It’s not easy to paint a telling picture of a place as big and as diverse as New York City. Zoom out via satellite for an aerial view, and you sacrifice detail. Zoom in with Google Earth, and you’re stuck with static images. Neither approach captures the shifting, seething, kooky, creative lives of the inhabitants of the five boroughs anyway.
But what if you could explore the Big Apple block by block — all 90,000 of them — through captivating videos filmed right on site? That’s the idea behind MyBlockNYC.com, a new video-mapping website that invites residents, tourists and videographers to upload clips they’ve taken on the streets of New York to an interactive online map of the city — and lets the rest of us get in on the action. “These days everyone has a video camera in their pocket, whether it’s a cell phone or digital camera, and all these little vernacular moments have been surfacing online,” says filmmaker Alex Kalman, co-founder of the site. “We wanted to give them a place where they would add up to say something bigger.”
Kalman, a native New Yorker and son of illustrator Maira Kalman and the late designer Tibor Kalman, got the idea for the site three years ago. He’d been making his own films through his company, Red Bucket Films, and had became interested in the stories others were telling through videography. He enlisted fellow New Yorker Alex Rickard, whom he’d met when both were undergraduates at Bard College, as MyBlockNYC co-founder, and together the partners worked with technologist Igal Nassima to develop the site.
At first they asked filmmakers — professionals as well as amateurs whose work they stumbled upon online — to submit clips. Now that the site is up and running, unsolicited videos are being uploaded daily, according to Kalman and Rickard.
Like other video-sharing websites, MyBlockNYC allows people to post and view videos for free. What sets it apart is the fact that videos are embedded in the map of New York City. People anywhere in the world can click on a particular locale to see what’s been happening there.
Viewers can watch a guy clambering all over the Williamsburg Bridge, Spiderman-style, at night. At Yankee Stadium, see Derek Jeter “almost” hit No. 3005. The block of Broadway between Franklin and White streets has come alive with a video of a cop on horseback writing a traffic ticket, another of a bulldog wheeled around in a red wagon, and yet another of Masai warriors in full regalia hanging out in front of a marble-columned building.
The videos are interesting not just for what they show but for how they show it. Some filmmakers have an engaged, participatory approach — Jimmy Justice, for instance, a self-described video vigilante, specializes in gotcha-style clips of his confrontations with NYC traffic agents who take advantage of official parking permits to block fire hydrants while running personal errands. Others play the observer — Joey Boots films guys who go “fishing” for money and jewelry that have fallen through the openings in street grates. “Each filmmaker has his own style,” says Kalman, who sees the site as an artistic as well as reportorial effort.
Some of the films on the site were shot by students in public schools in New York that MyBlockNYC worked with in a pilot program this year; the kids fanned out in their own neighborhoods with borrowed cameras, capturing urban life as they see and live it.
Because MyBlockNYC is still so new, there are clips for only about 1,000 blocks so far, most of them in Manhattan; that leaves 80,000 blocks as yet unaccounted for.
Still, the project caught the eye of Paola Antonelli, senior design curator at the Museum of Modern Art, who invited MyBlockNYC to set up an interactive exhibition in MoMA’s upcoming show “Talk to Me: Design and Communication Between People and Objects,” opening July 24. Museumgoers will be able to view the site’s videos on a 40-inch touch-screen kiosk, and then step outside to record street moments that they can upload from any computer (and soon from a dedicated iPhone app), returning to the museum to view the results.