There’s a world where the Buck Hosiery warehouse still stands tall and quiet, awaiting rebirth, where you can still drive down the dreary 1400 block of Cherry Street, where you still have to walk past the Spectrum to get to a Phillies game, and where the sun still shines on the 100 block of North 13th Street. And you can go there now.
For frequently desk-bound explorers like myself, Google Maps is a godsend. It’s an instant portal to just about any spot on the globe, replete with info-dense maps and aerials. But what really allows you to go places is Google’s Street View. You can stand on your corner and look at your house, or take a virtual stroll down the Champs Élysées, with the ability to look around and zoom in on the buildings and details that make up a city. More than any other representative tool, it conveys a sense of place. With the fun new ‘hyperlapse‘ hack, you can even even simulate a trip across a bridge over a Norse fjord, a coast-to-coast road trip, or the best Broad Street Run time ever.
But Street View also allows for a little time travel. When the little Google Car drives down the street, it captures not just the place but the time. When Street View rolled out in Philadelphia on October 9th, 2007, the Comcast Center was just about finished, and the Convention Center expansion wasn’t even under way. Much has changed in the city since then and the Street View cars haven’t quite caught all of it.
Every so often in my Street View wanderings, I come across a ghost. These are the buildings that have departed the real world but are still hanging on in the virtual one. After a building has been felled by fire, or time, or the wrecking claw it lives on in digital purgatory until the next dataset is uploaded. Some will last longer than others. Certain streets in Philadelphia have already been updated multiple times since the 2007 roll-out, while other blocks remain frozen in that virtual amber from a world when George W. Bush was still president.
Street View time travel offers more than just a nostalgic diversion, but also could offer some real value to preservationists. Unlike the fixed still photos over in the PhillyHistory.org archives (where it seems like your house is always just out of frame on the left), the whole of the city is captured in Street View–up, down, left, and right. In their effort to create a modern convenience for property assessors and lost drivers, Google is inadvertently creating the most complete record of our cities in history. I wish that I could go back and cruise down an 1876 Market Street, or wander the blocks of Logan Square before the Parkway. No matter what happens in the next hundred years, in 2113, one will probably be able to make a digital visit to today’s Philadelphia, and be amazed at the city as it was before. This power will be of great use to armchair adventurers and preservationists alike.
As of June 2012, Google had accumulated over 20 petabytes (each petabyte=1,000 terabytes or about 1.67 million CD-ROMs) of Street View data. Its cars, boats, tricycles, and even backpack-mounted cameras have traversed over 5 million miles of roads, trails, and waterways, capturing a moment in time along every inch of those miles. As a company that built its email client around the idea that you should never have to delete anything, it’s a sure thing that all of that data is out there on a server somewhere. While Google Earth offers a neat slider tool that lets you roll back the aerial imagery all the way back to 1992, Street View still only offers the latest data that Google’s acquired. I presume that before long you’ll be able to look at a building in Street View and roll back the years to see what was there before–a PhilaGeoHistory on a massive scale.
Until we have that new toy, I’ve assembled a collection of some of the more interesting ghosts that are haunting the halls of virtual Philadelphia these days. Enjoy them now while you still can, before the Google car drives down the block and sends them from purgatory to the history.
The Buck Hosiery fire last year took the lives of two firefighters and also robbed Kensington of a historic building with the potential to be an anchor for rebirth. Looking at it as it was, you can still imagine the possibilities here.
Consider this map a starting point. If you’ve discovered other ghosts you’d like to share, please leave them in the comments.