Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Urban change revealed, lottery ticket-style.
In cities, the past is always peeking through the surface: cobblestones beneath some torn-up asphalt; a vanished street that still shapes the properties around it. Urban Scratch-Off, a new tool by digital mapmaker Chris Whong, aims to recreate that palimpsestic experience online, with an approach inspired by lottery tickets.
Whong layered an aerial photograph of New York City from today beneath another one from 1924 (a remarkable find from the New York Public Library), and coded in a “scratch-off” effect. Click and rub your cursor over a section of the old map, and you’ll see modern-day New York revealed underneath. You can search for specific addresses, flip the maps so that new sits on top of old, and opt to simply “pan and zoom” when you’ve done enough scratching.
What’s most striking is how little New York City seems to have transformed, at least from a big-picture, bird’s eye view. Much of the building stock is the same. Change is most apparent by searching around stadiums, airports, waterfronts, and of course, highways.
Whong writes that he took inspiration for Urban Scratch-Off from his frequent commutes on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, constructed in the 1960s:
I wanted to see what was there before the highway… As with the saga of Hess’ Triangle, I’m always interested in the scars left on the built environment by interruptions to street grids, widening of roads, landfill into water, etc. However, I didn’t just want to study historic aerials and maps. The idea popped into my head that it would be really interesting to “erase” the pre-BQE blocks on a historic photo to reveal the modern highway and get a better idea of the cost of progress.
The construction of the BQE displaced thousands of residents in Brooklyn and Queens. Whong’s map doesn’t show those people, but it does show how that transaction played out in concrete.