On November 9th, 1938, Jews all across Germany were subjected to a night of terror now known as “Kristallnacht” for the broken glass of shop windows, homes and synagogues that were destroyed. In 1988, the Leo Baeck Institute produced a 1-hour documentary to mark the 50th anniversary, calling it Kristallnacht: More Than Broken Glass. Now, for the 80th anniversary, the NYC Municipal Archives has digitized over a dozen hours of previously unaired interview footage shot for the documentary. Those interviewed fled religious persecution in Germany as children and were some of the lucky Jewish refugees the United States accepted during the War. Most of them became New York City residents, adopting new Americanized names and losing their accents almost entirely, in turn forever changing the history of the City and America’s moral role on the world stage.

Prior to Hitler taking power, Jewish rights in Germany had gone through periods of expansion and contraction until they were fully enfranchised after the end of World War One. At the same time, German Jews were largely blamed for the loss of the War as part of a conspiracy theory fanned by disgraced German military leaders, experiencing an increase in informal discrimination from their fellow citizens. The long-term ambiguity about Jewish rights in Germany caused many of those interviewed and their families to dismiss or downplay the danger Hitler posed, notwithstanding the blatantly violent anti-Semitic rhetoric being used by the Nazis for years.

Peter Gay, whose original surname translates to “Spring,” laments his loss of identity in the wake of Kristallnacht, REC0047_II_77_0965. WNYC Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Born Peter Frühling in 1923, Peter Gay changed his surname twenty years later when he and his family arrived in America. His father had been a small businessman in Berlin, representing glass and ceramic manufacturers. Peter attended a modern public school with Jewish and non-Jewish children where he did well and had friends. His family had renounced their Jewish faith before Hitler seized power and did not see themselves as primarily Jewish, but German. Aside from occasional verbal harassment, he described his youth in Germany as largely uneventful.

However, Peter remembered getting a lot of “very mixed signals” about his place in Germany after the Nazis took power.[1] By 1935 it was already clear to Peter and his teachers that he and other Jewish students would soon be removed from public schools. Regardless, both his teacher and the head of the school took a deep interest in his academic development, going so far as to personally talk to his father about Peter learning English. In the same year, one of Peter’s smartest classmates volunteered for the Hitler Youth and stopped associating with Peter or any of their Jewish neighbors entirely. Peter’s teachers were also Nazi party members and despite their interest in his success, Peter was expelled in 1938 after Kristallnacht.

Miriam Cohn will never forget the sound of a single stranger’s voice on Kristallnacht that said “Let the children pass,” possibly saving her from a mob of Nazi Stormtroopers. She was 12 years old. REC0047_II_77_0965. WNYC Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Miriam Cohn, another Jewish refugee, recalled that 1937-8 was a turning point in her experience of anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany. Miriam remembered that most Jews in her home town of Essen thought “Hitler was an aberration and would pass.”[2] Starting in 1937, aspects of her everyday life began to change. Like Peter, more and more of her non-Jewish friends began joining the Hitler Youth and stopped playing with her. Her mother warned her to hide if she ever saw a group of Nazis walking through the streets as a general sense of unease took hold. That same year, Miriam started attending a private Jewish school for her own safety, even though there was a long commute. As they were now legally excluded from public life, the very places targeted during Kristallnacht like synagogues and community centers became even more important for German Jews as the last safe places remaining.

On the night of November 9th, Miriam’s family had heard a rumor that ‘something terrible was about to happen.’ At 2 AM, her mother woke Miriam up, warning her that the Nazis had already arrived and begun destroying their home and the synagogue where her father was a rabbi. After pulling Miriam and her family out to the street, the Nazis forced them to watch as they destroyed their possessions and burned the building. Terrified, Miriam and her family fled, only to find that their neighbors had gathered to throw rocks at them as everything they owned vanished. By the end of November 10th, 30,000 Jewish men had been detained in concentration camps and nearly 100 men, women and children had been killed. Miriam was only 12 years old.

Irrational people, out of control, enjoying with zest their violent experience…I said to myself ‘Well, this is what human beings can do, this is what people are capable of doing.’
— Miriam Cohn, REC0047_II_77_0972

Miriam and Peter would eventually find refuge in New York, but the Nazi persecution they fled from in Germany had already found its way to the City. Nazi sympathizers abounded in 1930s America, agitating successfully to keep the level of Jewish refugees admitted to America low. While more than 125,000 Jews applied for refugee visas in the months following Kristallnacht, only 27,000 were admitted.[3] Various American Nazi groups held mass rallies in Madison Square Garden in 1934, 1935, 1936 and most famously on February 20th, 1939, just months after Kristallnacht. This last gathering set up by the German American Bund was the largest of all, with 20,000 people filling the Garden. There, President Roosevelt was repeatedly referred to as ‘Rosenfeld’ promoting his ‘Jew Deal’ to introduce a Bolshevik-American alliance.[4]

German American Bund members in Madison Square Garden, February 20th, 1939 with a banner of George Washington behind them. NYPD_22066j, NYPD Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

At the same time, this gathering was met with popular resistance and protesters clashed with Bund Stormtroopers in the streets of New York after the 1939 rally. Officials like Mayor LaGuardia went on record repeatedly denouncing the Nazi party and its clear desire for “the complete annihilation of the Jews in Germany” as early as 1934.[5] Groups like the Bund eventually collapsed after they urged their members to resist the draft for World War Two, but American Nazi political movements have continued to resurface since. Despite this, the United States remained a relatively safe country for Jews to live in and practice their faith openly without fear of reprisals all throughout the Postwar Era.

