To Happen Upon City Landmarks, by Way of an App

Steven Romalewski stood at the intersection of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and West 181st Street in the Bronx the other day and peered at an old church across the street. In the cold, his right thumb slid across the screen of his black Palm Pre phone.

“I want to see if that church is landmarked,” he said, humming as the device generated a list of landmarks nearby.

Mr. Romalewski, a tall and soft-spoken data mapper-turned-urban explorer, was thumbing for history, using a mobile application he designed that tracks landmarked sites across the five boroughs.  He had a destination in mind, a site that GPS had picked up when he stepped off the No. 4 train at Burnside Avenue. But the church also looked landmark-worthy.

“If you’re looking for a prominent landmark, or a somewhat prominent one,” he said, stepping over a snowbank to head toward Bronx Community College a minute later, “you might not realize that there’s another landmark nearby.” (The church, University Heights Presbyterian Church, was just another old church.)

Mr. Romalewski, the director of the CUNY Mapping Service at the Center for Urban Research, developed Landmarks: New York to pinpoint a user’s location and find nearby sites, providing open-source statistics and photographs. Users can search by neighborhood, address or landmark name, or, with the paid version of the app, use GPS to track the closest landmark.

It’s not complicated. For a mobile application, it’s not even very sophisticated. Compare it to the Android app Goggles, which can recognize spots that have been heavily photographed, or another application that provides context about 7,000 landmarks nationwide. But Mr. Romalewski’s creation is, so far, the only one focused solely on New York City landmarks — his attempt to make the city’s architectural history more accessible.

After checking out the church, Mr. Romalewski, 48, took an app-guided stroll in University Heights. “It’s this area of the Bronx where you wouldn’t really expect this really prominent, landmarked site,” he said as he led the way toward the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, the spot that had popped up when he activated the GPS.

The Hall of Fame, an open-air colonnade overlooking the Harlem River that The New York Times deemed a “forgotten gem,” is lined with the stately busts of famous Americans. Built in 1900, it received landmark designation in 1966, one year after the Landmarks Preservation Commission was established. The commission has since designated more than 1,250 individual landmarks.

Mr. Romalewski, a Chelsea resident, grew up on Long Island and got a masters in urban planning at Columbia University. After years working with computer mapping technology, he knows city data intimately. It seemed natural — and necessary — to make use of public city data.

“Even though the city provides the data through their data mine Web site, they don’t do a lot online with that information,” he said.

When he finds himself in a new neighborhood, Mr. Romalewski looks at the app to see if any architectural marvels can be added to his lexicon — like the Bowling Green Fence or the Magnolia Grandiflora, a tree on Lafayette Avenue landmarked in 1970 “both for its inherent beauty as well as for its rare hardiness.” (Architectural styles: “Non-applicable.”)

“There’s certainly apps out there that are very tourist-oriented, and talk about landmarks,” Mr. Romalewski said. “But landmarks as a more generic term. Not official, city-designated landmarks.”
Landmarks: New York, which launched mid-November on the Palm — the iPhone version is in testing — might appeal to historic preservationists, urban explorers and students of architecture. Still, for the more adventurous tourist, it’s an alternative to a guidebook.

Mr. Romalewski has already created an app for San Francisco, which has 261 recognized sites. Programs for Portland, Chicago and Boston, along with national landmarks, are in the works.

After exploring the Bronx Community College campus on Sunday, Mr. Romalewski led the way to Fordham Road. A few minutes from the train platform, he found what he was looking for: Loew’s Paradise Theater, a 1929 “Wonder Theater” on the Grand Concourse.

“The auditorium was designed to represent a 16th century Italian baroque garden,” he read from a Wikipedia article that appeared on the app. He chuckled as he gazed up at the building’s intricate facade. “Wow. I have to say I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect.”

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