Travels in Google Maps
I once fell in love with someone because of Google Maps. We were sitting in a bar in New York. We had just met each other a few days earlier. We were trying to describe where we were from, how we grew up. And then he took my smartphone and searched his childhood home on Google Maps.
Above is the street I grew up on. Using the app we started walking around Jaffa. The beach, the Clock Tower, the Old City. It looked exotic and different on Google Maps, from New York, so unlike the street I used to walk down every day to catch the 25 bus to high school. He grew up in rural New England. I knew nothing of New England. There weren’t many other houses around his house. It was also by the beach. That was about all we had in common.
I remember a friend on Facebook posting, “I've been waiting for this since I spotted that google street view car in Brussels…” and there he was, all blurry, still him. (I haven’t seen him in years.)
I’ve never seen the Google van in real life. I imagine it like the police vans in New York, parked in a street corner, somehow engaged in something menacing, but always “somehow,” “something,” “somewhere.” Any crime fiction author will tell you that (I guess)—the unknown, the “somehow” is much more intimidating than the known. So the Google streetview van. White? Cameras on top? Cameras that can capture the scenery around them, 360 degrees? If I see one, will I feel like that friend of mine? Will I accept being part of the landscape? Will it make me feel like I belong?
There’s a glitch on Google Maps in Williamsburg. No, I take it back. There used to be a glitch on Google Maps. When you wandered through North 3rd street toward the water, you’d see photos of a condominium, one of the only ones whose architecture I actually really love. A year or two ago, though, there was a moment where if you pressed on the keyboard one more time, wandered toward the riverfront (now manicured), you’d see an image of Williamsburg from 2007 or so. That same block looked so different, slightly bleak, gray, run-down. It looked like what people keep telling you Brooklyn used to be. Because you’re always too slow to arrive somewhere. Brooklyn is always over by the time you got there. Williamsburg especially.
Now it’s even over on Google Maps. (I think they’re already building something in the empty lot next to the building on North 3rd street. I don’t know because I haven’t been to Williamsburg in a while, but not because it’s over.) I still like to imagine what it looked like. I used to show that glitch to people all the time. Here’s the street in 2013, and with one stroke of the keyboard, here it is in 2007. I’m not sure what it means, that weird conflation of time, place, space. I know it seemed like it should tell you something about the city you live in, something about what the landscape constantly erases.
Last night I was walking to a party with two guys I don’t know very well. We met for drinks and were going to walk over together. One of them looked at his phone. “It’s 19 minutes, we just basically walk straight down.” Now that I look at it on Google Maps (on an open tab next to the Google docs, I quickly shift from Jaffa to Brooklyn to London, as if all these moves were easy) I see that it’s marked as “Brockley Footpath.” Sounds so idyllic but in reality, we got there at dusk and it was a dark alleyway between two large barbed-wire fences.
Google maps won’t even go there. We got out alright, but on the way I told those guys about my first memories of cities—darkness, the sound of trains, alleyways. The first time I went to Peckham these two guys I’d never met showed me around the neighborhood. They took me to the roof of a carpark (I now know there’s a bar there. It was closed.) The way over was just dark alleys and then climbing seven flights of stairs through a deserted carpark. I wasn’t scared but it was still weird. Even when we went back to street level, went to a bar (that was open)—even then, I couldn’t shake the weird feeling of that first introduction to a city. Dark and unfamiliar. Brooklyn was the same. The first time I went to Brooklyn in 2005 or so, I went with a friend who was a jazz musician to play a show at some bar. All I remember was being under the elevated subway tracks, a crowded street, the noise. I thought Brooklyn was so industrial and intense. Almost ten years later, I was walking around with a friend in Brooklyn, having moved to New York a few years after that initial Brooklyn experience. He pointed out that bar and all of a sudden I remembered what Brooklyn was like.
Is this what a digital landscape looks like?
When I explain to people how come I didn’t realize how far from New York City the place I went to graduate school was, I say, “You know how it is, when you think you know something, you just don’t check it?”
I’m no longer convinced that that’s a possibility.
They say there is a special feeling astronauts get the first time they see the earth from the window of a spaceship. (I just Googled “the feeling astronauts get when they see the earth”). Apparently, what wikipedia defines as “hanging in the void” (that’s heartbreaking) results in a strong will to protect that “pale blue dot.”
The first time I looked at Google Earth I thought about astronauts.
All this wandering through Google Maps feels like a special kind of loneliness. Like walking through a city without a place you have to be.