The view from the street

The Thinker by Rodin

In the mood for some nostalgia but do not actually have the money to see your old haunts? This used to be a problem but in many cases, it is not true anymore. While not exactly new news, until recently I was not that aware of Google Earth Street Views. More specifically, I was not aware how much fun they could be.

Way back in the dark ages of 2005 I discovered Google Earth. Back then it was the latest and most impressive tool from the wizards at Google, allowing you to see amazing imagery of our planet. The user interface was so slick and it seemed to know the location of pretty much everything. Now nearly four years old, Google Earth, along with its companion web-based product Google Maps feel very institutionalized. I wonder how we ever got anywhere without it.

Since then, Google kept adding features to Google Earth. You can see the stars in Google Earth, as well as Mars, the Moon and, most recently, underwater features of our planet. In addition, many new layers allow you to see relevant sets of features on our planet. Street views are a new layer that you can toggle on and off within Google Earth. You may have to upgrade Google Earth to find it and enable it. If you do, you may find your appetite for nostalgia has increased dramatically.

Street views, as the name implies, shows you the view from the street, not the view from a satellite or highflying aircraft. Street views require a lot of photography. While you can submit your own photos and they might appear in Google Earth, street views are more systematic. Apparently, Google has deep enough pockets to send out cars to traverse the nations’ highways and byways. On top of the car is a camera which every ten feet or so takes a 360 degree picture of whatever it sees. While Google is a long way from having street views of every street in the United States, it is making steady progress.

My neighborhood in Northern Virginia has yet to be photographed, but neighborhoods inside the Capital Beltway, as well as much of suburban Maryland are already available. To see street views first you have to enable the layer, and then you have to zoom in close enough to see the icons that appear on the screen. If street views are available, you will see more icons as you zoom in. If you zoom in on a street, you can see icons representing pictures every ten feet or so, indicating the exact location where the picture was taken. They appear as a little globe on the street. Double-click on the icon of interest and the scene smoothly changes to a street view. Then simply use your mouse to change direction, zoom in or zoom out.

In many cases, the street views leave a lot to be desired. The cameras appear to be programmed to take more detailed pictures near major intersections. You will find rather low-resolution snapshots in many street views. The photos may be low resolution but they are available any time of the day or night for free on your PC.

Google has yet to provide street views of Endwell, New York, the town where I spent my formative years. While I wait for them to get around to this backwater part of New York State, there are plenty of other street views that I can enjoy. In 1972, my family moved from Endwell to Ormond Beach, Florida. One of my first major finds was a street view of our old house on Capri Drive. More than thirty-five years have passed since I lived on the street, and it is showing its age. Our old house does not look as well maintained today as it did when we lived there. Our garage is gone and is replaced by what looks like it may be a home office. There is also a rather ugly picket fence around the house. The chain link fence I remember was more inviting. Still, it is amazing that I can see it at all. From the air, you look at the roofs of houses. This limitation goes away with street views.

The old Winn Dixie where I wiled away many hours is gone too, but the building still stands. The imagery is not good enough to show what replaced it, but whatever class of retail inhabits the place today it looks like a step down. The imagery of Belair Plaza in Daytona Beach, site of the first Winn Dixie where I worked, is much better but if the store is still there, it is hidden behind the trees. Just up the street, the Red Lobster where my brother Mike spent late evenings up to his elbows doing dishes still seems to be doing business.

Google has also been down the street in Scotia, New York where I spent my earliest years. I had to go to the pictures I took in 2005 to find our old house with any accuracy, since my memory was so hazy. The years have not been kind to North Holmes Street. When we lived in our house, we had a painter next door. The house next door could use one now, along with carpenters to replace it siding. It looks like it should be condemned. Nonetheless, the current occupants of our house must be patriotic because an American flag flies on their porch.

Nostalgia is an obvious use for street views, but it is also a great traveling tool. If you need to stay at a hotel in a city, you cannot only find it, but you can look around and see what the block looks like. In many cases, you can make out neighboring businesses. You can also create virtual vacations. Want to visit Paris? There are thousands of street views that you can enjoy, most with excellent definition. (People’s faces seem to be fuzzed out; I assume this is some sort of privacy requirement by the government of France.) I found a street view of our hotel in Paris with little effort and could even traverse its side street and read the window of the Pizza Hut where we ate.

Street views thus serve a number of purposes. To me they help cement in my mind just how amazingly big and complex our planet actually is. In the years ahead, I look forward to spending many hours traversing streets both known and unknown.

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