Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Cartography, Historic Preservation, Brooklyn

As my first semester of graduate school is coming to a close, I've been reflecting on all that has taken place in these past three months. So far, graduate school has been everything I've hoped for and more. My class has a total of nine students, all of whom come from different backgrounds with different interests. We've come together to support one another and keep our collective curiosities afloat even with the mountains of work we've accomplished.

This semester I took a class in GIS (Geographic Information Systems) which was extremely challenging. In the past few years, I've come to rely on maps for a lot of my research and thought it would be helpful to be trained in map applications for my Master's degree. The applications in GIS are very broad, though in my class most of our lectures/lab assignments focused on biological or transportation issues. For our class research project, I created fire station service area maps for three towns in Vermont. The service areas were created to classify historic barns that had been recorded as part of the Vermont Barn Census project. The maps I created illustrated drive times from the town fire station to any of the barns located in town. The service area is divided into three zones classified by driving time in minutes. The first zone is five minutes, the second is ten minutes and the third is fifteen minutes. What that means is that a barn located in the first zone would take up to five minutes maximum for a fire truck to drive to the barn from the fire station. It is important to note that this is not a response time, only driving time. The barns were color-coded to give clearer indication of which service area zone they were in. Barns coded as green were in the five minute zone, yellow for the ten minute zone and finally red as the fifteen minute zone. For the final part of my project, I tabulated data for every barn located in the fifteen minute or "red" zone. Barns in this zone were labeled to be most at-risk for destruction by fire.

Below is an image from one of my maps:

Fig. 1: Portion of service area map detailing location of a fire station and its drive times to historic barns

My hope is that my maps can be used for the Vermont Barn Census in encouraging further documentation of these historic sites. I'd like to make better maps of these towns and sites so that they can be used at the state level.

While looking around on the Internet for other historic preservation projects involving GIS, I came to BKLYNR by way of the Map Lab of Wired Magazine. BKLYNR is an independent online journal that publishes articles about the borough of Brooklyn, New York City. Thomas Rhiel, a Columbia University graduate, created an interactive, bird's eye map of Brooklyn where the viewer can see the age of a building on a graduated color scale. This map is an excellent example of digital preservation. Though the map itself does not save historic sites and structures, it provides an invaluable tool for parties interested in doing so.

One day, I took a few minutes to peruse the map. I haven't spent an extended period of time in Brooklyn but was curious to see some of the building footprints on Rhiel's map. I happened to zoom in randomly on the intersection of Flatbush and Myrtle. 

Fig. 2: MetroTech Commons at the intersection of Flatbush and Myrtle as it appears on Thomas Rhiel's map of Brooklyn
The curious green square amongst these much bigger squares immediately caught my attention. When I dragged my mouse over the square, the year of completion was displayed as 1846. I immediately started wondering about what an 1846 building was doing in the midst of this more modern cluster. I went on Google Maps and Bing Maps to get a better look at it.

Fig. 3: MetroTech Commons looking East. Note the "green square" building at the bottom of the building. Photo from Bing Maps.
Through further web-sleuthing, I found out that the building in question is currently the Wunsch Building of the Polytechnic Institute of New York University (NYU-Poly). The building originally was a Methodist Church. It is a very lovely example of Greek Revival architecture and I was very excited to see that it has been renovated and adapted for a modern use. It is also important to note that in the past twenty-five years, this entire neighborhood has undergone extensive revitalization.

Fig. 4: NYU-Poly students in front of the Methodist Church in 1994. Courtesy of Historypin.
Fig. 5: The Wunsch Building in 2009. Note the renovations in comparison to the 1994 picture. Photo by Jim Henderson.
And so, as I continue my studies in Historic Preservation, I will always be on the lookout for these buildings and stories. Our built environment has so many cultural ties to our communities and cities. It is always a shame to see them destroyed. Though the old Methodist Church does not serve parishioners anymore, it serves a great student body.

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