Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific Standard, GOOD, The Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
Google Street View creates what feels like a seamless (if pixelated) tour of city streets, and it's one that you could wander through all day if you had the patience to keep clicking. Virtually walk down any road, though, you may notice that sometimes the weather changes, or the seasons do.
Street View knits together a simultaneous patchwork of images taken at different times, and that means the site offers a quirky visual history of evolving neighborhoods – if, that is, you know exactly where to look.
Justin Blinder, an artist, programmer, and designer based in Brooklyn, stumbled across several of these wrinkles in Google Street View time while searching for ways to visualize how the city had changed under Michael Bloomberg, for a collaborative art project called Envision New York 2017.
"The two prominent elements for me of the Bloomberg Administration seemed to be one, the opening of city data," Blinder says, "and the other was this generally perceived accelerated gentrification."
He wanted to use the one to narrate the other. So he pulled up the city's recently released PLUTO dataset of property parcels, searched for those developments that were only a few years old, then went looking for their addresses in Street View.
"I immediately started seeing that most of the locations were actually vacant lots," Blinder says. The Google car hadn't driven by since the new luxury condos or office buildings or mid-rise rentals had gone up.
Because of how Google documents streets, though, one intersection may be viewed from multiple angles captured at different moments in time. Maybe a Google car passed down India Street in Brooklyn two years ago. Then another car came down McGuinness Boulevard earlier this winter. Stand at the intersection of those two roads, and the scenes change dramatically.
"You’ll realize that they were taken at two completely different times," Blinder says, "and sometimes the delta between those times is so great that it actually spans the development of an entire building."
This is 190 India Street, as seen through Google Street View and recast by Blinder in a GIF:
As it turns out, a GIF may be the perfect medium to capture how it feels when new buildings seemingly pop up in your neighborhood overnight (Blinder, though, leaves it to the viewer to decide if this is gentrification in motion).
Blinder went back to the PLUTO dataset specifically looking for other recent corner-lot developments that might be viewed this same way:
11 2nd Ave., in Manhattan.
Blinder has come to look at Google Street View images of city streets as a kind of database of information. Google Street View itself isn't all that old (and older images as Google updates them aren't publicly archived anywhere online). But his project suggests that the mapping giant's Street View cars may be inadvertently documenting all kinds of processes of urban change.