The Municipal Archives is expanding its digital platform to the videos currently being preserved with plans to offer streaming services within the next several months. In the meantime, the stories highlighted here are only a small portion of the footage now available for viewing at the Municipal Archives’ 31 Chambers Street location. With nearly 10 interviews spread across more than 40 tapes, this series offers hours of unique and personal perspectives on one of the worst periods of the 20th century. In addition to the powerful interviews, the videos also feature rare examples of anti-Semitic propaganda, footage of the Eichmann Trial and a large number of personal still photographs provided by the people interviewed. Those interested in personal accounts of how Germany changed from a democratic republic into a fascist dictatorship over the course of only a few years will find this series an unparalleled resource.


[1] REC0047_II_77_0965

[2] REC0047_II_77_0971



[5] David M. Esposito, and Jackie R. Esposito, "La Guardia and the Nazis, 1933–1938"

The 1940 Tax Photos—A Well-Traveled Collection

31 Chambers Street, ca. 1940. Department of Finance Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

WPA tax photo employees, ca. 1940. Department of Finance Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

On November 1, 2018, the Municipal Archives announced that the long-awaited project to digitize the 1940 ‘tax’ photograph collection was complete and all of the 720,000 images now are online in the agency’s photo gallery.

It required more than thirty years, many thousands of dollars and hours of labor, plus two cross-country trips. But we think it’s fair to say that the tax photographs have now reached their full potential as one of the most important research resources in the Municipal Archives.

The digitization project is only the latest chapter in the story of the 1940 tax photographs. The Archives accessioned the collection from the Department of Finance in 1980. At that time it consisted of 2,047 strips of 35-mm black-and-white nitrate negative film (36 frames per strip), each stored in its original metal canister. The canisters were transferred from the Municipal Records Center; it is not known how long they had been in storage. Despite the less-than-ideal environment at the Center, the negatives were in relatively good condition, suffering only minor shrinkage due to age. Some films were scratched and others exhibited evidence of redox (reduction-oxidation) blemishes, but they did not break when unrolled.

Queens, 41-10 Main Street, Block 5041, Lot 33. Department of Finance Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The value of the collection was immediately apparent to City archivists. Given their fragile condition, it was not possible to allow patrons to examine the original negatives, but they could request prints. To remedy this limitation, the archivists developed a preservation and access plan that took advantage of 1980s technology and equipment to duplicate fragile motion-picture films.

Bronx, 1494 Westchester Ave, Block 3738, Lot 43. Department of Finance Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

It would have been cost prohibitive for the Archives to acquire the necessary equipment and in 1988 the decision was made to contract-out the duplication work. To fund the $332,000 budget (about $560,000 in 2018 dollars), grant applications were submitted to public agencies and private foundations. Over several years, the Archives assembled the necessary funding from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission-$50,000; the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts-$25,000; the New York State Library-$25,000; the Municipal Archives Reference and Research Fund-$92,346; and the National Endowment for the Humanities-$138,259.

1940s Tax Photo reel before shipping to Luna Imaging

With funding in place, the nitrate negatives made their first journey across the country to the vendor, Western Cine, of Denver, Colorado. The vendor spliced together the negative strips to make 1,000 ft. rolls. Using a liquid-gate printer designed to duplicate nitrate motion-picture film they created a new positive image on fine-grain polyester stock. From this master they produced a second-generation negative and another positive copy. The second positive was cut down to 100 ft. lengths and used to produce another copy on diazo stock—a microfilm product—to serve as the reference copy for use in a microfilm-reader machine.

For that time, this was a good solution. But there were drawbacks—the new negative was second generation meaning that much of the fine detail in the original negative did not reproduce. The reference diazo was third generation and it was difficult to view the pictures in a microfilm machine.

By the 2000s, the “new” printing negative was beginning to deteriorate and using the microfilm for research was a daily struggle for patrons and staff. There had to be a better way. And there was—digitization.

One of the map books used to create the tax photo metadata. Queens, Vol. 1, Double Page No.15, Long Island City, E. Belcher Hyde Map Company.

It would take several more years of research and planning, but by 2015 City archivists determined that decreased scanning costs and improved technology made it possible to consider digitizing from the original 1940s nitrate negatives. Once again, it proved more cost effective to contract-out the digitization service.

During the time it took to procure the vendor contract, project staff began preparing the metadata—the information about the images that is required to make the collection searchable. It was a big job. There had been so many changes in the City since the 1940s—new highways, housing developments, airports, etc.—that the available 1980s block and lot database had only limited usefulness. Project staff consulted period-appropriate land atlases and, after a year of careful research, they created a database that can be searched by either address or block and lot number.

Steel drum with reels of film packed for shipping to California

Once the $200,000 contract with the selected vendor was signed in 2017, the project team began to prepare the original negatives for another cross-country trip to the digitization vendor, Luna Imaging, in Los Angeles California. (These negatives had been stored in freezers since their return from Denver in 1990.) After carefully defrosting them, the negatives were packed into special fire-proof shipping canisters. And, over one long weekend a company specializing in hazardous materials drove the canisters, non-stop, to California.

Staten Island, 257 Sand Lane, Block 3110, Lot 16. Department of Finance Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Luna Imaging used an overhead copy stand with a Canon 5DS camera and light box attached, to capture the images at a 24-bit RGB. Luna then converted the RAW files to TIFF format, and named each file with the borough, block, and lot numbers. Multiple pictures of the same block and lot were given a letter designation (a, b, c, etc.) as a suffix to the file name. If the identifying block or lot number sign did not appear in the image, the file was named with an alphanumeric code and the image number from the original roll.

