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Google Street View, Circa 1935

Google’s new Street View feature has caused a predictable sort of hubbub. Privacy advocates are upset; one woman freaked out when she could see her cat through the window of her house; one man was caught peeing by the side of the road. (We interviewed Google’s project manager on our site; his answers, hardly earth-shaking, were still interesting.)

I understand all these concerns. But I’d like to suggest a slightly different way of thinking about Street View.

Several years ago, I was doing research for my first book, Turbulent Souls (republished recently as Choosing My Religion). I knew very little about my parents’ and grandparents’ lives in the old days, so I did as much document research as I could, a little bit in Poland and Israel but mostly in New York City.

I learned that the city’s Dept. of Records and Information Services maintained an archive of photos taken of every building in the city, for taxation purposes. I knew the street addresses in Brooklyn where my mother and father had both lived as kids, so I was able to track down the pictures. Here is the photo of the building in Brownsville where, some years earlier, my father’s family lived and ran a kosher restaurant. (If you can make out the sign on the window, you’ll see that the storefront now belongs to Weiss Monumental Works, which sold cemetery headstones.)

As thrilled as I was to find that photo, it couldn’t compare to the next one I found — of the house where my mother lived as a teenager, at 175 Crown Heights:

Can you see the open door of the house? And then look, just to the left of the door — that woman? That’s my grandmother, Esther Bernstein Greenglass. I can’t quite make out what she’s doing — watering some plants? Chatting with the neighbor? Shaking out a dish towel? But it didn’t matter. How lucky I was, to have found this relic of my family’s life, no matter how small. My grandmother died when I was about six, and I barely knew her; all my other grandparents died earlier. I have always been the kind of writer who likes to have pictures around when I write, so to me this random tax photo from the 1930’s (I think) was a pretty great find.

I realize there is a big difference between a photograph like this one, which must be hunted down in a dusty municipal archive, and Google Street View, which creates pictures that are available to anyone, anytime, anywhere in the world with the click of a mouse. (Alas, 175 Crown Street lies just out of Google Street View’s view, so far at least.) But I think it’s worth considering that what may strike you today as a harsh invasion of your privacy, unforgivable and unwanted, may turn out to be a boon one day to your grandchildren.