In illustrating The Great Map of Williamsburg, neighborhood artist Alex Russell knew that he was creating a time capsule of an ever-evolving piece of the borough he’s long called home. What he couldn’t have predicted is that so many of the storefronts and restaurants he’d lovingly illustrated would shutter before his pictorial map was printed.
“My printer closed their doors for a few months just as my order went in,” Russell said of his map, which went to print right as the coronavirus halted New York’s spring. “Sadly, I have recently discovered that a handful of the businesses on The Great Map of Williamsburg have closed due to COVID. I will be delivering their maps to them this week as a bittersweet memory of what was. Some of them, like Brooklyn Charm, had been there for over a decade. I feel honored to have had the chance to be a part of their history.”
Russell’s map is an ode to a neighborhood that has changed in recent years as swiftly as the weather. Now on sale, the map feels like a testimony of a purer New York, one not unmoored by a pandemic but instead anticipating the thaw of spring, just when Russell released his last pictorial, The Great Map of Greenpoint.
The longtime Greenpointer had attended the Love Grows in Brooklyn Valentine’s Market at the Greenpoint Loft, selling the same map that he never thought would be more than a passion project. But the map grew in popularity, becoming of interest to more than just Russell — or the neighbors who have clamored to buy and frame one of their own. It also caught the eye of Ian Fowler, Curator and Geospatial Librarian for the Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division at The New York Public Library.
“He really pushed me to expand the [map] concept and open it up to other neighborhoods,” Russell said. “It was only after going to the library for my induction of the Greenpoint map and speaking with Ian in person that I found out it was the first map pictorial of Greenpoint to be added into their collection. He showed me all the maps they had and listed ones they would like to have. That’s when I decided to embark on the Williamsburg map.”
Embark he did. As Russell shared in our Thursday Spotlight from March, “This is a much bigger, more complex, and detailed work than the Greenpoint map that will be featured all around Williamsburg; it’s scheduled to be wrapped on the two-story window space on the corner of Bedford and North 12th on the border of McCarren Park; it will be printed on the back of restaurant menus.”
The map will be as ubiquitous as bicycles on Franklin. And to Russell, the added fame has been gratifying and humbling.
“I continue to be shocked and amazed at how well The Great Map of Greenpoint has been received by Greenpoint, its residents, and beyond,” he said. “I never could have imagined it would blow up the way that it has. I get reactions from people around the neighborhood all the time about the map, and nine times out of ten they say, ‘I saw this on Greenpointers.’ Pretty amazing, really.”
In addition to his foodie endeavors in revitalizing Brooklyn Label, these maps solidify Russell as a community builder — which is why the COVID period has been so artistically and socially trying. “It has been really difficult. I care deeply about my friends and my community,” he said.
“I have so much gratitude for our essential workers, doctors, nurses, and anyone doing their part to get us through this as a team. I think we’re all ready for this to be over so that we can go back to living and connecting and feeling healthy again. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that this period of solitude and reflection has truly made me see how fragile life really is and how lucky we all are for our health. It sounds cliché, but it’s really the most important thing in the world,” he continued.
Russell’s compassion and words speak truth to power: The Great Map of Williamsburg will be on display and for sale at The Canvas by Querencia Gallery at 132 Bedford Avenue, and signed prints will be available with 15% of the proceeds going to the World Health Organization.
There will indeed be much to look forward to on the other side of this dark period. For one, Russell’s maps — and their depictions of a bottled moment in time — will be on view and permanently archived at the NYPL.
“They will always be available for future generations to view,” he said, adding, “I think that their intended purpose has been realized: to create a time-capsule of our favorite haunts in an effort to stimulate local business and continue to build the neighborhood’s character and charm.”