When the new digital files were received by the Archives, the project team began their quality-inspection protocol. Visually inspected each image, they compared the file names to the block and lots signs, checking the embedded metadata fields, and ensuring that properties such as file size, bit-depth, dimensions, and resolution met specifications.

When the quality inspection was completed the metadata and images were uploaded to the Archives digital gallery. From start to finish this process took approximately 2 years to complete. The collection is amazing and we are hopeful that it will not require another cross-country trip.

181-189 2nd Avenue, ca. 1940. Department of Finance Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.


New Yorkers' Voice Their Dodgers Views: Missives to Mayor Wagner

Not so long ago, New York City had three baseball teams: The Dodgers, the Giants and the Yankees. Competition was fierce and team alliances were set in stone. But then, in the course of one year, only one remained: the others left town.

The end result is well known—in 1957, the Brooklyn Dodgers decamped to Los Angeles, becoming the Los Angeles Dodgers, a team now in the World Series. The Giants also skulked away to San Francisco but without much hand wringing from fans or sports columnists or impassioned correspondence to the Mayor.

Letterhead from the Brooklyn Dodgers. Mayor Wagner Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Fingers have been pointed. Names have been called. Bitter jokes made. That got us to wondering whether the Municipal Archives collection of records from the administration of Mayor Robert Wagner might contain any interesting documentation. And indeed it did—boxes of correspondence from bigwigs like Robert Moses and from regular fans of “Dem Bums” the loving nickname for the team.

There are postcards, multiple petitions, telegrams, typed missives and hand scrawled letters. This constituent correspondence makes up the bulk of the files but interspersed are related materials from government agencies. At least 40% of the constituent correspondence came from women. Perhaps that’s because The Dodgers gave women free admittance at Saturday home games in 1956 and 1957? Most writers supported the Dodgers remaining in Brooklyn but some did not.

The Mayor’s correspondence includes copies of letters sent to and from Robert Moses and his vice chair, George V. McLaughlin. These merit a separate review to trace the machinations that led to the loss of the Dodgers and eventual launch of the Mets.

Lots of people know the Brooklyn Dodgers as the team that integrated baseball by hiring the legendary Jackie Robinson in 1945 to the eternal credit of general manager Branch Rickey. That was not a one shot deal. The team went on, in 1954, to field baseball’s first majority black lineup in a game against Milwaukee. But, for fans of the Dodgers these were a few great episodes in a long-running story of the upstart team. The 1940s and 50s’ teams had a great run—the second most wins of any baseball team, seven-time pennant winners, starting in 1941, World Series champions in 1955 and legendary players. Their stadium, in contrast, was in disrepair.

Design blueprint for a stadium for the “Brooklyn Baseball Club, Charles H. Ebbets, Pres.” Clarence R. Van Buskirk, Architect, ca. 1912. NYC Municipal Archives.

Ebbets Field, the home of the Dodgers, opened with an exhibition game against the New York Yankees on April 5, 1913. By 1953, the ballpark was outmoded and owner Walter O’ Malley was searching for an alternative site and larger park. Strapped for cash, the City was reluctant to fund construction of a new stadium. Instead, they created committees and special authorities. Legislation establishing a Sports Center Authority with the power to issue bonds was signed into law in 1956 by Governor W. Averell Harriman, paving the way for a new stadium. The Board of Estimate named a special four-person committee including the Brooklyn Borough President and the Deputy Mayor to examine the proposition of building a stadium at the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues. Studies were conducted. Hopes were raised. Behind the scenes, Robert Moses schemed. And the Mayor’s correspondence reflects it all.

Statement from Robert Moses on Sports Authority appointments. Mayor Wagner Papers, NYC Municipal Archives.

One writer, who submitted petitions signed by “fans of all different faiths, not only Dodger rooters but also Giant and Yankee ones” suggested in her letter that keeping the team in Brooklyn would combat juvenile delinquency. “Think of the many lives that are saved during the summer,” she wrote. “Many youngsters go to a ball game and are kept off the streets this way.” Another writer echoed that and also pointed out that the Dodgers exemplified how “everyone works together regardless of race or color.”

Petition to keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn. Mayor Wagner Papers, NYC Municipal Archives.

Many were heartfelt pleas.

Postcards for and against the Dodgers. Mayor Wagner Papers, NYC Municipal Archives.

The business community was well-represented. Many writers pointed to the revenue at stores, restaurants and hotels generated by sports events and the influx of tourism.

Telegram from Bernard Gimbel to Mayor Wagner in support of a new stadium. Mayor Wagner Papers, NYC Municipal Archives.

Lots of the letters took a tone, such as: “I don’t know what sort of baseball fan you are but how can you just stand by and let the Dodgers move to Los Angeles?” wrote Barbara Englert. A Brooklyn-centric chauvinism was well represented as was a certain New York “seen it all” cynicism. “I am writing this letter as a loyal Brooklynite, New Yorker and Democrat,” one letter began. “I am putting them all together because they go together like coffee and cream with sugar).” Warning that the City was losing two teams the writer went on, “Both the Dodgers and the Giants need new ball parks. They laid it all in your lap. Let’s see you as the great mayor of the greatest city can do something to get the Board of Estimate on the move. If not, New York will become the laughing stock of the country sportswise. If Milwaukee, Kansas City, etc. can do it why can’t we.” Citing five topics to cover in her letter: the Brooklyn Dodgers, Walter O’Malley, Politicians, Robert Moses and Brooklyn, Miss Francis Morabito opined, “The politicians will make a big show of “trying” to do something but will be oh so unsuccessful!”

