My Augmented New York Unreality: Google Street View's Eerie Portrait of a New York Past

(Editor's Note: Since I posted this, it looks like the Google Street View has been updated. - October, 7, 2009)

I'm experiencing a surreal and eerie flashback, because the images of Google Maps' Street View of my Greenwich Village neighborhood have become fascinatingly out of date. While opening Google maps the other day to update one of the self-guided walks on this site, I happened to switch over to Street View. There, at the southeast corner of Bleecker and MacDougal Streets, an intersection I know well, I was surprised to see the now-shuttered location of Cafe Figaro still open - tables with checkered tablecloths on the sidewalk, a couple seated at one of them, and the doors and windows open to the streets. It's been a long time, it seems, that the restaurant left the corner (it has since moved east to the middle of the block) and replaced with a Qdoba, a Mexican chain restaurant. In this uncanny altered reality, I decided to virtually stroll around the nearby streets and check out what else was open in this other-worldy Greenwich Village. After all, it looked like a nice day in there.

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What month and year was it? I ventured from this spot west to Sixth Avenue and up to the IFC Theatre. From reading the names of the films on the marquee, I was able to date the Google Street view images to late September of 2007. Walking from the theater east on W. 3rd. St. I saw that the facade of the Blue Note jazz club was revealed - the grand piano was plainly visible and not behind scaffolding like I've seen it these last few months. On Bleecker, Le Poisson Rouge had not opened on Bleecker. Senor Swanky's was still in business. Other turns on nearby blocks revealed restaurants and cafes that have departed, banks that once planned a location but have gone out of business, and storefronts not yet renovated. In a surprising discovery that may hearten preservationists (or not), in Google's Street View imagery of Greenwich Village, Washington Square Park has not been renovated.

Selecting and roaming through other neighborhoods and then comparing the sights with recent visits revealed the noticeable changes in the city over the past two years. While change is intrinsic to the life of the city, this is a particularly rich time to compare and contrast then and now. In its thousands of sequential still pictures seamed together through image software, Street View provides a ghostly image of New York at the outset of the recession, a year before the flamboyant collapse of Wall Street firms last fall.

Short of these macroeconomic issues, the Street View window back in time can help you revisit a favorite restaurant or store that has since closed. Maybe you'll wander down the street to visit a cafe and then recognize yourself sitting there. For your privacy, Google has blurred your face. You're now a ghost in your own hallucinatory reality, an apparition in your city of two years ago. Furthermore, your perspective is that of a camera on top of a truck, creating the illusion of floating above the ground, stuck in endless traffic in the middle of the street, revisiting your old haunts.

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