Mapping New York City’s Sailortown

Aug 1, 2016

by Johnathan Thayer, Senior Archivist

Digital history is an emerging field of research that harnesses new technologies and computational methods to organize and interpret an ever-expanding digital archival record. In many ways, digital history is a reaction to what archivists call “records bulk”—the problem of having too many records to process or make sense of in any meaningful way. Records bulk is not unique to digital materials. In fact, rapid increases in records production have historically developed alongside expansions to government and other institutional bureaucracies throughout the twentieth century. The key differences with digital records bulk is both the sheer volume of production and, on a promising note, the ability to process and make sense of massive sets of digital data through computational methods.

For SCI’s Archives department, digital archives and computational methods present both unique challenges and exciting possibilities. SCI’s Archives seeks to document both the history of the Institute, as well as the history of mariners in the Port of New York. This collecting mission poses a challenge that our recently announced National Park Service-funded project seeks to address: how do we go about documenting the historical footprint of mariners, as well as the unique geographic space within the city that they have occupied?

We are just beginning to scratch the surface of answering these documentation questions, but our archives provide as good a starting point as we are likely to find: an official registry of sailors’ boarding houses in New York City from 1901.

Figure 1

Fig. 1: Pages from “Sailors’ Hotels and Boarding Houses in the Cities of New York and Brooklyn” (1901)

Boarding houses were the social, cultural and to some extent economic epicenter of the mariner’s world while he was in the Port of New York. The sailor’s boarding house provided a substitute domestic sphere where he could find a meal, socialize with other mariners and find a temporary bed in which to sleep. Captains and recruiters came to boarding houses looking for extra hands when a ship needed a full roster of men on deck before leaving port. And, of course, boarding houses were also sites within larger networks of illicit activity involving prostitution, drinking sprees and all forms of crime—both petty and sinister.

The sailors’ boarding house register from 1901 lists the names of proprietors and specific street addresses for establishments in Manhattan and Brooklyn. This mini dataset proves a goldmine of information when extracted, geocoded with latitude and longitude coordinates and visualized using the open-source mapping software MapBox.

Now that we have a preliminary dataset, let’s compare it with another of New York’s turn-of-the century “underworlds:” the network of urban pickpockets and professional crime documented in historian Timothy Gilfoyle’s book A Pickpocket’s Tale: The Urban Underworld of Nineteenth-Century New York. Gilfoyle’s narrative follows the biography of George Appo, orphaned son of immigrant parents, child of the city’s notorious Five Points neighborhood and lifelong professional pickpocket, huckster and counterfeiter. Mapping his biography through geographic data visualization gives us a comparative dataset of another of New York City’s “underworlds,” by which we can compare, contrast and analyze against the trail of sailors’ boarding houses that the archival register has left us:

Figure 2

Fig. 2: Data from the 1901 Sailors’ Boarding House registry georeferenced and visualized using the software MapBox

The multi-colored markers represent points of geographic data relevant to George Appo’s life as documented in Gilfoyle’s book and sorted into the following categories: Corrections, Mobility, Labor, Leisure, Reform and Violence/Crime. By contrast, each white marker represents a boarding house, with metadata that gives us the name of the proprietor and the street address.

Figure 3

Fig. 3: Marker with metadata about a boarding house on 377 Water St, NY, NY, with proprietor Peter Hughes

This visualization reveals the extreme geographic marginalization of sailortown, with each boarding house literally clinging to the edges of the City’s lower wards. It shows the remarkable separation between Appo’s geographic footprints and those frequented by mariners during a shared historical space and time. You can see for yourself and interact with the map here: http://smschur.ch/appo-underworld

This simple exercise is small in scale and limited in scope; yet the data behind it, combined with the technical methods that make it possible, enable us to visualize quite a bit about sailortown and the historical footprints of sailors in the City. Mapping New York City’s Sailortown seeks to expand on exercises like this one by assembling a networked digital repository of digital archival records related to the City’s maritime history. This consortium digital archive will build out the datasets that we have to work with in visualizing the history of the Port of New York from the sailor’s perspective.

Look out for a call for participants—both institutions and individuals—who are interested in being a part of the project. In the meantime, imagine what other insights we might gain by experimenting with digital history, mapping software and the ever-expanding possibilities of digital archives.

Figure 4

Fig. 4: Georectified 1897 map from the David Rumsey Historical Maps Collection layered on top of the Open Street Maps base layer of MapBox