There's a guy
August 14, 2002 11:45 AM   Subscribe

There's a guy with an "immensely detailed, three-dimensional, interactive, constantly updated map of New York City," which "could provide the DNA for a re-created city" if something happened to destroy New York. Besides the nitpicking (do you want to recreate every awning and kiosk?), there's the big question: does it make sense to try to recreate in detail something that's gone? Or as the article puts it, "At what point do we accept the reality of loss?" And if a city were destroyed so utterly it couldn't be recreated, would its surviving inhabitants wander the world endlessly, keeping their lost home alive in their hearts and customs, like R.A. Lafferty's Angelenos?
posted by languagehat (25 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Damn, now that it's up there it takes up the whole screen. Sorry, all; I'll try to be more concise next time.
posted by languagehat at 11:48 AM on August 14, 2002

whole screen? you posting from a nokia, or what?
posted by quonsar at 11:54 AM on August 14, 2002

posted by y2karl at 11:56 AM on August 14, 2002

I guess the map is useful, as they say, for planning traffic routes and so forth, but there's something creepy about the idea that anyone would want to rebuild a city block by block. New York city is already enough of a self-congratulating shrine to itself. I wouldn't want to live in the metropolitan equivalent of Junior's room, just the way he left it before he went off to the war.

Leidner's project holds the tantalizing promise that future generations could always walk the streets of today's New York.

Come on, that's just presumptuous. I mean, both the idea that future generations would have any more historical interest in us than we do in past generations, and that it's safe to walk the streets of today's New York anyway. Ha ha.
posted by Hildago at 12:08 PM on August 14, 2002

Where's the actual NYCMap dammit?
posted by luriete at 12:12 PM on August 14, 2002

and where's the thing where "a butterfly wanders into the in-box and (a few wingbeats later) flutters out—and in that brief interval the system has transcribed the creature's appearance and analyzed its way of moving, and the real butterfly leaves a shadow-butterfly behind. Some time soon afterward you'll be examining some tedious electronic document and a cyber-butterfly will appear at the bottom left corner of your screen (maybe a Hamearis lucina) and pause there, briefly hiding the text (and showing its neatly folded rusty-chocolate wings like Victorian paisley, with orange eyespots)—and moments later will have crossed the screen and be gone" thing?
posted by gravelshoes at 12:14 PM on August 14, 2002

I guess the map is useful, as they say, for planning traffic routes and so forth

But who would want the same routes as, say, the West Village? (a nightmare patchwork that's not on NY's famous grid system). That is to say, the city can certainly be improved upon. If there is large-scale destruction of the city, the chance should be used to make such improvements. I see the idea of nostalgia and all -- I'll always love the sight of the Chrysler and Citicorp Buildings -- but I think it's ridiculous to recreate the city after a major disaster. On the other hand, given the state of architecture today, maybe I would rather have the city recreated as it is.

Come on, that's just presumptuous. . . that it's safe to walk the streets of today's New York anyway. Ha ha.

Good, we didn't want you here anyway. Ha ha.
posted by The Michael The at 12:22 PM on August 14, 2002

Wow, so this is how the Matrix built it's template for late-20th-century earth!!!
posted by SpecialK at 12:26 PM on August 14, 2002

...the idea that future generations would have any more historical interest in us than we do in past generations

I would give almost anything to walk all the streets of 16th century London. Some people are still quite interested in the daily life of the past. I've spent many hours pouring over maps and documents of New Haven, CT, brittle manuscripts that often provide only the sketchiest details of the past. Two maps often come to mind, two hurried sketches of the layout of the main part of town. How could the creators of those hurried notes realize that they would be the only surviving documents of New Haven from those periods? That what they knew as the center of the life in their town would be remembered only through their small drawings? This fact often haunts me, and frustrates us antiquarians and historical buffs, tantalizing scraps of a world long gone.

If anything, this computer model of New York will prove an invaluable document for future generations to understand the daily physical life of the city. I'm glad that someone is doing this work, thinking past their lifetimes.

As a guide for rebuilding if something unspeakable should happen to New York, I don't know. I couldn't believe that I found myself agreeing with Yoko Ono, that you don't 'reconstruct', you regenerate. If one wants to carry this DNA metaphor along, think of yourself in relation to your parents. You retain vestiges, both physical and otherwise, of them. You build on what they have given you, you reject some things and embrace others. But you are not a copy of your parents, and if you try to be, you quickly find yourself stagnating.

If we would try to rebuild New York or elsewhere, brick by brick, we would create the city equivalent of a SCA or Renaissance festival goer, a place that tries to ape and enact patterns of life and styles that are only partially understood, and that in no way relate to the ongoing flow of present life. Poor, faded simulacra.

I'm also very interested in the computer system and software that is powering this map project. The description is vague and almost too "Holodeck" for me to understand. I wish there were more about it. And that painting in the article is truly horrifying.

Thanks for the link!
posted by evanizer at 12:29 PM on August 14, 2002 [1 favorite]

Here's a story on NYC Map. I couldn't find any reference to it on, but, as the article states, apparently the Emergency Management Online Locator System is using it's data.
posted by devo at 12:43 PM on August 14, 2002

At what point do we accept the reality of loss, that brevity is part of the butterfly's beauty?

I think those are two very different presumptions, and am not at all sure that the second is in any way self-evident.

Nice link!
posted by rushmc at 12:48 PM on August 14, 2002

Poor, faded simulacra.

