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Interview with Vicky Johnson Bell of Buffalo in 50 Maps

When I first wrote about the book Buffalo in 50 Maps, which was written and charted by Vicky Johnson Bell, and published by Belt Publishing, I couldn’t help but think about the ways that the information was garnered. Much to my surprise, a few days after posting the article, I was presented with an opportunity to interview Vicky about the process.

Although Vicky currently lives in Washington, DC, she hails from Buffalo. She’s also a cartographer, of course (and drummer and ice cream maker). The combination of her Buffalo heritage and her cartography skills made her the ideal candidate for the project.

During our discussion, I asked Vicky about a couple of things that stuck out to her the most, pertaining to the book. Without hesitating, she brought up a story about Scajaquada Jack, the errant alligator that was discovered in Scajaquada Creek. I remember hearing about this alligator, but I honestly couldn’t recall if the story was fact or fiction. Vicky helped to clarify that it was indeed a factual account.

“It was part of the Invasive Species Map,” Vicky told me. “Animal Control fed it some chicken wings and then captured it and sent it to the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park, where, I understand, he still lives to this day. I visited the park once and fed the alligators gator kibble, so I might have actually fed Jack in the process.”

It’s stories like that that are fun to hear, especially when they’re placed in context with data-plotted maps. The process helps us to get a better understanding of our city.

Another bizarre story was hearing about the Bills stadium, and how it was built on land that was once a sacred burial ground. Vicky told me that that could be the reason that the team is cursed. The stadium was built at an unusual angle so as not to disrupt the cemetery. Due to the positioning of the stadium (not initially intended), the winds come whipping through, more than they would if the stadium had been built as originally intended. Fortunately, with the new stadium on the way, that curse can now be vanquished, and the Bills can go… all… the… way!

Of course not all of the maps in Buffalo in 50 Maps are bizarre or funny. There are some that are pretty scary. Take, for example, this city’s history of redlining practices on the East Side, or its population decline. No matter the map, there are lessons to be learned. We can see how the city was shaped. We can pinpoint pervasive problems. Or we can simply stop and smell the Cheerios… but first you need to know where the best place is to get a good whiff.

Buffalo in 50 Maps allows us to think about this city in ways that we might not otherwise perceive. Why are certain neighborhoods broken down into streets, while others feature avenues? How were the streets named, and who named them? Was the Fruit Belt really a neighborhood where fruit trees grew?

Initially, Vicky started off with 175 map ideas, before whittling that number down to 50. That could have been one of the hardest parts of the assignment. After all, what is interesting to one person, might not be as interesting to someone else. Thankfully, there are plenty of topics that we can all agree are powerful enough to be included in the book. And even now, Vicky is learning new and wonderful things about Buffalo, every time she visits.

“I make it back as often as I can,” she told me. “I have a lot of family there. I was back a couple of weeks ago with my husband. We went skiing at Holiday Valley. There’s always something different to explore. I found it fascinating how many Ukrainian flags are around the city. There are more flags in Buffalo than I’ve ever seen anywhere else, including Poland. It just goes to show that Buffalo really is The City of Good Neighbors. I thought about what a map of that would look like, but I couldn’t nail it down. Maybe that will be for the next book.”

Vicky will be back in town on March 21 for the book release. Stay tuned.

Click here to learn more, and to place an order.

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