Articles

The Obsession With Mapping New York City’s Past

Five Boroughs: Building Age NYC (screenshot from bdon.org/)
Five Boroughs: Building Age NYC (screenshot from bdon.org)

People in New York City seem to have a particular fixation with mapping the past. Perhaps it’s because the past can seem so ephemeral, a single block morphing into something almost unrecognizable in just months with the addition of a few condos and the loss of some worn brick structures. Or maybe it’s more of the opposite: that the past of one of the United States’ oldest and densest cities is so intrinsically embedded in every step of sidewalk or street curve that it can be staggering to take it all in at — so instead ways to chart it are sought. Whatever the reason, New Yorkers love to see what the city clustered across its islands used to look like.

View of the East village (Cooper Union, built in the 1850s, is the purple building among the newer construction)
View of the East Village — Cooper Union, built in the 1850s, is the purple building among the newer construction, and you can see Stuy Town from the 1940s up at the right (screenshot from bdon.org)
Governors Island and the shoreline of Brooklyn
Governors Island and the shoreline of Brooklyn (screenshot from bdon.org)

One of the most recent projects is a transformation of the city’s PLUTO land use data set, which was made available to the public for free for the first time earlier this year. San Francisco-based programmer Brandon Liu of bdon.org took this data on the dates of city structures, stretching from the 1830s to 1990s, and turned it into a color-coded interactive map called Five Boroughs: Building Age NYC, where rose-colored hues for the earliest structures fade into a bright greenish yellow for the newest.

You can zoom in and see the construction of individual buildings, or pull way back and see how the streets are mottled from different eras, and how the city we know today really had its biggest booms of construction in the late 19th century and then again later in the 20th century. Liu has also done infographic remixes that compare NBA season scoring with hip hop mentions and a rotating map of (the rather hilly) bicycle routes in San Francisco, but this is an especially deep rabbit hole of information in which to plunge (although some people in the comments on the site have pointed out inaccuracies with certain data points).

Screenshot of the interactive 1836 map on Smithsonian.com
Screenshot of the interactive 1836 map on Smithsonian.com, where the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges disappear

The project comes alongside an interactive map on Smithsonian.com posted earlier this month, where an 1836 map of New York City by Joseph Colton from the reliably awesome David Rumsey collection of maps was placed over an aerial view of the contemporary city as part of a larger project that similarly examines other American metropolises like Chicago and Los Angeles. You move around a spyglass to reveal the cityscape of nearly two centuries ago, where the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges vanish and some streets even idle into what would become Central Park. The New York Times has done a similar project going even further back, placing an 1811 map by John Randel over the modern day grid.

And there are also those projects that aren’t strictly cartographical but still find a way of mapping the past onto the present. The New York Post‘s mashups of old news photos coupled with their contemporary appearance are especially brilliant, showing such forgotten disasters as the Park Slope Plane Crash over its present quiet intersection and a sampling of street murders (potentially unsettling if you have a fear of discovering your apartment’s residential lineage featured at one point a horrific crime scene). And there are also arts mapping projects that are obsessively capturing the city of today, such as OpenEnded Group‘s “All Day” that’s opening at Barclays Center in Brooklyn this month and which compiles some 14,000 rooftop photographs into a continuous 3D flyover of the borough. New York City changes so quickly it’s sometimes hard to grasp at, and maybe visual projects like these will become the next enduring format through which the present can be contrasted with the past.

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