One supporter even penned a ditty:

Mayor Wagner Papers, NYC Municipal Archives.

The site for the new stadium favored by fans and O’Malley was at the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues. O’Malley went so far as to offer $6 million dollars for construction and bring on famed architect Norman bel Geddes and futurist Buckminster Fuller who proposed a domed stadium for the site.

Proposed site for new stadium designed by Buckminster Fuller. Mayor Wagner Papers, NYC Municipal Archives.

In 1957, as circumstances became clearer, Dan Daniel, the legendary sports writer for the New York Telegram and the Sporting News penned a column titled, Mr. Mayor, Dodgers not Fooling, in which he offered an open letter to Mayor Wagner that began, “Dear Bob:” Taking the Mayor and the Board of Estimate to task for blocking construction of the Brooklyn Stadium based on the belief that Dodgers president Walter O’Malley was bluffing he lamented that “New York City, which used to be the sports capital of the world, has been reduced to a second-rate power.”

No less an institution than the Association of Brooklyn Settlements chimed in to support construction of the stadium at the Atlantic Avenue site. “We ask you and the City of New York to live up to your commitments regarding the Brooklyn Sports Center Authority and proceed with the construction of the Brooklyn Stadium. We beg you to set up the machinery for “an overall community rehabilitation and improvement project looking to the construction of badly needed low rental housing.”

The letter also noted, “Incidentally, we and many other social welfare organizations are grateful to them for their help, for their generous gifts of tickets which can be used for those who subscribe to our worthy causes. “

Letter with Frank Lloyd Wright’s suggestions for a new stadium on the Upper West Side. Mayor Wagner Papers, NYC Municipal Archives.

The Reverend John B. O’Mara, pastor of Our Lady of Solace church proposed locating the ballpark in Coney Island, in a telegram to Moses, opining that the location would get sports fan “out from the congested city” and pointing out that abundant land was available at reasonable cost. Moses rejected the suggestion, claiming that the Luna Park site was required for housing and doubting the practicality of Coney Island as a location. Another group vying for the stadium was the Fifth Avenue Merchants and Civic Association of Bay Ridge. Touting excellent transportation facilities including access via the subway, the Belt Parkway and other roads, the association promised the site could accommodate 20,000 cars. Additional suggestions included Fort Greene Park, Gerristen Beach, and Staten Island. The alternative proposed by City Council President Abe Stark, however generated a firestorm. He suggested that the Parade Grounds in Prospect Park be converted from the ball fields for youth into the ballpark for professionals. Yowls of displeasure from the coaches, parents and youth ensued.

Another proposition was gathered via an intermediary from Frank Lloyd Wright who suggested the Dodgers move to the upper west side. The proposal suggested a roofed, air conditioned stadium that would seat 280,000!

However, the Goliath of development, Robert Moses ensconced in Randall’s Island and serving as the City Construction Co-Ordinator, the Commissioner of Parks and the head of the TriBorough Bridge Authority, among other titles, had a different site in mind: Flushing Meadows Park. He wrote a lengthy analysis of the Brooklyn and Queens sites in Sports Illustrated. And he worked feverishly to lure another National League team to the City during the period when he ostensibly was supporting the effort to retain the Dodgers (and Giants).

Proposed site of new stadium, published in Sports Illustrated, Mayor Wagner Papers, NYC Municipal Archives.

Proposed site of new stadium, published in Sports Illustrated, Mayor Wagner Papers, NYC Municipal Archives.

Interestingly enough, three of these locations now house sports teams. The Brooklyn Nets are at Atlantic Avenue, the New York Mets occupy Flushing Meadows and their minor league team, The Brooklyn Cyclones take the field in a beautiful stadium with a magnificent view in Coney Island.

There were opponents to a new taxpayer-funded Dodger Stadium, too. Citing high taxes and the escalating price of fuel oil, Walter Lowry of Jackson Heights wrote, “This is no time to subsidize stadium for Brooklyn Dodgers.” A resident on Lafayette Avenue, just up the way from the proposed site questioned,” Is it just that thousands of people should be made homeless so others can have more comfort to enjoy watching their favorite sport?” The president of the New York Central Railroad sent a telegram opposing the approval of a $100,000 study to help find a new site for the Dodgers. And the Taxpayers from the Borough of Queens also opposed the “handout” as did an irate Brooklynite.

Mayor Wagner Papers, NYC Municipal Archives.

By 1957, the fans were getting desperate as O’Malley was negotiating with Los Angeles. It was an election year, a fact that they pointed out to the Mayor.

In the end, none of it mattered. Los Angeles didn’t dither. They offered to build a stadium for the Dodgers and agreed upon a site. The team played their last game at home in September, 1957, beating the Pittsburg Pirates. In 1958, the legendary bums moved west, winning the World Series again the following year.

Home Plate from Ebetts Field, Borough President Brooklyn Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.


Manhattan’s Civic Center Plan, 1964

While selecting architectural plans of buildings in lower Manhattan for a display in connection with the recent Open House New York event, City archivists came across an over-size multi-page set of detailed plans and elevations for a “Manhattan Civic Center,” circa 1964. If implemented, this grand scheme would have demolished 31 Chambers Street (home of the Municipal Archives) and radically transformed City Hall Park and the blocks between Broadway and Lafayette Street, from Chambers Street north to Worth Street. The plan called for a 54-story office building that anchored a three-level landscaped platform with reflecting pool, restaurants, shops, and two levels of underground parking for 1,400 cars. Only the City Hall and Municipal Building remained; every other extant building would have vanished to accommodate this grand vision. But it never happened. Why? For answers we turned again to the always rewarding Municipal Library vertical files and publications, and Municipal Archives collections.

