Posts in Category: streets

Streets of Paris & Virtual Locations of History

Quite happily for me, my research always seems to lead me back to the streets of Paris. Recently I was taking photos of rue des Bons Enfants for some research I’ve been doing on the suicide of the painter, Fran├žois Lemoyne, who lived on the street in the 1730s. And more generally I’ve been undertaking a lot of mapping work to reconstruct the local social networks of artists living in the parishes of Paris during the eighteenth century (of which more soon!).
I’ve come across various websites collecting and presenting information about the streets of Paris, like Les rues de Paris and Le Paris Pittoresque, which have historical blurbs and photos of individual streets. Les rues de Paris provides a sense of an on-going lived history with recent photos and current business listings alongside historical information, while Le Paris Pittoresque entries are usually transcriptions of nineteenth-century street histories like Histoire de Paris rue par rue, maison par maison (1875), or Louis Lurine’s Les rues de Paris. Paris ancien et moderne (1844).
Les rues de Paris

While the information that sites like this contain is useful, they don’t offer quite the virtual experience that I’m after. Both sites are unfortunately fairly inundated with ads, and have rather unappealing lay-outs, which makes the armchair travelling experience less pleasant than it otherwise could be. In the lists of streets, bullet points of data, and separate pages, there may be information, but there’s little sense of place, and no sense of connections between places. You don’t get to walk the streets of Paris here.

By contrast, one of the most successful and engaging online local history projects I’ve come across recently is about the streets of Philadelphia rather than the streets of Paris… the interactive website PhilaPlace, made by the Historical Society of Philadelphia. 

PhilaPlace

Using images, text, video, audio and historical maps, the site connects history and place at a local level, or as they put it: “PhilaPlace weaves stories shared by ordinary people of all backgrounds with historical records to present an interpretive picture of the rich history, culture, and architecture of our neighborhoods, past and present.”

Tour on PhilaPlace

Navigating your way around town using historical maps, you feel like you’re exploring the city both geographically and through layers of time. You can move through the past by selecting different maps – from the contemporary Googlemap, to earlier ones from 1962, 1935, 1895 and 1875 – giving an impression of the changing size and structure of the urban environment. All of these maps are pinned with the same points of interest – including churches, historical buildings, well-known businesses and cemeteries – offering a sense of the history of these urban spaces, and the shifts and continuities in the communities that have lived there. Each place has a description and several images from different moments (black & white or colour depending on the period), showing either the building, street views, or images of Philadelphians using the place. You can filter the points of interest to show specific themes (e.g. ‘health’, ‘immigration’, or ‘religious life’), and if you can’t decide how to wander the streets yourself, you can take a guided tour! (only two at the moment, but presumably more are coming).

I’ve never actually been to Philadelphia, but I have a more intimate sense of its local history now than I do of many places I have visited. In a way, it’s like a 21st-century version of Richard Cobb’s wonderful essay, The Streets of Paris (1980)… using word and image to capture the history of place… but doing it interactively. Now if we could just do this for Paris…