Phantom Point Breeze Park and the Persistence of Cartographic Error



Generally Google’s quality control program for its spatial data is beyond reproach.  They’ve made provision for user-end correction of erroneous data, creating a feedback loop of constant improvement.  This kind of accessibility comes in handy when say you’ve identified that a long defunct 19th century horse trotting and later amusement park at 26th Street and Penrose Ave. is still marked “Point Breeze Park.”



Google informs its helpful correctors that you can contact the eponymous organizer or its third party data vendors like TeleAtlas. Before June 2008, a good deal of Google’s spatial data for Philadelphia seems to come from Sanborn, a company that began producing detailed maps for fire insurance valuation in 1867. After June 2008, TeleAtlas became the single source of Google’s map data, thus responsible for corrections and updates.



Though I can’t determine whether the Sanborn fire insurance maps for Philadelphia became the base data layer, what’s clear is that at some point Google’s vendors consulted a pre-1950 map of Philadelphia and took it at face value. While this may cast some doubts about the reliability of Google’s vendors, for a company intent on faithfully mapping the entire globe, this lapse shows just how indispensable Google’s local users are to regulating the system.



Errors that persist, of course, point to our lack of intimacy with the fringes of the urban environment and to the handmade quality of maps.  As Joe Kincgheloe points out, “when cartographers emply the official mode of geographical representation, they reduce reader cognizance of alternative ways of ‘knowing’ the topography.”  In a psychogeographcial sense this city can be said to contain hundreds of acres of blank marginal space, spaces resembling contentless voids (think Eraserhead backdrops) between our nodes of meaning, spaces we are confused by, deterred from, and sometimes scared of.  These are what the urban geographer Kevin Lynch calls the “mentally erased” features of our cities.  While there may be no way to comprehend the entirety of Philadelphia’s urban form, by getting into these interstices, we are part of the great project for cartographic rectitude.



By judging the received truths of prevalent cartographic representation against both our ways of knowing and other representations, we use the abundance of spatial data (historic/official/lived/user created) as a kind of winnowing fan.  Sometimes, these corrections come with shrieking vengeance.  In 2008 Nokia’s mobile mapping software depicted the disputed region of Kashmir as wholly a part of Pakistan.  Irate Indians ransacked Nokia showrooms until the territory was digitally returned to its state of rightful ambiguity.



Point Breeze Park, whether real or imagined, has existed in a state of spatial and cartographic limbo since horse racers, gamblers, gentlemen and other species of sports began congregating on a dry patch of sandy scrub just off the road to the Penrose Ferry in 1855. By all accounts, though, the park was the creation of an association of gentlemen wishing to show thoroughbreds, though the marginal location of this driving park and others like Hunting Park and Suffolk Park suggest that these locations were beyond moral reproach. Early maps show an indistinct wedge of “park” between Penrose Ave. and what would become 26th Street, then a skewed road or boundary path. A hotel catering to ferrygoers, the Hamburg, was not far off down the road.  On a map from the 1860s, the southern end of the park is undefined and the east branch of a  sluggish tidal stream running parallel to Penrose Ave., later identified as Sepeken Creek, wends its way through the southeast corner as it makes its way to the Schuylkill/Delaware confluence.


[BIKE MAP, 1897]

The park seems to have achieved a degree of notoriety in pop culture between 1870-1890s when the New York Times would regularly report on finishes and lithographers produced prints of historic races.  A Point Breeze Park Schottische (slower polka) of unknown popularity was also released in the 1870s–undoubtedly conjuring up the brisk excitement of a day at the races. By the 1890s, maps indicate that it had become the Philadelphia Driving Park, appealing more to the genteel sunday driver than the jockey. From an 1897 citywide bicycle map it also appear that the hard surface of the driving course used as a sort of velodrome. The last reference to the driving park comes in an 1901 map, though (as we have seen) this map may be a reprint and not coincide with the actual demise of the track.  For a while in the 1910s and 1920s, the grounds were host to an amusement park which also bore the name “Point Breeze Park” and featured a Dentzel Carousel. By 1928, aerial photos show no vestige of the Park.  By then, new railroad lines and the growth of petroleum refining was turning this district into the recognizable South Philadelphia of today.