City Hall Park, City Hall, Municipal Building, Surrogate’s Courthouse, high view from Park Row, 1950. Department of Public Works Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Proposals to increase the capacity of New York City’s City Hall were promulgated almost as soon as the building was finished in 1811. Mayor Hugh Grant in 1889, and Mayor Thomas Gilroy in 1893, even went so far as to advocate demolishing and replacing City Hall, widely admired and beloved as an architectural “jewel box.” After creation of the Greater City of New York in 1898, and the concurrent expansion of municipal government, the need for office space became acute. Although construction of the Municipal Building, opening in 1914, took the pressure off City Hall, calls for an improvement in the overall civic center area—charitably called a “hodgepodge” of buildings and traffic—continued unabated through the early years of the 20th century.

New York Civic Center plan, 1964. NYC Municipal Archives.

The post-World War II era brought new opportunities to act on the desire for a civic center appropriate to a world metropolis. In 1949, the City Planning Commission proposed a “Master Plan for the Civic Center” that resulted in some modest changes—a new Civil Court and improvement to the approaches to the Brooklyn Bridge. But it was not until November 1961, when Mayor Robert Wagner budgeted $3 million for a new office building on the site of the Tweed Courthouse that any comprehensive planning would take place. Wagner’s proposal met with a storm of protest from civic organizations who decried desecration of City Hall Park. In response, Wagner launched an in-depth study for a Civic Center plan, which would take into consideration building functions, traffic patterns, parking, pedestrians, transit and future expansion. Wagner appointed a Civic Center Committee that subsequently hired architectural and traffic consultants to carry out the study.

On December 7, 1962, the Civic Center Master Plan was released with a full-scale press conference covered by newspapers, radio, television, national magazines and technical journals. It was lucky they chose that day; the next day all of the New York City newspapers embarked on a strike that lasted 114 days.

They offered an ambitious plan, and initially, it received good reviews. The New York Herald Tribune described the new Civic Center as “…a sort of Rockefeller Center downtown, only much more so in expanse and open welcome to the pedestrian.”

But there were obstacles ahead. Among them was the already-underway Federal government plan to construct an office building adjacent to Foley Square that complicated the City’s new scheme. On January 2, 1963, Mayor Wagner wrote to President Kennedy: “We respectfully urge that you …take the necessary steps to bring the new Federal Building into harmony with the great Civic Center which we hope to realize in New York City.” Kennedy replied via his Administrator of the General Services Administration, saying, essentially, it was too late.

Local business owners in the area whose properties would have been seized for the Civic Center also objected to the plan. Notable among this group was Henry Modell, proprietor of the sporting-goods chain, a long-time tenant at 280 Broadway. A greater and more tenacious obstacle came from the architecture and design community. In a letter to Mayor Wagner, dated February 4, 1964, Jack Kaplan, writing on behalf of thirteen prominent architects, including Philip Johnson, Walter Gropius, Edward Larrabee Barnes, and I.M. Pei, offered his foundation’s (The J. M. Kaplan Fund) support to Mayor Wagner if he would open the plan “…to conduct an international competition for the purpose of securing a better design for the proposed Civic Center.”

New York Civic Center plan, showing view of the sunken plaza behind City Hall. NYC Municipal Archives.

In May 1963, the City had started to address concerns like these by commissioning noted architect Edward Durell Stone, along with architects Eggers & Higgins, to coordinate the actual design of the Civic Center. Released to the public in April 1964, Stone’s new proposal followed the basic recommendations of the earlier studies, but combined two office buildings into one 54-story skyscraper. Reporting on the new building, New York Times architecture writer Ada Louise Huxtable commented that its façade of “…slender panels of white marble aggregate, with gently cured surfaces, alternating with gray glass … is meant to lessen the impact of its size in relationship to the diminutive 19th-century City Hall.”

In replying to the Kaplan letter on February 17, 1964, Mayor Wagner expressed hope that the Stone proposal “… will interpret the intention of the overall plan with enough latitude to produce a distinguished architectural concept.” Based on the correspondence found in Mayor Wagner’s “Civic Center” subject file in the Archives, it was clear that the architecture and planning community did not agree with Wagner’s hope. They continued to protest, right up to the last days of his administration in December 1965. And with that it looked like the clock may have run out on the vision of a great new Civic Center.

Phase One of the New York Civic Center, after the destruction of the Sun Building, The Emigrant Savings Bank, and the Tweed Courthouse. NYC Municipal Archives.

Final phase of the Civic Center Plan, with the removal of the Surrogate’s Court Building at 31 Chambers Street. NYC Municipal Archives.

It did live on for a while, though. The “Civic Center” subject file in Mayor John Lindsay’s papers is thin; perhaps reflecting different priorities for the new administration or the realities of a city facing a variety of urban ills. In 1966, Lindsay designated William C. Mattison, his Public Works Commissioner, as the “coordinator of all phases of the planning and construction of the Manhattan Civic Center…” In 1967, he replaced Mattison with Richard H. Buford, the Director of the Office of Lower Manhattan Development. The only other correspondence in the file is a letter from Buford to Mr. Herbert Epstein, President of the Architects Council of New York City, explaining that the Civic Center plan needed to be “approached from a fresh viewpoint and brought in line with the Lower Manhattan Plan of 1966.”

