John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
This could be the most detailed open-data map of urban gerontology in existence.
If you were to splash New York with some kind of luminescent ink that reveals the age of buildings, this is roughly what it would look like: vast green swaths of 20th-century development, freckled with verdant blue and purple structures slapped together in the 1800s:
This incredible view of one of America's oldest burgs – available for your time-wasting pleasure here – was conjured over two days by Brandon Liu, a 24-year-old computer programmer in San Francisco. Inspired by similar visualizations for Brooklyn and Portland, Liu took a bulging wad of newly accessible open data and used it to create an extremely detailed, color-coded cartography of 1,053,713 buildings. Mauve dates to the 1830s, medium blue the turn of the century, and yellow the mid-1990s. It's zoomable, so you can ratchet down to specific neighborhoods to root out some real geezers hiding among all the fresh-faced facades.
"I was consulting on a project about historical districts in the city, and already had all the NYC building footprint data," Liu says via email. "I heard through social media that NYC had released their PLUTO data set for free. In the past it's cost thousands of dollars to acquire this data. Building age was the most interesting aspect of the data set to me, and it was quite simple to combine building footprints with age."
This could be the most detailed open-data map of urban gerontology in existence (well, second-most detailed); the Portland project used about half of the number of property records. It's not a flawless diamond, though. Some of the dates are approximate or inaccurate. As one viewer has already remarked to Liu, "I'm looking at Union Square and a lot of this data is incorrect."
Liu says that the city has acknowledged there are errors in the data. "For example, the date of the Museum of Natural History is 1995, when the original built date is far before that," he says. "A significant building in Lower Manhattan, the Fraunces Tavern, also has an incorrect date. Many other building ages are estimates and rounded to the nearest century. I wasn't able to catch these errors when making the map – I simply spot-checked the output on a few famous buildings, but with a couple thousand eyeballs the errors became obvious."
In the city's defense, the handful of locations I checked did correlate age-wise to this map. Let's take a quick flyover of the visual history of New York, beginning with a broad view of Manhattan's southern half. Some of the oldest brick and mortar is clumped in the lower part of the island:
The hexagonal entity at top left is the city's Supreme Court, constructed in the 1910s and 20s. The cross-shaped objects at the bottom are the Alfred E. Smith projects in the Lower East Side, erected in the 1950s. Popping out in this shot is a dusty nugget from the mid-1800s at Oliver Street and Saint James Place. It ain't too much to look at nowadays:
Northward is older development hugging Central Park, more recent activity on Roosevelt Island, and a pink-colored building from 1801 stranded in a sea of black in Carl Schurz Park, the "oldest community-based volunteer park association in the city of New York." That lonely structure is Gracie Mansion, the official residence of the Mayor of New York (although Bloomberg bucked the trend by taking townhouses on East 79th Street and in London):
Of course the Google Maps view of Gracie Mansion has a dump truck in front:
Traveling across the water, you'll find snowflake and dumbbell-shaped housing projects livening up the grid of northern Brooklyn in the vicinity of Vinegar Hill:
Brooklyn Heights has a diverse mix of hoary houses and newish development:
Super-old buildings reside at Middagh and Willow streets:
These ancient townhouses are sandwiched between fresher giants on Hicks Street, between Clark and Pierrepont:
Tons of newer growth sprouts on Coney Island and Brighton and Manhattan beaches:
Take it for a whirl yourself. For details on an individual property, put the mouse pointer over it and a box will pop up at top right with the date it met the light of day.