Like most people in the Bay Area, I’ve been watching the tragedy of the natural gas explosion in San Bruno on September 9 with great concern and sympathy. Focused on the current pain and suffering, I hadn’t really thought of the history of the area much, until an avid LookBackMaps user, Robert Bowdidge, posted a comment on an entry he had submitted months earlier from the San Bruno Public Library. It was a photo of the Crestmoor housing development sometime in the sixties, and the newly minted homes you can see in the foreground, he noted, “are the ones that were destroyed by the gas line explosion and subsequent fires on Sept. 9, 2010.”
As I looked closer, and compared this photo to those from news reports and Flickr, I wondered if it preceded the 30″ gas pipeline, as the lower section of the neighborhood had not been built yet. Not familiar with the neighborhood, I used the Flickr map to zoom into the location and find recent photos, where I stumbled across the image below, which had combined what is presumably a press photo, with Google Maps.
Investigations will no doubt look into construction in this area and any work that has been done recently. They’ll figure out how and where the pipeline was checked for leaks. It’s interesting to consider what role mapping technology may play in these investigations. It’s clear that community mapping and satellite imagery has played an enormously valuable role in disaster recovery, as we saw recently in Haiti. But in this case, we have archival record of a crime scene. A close look at the location of the blast with Google Street View hauntingly shows multiple pavings above the blast site, and recent Underground Service Alerts showing the pipeline in yellow spraypaint, for gas. We can’t tell at this resolution if it’s properly marked, nor do we know when it was taken, but it seems that records like these, particularly if accompanied with higher resolution, time-stamped images, may be valuable information to the investigation. In any case, exploring the area with Google Street View below, starting at the blast site, allows us to visit a quiet neighborhood which will never be the same again.
This tragic event reminds me of the importance and possibilities of marking images within time and space, and making those images publicly available. A photograph of what is just a normal street scene to us now may offer valuable clues or reminders in the days and years after a disaster. More frequently, they may simply give us a sense of what life was like long after memories have faded. Imagine being able to see a current Google Street View of New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward, and then be able to turn it back a year or two or even close to five, to see what it looked like after the levies broke. And then to go further still and see that neighborhood as it was before Katrina, to see what we lost when the levies failed the citizens of New Orleans. Presumably, these images still exist somewhere, and by all means should be preserved.
As technology continues to evolve, we’ll continue to improve the tools that allow us to roll back the clock to remember what was there. While the ability to do this may still be feasible only to the Googles and Microsofts, I hope that we’ll see more collaboration with public institutions to protect these images and views of our common history. One hundred years from now, long after I’m gone, perhaps kids will be able to visit their local library website and see a 360 degree view of my block–chances are, by then, it will be a much more immersive experience. Unfortunately, for those who have lost everything in this disaster or others, this may offer little comfort.