Mayor Lindsay’s successor, Abraham D. Beame tried to keep the plan alive with Executive Order (No. 13) issued on March 28, 1974, calling for “Establishment of the Manhattan Civic Center Task force.” Like the predecessor committees and task forces this new group would: “…expedite and coordinate the planning, design, property acquisition, construction and development needed to provide a modern City Hall annex and otherwise improve the Manhattan Civic Center area as required to achieve more efficient conduct of the City government, consistent with the aesthetic setting of the existing City Hall.”

No other documentation has been discovered in the Beame administration archive to shed light on the work of the task force. Interestingly, a few weeks after promulgating the Executive Order, Beame sent out a press release announcing “…a Special Task Force…created to determine the feasibility of preserving the old Tweed Court House and modernizing its interior, or replacing it with a new structure, as a City Hall Annex.” Again, documentation of this task force’s work has yet to be discovered, but in this case, the end of the story is evident. Tweed survived; was designated a landmark in 1984 and in the late 1990s underwent a spectacular rehabilitation. It currently serves as the home of the Department of Education.

“Civic Center” as a subject does not appear in the records of Mayor Koch (1977-1989). By then, several buildings originally slated for demolition had been designated landmarks: Surrogate’s Court in 1966; Tweed in 1984; the Emigrant Industrial Saving Bank (51 Chambers Street) in 1985; and the Sun Building (280 Broadway) in 1986. This rendered implementation of the plan as it was envisioned in 1964 effectively impossible. And if that wasn’t enough, construction of the second federal office building, on the block between Reade and Duane Streets, beginning in 1989 led to the discovery of what would now is known as the African Burial Ground, making any further construction in this neighborhood a perilous undertaking.

Concourse, New York Civic Center. Edward Durrell Stone, Eggers and Higgins Associated Architects. NYC Municipal Archives.

Since the demise of the grand modern civic center, the City has settled for incremental changes—City Hall Park received a long-overdue restoration in the late 1990s; developers have purchased the Emigrant Savings Bank for a luxury residential conversion; and government agencies are being dispersed throughout the Boroughs—as the saga of the ever-changing New York City landscape continues.

Additional information and images of the Civic Center can be viewed in the Archives’ exhibit gallery:

Mission Possible: Engaging Communities around Preserving Their History

It is perhaps not surprising that those of us who work at the NYC Department of Records and Information Services (DORIS) see the value in the services we perform preserving the records of City government and helping communities connect with that material. In a more recent development, many colleagues are extending the agency’s mission into organizations and communities across New York City. The agency is grappling with how to improve accessibility to the Archives and Library holdings, and reaching out to various communities. So it makes sense to look to members of our team for inspiration—people who are engaging with public history and living the mission through their volunteer work and extracurricular pursuits.

This week, we are spotlighting a relatively new member of the Municipal Archives staff: Porscha Williams-Fuller. She joined the agency in June 2018 as a conservation technician on a special project inventorying and re-housing architectural plans for buildings in Lower Manhattan.

Porscha—a Queens native who holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in public history – recently shared the distinctive way she acclimated herself to living in a new neighborhood. After moving to East New York, Brooklyn, she was inspired to explore the history of the area and became deeply involved in her new community’s efforts to preserve their history.

Sectional Aerial Map of the City of New York, Plate No. 17, Brownsville, East New York, Brooklyn. Aero Service Corp. 1951. NYC Municipal Archives

Preserving East New York

While growing up in Queens, Porscha developed a strong impression about Brooklyn. “You would hear about Brooklyn—there’s always something going on. It’s energetic. It’s fun. You’d go there to do a little shopping … but then you go back home to Queens.” Once East New York became her home, Porscha launched into one of her favorite activities: deep research. It was during this process that she stumbled upon an organization called Preserving East New York (PENY) and its founder, Zulmilena Then.

The historic East New York Savings Bank was built in 1889. 1940s Tax Photo Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

PENY began in 2015 after Zulmilena—who grew up in East New York—learned that the East New York Savings Bank was scheduled to be demolished. Built in 1899, the four-story Renaissance Revival structure served as a fixture in the community and in her childhood. Because the permit had already been issued to destroy the bank, there was nothing that could be done to save it. After wrestling with her fear that more important buildings could be lost unless someone took action, Zulmilena decided that preservation could be used to help her neighborhood and give residents a voice in the changes ahead.

Zulmilena started by handing out flyers at a public rezoning hearing and invited people to email her if they wanted to be involved. Zulmilena described receiving that first response one day later: “It was exciting to get that first email and realize that there was support out there. I understood deep down that our community was interested in saving the special places in our neighborhood but perhaps did not know how to. I wanted to create a community or group where we could all learn the process and, by learning together, create the movement that engaged everyone to save the buildings and history of the neighborhood.” Zulmilena reported that although she worked in the architectural field - renovating historic buildings—getting a building landmarked was a very different process so she was learning along with everyone else.

Empire State Dairy Company buildings – the earliest of which was built in 1906-1907. 1940s Tax Photo Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Likewise, the impending demolition of the East New York Savings Bank also served as a flashpoint for Farrah Lafontant – who would ultimately join PENY, serving as the “bullhorn” for the group. A long-time resident, Farrah described a beloved routine, “I would drive by some of the buildings that seemed important and beautiful to me—even in their state of disrepair.” After hearing about the East New York Savings Bank, she made sure that the former 75th Police Precinct Station House on Liberty Avenue dubbed “The Castle,” which had become derelict, was not also slated for demolition. Farrah reported that she prayed for a way to help and, shortly afterwards, met Zulmilena at a public hearing.

Farrah happily counts herself among the “small army” assembled by Zulmilena. “What we lack in experience, we make up for in energy and a willingness to try anything that help the effort.” This small group has very quickly made significant strides in the community. Counted among one of their first victories is the land-marking of the Empire State Dairy Company buildings, located at Atlantic and Schenck Avenues.

