This post is the first of a three-part series in partnership with Streetcred, an NYC - based company that hosts competitions on its app where users can map cities and win thousands of dollars in Bitcoin. As a map nerd and urban explorer I believe firmly in their mission to “increase accessible data for places people care about”; plus you literally walk around cities mapping new and overlooked places on it, which is, of course, the entire ethos of this very site. Learn more about their mission in this article in Wired Magazine. Originally published at www.streetcred.co
Ready yourself for a three-part literary journey to the middle of Texas, an adventure involving an app that’s changing the world of mapping and one that begins, in of all places, two blocks over from the New York Stock Exchange.
Far below the celestial monuments of stone and steel, underneath the ever-reaching towers of Man for which no number of superlatives will ever do justice (though the day-to-day experience of such grandiosity and wonder is often counter-balanced by men verbally accosting you with discounted boat tours to the Statue of Liberty), stands a giant bronze bull. Across the street and in the background of the countless photos taken with it by tourists (who believe in the bottom of their innocent hearts that they are the first people to think of taking a picture cupping the aforementioned bull’s manhood) lies an ornate building whose doorway is labelled by yet another piece of bronze… a small, largely unnoticed plaque.
For the four out of seventeen thousand people (myself being one of them) who actually read these trivia-ridden signs that can be found scattered across the city, this particular plaque tells quite the story. The building is 26 Broadway. Once the site of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton’s home three centuries prior, this site is now home to a gigantic feat of masonry which came to be in 1888 when one of America’s largest companies at the time up and left Cleveland to reestablish itself in The City That Never Sleeps. That company was Standard Oil, one of the earliest and largest multinational corporations on the planet, was led by the famed John D. Rockfeller, still the richest man in modern history.
He and his company are long dead but his opulence lives on in the building that stands on the site to this very day. If you enter this building and take its equally impressive elevators to the 3rd floor you’ll find a small team of mapping veterans doing big things. I found out about the company and their eponymous app, StreetCred, through, well, reading (people still read sometimes).
I like to read. A lot. A lot, a lot. In fact, to say I like reading is perhaps a slight lie. It’s more of a full-fledged addiction; at times I feel compelled to read when my mind and body and swollen eyes are begging me to stop. But the addiction reaches deeper still, until hours later I come-to...where I end up, God only knows. Wikipedia articles about Scrabble letter distributions, archival New York Times articles about fatal boxing matches, official letters from the IRS legally recognizing the Jedi Order as a legitimate and tax-exempt religious organization …I never know where I’ll eventually surface. Usually, I don’t take any action on it. Yet when I read an article in Wired Magazine titled “This Mapping Startup is Challenging Google Maps – And It Needs You”, I was immediately intrigued. I reached out to their team and have since had the pleasure of both sitting down with them at 26 Broadway and ultimately heading to Texas this past week to happily tell the next chapter of their story.
StreetCred’s mission, one they’ve already begun to achieve, is to close a long-standing gap in the world of mapping. Many people, understandably, think that “everything has been mapped”. But stop to think for a second. How do new cafes on your block or the latest daycare center in your neighborhood appear on your smartphone’s map? Is it a magical series of code? A thousands-deep team of people in a cramped Google office who do nothing but place dots on maps whenever the next cute cafe that thinks its original for having a minimalist menu and hanging plants appears out of thin air? The answer is actually far more surprising.
For the most part,
Regular people do it.
People like you and me.
Just as average Joe’s and Jane’s contribute articles to Wikipedia, users all over the world contribute points of interests to crowdsourced platforms such as OpenStreetMap whose data in turn feeds hundreds of thousands of apps many of which you may be using right this very moment. And just like Wikipedia, human interest and trends and cultural influence and countless other inherent biases affect what people decide to map and not map. Wikipedia has struggled for ages to counter its vast disparity in content by language: tons of people write articles in English, not so much in Albanian. Likewise, just about everyone maps Times Square, to the point where it is “overmapped”, yet hardly anyone maps the far reaches of The Bronx or malls in Staten Island. If and when companies like Google even do map these areas, the cost to obtain and use the data can be extraordinary. Cartographers have wondered for a long time how to fix this problem and StreetCred seems to have hit the jackpot for solving it:
Make it a game.
StreetCred holds competitions where users are challenged to map as many features as possible. Some features are worth more points than others. The top contributors win Bitcoin, amounting to thousands of dollars for the top spot. There first competition, MapNYC, was a smash hit, with 761 contributors and thousands of features added to the map. But Streetcred isn’t stopping there. Their next competition, Map Austin, promises a prize pool worth over $50,000 and a whole new city to explore. When they asked if I’d want to take the app out into the streets of Austin beforehand and write as I always do about the overlooked areas of a city, I eagerly agreed and headed straight for JFK.
Now my only other foray into the Great State of Texas involved several days of eating nothing but Whataburger for three days and debating the Grassy Knoll Theory while visiting friends in Dallas (I feel compelled to mention tangentially that Dallas weirdly has an incredible aquarium). Austin, however, has remained high on my list for years. For being the self-described geography nerd that I am, I admittedly knew quite little about the place heading into the trip. I knew of its reputation as the Live Music Capital of the World, that is had a famous spring-fed pool, and that its residents were insistent on Keeping It Weird. Beyond that, my imagination was left to wander as I flew from New York through chilly Minneapolis and straight down to the Republic of Texas.
I landed late morning at Austin Bergstrom International Airport where I was picked up by my long-time friend and native Austinite Rob Bowman. Being an architect and structural engineer himself, Rob immediately “got it” when I said I’d love to see areas of the city beyond downtown that had interesting buildings and facades. We compared notes and, after his strong suggestion, agreed that East Austin would be a perfect place to start. We stopped briefly in Austin’s more famous South Congress commercial area, fed ourselves with some Texas beef and headed on our way to the other side of town.
East Austin, which starts immediately east of Interstate 35 just past downtown, stands in stark contrast to the bar-centric and tourist-oriented 6th St where first time visitors are often directed to go. It’s filled with bungalows and single-story businesses that range from old-time holdouts to gentrification-accelerating hipster cafes that I admittedly fall for myself. Though some residents lament that the area is changing too quickly and I’m in no position to disagree, my fresh eyes saw nothing but a welcoming and true-to-itself neighborhood that must be walked to be felt.
I fell in love with East Austin almost immediately, I think more because of what it isn’t than what it is. If anything, it’s the sort of neighborhood that can’t be subjected to blanket statements. It’s not universally well-manicured; you’ll find the occasional piece of trash on the sidewalk, some of the buildings are boarded up and vacant lots with grass reaching out from cracks in the asphalt remain scattered throughout the area. In other areas homes will be picture-perfect. It’s a healthy mix. You’ll find rusty trucks and worn-down signs standing proud next to minimalist eco-friendly container homes and millenial-targeting co-working spaces filled with startups who think they’re the first companies to misspell an action verb on purpose. This story arc is in no way unique to East Austin and can be found across many of America’s cities, from Bushwick in Brooklyn to RiNo in Denver and refurbished warehouses in Downtown LA. What’s different about East Austin, however, is that it doesn’t seem to reject its past.
Austin has long been known as a liberal and hippie-friendly enclave surrounded by the more conservative parts of the state. This led me (and doubtless many others) to assume that Austin would feel like its own sovereign entity in the way that the Panama Canal Zone was once a US controlled territory surrounded by thick Panamanian jungle. I arrived to find that this dualistic take is far from accurate:
is still in Texas.
The Texan way of life and all that comes with it are not forgotten nor rejected here as I wrongly presumed might be the case. No no, far from it. And in East Austin in particular I really felt this. Yes, you have hipsters like myself (I actually identify as a post-hipster yuppie aspirant with a crusty-hippie-phased past and unshakeable Southern Californian accent that makes progress in life difficult) eating stuff that hipsters eat (fun fact: if you take a $2 avocado, smash it, and then spread it on .50 cent toast, it instantly quadruples in value and becomes a unique millennial delicacy known as “avocado toast”). You will find cafes that smell more like patchouli than mesquite. Yet from what I gathered, the same people who want free wi-fi want slow-cooked barbecue. The same people you find listening to lo-fi cafe jazz in the morning will be at The Continental Club that night listening to local country.
It felt to me that Austin was yelling from its rolling hills the lyrics of an old Waylon Jennings song:
“You’ll never take the Texas out of me”
Here, in East Austin, it seems that Waylon is right. Crawfish boils and Tex-Mex hole-in-the-walls abound. Dive bars and musty venues from its historic past carry on unabated. The Victory Grill, a legendary cafe and venue that played a significant in the rise of blues when Austin was segregated still remains and proudly hosts local music (B.B. King, Bobby Bland and other blues gods played here when it was part of the famed Chitlin’ circuit). And in nearly every bar and restaurant, you’ll find not just beers, but the local delicacy: Topo Chico. A carbonated water from Monterrey, Mexico, the stuff is held in the same esteem as alcohol here and I made sure not to question it (I tried one and loved it).
I tend to resent city comparisons, but at the expense of being a raging hypocrite I’m going to entertain one of them from recent memory. Several months ago I wrote an article about Santa Ana, California, arguing that its loving embrace of street art and Chicano culture in public murals has allowed it to showcase its storied history while providing voice and venue for the expression of its younger residents. East Austin embodies that same ethos but with a Texan spin, perhaps not all surprising given that both towns were at one point part of Spain and later Mexico. The comparisons aren’t perfect, however. Unlike many other areas experiencing rapid growth, people were, dare I say it, actually nice to each other. Coming from New York and LA, the Texan way of neighborly kindness and a polite wave was more than refreshing.
And though comparable in some of the respects above,
the spirit of the Lone Star State remained.
Like all of Texas,
East Austin has to be seen to be known.