A few weeks ago, I wrote a post here about the bizarre meme of a fake Avril Lavigne song that started to appear on lyric websites, and eventually spawned its own covers. Several readers commented that it reminded them of "Trap Streets" — a cartography practice where a mapmaker marks their intellectual property by including a fake street where none exists. The idea here was that, if someone copied the mapmakers' map without credit or payment, the mapmaker could prove their cartographic work by pointing to the fake street. (In the case of the Avril Lavigne song, it could have been someone's attempt to prove that they uploaded the lyrics first, on an internet full of various lyric websites that all pull from each other.)
This lead me to learn about Agloe, New York, a trap town originally devised by the General Drafting Company in 1937. Before it became a plot point in John Green's 2009 novel Paper Town, the town actually very briefly became real, thanks to someone's misinterpreting its inclusion on a map. Atlas Obscura explains:
A few decades later, Agloe appeared again, but this time in a map made by a different, unrelated company – Rand McNally. General Drafting thought they had caught Rand McNally red-handed, but Rand McNally had an incredibly good and surprising defense:
The county clerk's office had given them the information.
It turns out that, in the early part of the 1950s, someone armed with the General Drafting map went to visit Agloe. Seeing nothing there, they figured that opportunity had knocked. This lost-to-history fellow, likely figuring that others would also come to Agloe – it was on the map, after all! – would expect to find something there. So he opened a small shop and called it the "Agloe General Store." Over the next forty years, the fictional town of Agloe grew. As Green notes, at its largest, Agloe had a gas station, the general store, and two houses. Most importantly, at least as far as Rand McNally was concerned, Agloe had something else – the attention of the county administrators. They considered Agloe a real place, and therefore, so did Rand McNally's team of cartographers.
The idea that a map could make a place real—and, by extension, that a place's exclusion from a map could make it unreal—was also explored in a more fantastical manner in G. Willow Wilson and MK Perker's Vertigo comic book series Air.
Agloe, New York [Atlas Obscura]
An Imaginary Town Becomes Real, Then Not. True Story [Robert Krulwich / NPR]
Image: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons