Providence's mapmaker goes digital

Geography Dept.
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  December 8, 2010

OLD AND NEW SCHOOL Grant and dos Reis.

Eddie Grant, veteran mapmaker for the city of Providence, sits at the back of an otherwise colorless planning department office, a large cardboard cutout of the Three Stooges looking over his shoulder.

"I grew up with these guys," he says, with a broad grin. "That's when you had three channels on TV."

Grant has been here some time: 31 years, or about 30 years more than his partner in the Geographical Information Systems (GIS) division, David dosReis. "I'm the old school," Grant says. "He's the new school."

A graduate of the now-defunct Hall Institute for Technology, Grant was once known as a "draftsman." Now, he is a "GIS coordinator," having swapped ink and paper for mouse and monitor some time ago.

And if he is still beholden to the comedic arts of another era, he seems quite pleased with the evolution of his craft.

Grant and dosReis unearth an old, hand-drawn map of downtown Providence. "It took me about five months to do," says Grant, 55. "Today, we can do it in 20 minutes."

Correcting mistakes was a particularly trying endeavor under the ancient regime, he suggests, pulling out a handheld electric eraser he once used to "grind out" errant property lines and ill-considered streetscapes.

The rubber tip has grown dry and crumbly with disuse. Grant drops it in the waste bucket without nostalgia. "I like new, clean things," he says.

The principle extends to his taste in architecture. Ask Grant if he misses any of the landmarks that have disappeared from his maps over the years and he'll reply with a shrug. "I don't like old buildings," he says.

DosReis, who got a bachelors degree in marine sciences from the University of Rhode Island and a masters in geography from the University of South Carolina, is more aligned with the present taste for preservation.

He points out the detail in Grant's old downtown map with evident admiration. And he has far more interest in Providence's historic architecture than his partner, pausing during a recent chat with a visitor to lament the vacancy at the city's 19th-century Arcade shopping center.

But dosReis, 39, is also enamored of the latest in GIS technology. On a recent afternoon, he pulled up a three-dimensional map of Providence on Google Earth, apparently assembled by an amateur urbanist.

"That's where I see GIS going," he says. "It's this whole open source thing."

DosReis speaks, with a planning-department excitement, of the day residents will pull up an online map of the city to report potholes, cracks in the pavement, and other municipal maladies.

But for now, Providence's two GIS coordinators take their pleasure in a swifter, cleaner execution of traditional fare: zoning maps, neighborhood planning, that sort of thing.

Grant leads a visitor to a work room. Whatever his appreciation for the new technology, he clings to one relic of his draftsman's days, stored in the corner: a three-dimensional model of a planned development along Prairie Street.

Little wood blocks stand in for buildings. Green beads, ordered from one of the city's old jewelry makers, serve as tree tops.

The department dumped the rest of Grant's old models — many crafted over the course of two or three months. But he insisted on holding on to this one. "This was my baby," he says. "This was my favorite."

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