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.”
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.