Empire State Dairy Company Buildings, 2018. NYC Department of Records.

The Renaissance/Romanesque Revival-style collection of buildings designed by Otto Strack feature a unified façade and two ceramic tile mosaics depicting the countryside. In part, as a result of the efforts of PENY and other key individuals, such as historian and tile expert Michael Padwee and the president of Friends of Terra Cotta Susan Tunick,the Landmark Preservation Commission voted unanimously for its designation in 2017.

From left to right, Porscha Williams-Fuller, Zulmilena Then (founder of Preserving East New York), and Farrah Lafontant, pictured in front of café along Pennsylvania Avenue in ENY.

The PENY team described their layered approach to identifying landmark-worthy buildings: conducting extensive research at institutions such as the Department of Buildings and the Municipal Archives, utilizing the rezoning plan for the neighborhood as an opportunity to introduce preservation into conversations with community officials, partnering with institutions such as the Historic District Council and Municipal Arts Society, and remembering to celebrate the community as a whole while moving the group’s mission forward.

When describing the work, Porscha observed, “It’s somewhat of a duty—especially in this day and age with technology at your fingertips—for archivists, librarians, researchers, historians to reach out to get the community engaged with the history. I want to get the newcomer (from Ohio or Texas) to learn more about the community that they are moving into and becoming a part of—whether through old newspaper clippings, a traditional museum exhibit, or through social media. We can push the mission—using those platforms and developing attention-grabbing and meaningful content.” This sounds like a good model for the agency.

New Lots Community Church, New Lots and Schenck Avenues in Brooklyn. Formerly, the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church in the town of New Lots, founded in 1824 and landmarked in 1966.

Fish Strike

Strikes. New York’s had a few. And maybe never so many as during the 1930s. It seems as if every industry had a strike, judging from New York Police Department and Mayoral records. The NYPD Deputy Chief Inspector developed a list of the most important strikes between 1928 and 1937, inclusive. There was the paper-box strike, the Eagle pencil strike, the clothing salesmen strike, the Fur Workers, the Bee Line Bus workers (on multiple occasions), the Dugan Brothers Chauffeurs, the Cushman Bakery workers and the Building Services workers (requiring the deployment of 2,064 NYPD personnel—a record number) among others. All were related to fair wages and working conditions.

South Street Fish Markets, ca, 1938. Clifford Sutcliffe, WPA Federal Writers’ Project Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Another interesting strike came to light in reviewing records about markets in the collection of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia: the Fish Strike of 1934. Mayor LaGuardia was no stranger to food strikes. He must have been aware of the 1910 actions by Lower East Side housewives over the price and quality of meat. And, as a member of Congress in 1923, he vigorously supported the strike over the exorbitant price of meat. It began in East Harlem and spread throughout the City. However, the strikers in those instances were consumers. The fish strike was all about the sellers. Not for the first time. According to a September 1946 New Yorker article the first strike in the City occurred in 1741 and involved food. A group of bakers refused to ply their trade unless they were paid more. Taken to court, they were convicted but given a suspended sentence so they would resume baking bread and the City avoided a bread shortage.

Actually, better to call it fish strikes as there seemed to be rolling events roiling the waters around the Fulton Fish Market throughout 1934. In March, 1934 an incident imperiled the making of a Passover holiday staple: gefilte fish. Demanding the right to collective bargaining, retail fish dealers went on strike. Supplies of whitefish, perch, etc. quickly dried up. The Jewish Daily Bulletin reported that the strike ended at a raucous meeting between the wholesalers and retailers that resulted in an agreement reducing the price of such fish during the Passover holiday. And then, things apparently simmered down. The first mention of possible trouble in the LaGuardia Departmental Correspondence Files is a brief letter dated August 15, 1934, from the Acting Commissioner of the Department of Public Markets advising the mayor that the fish retailers and wholesalers differences had been settled. But that was not to be.

Letter to Mayor LaGuardia from William Fellowes Morgan, Jr., Commissioner of the Department of Public Markets, Weights and Measures, Oct. 16, 1934. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The Department of Public Markets, Weights and Measures was originally created by Mayor John Hylan in 1917 to monitor the price of food and ensure that scales used in retail markets were accurate. LaGuardia announced the appointment of Commissioner William Fellowes Morgan, Jr. at the annual meeting of the National Association of Butter and Egg Distributors, held at the Hotel Pennsylvania in January, 1934. LaGuardia’s announcement was met with great applause and he promised the new commissioner would root out racketeering in the City’s food markets.

The seventh Commissioner of the Department of Public Markets, Morgan knew quite a bit about seafood, having been the President of the Middle Atlantic Oyster Fisheries and head of the National Fisheries Association. This background was used against him by the United Retail Fish Dealers Association during the fish strike who charged him with drawing a “red herring to obscure the real issues and to stifle the heart rending cries of thousands of retail fish dealers,” and claimed that “he puts his personal interests in the fish business first and the public interest last…” This must have been a bitter charge because Morgan had fought against racketeering at the Fulton Fish Market, going so far as testifying before the Samuel Seabury Commission investigating corruption in the City.

Fish Peddler, ca. 1937. WPA Federal Writers’ Project Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

There were characters aplenty involved in the fish strikes—the Mayor, the Commissioner of Public Markets, the fresh water fish wholesalers, the retail fish sellers, fish peddlers, alleged gangsters, communists, you name it. The 1934 fish strikes had it all. It wasn’t a full strike-nothing like the general strike for the 8-hour day or 1909 shirtwaist strike for better conditions. And, not all fish sales were included—mostly it was just the sellers of bony fresh water fish specimens comprising the genus Osteichthyes. The salt water guys continued to buy and sell.