Plus, it would be really creepy.
posted by insomnyuk at 1:20 PM on August 14, 2002

I found this map the other day when researching urban gardens.
Map It's the area around Tompkins Square Park in my Manhattan neighborhood, but it expands and contracts as desired, and displays land use in amazing detail.
posted by gametone at 1:23 PM on August 14, 2002

I would give almost anything to walk all the streets of 16th century London. Some people are still quite interested in the daily life of the past.

The question isn't whether some people are passionate about every aspect of history, though. It's whether people a thousand years from now will be as fascinated by the minutiae of our lives as we are. Chances are, they'll be interested in seeing a couple of landmarks and watching the next millenium's equivalent of a TLC special on what our sex lives were like.

My point is merely that saying the city needs to be preserved for "future generations" presumes a level of interest which isn't going to be there; a more accurate statement would be that future historians and anthropologists would find this map invaluable, which is true.
posted by Hildago at 1:36 PM on August 14, 2002

I saw this article in The Village Voice online yesterday afternoon.

I agree with evanizer's statement that "this computer model of New York will prove an invaluable document for future generations to understand the daily physical life of the city."

While it may true that the average person would not be interested in "the minutiae of our lives," it's impossible to predict which aspects of our lives would interest them.

And if the city were destroyed in a horrible nuclear accident--a possibility that the article raises--I think there would be a high level of interest in preserving knowledge of the city and its culture.

At the same time, I agree that it's possible to take this kind of thing too far.
posted by maud at 2:34 PM on August 14, 2002

Damn. That is just about the most interesting link I've seen on here. I read David Gelernter's book many years ago and it made a profound impression on me.

Interesting footnote: Dr Gelernter was one of the Unabomber's victims.

Thanks languagehat.
posted by hmgovt at 3:29 PM on August 14, 2002

I've always thought that the visible New York City is actually already saved, in incremental caches, in the photos and videos taken by millions of tourists each year, then transported back to their homes. All it would take would be a mass appeal: send us your image of this, or that, and voila, you'd have thousands of pictures or videos of the building or landmark in question.
posted by Mo Nickels at 5:20 PM on August 14, 2002

That painting of H-bombs exploding is disturbing. Why are they blowing up Queens?
posted by xowie at 5:53 PM on August 14, 2002

I keep thinking of how much cooler this would make the next version of Grand Theft Auto.
posted by atom128 at 6:09 PM on August 14, 2002

Heh, i was thinking about the video game angle as well.

Another use something like this may have is it's ability to show us how the city changes across time. If they continue this project for 50 or 100 years, it might be neat to see a time lapse of the city growing and shifting around itself.

i would consider this project worthwhile if for that reason alone.
posted by quin at 7:06 PM on August 14, 2002

after the Great Fire, Chicago built anew and became a terrific city to navigate through. I hope that if something does happen to NYC, city planners would take the Chicago example into consideration, step back, and really think about how to take advantage of a bad situation.
posted by LuxFX at 8:46 PM on August 14, 2002

xowie: It's 1948; no GPS, not even SLBMs. In 1948 the Russkies'd have to use bombers to get through. However, in many target lists, the Bronx is spared: it's already bad enough. Vaste ov perfectly good nuclear veapon, da? (biddy bum)

I was immediately reminded of the New York City Panorama at the Queens Museum of Art, a scale model of the city which had its debut in the same building at the 1964 World's Fair -- and has, in fact, been kept up to date by a dedicated crew of modelers. The Twin Towers were added at the appropriate time, and last fall the museum confirmed that they would eventually be removed; a new exhibit specifically on the Towers will ease the pain.

Here are some examples in 3-D showing Manhattan's Upper West Side with proposed buildings, and Times Square over time, not necessarily from the same dataset as NYCMap but showing applications.

There's also Tadashi Ishihara's axometric Bird's Eye Map of Midtown Manhattan, which is featured in Tufte. See also MapPoster's version from a different angle; they have several cities' business districts available, and you can still get downtown Manhattan with the WTC. I swear I've read of someone -- a young guy, maybe 30 -- doing highly detailed, continuously-updated axonometric drawings of Chicago, but I can't find it right now. Hmm, I did find this interesting paper on axonometric and isometric views, including "Chinese perspective" which is quite similar.
posted by dhartung at 9:07 PM on August 14, 2002

As a historical document that will help future historians understand the city ... way cool. To rebuild the city block by block in the event of a horrible disaster ... not so cool. I guess my opinion on this is based on my opinion of human cloning: You can reproduce the exact cellular structure of something, but you can never again create "it" ... the life of it would always be different be it a city or a person.
posted by Orb at 12:18 AM on August 15, 2002

Orb: I agree.

xowie: That was my question too: why Queens? Hell, back then it didn't even have a baseball team!

Evanizer: I would give almost anything to walk all the streets of 16th century London. It's Paris in my case (and I'd probably visit the 12th century first), but the same craving. And thanks for the New Haven maps; as a former resident, and inveterate map lover, I'm glad to have them; in general, the availability of this sort of thing online is one of the best things about the Internet. (Amazing collection of Paris maps here.)

What I'm waiting for is an online simulacrum of Paris or London at a given period that you can enter at any point and wander the streets using any route you choose, with the perspective changing correctly; we know enough about both cities that this could be done with quite a bit of detail for centuries back. Surely we have the technology...
posted by languagehat at 7:58 AM on August 15, 2002

Maybe they were whacking the UN headquarters in Lake Success. Or the Elmhurst tanks.
posted by xowie at 10:45 AM on August 15, 2002

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