In the five years that he has lived in Brooklyn, urban planner Chris Whong has been fascinated by the borough’s streetscapes.
Like many New Yorkers, he spent his free time during the pandemic going for long walks, taking in the sights and sounds of various neighborhoods. Unlike many New Yorkers, Whong possessed the technical skills to translate his mid-stroll musings into an impressive digital project.
Whong’s efforts culminated with “Stroll Down Flatbush Avenue,” a new interactive online gallery of photos from 1914. The “stroll” includes a stretch of Flatbush from Grand Army Plaza to the Barclays Center, offering insight into what it was like to walk down the thoroughfare more than a century ago.
Flatbush Avenue was at the center of many of Whong’s pandemic strolls, capturing the planner’s curiosity with its diverse architectural styles. However, there was something extremely particular along the street that caught Whong’s interest, eventually leading him to create the online stroll.
“I’ve always been fascinated with cities, geography, and history,” Whong explained during an interview. “For this project I had a very specific question though.
“There’s a very specific set of manhole covers on Flatbush Avenue that have become a mystery to me,” he said. “They’re slightly larger than coal shoots, but are larger than modern manhole covers.”
Whong took to Google for more information about the manhole covers. He stumbled on a collection from the New York Historical Society with hundreds of images from Flatbush Avenue. Taken in 1914, the photos show the thoroughfare right before the construction of the modern-day tunnels that carry the 2 and 5 trains.
Although he was not able to solve the manhole cover mystery, Whong became invested in the photo collection and wanted to find a way to share it with others.
“I thought that if I could just find all of them, it would be great to just put them in order,” Whong said. “And so I did that.”
After hours of keyword searching and archive exploring, Whong found the full set of photos and got to work organizing them. He placed them in a slideshow, added a simple zoom effect, and found that the finished project resembled a century-old version of Google Maps street view.
And just like that, the “Stroll Down Flatbush Avenue” was born.
“I think we’ve all seen historic photos, but you kind of sit there and study it,” Whong said. “I think by putting them together in a sequence, it gets you much closer to the experience of actually walking down that street. It’s immersive and gives a deeper appreciation of this place that you wouldn’t have otherwise.”
In his own experience with the virtual stroll, Whong has found some very simple elements of the old urban environment to be the most fascinating.
During online walks down 1914 Flatbush, Whong has been amazed by the craftsmanship of old guardrails and cellar doors, the ornate poles in front of barber shops, the shoeshine stands on every corner, and the roadside troughs where horses could sip water.
“There was a horse-watering trough in the same location where a park is today,” he said. “I guess it was always public space, and back then the city must have thought troughs were a good use of public funds.”
Although the “Stroll Down Flatbush” was born from a pandemic-time curiosity, Whong hopes that the project will make Brooklynites a little more appreciative of Flatbush Avenue and the ever-evolving urban environment.
“The city is the muse,” Whong said, “so exploration just kind of prompts these things. It was a happy accident that I found these photos and I am happy that I was able to work with them.”
To experience the “Stroll Down Flatbush,” visit stroll-down-flatbush.netlify.app.