On October 15, 1934, 500 fish dealers who bought seafood from wholesalers and resold it to retail stores closed their businesses, depriving approximately 2,000 stores, and their customers, of fish. Sal Wolpow who headed the strike committee gave a rousing quote to the New York Herald Tribune, “We started a strike and we’re going through with it. Under no condition will you go back to your business unless we are guaranteed enough to meet our bills. We are fighting for the right to support our families. I challenge the Commissioner to a public hearing. Let the people know the truth about our cause.”

United Retail Fish Dealers Assoc. letter of demands, Oct. 16, 1934. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

United Retail Fish Dealers Assoc. letter of demands, Oct. 16, 1934. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

On site at the Fulton Fish Market, Commissioner Morgan contacted the Police Commissioner and asked for NYPD protection for the retailers and the Italian fish dealers who wanted to buy directly from the wholesalers.

Memo to Mayor LaGuardia from secretary L.B. Dunham, Oct. 16, 1934. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

According to a memo from L. B. Dunham, Secretary to the Mayor, the Commissioner of the Department of Public Markets, Weights and Measures phoned in a report that the “strike was largely under the domination of a radical group” that demanded a fixed price for fish and that their organization should have the exclusive right to sell fish. Morgan followed the phone call with a letter describing the demands: a fixed price for fish (which he pooh-poohed); a ban on fish sales to pushcart peddlers; and that non-members of the retailers association be charged a higher price for wholesale fish. Further, he reported that those on strike were the Jewish Fish Dealers and that the Italian Fish Dealers had broken from the group.

Deposition of Daniel Remson, retail fish merchant. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Two depositions taken that day indicate the seriousness of the strike.

In one, a retail fish merchant who went to the docks at 5:10 a.m. to collect the day’s supply of fish only to have tires on his truck slashed, despite paying $2 per week for its “care and upkeep” while at the fish market. He consulted with the president of the Mutual Fish Dealers, of which he was a member, and was informed that “their members could buy fish as they had nothing to do with the strikers, and were not in favor of the strike.” The fishmonger then purchased 1,000 pounds of fish and headed to his store. “Later a Studebaker approached and eight tough looking men got out” and told him “that was a pretty raw deal which he had received this morning and there was no need to get “hot” about it. Deponent felt very angry about the way in which he had been treated. The men stated that they were advising him in a nice way, that they would make up the damage done to his truck but also advised him to take the fish back until the strike was over….He took the fish back to the market. Wholesaler was very peeved because deponent returned the fish.”

In the other deposition, the owner of eight fish stores claimed he was forced to keep his businesses closed because “Sol Wolpole (sic) has united about 85% of the retail fish dealers and intimated them into joining up with his Communist ideas….I am keeping my stores closed because Wolpole and his organization will picket my stores. If I keep open they will harm my business and divert it to other directions....The Walpole followers demand that the market set one price instead of fluctuating it according to the laws of supply and demand. This, to my mind, is a principal (sic) of Communism which I will never adhere to….

The fish suppliers walk-out lasted seven days, from October 15 to October 23, 1934. It paused, according to the New York Times, when the parties agreed to a 30-day truce during which, Major Benjamin Namm, the Mayor’s “peace representative in the fresh water fish industry” would negotiate a permanent settlement, with the assistance of the American Arbitration Association.

Telegram to Mayor LaGuardia from the United Retail Fish Dealers Assoc. Oct. 16, 1934. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Telegram to Mayor LaGuardia from the United Retail Fish Dealers Assoc. Oct. 16, 1934. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Major Namm soldiered on. In a November 7th memo, Lester Stone, Secretary to the Mayor, reported that the Major thought the Fresh Water Fish controversy was coming to a successful conclusion. Still on the table was the retailers desire to “fix” the price of fish. Finally, on November 13th agreements were made between the salt water wholesalers, the fresh water wholesalers and retailers. In his letter to the Mayor that week, Commissioner Morgan described how the Department of Public Markets would be helpful in carrying out the agreement. Inspectors would monitor the market to ensure that wholesalers only sold fish to licensed retail peddlers. No additional fish pushcart licenses would be issued by the Department. The Fulton Fish Market scales were to be tested to ensure “honest weights”. And the public affairs bureau at the Department would promote the consumption of fish in its regular radio broadcasts. He noted that an impartial arbitrator would settle issues among the parties going forward and worried that the Industry might refuse to abide by the ruling of the impartial arbitrator.

That was not the end. On November 23, the United Retail Fish Dealers letter to the Mayor appropriately began, “We regret to have to annoy you again in as much as we feel we have already imposed upon your good nature in the past, but unfortunately the serious condition in which the retail fish dealers find themselves is compelling us to lay our grievances again before you, knowing that any possible relief of which the City is capable of will be given to us.” The complaint: unlicensed fish peddlers.

Fish vendor, August 17, 1937. Ezzes, WPA Federal Writers’ Project Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Major Namm was not called back into service. Instead, City Hall referred the matter to Commissioner Morgan. In his response, Morgan referred to the clause in the agreement that no fish was to be sold to unlicensed peddlers and reported that the departmental inspectors were reporting if the agreement wasn’t being followed. But, he wrote, “This will not cover the entire situation, however, as a considerable amount of fish is trucked from Fulton Market and then distributed to unlicensed peddlers uptown.” By whom, you might wonder? Possibly the fish suppliers themselves.

Thus ended the Fish Strikes of 1934.