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Posted at: Jul 8, 2018, 1:23 AM; last updated: Jul 15, 2018, 3:11 AM (IST)

On paper, these are towns

There are fake cities that only exist on maps. Cartographers create these to protect their copyright product from being stolen or copied

Banhisha Kundu

JOHN Green’s novel, Paper Towns, was adapted into a movie in 2015, starring Cara Delevingne and Nathaniel Wolff. It showcased a plot revolving around a paper town in the upstate New York, Agloe, which has a zero population; thereby sparking off a wave of curiosity for this fictitious place. Since childhood, we have been taught to use the atlas and even today, we depend upon physical maps, or Google Maps, while travelling or when trying to locate a place.

Not many know that these maps sometimes have made-up cities, towns and rivers etched upon them — in some cases even mountain elevations as well. Yes, you heard that right. There are places created on the maps which have zero inhabitants or infrastructure and, in truth, do not exist. These are known as ‘Paper Towns’.

These fake towns are usually created by cartographers on purpose to protect their copyright product from being stolen or copied. And, sometimes electronic maps have shown these inauthentic places as real cities or roads, leaving travellers befuddled and stranded.

Agloe was created in 1930 by Otto G. Lindberg, director of the General Drafting Co, and his assistant, Ernest Alpers, as they were given the responsibility to create a map of the New York state. Their only motive behind this inclusion was to catch anyone copying their material. The name was, in fact, made using the anagrams of both its creators. Little did they know that their work would evoke curiousity even after decades.

Similarly, in 2008, another place named Argleton in England created a lot of buzz among people as the internet searches for this place had comprehensive real-estate listings, jobs and weather reports. In reality, no such place exists on the face of Earth.

While most of the time these cartographic lies and manipulation of the maps were usually done due to copyright issues, in some cases they were pranks. During 1978-79, Peter Fletcher introduced two new Ohio towns, ‘Beatosu’ and ‘Goblu’ in Fulton and Lucas counties, respectively, on the official map of the state of Michigan.

It apparently had nothing to do with the copyright issues. Fletcher, chairman of the Michigan State Highway Commission and an alumnus of the University of Michigan, did so to take a dig against his rival college as both the towns meant ‘Beat OSU’ and ‘Go Blu’. These were eventually removed.

However, it is still astounding to witness these phantom settlements on Google Maps, which swears on its authenticity and accuracy. When pointed out by Mike Nolan, an employee at Edge Hill University, England, Google discarded Argleton from its digital database by the end of 2010.

But the thing about phantom or ghost towns is that they reappear. Recently Google added this place to its map. Again.

Argelton is not the only one. ‘Sandy Island’, a popular island on Australian maps and on Google Earth, does not exist. This ghost island mysteriously found its way on many maps, presumably due to human error. Similarly, there are roads like ‘Moat Lane’ on some maps that would lead you nowhere because of their questionable existence. It has been removed since.

It’s fascinating, quoting the law, “To ‘treat’ false facts interspersed among actual facts and represent actual facts as fiction would mean that no one could ever reproduce or copy actual facts without the risk of reproducing false fact and thereby violating a copyright.” This can be accounted as although the ‘paper towns’ or false places are designed to prohibit any copyright violation, these ghost cities are not copyrightable under the US law.

Entrapping copyright offenders was not only the forte of mapmakers. This strategy was also adopted by dictionary publishers such as New Oxford American Dictionary. Words such as “esquivalence”, which means “the wilful avoidance of one’s official responsibilities” existed only in this dictionary and any other dictionary that has been copied from the original. Today, such fictitious entries are termed as “mountweazel,” which have an intriguing story to their credit.

Lillian Mountweazel, a famous American photographer, born in 1942, was known for her work on American mailboxes and Paris cemeteries, on which she had even written a book. She died in 1973, in an explosion while working on an assignment for a magazine. As invigorating and enchanting she might come across, this woman never existed in real life. In the 1975 edition of the New Columbia Encyclopaedia, Mountweazel’s story was mentioned on page number 1,850 as a trap against copyright infringers.

All these acts had one thing in common — to keep copyright thieves at bay. As of today, Agloe, Argleton, Moat Lane, Kemp Ave (a fictional street in Toronto) are famous for being ‘fake’ and could still be found on some maps, even after these places have been removed from the digital mapping system. So, if you want to travel to a ‘Paper Town’ anytime soon, you may find one right on a map, showing you the route to it.

The restaurant that never was

The Shed at Dulwich, located on a Friern Road, East Dulwich, had been rated one of the top restaurants of London last year. The owner, despite its popularity, never revealed the restaurant's precise location or even the menu, other than a few pictures of some 'signature' dishes. With a large number of glowing reviews, The Shed, attained the top rankings on TripAdvisor. The entry to which was by appointment only.

Here comes the twist — the restaurant which had a long waiting list — never existed.

Oobah Butler, (26) a journalist with Vice UK, created a hoax restaurant in the backyard of his home. The inspiration behind his fictional restaurant came from writing fake TripAdvisor reviews for various restaurants. 

He created a web page and uploaded pictures of various dishes. The menu was based on emotions — a concept “silly enough to infuriate your dad.” He confessed later that the artsy looking dishes were made out of household products like sponges, bleach tablets and shaving cream.

This seemingly sceptic story should serve as a warning that how fraudsters can manipulate online platforms to some unthinkable and sometimes scary results.

Missing on the map

Contrary to the fake paper towns, there are places that exist in this world and yet they don't exist on any map or are not recognised.  

  • Many large slums of the world, which are a mini township in itself, don't find a mention on any map. Orangi Shanty town, located in Karachi, is one such place in the Indian subcontinent. Classified as the largest among the world's five largest slums by a UN World Cities Report, it is home to around 2.4 million people live in this. The initial population explosion came after the 1971 India-Pakistan War when thousands of refugees migrated from East Pakistan.  The settlement is still in very poor shape and unmarked on the maps.
  • The Ciudad Neza in Mexico city is another huge slum that is not on maps. This under-developed area has the highest crime rate in Mexico after numerous gangs' formed here in 1990s. 
  • Another such place is the slum of Makoko in Lagos, which is sometimes also called the 'Venice of Africa'. It is not listed as an official place on the map of the Dark Continent. 
These godforsaken places had been neglected by traditional mapmakers, as even the respective governments didn't want these landscapes added to their country's or state's map.

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