Georgia towns stung after being wiped off map

The state removed some 500 small communities because the map had become too difficult to read.

With the sweep of a cartographer's hand, Ty Ty is gone. So is Po Biddy Crossroads, Sandtown, and Martinez. Poetry Tulip and Dewy Rose? Vanished.

At least in Georgia, the small hamlet is not only in danger of blowing away for lack of economic opportunity, it's also disappearing from view – at least on paper. In a move that some critics say smacks of urban conceit about rural America, the Georgia Department of Transportation (DOT) has decided to – without a public discussion – wipe nearly 500 tiny towns, nooks, and crossroads from the Official Highway and Transportation map, 1.2 million of which are printed and snapped up annually.

For the state, it's a pragmatic decision – the map had become too hard to read. But the action has triggered a deeper debate about how Americans view one another and their communities, and the importance tiny towns put on being recognized, if not in public discourse, at least by cartographers. Those designations are, for some, proof of their existence.

"[Being on a map] gives you a sense of place, that you're tied to the earth," says Craig Remington, director of the cartography lab at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. "Nobody likes to be told they live nowhere."

To be sure, small towns – whether Rocky Mountain mining villages or Kansas crossroads – sometimes do blow away, leaving only stone foundations and forgotten dreams, or curlicues of kudzu overwhelming chimneys and windows. Ten or 20 "disappeared" towns a year is average for a medium-sized state, cartographers say. But 500 is "unusual," Mr. Remington says. So far, mapmaker Rand McNally isn't planning on following suit, the Associated Press reports.

But in places such as Hickory Level – which just bought six new street signs for its unincorporated limits in Carroll County, just west of Atlanta – the state's move is seen as an affront that runs counter to economic development plans for rural reaches.

"Folks kind of feel like they got a bad deal from DOT on this," says state Rep. Tim Bearden, who represents Hickory Level. "If you want to bring your business into the state of Georgia, if you open a map and look at Carroll County, what you see now is that there's basically nothing there."

On a personal level, the decision stings more deeply, says Kip Burke, news editor at the News-Reporter in Wilkes County, Ga., where the towns of Aonia and Sandtown fell off the map. It reconfirms that urban dwellers often marginalize their country brethren, he says.

"I think one factor is the attitude inside Atlanta," says Mr. Burke. "If it's outside Atlanta, it doesn't matter, [because] those places aren't real anyway. They cruise through the countryside, see what looks like a backdrop to the music in their heads, and they don't realize that nothing-looking chunk of land may have been in a family for generations, and it really is the center of someone's universe."

For the cartographers at DOT, it's a no-win situation. Users were complaining that the increasingly cluttered map with itty-bitty two-point type was illegible. The decision to remove 519 localities amounted to a housecleaning.

"A lot of people take towns off part and parcel, and we had not been taking any off over time. The big issue was to try to find criteria that could stand up," says Karlene Barron, a DOT spokeswoman. "We took unincorporated areas and areas that were not communities anymore, and they added up to a large number. We wanted not to do it willy-nilly. We wanted to do something that was fair, though nobody saw it in any way, shape, or form as fair."

The state has already restored 32 towns big enough to have their own zip codes to the 2007 map, which debuts in January. But the backlash has caused the state to do some rethinking about the 2008 publication, says Ms. Barron.

The Peach State mapmakers plan to reconvene after the dust settles to discuss new criteria that could include historic and economic factors, and whether a place has significant landmarks. "We are working very hard to appease the communities that feel like our main goal was to wipe them off the face of the earth, which it was not," Barron says.

But cartographers agree that inherent in a map is prejudice toward its usability and purpose. To that end, maps do give insight into the mind of their creator.

"A cartographer tries to create a visual hierarchy with a map," says Remington. "You're trying to make the elements of the map that are important for the map's purpose stand out, and you're trying to make the less significant but still necessary features work their way into the background. It's simply a conscious decision to how far you let things fade before they disappear."

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