Cartographic wizardry

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

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.)

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.)

In addition to the Sort option, surfers can also activate a Filter function (built on Sorts's categories) to highlight corresponding map locations, or simply use a Keyword Search to locate a particular building. Finally, after touring the interactive Wilshire, Printable Tours can be generated - either of the entire 96-building collection, or of subsets as determined by the Filter feature. There's also a Timeline that traces area developments back to 30,000 BC - though it appears that things didn't start really speeding up until the last few hundred years.

With all its features, Explore the Blvd. remains impressively intuitive, and the absence of a "Help" link is completely justified. Meanwhile, the amount of information behind this straightforward interface is substantial, and given the possibility of the Conservancy adding buildings while visitors add memories, it can only grow.

On the other side of the country, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum's Folk Songs for the Five Points is less about information and more about experience - specifically, inviting surfers to experience a cultural richness born of diversity, and perhaps learn a bit about the lives of new immigrants, of "belonging," and of the evolution of new cultural identities.

The museum's choice of a "SoundMap" fits the undertaking nicely. Using events rather than architecture to anchor its points of interest, the museum takes a map of the Lower East Side and overlays a series of colored dots indicating sound samples recorded at that location. Files are divided into Music (including a Puerto Rican "Bomba" performance and a Cantonese Opera Rehearsal), Spoken Word (a Seafood Salesman and 50-year Resident of the neighborhood), Field Recordings (a pick-up Basketball game and a local Delicatessen), and excerpts from original Folk Songs as performed by Angolan/Portuguese artist Victor Gama. Not entirely devoid of hard facts, Five Points also provides still images and some text background behind each location with a click of the mouse.

As the SoundMap loads, it automatically chooses and begins playing a mix of five of the available audio files - their geographic points of origin indicated by gray circles around the relevant dots. The opening mix has an odd combination of the cacophony of chaos and just a hint of structure, but it won't last for long as the point of the exercise is for visitors to drag the gray circles to new locations and create their own combinations of music and sound. As well as choosing each audio clip, visitors can also manipulate the volume of each track and left/right stereo separation, or turn a track off completely. (So you can choose to listen to only one or two sound sources.) The site also offers the option of saving your mix.

While this site does include a Help page, the exhibit is fairly intuitive and you could probably find your way by yourself. The only potential snag (and one not covered on the Help page) comes when trying to move the circles from one location to another. If you click on the center of a circle (where the circle overlays a sound file's dot) you won't be able to drag it anywhere - be sure to click around the outside of the circle and everything will work as advertised.

Maps have come a long way from the service station impulse rack, and, as these two examples demonstrate, the ability to customize a map for a specific purpose can be as important as the interactive information it offers. Both of these sites could easily be adapted for other locations around the world, but if you spend much time on the Web, you already know that these are only two of dozens, if not hundreds, of variations on the map theme already available. And the evolution shows no signs of stopping.

Curating The City can be found at, with Folk Songs For The Five Points at

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Cartographic wizardry
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today