to represent Downtown and Midtown. This becomes another helpful reference lesson that there is so much more to Detroit beyond the redeveloping urban core.

How to Draw Detroit guide, Alex B. Hill, 2017
I end up drawing Detroit a lot in conversations and meetings, so finally came up with my own quite mental map based on geometric shapes to draw “Detroit.” In a most basic form Detroit exists as three squares and a triangle.