The Quest To Build A Google Maps For Old New York

The New York Public Library used thousands of old maps to build what it calls “a digital time-travel service.”

The Quest To Build A Google Maps For Old New York
[Photo: Charles Phelps Cushing/ClassicStock/Getty Images]

In the 1870s and 1880s—long before its decline into dereliction in the 1960s—Coney Island was a rare example of a hybrid amusement park and fancy resort town. Developers put in luxury hotels along the coast, and a railroad line stretched all the way across the island to the West End Hotel on the very tip. For working people with a little extra spending money who were drawn in by the attractions, Coney Island was known as “Heaven at the End of the Train.”


Coney Island—1879—with train on the beach to West End Hotel. [Image: courtesy New York Public Library Digital Collections]
Today that description can be hard to imagine, unless heaven for you is a perpetually crowded boardwalk and a slew of Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog stands. Luckily, a new digital effort by the New York Public Library called Maps by Decade puts it into perspective: The tool allows users to find and use the library’s sizable digital collection with a timeline that puts old maps in the context of New York’s contemporary urban landscape. In the case of Coney Island, for example, one can click into the 1870s portal, scroll your mouse over Coney Island, and pull up an 1879 map that shows sprawling seaside neighborhoods and scattered luxury hotels along the railroad line.

[Image: courtesy New York Public Library Digital Collections]
It’s a favorite map of Bert Spaan, and engineer at the New York Public Library brought on two years ago to build out the recently launched NYC Space/Time Directory, of which Maps by Decade is a part. Billed as a “digital time-travel service” by the library, the directory is essentially an interactive platform for exploring the library’s trove of digitized maps and geospatial data. Spaan’s task is to build tools that make the library’s map collection more accessible to both scholars and others doing urban history research, as well as to the general public. To do so, Maps by Decade, the first of these digital tools, takes over 5,000 large-scale maps (i.e., showing an area less than three square miles), divides them into decades, and plots them across a current map of New York City.

Brooklyn—1899—Wyckoff House, oldest Dutch farm. [Image: courtesy New York Public Library Digital Collections]
The result is a “searchable atlas stitched together from the pages of old maps,” as Spaan puts it in a NYPL blog post on the project. It uses the NYPL maps that librarians and patrons have spent seven years digitizing with another NYPL tool called Map Warper, which uses a process called georectification to stretch and rotate historical maps to fit a map of today’s New York City. That makes it possible to, for example, find Coney Island on the current N.Y.C. map and pull up the historical map within today’s boundaries, offering a window into the area during a particular decade.

Spaan came up with the format for the tool a year ago, after gathering the georectified maps in one place and building out the Space/Time Directory as a place to host them. After experimenting with a similar time-slider tool that incorporated all of the library’s map data, Spaan decided to narrow it down by only including maps on the three-square-mile scale. This not only gives users access to a level of detail like street names and houses, it also gave Spaan a feasible amount of data to work with. That solved a challenge common in digitizing any library collection: even with access to the material, the sheer amount can be overwhelming and difficult for people to sort through without knowing exactly what they’re looking for.

Long Island City—1909. [Image: courtesy New York Public Library Digital Collections]
Maps by Decade allows for a sense of discoverability by putting the old maps into a contemporary context—allowing users to click around in boroughs and neighborhoods within a certain decade. Browsing through time and space with the maps can unearth forgotten pieces of N.Y.C. urban history: Besides early Coney Island, one of Spaan’s favorite maps shows Long Island City in 1909 as an industrial town of silos, train tracks, and ferry ports. Another map, from 1899, shows the Wyckoff house, built by Dutch settlers in 1638 as one of the first structures on Long Island. The house is still standing today in what is now the Canarsie area of Brooklyn. “On the map you can see that they just started building the street grid,” says Spaan. “Many of the tiny farms were still there.” 


Spaan will continue adding new tools to the NYC Space/Time Directory that use the other maps in the collection that didn’t make it in Maps by Decade. He imagines adding photos, and making the maps searchable by different aspects of the city, like historical addresses, businesses, cemeteries, and churches.

For now, the detail street view of Maps by Decade makes it a fascinating resource for finding forgotten aspects of the cityscape that have since disappeared—like the brief existence of New York’s 13th Avenue (found here).

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.