Watch A City Evolve Before Your Eyes With This Google Street View GIF Narrative

Justin Blinder’s Street-View-driven “Vacated” project tells the story of NYC development and highlights the importance of data to urban planning.

Within the space of months, construction can transform a city street. Buildings are demolished, scaffolding is built, and modern structures replace empty lots. Brooklyn-based artist and programmer Justin Blinder is cataloguing this rapid urbanization with a series of before-and-after GIFs of New York, based on the Google Street View cache. “The data that we unintentionally save and cache can tell us hidden stories,” says Blinder. “I’m using Google Street View as narrative device.”


The series is called Vacated and it demonstrates urban development during the Bloomberg administration. In 2009, the address 91-93 Bowery in Chinatown, for example, was an empty lot. By June 2011, it had become home to the Wyndham Garden hotel. At 190 India Street in Greenpoint, “a massive condo appeared out of pretty much nothing,” says Blinder.

Vacated is not making a “didactic” political statement about gentrification. “It’s just about massive changes to the city. Viewers can make up their own minds,” he says. For this reason, the GIFs lack historical context, though Blinder is now rethinking this decision. He explains that the Street View cache doesn’t go back far enough to show that 91-93 Bowery was once the historic Music Palace theater or that when a developer demolished Mars Bar and surrounding apartments in the East Village, he gave displaced residents apartments in his new luxury condo for only 10 dollars.

Blinder also says Vacated has become more of a Google critique than he had originally intended. Until he started examining the caches, he didn’t realize what a large discrepancy existed between the images on Street View and the actual street. Moreover, Street View melds photos from numerous time periods. “On a two way street, the opposite sides of the street can be shot in different years,” he says.

Blinder hopes Vacated will highlight the importance of visual data in urban planning. He says we tend to treat “neutral data”–i.e. stats on a page–as the most important kind. “Google does contain data,” he says. “It’s the data we don’t usually save, but it tells stories on the micro level.”

Vacated as commissioned by More Art for “Envision New York 2017.”

About the author

Jennifer Miller is the author of The Year of the Gadfly (Harcourt, 2012) and Inheriting The Holy Land (Ballantine, 2005). She's a regular contributor to Co.Create.