OldNYC

An addictive new interactive project marries a vast array of archival photos with a detailed map of the city.

Beneath the present-day surface that every city shows to the world, there are shadows of the city as it was in previous eras. In some places—Rome is a good example—that ghost city of the past lives side by side with the current one. In others, such as New York, it is more efficiently hidden, although it can show itself in surprising places.

A newly launched website, OldNYC, reveals the New York City that once was. It’s the work of software engineer Dan Vanderkam, who has mapped some 40,000 photos from the collection of the New York Public Library, making it possible for you to click on a random street corner and see what once was there.

Vanderkam has been working on the project in collaboration with library staff since early 2013. It’s entirely a volunteer labor of love, and he says he has “absolutely no idea” how much time he’s put into it. “I’m frightened to even think about it,” he says. “But having projects like this is a nice creative outlet. It’s been a really fun thing for me to work with.”

Vanderkam used to live in San Francisco, where he produced OldSF a few years back. New York posed its own special challenges, not just because of scale, but because of the way the pictures are formatted. One daunting task was to capture the typewritten captions on the back of the pictures, since manual input would have been impossibly time-consuming. The optical character-recognition software that Vanderkam used is imperfect, and he is looking for users to help correct resulting errors.

“My hope is that users will leave their own anecdotes about the photos and improve the quality of data on the site, by flagging inaccuracies and typos,” he says. He’s also hoping to add a time-slider feature, and to incorporate more pictures from additional NYPL collections.

Roller skaters in Central Park, photographed by P. L. Sperr on May 15, 1932. (New York Public Library Digital Collection, via OldNYC)

The site is endlessly fascinating just the way it is, though. Who knew about Hoffman Island in New York Harbor, “an artificial island constructed in 1872 by the New York State Quarantine Service for the detention and purification of well persons arriving in infected vessels,” where New Yorkers suspected of having deadly diseases such as cholera were quarantined? I didn’t. What about the Consumer’s Brewery at 54th and York? Or the magnificent “weeping beech,” more than 200 years old, that once grew on 37th Avenue near Parsons Boulevard in Queens?

The site opens countless such wormholes into the past. Be forewarned. You won’t want to stop exploring.

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