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Pre-Sprawl Aerial Images: 'The Next Best Thing to a Time Machine'

Compare every corner of Connecticut, from 1934 to today.


The state of Connecticut boasts a historical snapshot that few parts of the country can match of life before World War II, before the Interstate Highway System, before the advent of suburbia as we know it. Back in 1934, Connecticut completed an aerial survey of every corner of state land, a process that produced thousands of black-and-white, 9-by-9-inch public photographs of Depression-era farmland and pre-car-crazed towns. At the time, no other state had done this.

The images have since been digitized and stitched together. And they are at their most fascinating when paired against our modern equivalent: Google satellite imagery taken some eight decades later. A project between Trinity College and the University of Connecticut Libraries, Map and Geographic Information Center (more appropriately: MAGIC) offers us a chance to trace this sweeping story of change.

“That’s the beauty of aerial photos: it’s sort of the ultimate document,” says Michael Howser, a GIS librarian at the University of Connecticut. “It’s the next best thing to a time machine.”

Howser and Trinity College historian Jack Dougherty collaborated on the project as part of a public history Internet archive intended to teach Connecticut students and residents about how schooling and housing boundaries, particularly in Hartford, have redrawn life over the past century. Their digital mapping tools, built with the help of a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, tell the stories of redlining, racial and income change around the city over time. But it is the comparison of these statewide aerial photographs that appears the most striking.

“From the eyes of 9th and 10th graders, you think the mall was always there,” Dougherty says. “Finding out that WestFarms Mall in the suburbs was named for a [westside] farm that it used to be on was shocking for a lot of our 9th graders – and a lot of our older students as well.”

This is the image he is talking about, taken outside of Hartford:

The interactive tool tells equally compelling stories about highways that bisected neighborhoods and communities that sprawled into the countryside.

This is the Interstate 84 interchange in Hartford’s Parkville neighborhood:

These images show the grounds of the state capitol in Hartford around Bushnell Park.

At left, you can make out a small river winding around the park with an oxbow. Shortly after the 1934 photo was taken, the river was buried for flood control, with no hint of it showing in modern aerial imagery.

This is an image of the state’s largest city of Bridgeport:

And here we have suburbs to the west of Hartford, on what was formerly farmland:

Over the coming months, Howser and Dougherty are hoping to similarly stitch together and add layers from the 1950s and 1970s that would offer an even more detailed narrative of change after the war (the state of Connecticut conducted these aerial surveys on a regular basis).

“I can write paragraph after paragraph about this, and I can talk with my hands for hours,” Dougherty says. “But if you live in these areas, and you’re trying to figure out how to get these cities and suburbs to start cooperating, these are the kind of tools people are excited about.”

We’ve already seen how these aerial images can reveal even the most unsuspecting facets of urbanization. Last year, we wrote about another project at the University of Connecticut that used this same historical archive to estimate and track the spread of urban parking spots over time. The potential for other hints in aerial photos – tracking street patterns, highway interchanges, tree cover, housing clusters – seems vast.

The above picture shows the Connecticut Convention Center and Interstate 91 in Hartford.

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.