Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
Take a self-guided historic tour with a new app that pulls up old photos taken right where you’re standing.
It’s one thing to look up an old photo of New York City on your computer. It’s another to stand at a corner, tap your phone, and learn that you’re standing just a few feet from where horse-drawn carriages once shuttled New Yorkers past a demolition site in 1900, or where the old Waldorf Astoria Hotel was knocked down to make way for the Empire State Building.
This is now possible through a new app called OldNYC, which will pull up historic photos taken near the user’s current location. The app’s creators described it as akin to taking a self-guided historical tour.
The photos are from New York Public Library’s repertoire of 40,000 images spanning the last 150 years. And the app itself builds on an older project of the same name, in which software engineer Dan Vanderkam geotagged the photos and placed them onto an interactive map.
But the new app is about more than just taking Vanderkam’s project on the go, Orian Breaux, a product manager and one of the app’s creators, told the NYPL in an interview:
Beyond making information accessible and searchable, I think the next problem is discovery. With so much of the world’s information available online, it’s easy to find something when you generally know what you’re looking for. But how do you find information that you would love when you don’t know it exists?
For example, it was only through playing with the app that I tapped on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village and came across photos from the 1930s of “Thanksgiving ragamuffins”: Children adorned with face paint and dressed up as beggars asking adults in the neighborhood for money, candy, and other treats. (This, apparently, preceded trick-or-treating on Halloween.)
For tourists, the app is a whole new way to discover a historically rich city. And for locals, it’s a way to visualize the old stories that they heard growing up. “Can you imagine, hearing stories from your grandmother who lived in New York City in the 1930s and being able to find the intersection she lived at and explore that photo in detail?” Christina Leuci, a software developer and the co-creator of the OldNYC app, asked the NYPL.
The duo also said that this is just the beginning, and that there are many more features they want to add in the future, including a “timeline sifter” to comb through different periods.
App, free on iTunes.