December 11, 2014

Preserving Latino History in East Harlem with Augmented Reality

  • By: Geoff Montes
A demonstration of the "Mi Querido Barrio" app on a tablet.
A demonstration of the "Mi Querido Barrio" app on a tablet

A type of digital imaging technology known as augmented reality (AR) is playing a starring role in an upcoming initiative that documents the Caribbean and Latino history of East Harlem in New York City. The project is called Mi Querido Barrio (“My Beloved Neighborhood”), and is the brainchild of Dr. Marta Moreno-Vega, president and founder of the New York-based Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute (CCCADI).

CCCADI received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation in 2012 to help develop the mobile application aimed at increasing awareness of the Manhattan neighborhood’s rich cultural and historic heritage. The app works by overlaying an interactive multimedia image -- viewable only when looking through a smart phone or other mobile device -- onto a number of historic locations around the neighborhood.

About ten artists were selected to create these multimedia images using AR technology to evoke historical and cultural aspects of the sites. The eventual result will be a virtual museum that showcases original artwork at more than two dozen locations scattered around East Harlem.

Physical markers will also be placed at the sites to alert the public where these hidden layers of art can be accessed with the app. In utilizing burgeoning digital and virtual technologies, Moreno-Vega envisioned the project as way to foster a greater sense of community in the neighborhood.

Volunteer assisting the public with "Mi Querido Barrio" app during CCCADI's Firehouse Groundbreaking Ceremony.
A volunteer assisting the public with "Mi Querido Barrio" app during CCCADI's Firehouse Groundbreaking Ceremony.

Like New York City itself, East Harlem has gone through multiple periods of transition. The neighborhood hugs the east side of Manhattan, just south of where the island begins to narrow into the Harlem River and just north of the well-to-do Upper East Side. After the New York & Harlem Railroad arrived in 1837, Irish, German, and African Americans soon began spreading into the neighborhood, later followed by Eastern European Jews and Italians relocating from the crowded Lower East Side. The first influx of Puerto Ricans arrived after they were granted U.S. citizenship in 1917, followed by waves of Dominicans and Mexicans; the neighborhood’s nickname, “El Barrio,” resulted from the predominant Latino population that emerged.

In 1969, El Museo del Barrio began operations as an institution dedicated to providing the community with an authentic cultural experience that it had previously lacked. Over the next 45 years, El Museo established itself as one of the neighborhood’s top draws, giving visitors the chance to experience the art and culture of Caribbean and Latin Americans in the United States.

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Yasmin Hernandez's augmented digital artwork depicts a Taíno village scene over the courtyard at El Museo del Barrio.

Puerto Rican artist Yasmin Hernandez, who was chosen to participate in Mi Querido Barrio, plans to create a virtual installation that can be viewed in the courtyard of El Museo. Visitors will be able to use the app on their mobile devices to view Hernandez’s artwork, which will overlay a Taíno village scene onto the courtyard. (The Taíno were a major indigenous group when the Spanish arrived in the Caribbean.) Hernandez’s work will integrate Taíno architectural elements and aspects of their cosmology into the courtyard of El Museo, which has showcased Taíno art and culture through exhibitions for decades.

According to Bruce Lincoln, project manager for Mi Querido Barrio, all of the historic points of interest for the app have been selected and appear on the official website. The research phase for the sites has also been completed, and the award-winning digital production studio Ember Media was brought on to develop the AR-based app.

CCCADI's Firehouse Groundbreaking Ceremony.
CCCADI's firehouse groundbreaking ceremony

Mr. Lincoln says the app is slated to launch in early 2016, coinciding with the opening of CCCADI’s new headquarters in an East Harlem firehouse built in 1888. The four-story Romanesque Revival building was decommissioned in 2003 and abandoned by the FDNY. CCCADI began work on renovating the firehouse this past September, following a $7.5 million, multiyear fundraising effort. Several pop-up events have taken place at the firehouse, where the community has been able to come through and preview augmented artwork and installations.

To find out more about the project and keep tabs on the launch date, check out MiQueridoBarrio.com.

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