This essay will also appear in the next issue of Pool.
Image of Williamsburg Waterfront by C-Monster, April 30, 2006.
Several weeks ago, I was leaving a party in Park Slope. As I waited to cross the street, I recognized two places across the way and realized I had eaten meals at both. I had brunch with a friend in the cafe at the corner last year. I met another friend for dinner two years earlier at the Thai restaurant at the address next. I remembered two separate phone calls with each friend explaining how to get there from the 7th Ave station. The second call, and the second walk from the stop didn't remind me of the first. It took a third visit to that intersection, and from that vantage point —across the street —to discover the venues were neighbors. Two pleasant but very different conversations came back to me at once.
I will never know if some of the places I remember from these early New York trips have been torn down or exist on streets I haven't walked by again yet. I refuse to google one cafe in particular with the fear that the top result will come from Yelp and say "CLOSED." I want to believe in the possibility that some rainy night in the East Village, I will open a door and take shelter in the same place that once with someone very special to me, I escaped a prior storm. Several times, at several different places I have experienced just that. Odd clues like the uncommon shape of a bathroom faucet or the sound of a door slamming bring about memories of a holiday, birthday party, or another magical evening gone by. But even closed venues and forgotten spaces grant me with a keen intuitive sense. Lost in seemingly unfamiliar streets, I might have a hunch which way to go without consulting Google Maps on my phone.
Watching the sun set from the rooftop of a friend's condo on the Williamsburg waterfront recently, I thought the tower must have been constructed on the ashes of an old building where a friend of mine lived back in 2003. The view of the skyline was the same. That friend I haven't seen for about as many years. There is no Street View archive I can look up to double check. An advanced search on Flickr of photos before 2005 doesn't yield much of anything. All I've got is a strange hazy feeling of familiarity that this wasn't the first time I looked across the East River from that spot.
There are just over 2,000 Flickr results for "chrysler building" before 1/1/2005. Now there are over 47,000 images, and that doesn’t include the photo sharing that now takes place on Instagram, Facebook, and elsewhere. There haven't been more tourists in several years to gaze upon that particular site. What has changed is the way we look. We are more accustomed to seeing the world through a viewfinder. Photographing is a thoughtless gesture. We document in case we ever need a reminder.
I rarely hear anyone boast about photographic memory anymore. It's less impressive today as we can all supplement our own brains with an algorithmic search and the internet's seemingly infinite archival capacity. But this is still a period of transition. Google Street View and the iPhone both launched in 2007. Lost now is any ceremony to the act of adding an image to the ether. We batch upload our photographs; which are also unencumbered by the scarcity a roll of film created a decade earlier.
Someday soon, the internet will fulfill its promise as a time machine. It will provide images for every space and moment so we can fact check our memories. Flickr and Facebook albums will only accumulate. Google rephotographs streets and has the potential to build a Street View archive with which we may one day rewind to see the buildings that existed on our streets before we got there. Until this happens, Street View is commonly used to show us what has changed about the places we remember. Old homes, former schools. Is that little coffee shop still around?
Last summer, Arcade Fire's interactive video "The Wilderness Downtown" (directed by Chris Milk) rendered mainstream the practice of looking up a childhood address on Google Maps. With your personal input, the video customizes rolling shots of Google Earth satellite aerials and Street View images showing the neighborhood near your old house. This plays along with multiple screen windows featuring animations of things like birds migrating and a child running. The screen activity grows more frantic as the chorus cries, "We used to wait!"
Who doesn’t wait? Who doesn't hate it? Waiting for a check to come in, for a text from a boyfriend, to grow up, for the post office queue to hurry up. We are all waiting for something. Like the lyrics — so easily relatable— the video’s gimmick feels a touch exploitative.
"Poetry gives not so much a nostalgia for youth, which would be vulgar, as a nostalgia for the expression of youth," Gaston Bachelard wrote in the classic phenomenology text on memory and homes, The Poetics of Space. Clever as it is, The Wilderness Downtown plays more like a "vulgar" nostalgia rather than an “expression of youth.” The mashup of images is literal rather than evocative. The interactive film might show you the exterior of your childhood home, but it is nothing like a bite in a madeleine.
We could accumulate hundreds of thousands of images throughout our lives but they will never taste like anything. An image represents and verifies a memory but the rest is left to imagination. Every essential moment of a child's life is documented if he was born in the West. With digital album after album for every birthday, every Christmas, he will never struggle to remember what his childhood home looked like. That reaching, that vague warm feeling for a place one remembers but cannot see; that is a sense now growing extinct.
A child today grows up in a never forgotten house.