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Posted by on Sep 6, 2011

Lower East Side Tenements & Augmented Reality: The Walls have Voices

(look closely enough to see the apparitions from the past, the modern structure inhabited with those before. Aka clumsy photo layering as a proof of concept of what augmented reality could do for learning. Images were taken from here and here).

A good friend of mine, in advance of my leaving for Seoul, took me around the Lower East Side of New York. It was Labor Day and their was a relaxed (kind of) vibe in the air. We stopped in Greenwich Village for a few beers and lunch and then wandered down to the Lower East Side for a tour of the Tenement Museum on Orchard Street. The Lower East Side was traditionally a working-class neighborhood (re: poor immigrant communities), gritty, a bit destitute and up until the 1980s, early 1990s, it remained that way. Throw in drugs, poverty, crime, and people generally avoided the place altogether. It originally constituted the area alongside the East River from about the Manhattan Bridge, Canal Street up to 14th Street. Broadway was the western boundary. It included areas known today as East Village, Alphabet City, Chinatown, Bowery, Little Italy, etc.

This area was where many, if not most, of the immigrants pouring into the country from 1850 to the 1930s resided at least for a while and certainly was one of the more populated areas, in terms of density, in the world at the time (tour guide: if the Lower East Side was a German city, it would have been the fifth largest in the world). It was a good part of the reason that the population of New York tripled in a very short period of time. And with abysmal conditions that naturally seem to follow great population densities. Lack of running water, garbage collection, etc. led to high rates of disease, health and sanitation issues, etc. Jacob Riis’s “How the Other Half Lives” chronicles this in quite vivid detail and became the rallying cry of the modern reform movement.

Most of us from particular ethnic communities (read Irish, Italian, Eastern Europe Jews) in the United States would have had at least one relative streaming through there in the years 1850-1930. It is the funnel of immigration in the United States. If Castle Garden and Ellis Island were the golden door, the Lower East Side was the harsh reality of the squalid apartment of the other side. Many ventured west as soon as they could (presumably my relatives did as we ended up eventually in Ohio), but many stayed put right in those neighborhoods. As such, the Lower East Side is one of the crucibles of American history, populism and principle writ large. It is a big, bloody mess of democracy and all the joys and evils that follow closely along with it. Long story short, we took a tour of the Tenement Museum, a real gem amidst the multitude of museums in New York that inoculate art, strip it of its dirt. The Tenement Museum is all the dirt included. The Museum is basically a series of apartments in tenements along Orchard Street, most from a particular five story walkup tenement. The apartments are exactly as they were left in 1930 when the building was condemned, literally frozen in time. The guides do a good job of walking you through, showing you the communal spaces, listening to music, framing all of this around a particular family. Ambitions, setbacks, births, deaths, all amidst 350 feet worth of apartment.

This kind of thing is tailor-made for augmented reality. Not only as a self-guided cultural tourism (although that is a good idea as well), but as a massive collaborative project charting the history of immigration in the United States. Using a common platform for geopositioning objects (Historypin) and putting out an open call for people to contribute their family’s photos (via a larger organization like the Library of Congress), the Tenements will, almost literally, come alive. The American Memory project taken to the logical next level; memory situated in time and space. Augmented reality would allow the curious to enter the tenement, and literally populate the rooms with representative images. Class projects could involve a representation of a tenement with coherence, images, music, reflective text. What projects these could be. I enjoy the Columbia University work towards this as well, where some of these images are being taken from.

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It also literally injects ghosts into the machine, so to speak. We have run the gamut as a civilization from mindful of apparitions, ghosts, the dead, to disregarding them completely, relying on science to cheat death and extend life. Death pushed to the margins of conscious thought. History dissuades this practice and forces a recollection of past contributions from people all since gone. These types of projects reinject this notion of ghosts (trying not to use that word as a negative), spirits that hold the history of the structure, the place. These walls might not have ears, but they have voices. These people had ambitions, dreams, for themselves and their children. Someone from here eventually led to someone like me. Most died in anonymity, but these meager structures with their meager possessions and humble inhabitants led to a tidal wave of growth, shifting identity, and American expansion (didn’t mean in the imperialistic sense there), all of which play out now (go a couple of blocks over to Chinatown and see the modern exodus of immigration and indoctrination). Why not give all of this the augmented reality treatment? Rather than use augmented reality to layer information, we are about at the point where we can layer voices, images, even constructed entities into the fabric of place. Ghosts that tell us that they had dreams as well, that America was a place where occasionally dreams did come true. A voice to be heard, democracy. You want to teach citizenship, history in schools? Show them the nuts and bolts of the sacrifice involved in having the guts to follow a dream.

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