The Man Who Rebuilt 1920s Harlem in Virtual Reality

How a 20-year-old immersive digital space is changing the way students see and experience New York City history

Internet Archive / The Atlantic

Over the course of the last two decades, Bryan Carter has built a small city. Well, it’s more of a neighborhood, really. But still, we’re talking about several scale models of some of the most iconic buildings in Harlem during the peak of its artistic renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s. Carter has resurrected the Apollo Theater, the Cotton Club, the Savoy Ballroom, the Abyssinian Baptist Church, and the Harlem Branch of the New York Public Library, all preserved and open to visitors in a way that hasn’t been possible for a century—really, in a way that hasn’t been possible ever.

It’s part of a project that began in 1996 while Carter was teaching an introductory course about African American literature during his doctoral studies at the University of Missouri. At that time, Carter says he got his hands on a staff newsletter calling for proposals which might make use of a new technology called virtual reality. His concept won funding against just two other submissions and, thus, the first iteration of Virtual Harlem was born. “I wanted my students to experience the literature that I was teaching in a very different way,” Carter told me, “one that was very interesting and engaging, as well as visual.”

Inside the digitally recreated Cotton Club (Virtual Harlem)

Today, Carter’s version of Renaissance-era Harlem takes up about nine square blocks in an interactive virtual reality world, the graphical capabilities of which hover, at least for the moment, somewhere between The Sims and Grand Theft Auto IV. The details in the virtual space—from the signage, to the music rising from behind the doors of the Apollo, to the buildings themselves, including the hardwood floors and gold-on-crimson fleur-de-lis-patterned wallpaper in the Cotton Club—was all crafted to accurately reflect the period. Carter says that technological limitations have hindered his ability to make virtual Harlem’s street layout a precise reflection of reality, though. At least, that is, until now.

Since Virtual Harlem has been around since virtual reality’s naissance—when, as the film critic Roger Ebert put it at the time, virtual reality was “still more theory than practice”—Carter’s project has been through nearly every version of the technology as it has evolved. First, it was built exclusively for what’s known as a CAVE environment; basically a small room with projector screens for walls. Then, in 2005, Virtual Harlem migrated to the online virtual space Second Life, where it continued to expand until 2009 with the help of grants from the National Black Programming Consortium in Harlem and the government of Norway.

Carter was not only able to add a number of additional buildings and non-player characters (like extras in a movie) to his virtual city but, with the help of other users and programmers, he enhanced textures, incorporated scripted interactions with certain non-player characters, and even built a working trolley and teleportation system for ease of transport between sites. He organized regular concerts at venues in the virtual space, held class lectures in his digital lecture hall (currently the makeshift interior of the Savoy Ballroom), and invited his students to use the space for class projects by curating art shows, role-playing as famous figures, or holding poetry readings. “Once you have the virtual world in place,” Carter says, “all kinds of things are possible.”

When Second Life eventually fell out of vogue and dropped out of competition technologically speaking, Carter moved Virtual Harlem over to an open-source platform called OpenSim, where it stalled for just over two years until the Vancouver-based Virtual World Web, a division of traditionally adult-oriented Utherverse, announced its intentions to develop a 3D web browser. Curio, the company said, would be compatible with the upcoming consumer version of the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset and could also function as a regular web browser on traditional 2D screens. Carter, now with the University of Arizona’s Africana Studies Department, is working with Kelland Thomas of Arizona’s Schools of Music and Information and a pair of student programmers to move the project over to that browser. (Some of the music filtering out of the yet-unopened clubs in Virtual Harlem will be recorded by Thomas’ jazz band.)

The team intends to import the existing Virtual Harlem to the new platform by the end of the summer, but with upgrades. They’re working on improving the quality of graphics and textures and—using data that is now readily-available from Google Maps—dropping everything into their correct geographic locations for the first time ever. Come the start of the fall semester, anyone in the world with access to any device with web browsing capabilities should be able login to Virtual Harlem and cruise its streets—maybe even catch a (virtual) performance at the (digital) Cotton Club. Both project collaborators, though, say that it would require something of a windfall with respect to funding—they have their eye on one of the three-dozen-or-so six-figure awards made available each year by the National Endowment for the Humanities, many of which are earmarked for digital research—to bring the project to its full potential.

Carter envisions a vibrant virtual world populated with the avatars of real people—some his students, some just visiting Virtual Harlem—interacting with each other, as well as with artificially intelligent non-player characters that can be programmed to relate historically significant information, represent historic figures, or even act as virtual tour guides to the area. Imagine running into an AI version of Louis Armstrong and being able to ask him what was happening at the Apollo Theater that night. Once the virtual world is fully debugged and running, Carter intends to continue enhancing the environment—adding further details, coding more interiors for the buildings already in place, filling the library with interactive books, etc.—with the help of students and educators around the world, effectively turning Virtual Harlem into a kind of digital learning lab.

The digital version of Abyssinia Baptist Church (Virtual Harlem)

As an early practitioner of the pedagogical methodology now known offhandedly as the digital humanities (in fact, his involvement in the field predates the 2005 adoption of the nomenclature by the academe at large by about a decade), Carter has always looked outside of his own field of specialization for creative ways to inform his work and research. Julia Flanders, who is the founder and editor of the peer-reviewed online journal Digital Humanities Quarterly and the director of Northeastern University’s Digital Scholarship Group, says an environment like Virtual Harlem presents “a really interesting way for students to explore a particular environment more imaginatively, but also potentially more critically,” as it allows for and even encourages casual discourse between students and educators about the environment itself. “It seems to trigger a lot of really interesting questions in a way that makes them more vivid,” Flanders says.

Admittedly, the experience of Virtual Harlem is somewhat “antiseptic,” as Arizona’s Co-Director of the Learning Games Initiative—keepers of one of the world’s largest archives of videogames— Ken McAllister put it. There are no smells in the virtual world, no wind, no debris blowing. Still, many insist that full immersion in the virtual world is no less a transcendent educational experience. “It’s pretty obvious that it’ll feel like a videogame,” says Thomas, “but when you’re walking around with the Oculus Rift, it fools your nervous system into thinking you’re moving around in an environment.” Because of this effect (called ‘presence’ in the gaming world), Thomas says that students that visit Virtual Harlem often “come away with more of a visceral experience of history, ironically, just because, instead of reading about it in a book, they’re walking around in it; they’re actually going into the Cotton Club and hearing some music that would’ve been played there at that time.”

McAllister points out that, since the development of Virtual Harlem has forced Carter to reach beyond the humanities to work with academics that specialize in other art forms, as well as those who work in the sciences and technology, his involvement with the project has served as a global model for cross-disciplinary collaboration in academia. “And in some ways,” says McAllister, “I would say that’s a more powerful legacy that Bryan (Carter) has woven over his years of working on Virtual Harlem than Virtual Harlem itself.”