History and the Urban Landscape

In case you hadn’t seen it, the Smithsonian Magazine has put up an interesting page with interactive images in which contemporary satellite photos of American cities are laid over historical maps.  A small window can be moved around the image to see how the layout of streets has changed over the last century and a half.  The transformation of the coastlines is particularly remarkable as cities like New York, San Francisco, and Chicago colonize the bodies of water on which they sit.  As New York experienced with Hurricane Sandy the maps also tell a rather catastrophic story.

The project has a way of firing up the imagination.  Looking over mid-19th century Manhattan makes it easier to imagine the city Melville wrote about in the opening of Moby-Dick, where the sea figures as a site of commerce but also as an ineffable presence that casts the city’s residents into reveries.

It also calls to mind the Welikia project on the environmental history of the New York City region.  They made headlines with this image splitting contemporary Manhattan with its imagined state prior to the construction of the city.

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