Illustration by Maria Hergueta

Geographic mapping is useful not only when you’re in your car and unsure when to make that left turn. To historian Gergely Baics, an assistant professor of history and urban studies, a geographic information system (GIS) helps us understand urban history in spatial terms, which is essential to understanding the political, economic, and social forces driving cities. To that end, the Urban Studies Program offers a course for majors and non-majors in how to use the technology.

Baics’ students are using GIS technology in creative ways: One set out to explore how what was happening in New York City in the 1960s and ’70s was reflected in the Spider-Man comics of the era, which take place in the city. She analyzed several facets of the city’s troubles, including rising crime rates, to trace why the tone of Spider-Man became increasingly bleak over time.

GIS technology has been key to Baics’ work for more than a decade, forming the foundation for his new book, Feeding Gotham: The Political Economy and Geography of Food in New York, 1790-1860. The book explores the effects of the unparalleled growth of New York City in the first half of the 19th century, when the population went from 30,000 to half a million people.

Baics examines how the shift from a public, regulated system for providing food to one that was unregulated—and left to the private sector—resulted in access that was more fragmented and unequal between the rich and the poor, and left the responsibility for monitoring food quality and safety almost entirely to vendors and buyers.

Baics mapped where people lived in 19th-century New York and where public markets, butchers, and grocers, among other places, were located. The data revealed that the rich lived farther from groceries than the poor did—they relied on servants and home delivery for their food.

Around the 1840s, a pattern emerges, says Baics: elite residents wanted to keep nuisances—smells and waste—out of their neighborhoods. The poor lived closer to where food was sold, sometimes because they had no choice.

“The environment where you live starts to define your access to things, including food,” Baics says. Data about geographic spaces helps us understand how and why people live the way they do.