An Experiment in Digital Storytelling

I was recently inspired, no surprise, by a post on Jim Groom’s Bavatuesdays: “A Childhood Without Proof.” This was about as close to schmaltz as the right Rev. Groom comes, and being a sap myself, I appreciated both the content and the tone.

Jim, the 6th of 7th children, was aware of only one photograph of himself as a baby. One. But last week a Facebook friend from his old neighborhood tagged an image of him at 3. Jim’s post praises Facebook for being good at connecting people with the past, and at making the sharing of memories so much easier than it was just a few years ago. This would have been possible without Facebook; but it would have been more difficult, perhaps to such an extent that it wouldn’t have happened at all. There’s a powerful argument in there that connectivity tools don’t just impact the way that we relate to one another, but also can impact the way we relate to our individual and collective pasts.

This post was on my mind when I began playing with Google Street View, a component of Google Maps that offers street level views of particular locales. This isn’t a new tool, but Google has been steadily adding images as its van tours and shoots different localities (here’s a list of what’s been added). I was surprised to see that the neighborhood in which I grew up has been photographed. North Genesee Drive is of no great consequence — beyond being sandwiched between the neighborhoods that produced Magic Johnson and Malcolm X — but there it is, ready for your virtual tour.

I haven’t been back to my old neighborhood in years, and was pleased that I was able to recreate the bike rides and explorations of my youth, even if through a somehwat antiseptic, Googleized filter. There was no cutting through yards, lemonade sales, or bullies to run from. My memory can fill those things in. Mostly, it was pleasant to visit from my desk in New York.

Here’s a gallery of screen captures; click through for captions.

I recognize that this particular application of the tool appeals to me on a nostalgic level, and while that’s fine for personal blogging and Facebooking and all that, it’s hardly a pedagogical argument. The images above affect me and the kids I grew up with more than they’ll affect you.

But it’s also pretty easy to see how tools like this, free tools available from your desktop, can be integrated into college curricula. Studying the Lower East Side at the turn of the century? Compare the built environment of Hester Street from Jacob Riis’s photographs to images of the area on Google Maps. Use Google Maps to explore planning and architecture in urban, suburban, and exurban neighborhoods. What can we learn about Barack Obama from a virtual tour of Hyde Park? Find images of parks in three different European cities; how does their location and construction reflect their usage? Locate five “Chinatowns.” How are they alike or similar in organization? Writing a term paper on the Atlantic Yards? Use Google Maps to show how construction will restrict traffic. The possibilities are endless. Google Maps won’t tell us everything we need to know about any of these topics; but then, no single source will. A virtual tour of a street or a neighborhood can impart a sense of location and feeling that can augment other information on the path to knowledge.  (I should also note that Jim is also ahead of the curve on this).

In the movie below, I use Google Maps to recreate the walk from my home to Verlinden Elementary School. Yes, again, I know, the nostalgia trap; but I was struck by the sheer number of possible jumping off points for discussion, reflection, and investigation produced just by reliving that two block walk. There’s something exciting about an exploratory process that encourages one to explore even more.

Click here to view the embedded video.