Since sometime in the spring, someone has been making intricate and highly accurate maps in chalk on the sidewalks of Lincoln Park. My husband and I would come across them while walking the dog – we’d always get there after a rainstorm, so they’d be partially washed out, but you could tell all the details were there – street names, to-scale length and if the street twisted, and so forth. First time we saw them, we thought that someone must have been trying to convey directions to someone else – perhaps a parent was trying to explain to a kid how to get home, or something like that. They seemed much too detailed and accurate for a kid to have made alone, so that just made them more puzzling.
This Saturday, I left the house early with my dog and stumbled across a new one. This one hadn’t been touched by the rain, so I could see all the streets correctly and precisely filled in. My curiosity finally got the best of me, so I tweeted about it and posted a pic to our local neighborhood Facebook group:
I really never in a million years thought anyone would respond.
A few hours later, I had my answer:
Meet Ethan. He’s four, and he lives on the West Side. He and his dad spend a lot of time in the park, drawing maps. And he’s just as brilliant, cute, and delightful as you would hope he’d be.
I just met up with Ethan and his dad, while Ethan was working on a new map of the area. He’s a little shy (but incredibly sweet), and I didn’t want to push him too much. But his dad helped fill in some of the story.
Ethan has a photographic memory, and “he can tell you all the states and their capitals, in alphabetic order.” Also, all the countries in the world, by continent. Now he’s onto Jersey City. He makes all these maps entirely by himself (his dad would prompt him a bit like, “hey, what street is that coming off of JFK? [that he just drew on his own but didn’t label]” but no more than that), including writing all the street names (he has excellent penmanship). He perfectly captures the way that the street runs and how they connect to other streets, all by memory. If he makes a mistake, he Xes it out and keeps going. I watched him deftly and totally on his own map out a street and neatly declare it “MCADOO.” His favorite street is Kennedy Boulevard, because (I think this is what he said? he was being a little shy) it goes to so many places.
So how does he know about all this stuff? Google Maps. He spends his time when he’s not in the hustle and bustle of pre-K staring at Google Maps and maneuvering around it. His mom wrote to me, “Ethan schools us all day long, constantly quizzing us. ‘Does Johnston connect to Summit? Name all the streets that connect to West Side.” He’s told his grandparents – who have lived on the West Side since 1973 – about streets that they’ve never even heard of.”
Ethan will work on a map over a few days with his dad. The rain kept washing away his progress on this latest map (located by the “bandstand” part of the park, near the flags and the fountain) so I was only able to grab one really decent picture of his progress. But the streets of the West Side are all there:
Ok LOOK. We live in very weird times. I didn’t know when I reached out on social media who the West Side Cartographer was going to be. This could have wound up many different ways, many of them creepy. But no, instead it’s totally fantastic: our resident West Side mapmaker is a wonderful kid with a lovely family, and he’s just out there doing his thing (and his parents are out there supporting him in the best possible way). I’m so impressed and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get (more than) a little teary-eyed writing this post.
So next time you come across those maps in Lincoln Park, just know that you can take a pic and plot your next trip based on them. Ethan totally knows what he’s doing.