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Cartographic wizardry

These online maps help preserve the architecture of Los Angeles, and share the immigrant experience of New York.

By Jim / May 24, 2006


It would be difficult to overstate the impact that the Internet has made in such fields as music and video, but it has changed the nature of the content itself very little. Apart from file format, a song downloaded over the Net is essentially the same as one bought in a department store, and while sources like YouTube might make obscure and made-at-home video productions more accessible by the general public, apart from some fringe content and a smaller screen size there are no fundamental differences between these clips and the images streaming through your TV. (While it's possible to place hotspots and additional information into Web- based videos, to date, it's very rarely done.)

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Maps, on the other hand, have gone through pivotal changes since the introduction of the Web. Remember that it was only a few years ago that the height of cartographic interactivity came from sticking a pin through a map, and the definition of "user friendly" was a chart that was easy to fold. Now, you can feed a destination to a map, and it will find "unfold" to your designated location for you, some will give you a choice of topographical, road, or satellite renderings, and almost all will be holding additional information under the primary interface. Poke as hard as you want on your paper map, it's not going to tell you a thing about local businesses, or show you pictures or live streaming video from that location.

And, productions like Google Earth notwithstanding, some of the most imaginative adaptations of the old art are being hosted by museums and other organizations dedicated to education and conservation. This week, we look at two recent, and very different, variations on the map theme from opposite ends of the country - one geared to Curating The City of Los Angeles, and the other to sharing the immigrant experience of New York through Folk Songs From The Five Points.

A presentation of The Los Angeles Conservancy, Curating The City was launched last year as an online companion for real-world tours of Wilshire Boulevard - the 'Fifth Avenue of the West Coast.' With a mission of preserving the city's architecture through awareness and appreciation of "L.A.'s unique built environment," Curating The City uses a zoomable, dragable map with roughly 100 points of interest to treat visitors to a 16-mile architectural tour - starting at the downtown intersection of Wilshire and Grand Ave., and ending at Palisades Park, overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

As would only be expected of an exhibit with such a large collection, Curating presents virtual tourists with several options for navigating the landmarks. The default method geographically breaks the boulevard into eight neighborhoods (Downtown, Parks District, Beverly Hills, etc.) - zooming in on each locale and displaying thumbnail images of the buildings deemed important to that area. Select a thumbnail, and the site will generate a slightly larger image with the target's name and street address - click on a selection, and the site will create a pop-in 'index card,' holding historical details, extensive photo galleries (current and period photos, postcards, etc.), and visitor contributed entries from the site's Memory Book. (So far, only a handful of Memory Book entries have been posted, but with examples like Ellen Underhill's recollections about the neighborhoods around Saks Fifth Avenue, its easy to imagine this becoming an entertaining and historically valuable resource.)

While all roads eventually lead to these site-specific index cards, visitors have a variety of methods for making their way from downtown to oceanside. The most obvious is simply abandoning the preselected neighborhoods and dragging the map from one end of Wilshire to the other, but less labor-intensive options include using the "View Locator" tool (which allows you to cover more territory more quickly), or sorting a photo gallery of the collection by such categories as Architect, Style, and Function. (Unfortunately, one of those categories features buildings that have already been demolished despite the best efforts of the Conservancy.)