When Harlem’s Renaissance Ballroom was demolished this year, the 1920s Jazz Age past of the neighborhood became a little harder to see. For two decades, Dr. Bryan Carter has preserved a nine block radius of Harlem Renaissance-era streets in Virtual Harlem, all in the evolving medium of virtual reality.
“When I first started the environment, I was teaching African-American literature, and I found that my students were not as engaged with the literature as I hoped they would be,” Carter told Hyperallergic. “I found that by immersing them in an environment with that literature, it helped with that engagement.” He gave as an example an avatar that could be programmed with biographical information on W. E. B. Du Bois, who users could ask questions to find out about his history. In the surrounding blocks Ethel Waters might be singing the debut performance “Stormy Weather” at the Cotton Club, and crowds are gathering at the Apollo Theater.
Carter began Virtual Harlem while in a graduate program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, in response to a call for projects on a new technology called “virtual reality.” That was around 1997, making it one of the earliest virtual reality environments, especially for the humanities. As technology has progressed, so has the project. The first iteration was on CAVE, which involved several projections in a room-like space. Over time it transformed through iterations on Second Life and OpenSim. In 2004, the University of Paris IV-Sorbonne, supported a Virtual Montmartre based in the same early-20th century era, with Carter as the project leader.
Carter is now an assistant professor of Africana studies at the University of Arizona and specializes in literature of the Harlem Renaissance as well as digital culture. He is working to relaunch Virtual Harlem by the end of the fall on the Virtual World Web, based in Vancouver. Geographic points through Google Maps are also being attached to all the digital locations to accurately place them on a street grid.
“When you think about virtual worlds, anything can happen there,” Carter said. “It’s a wide open terrain that’s reminiscent of some sort of environment, and in this case it’s Harlem of the 1920s and 30s, and a portion of Paris in the same period. In that world you can have anything that happens in a regular city happen. It’s just a matter of designing it.”
Archive photographs, texts, and other historic resources on places like the Savoy Ballroom and Abyssinian Baptist Church provide the basis for this design. At its corse, Virtual Harlem is intended as a learning space. Students in Carter’s classes have sessions in the virtual world, where they can also add content to the environment. Spoken word performances, speeches, and concerts can happen in real-time, and game-like aspects can direct exploration of the open world. All these elements encourage retention of literature, and visually contextualize the time period.
The beta version of the revamped Virtual Harlem is currently available through Curio. A future version may even transfer to new technology like Oculus Rift headsets, completely immersing users in a Harlem Renaissance past that is no longer visible on the streets of Manhattan. “We can create newsworthy events that happened in the past, that are represented in various texts, so that students who are reading about them, they can go into this world and experience them,” he said.