Jury Census Records Digitized

The Municipal Archives recently received a request for research assistance from Craig LaBan, Restaurant Critic and Drink Columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. His story concerned “Hercules,” George Washington’s enslaved master chef. Sold as a teenager to Washington, Hercules became renowned for his culinary skills. He escaped from Mount Vernon in 1797 and was never captured. Following-up on a lead, LaBan asked if we could confirm the death of one Hercules Posey in New York City in 1812. The archivists searched the 1812 death records, and reported to LaBan that they had indeed found Hercules Posey, age 64, a “black,” born in Virginia and residing at Orange Street. He died of consumption on May 15, 1812 and was buried at the Second African Burial Ground in lower Manhattan. The information matched known facts about Posey including the name of the slaveowner preceding George Washington: John Posey. An 1812 City Directory provided a more precise address for Hercules Posey—33 Orange Street.

Cover of the 6th Ward Jury Census from 1819. NYC Municipal Archives.

Mr. LaBan then asked if the Archives had records that could help him learn the names of the other residents of 33 Orange Street and further information about the house and neighborhood. And that is when the recently digitized jury census series came to the rescue. Although the earliest jury census dates from 1816, four years after Hercules Posey died, the archivists suggested that the census records might contain information relevant to LaBan’s inquiry.

The jury census collection consists of 21 bound volumes containing tally sheets of returns for the City and County of New York, organized by ward. There are tallies for 1816, 1819, and 1821. The tallies were taken to determine if residents were eligible for jury duty and include varying degrees of descriptive detail. For example, for 1816 and 1819 the returns are given in a double-page tabular format with column headings for the following categories: names of inhabitants, number of houses, name of street, occupation, freeholds of $150, age, reason for exemption from jury, total number of jurors, the number of male and female white inhabitants, aliens, colored inhabitants not slaves, slaves, freeholders of £100 and upwards, freeholds of £20 and under £100, tenants renting $5 per annum, total number of inhabitants, plus a column for remarks. For the 1821 census, the returns, in similar format, include data in these categories: name of the head of each family, number and street of residence, number of male inhabitants of the same family age 21 or upwards in four classifications according to value of freeholds and debts, military service and tax exemption or commutation. Other data includes: number of acres of improved land occupied by each person, as well as tallies of cattle, horses, sheep, and yards of various types of cloth manufactured by each family, and a count of mills, factories, distilleries, asheries (a place where potash is made), and machinery. Each tally is identified with this description: “RETURN, made pursuant to the Act, entitled, ‘An Act to provide for taking a Census, and for other purposes,’ passed March 16, 1821, from the City and County of New-York.”

Using a ward atlas, the archivists determined that 33 Orange Street had been located in the Sixth Ward of the City. [Orange Street was re-named Baxter Street in 1854]. Unfortunately, one of the few ledgers missing from the collection is the Sixth Ward tally for 1816. However, the 1819 ledger survived. With an index by street name on the first page, the archivists quickly located the entry for 33 Orange Street.

Spread from the 6th Ward Census showing residents on Orange Street in 1819. New York County Jury Census, NYC Municipal Archives.

According to the 1819 jury census, Jacob Hudson, a laborer, lived at 33 Orange Street along with six other male and five female “coloured inhabitants, not slaves.” Varying numbers of “coloured inhabitants not slaves” also occupied nos. 35, 37, 39, 41, and 43 Orange Street. Their occupations included tobacconist, laborer, waiter and coachman. “Coloured” persons lived on the other side of Orange Street, at nos. 40, 42 and 44 with occupations of sailor, mason, sawyer, laborer, waiter and boot cleaner. Given the specific mention of “boarding house” at no. 40, the implication is that 33 had not been a boarding establishment, but with 11 inhabitants, it was either one very large family or multiple families lived in the house.

Several aspects of the census records make them a valuable research resource. At the very least, they provide a fascinating glimpse of life in New York City in the early 19th century. Of particular demographic interest is the inclusion of women with identification by name, residence, age, and occupation or social status, during a time when women were ineligible to serve as jurors. Other reasons that could exempt a person from jury service included age (over 60), clergy member, alien (i.e. not a citizen), and speaking only the Dutch language.

Another feature of New York City life that quickly becomes apparent in reviewing the census records is the wide variety of occupations. On just one page, in a series of houses along Water Street in the First Ward tally of 1816, the occupation list includes: mariner, teacher, printer, musical instrument maker, boat man, watch maker, auctioneer, grocer, brush maker, merchant, saddler, attorney, shoemaker, book store, tobacconist, and copper smith. Scanning ahead a few more pages reveals a baker, hairdresser, sail maker cartman, auctioneer, and wood sawyer.

The census records also show that slavery was still a fact of life in New York City during the early years of the new republic. Although legislation passed in 1799 called for the gradual emancipation of slaves in the State, it was not until 1827 that slavery was completely abolished. The census of the first ward in 1816 is illustrative: several of the households along lower Broadway, then as now, the center of finance in the City, included one or two enslaved people. Among them was John Delafield, a broker, residing at 10 Broadway, had one male slave in his household.

The 1st Ward Census of 1816 shows downtown households with slaves. New York County Jury Census, NYC Municipal Archives.

Journalist LaBan appreciated the assistance provided by the archivists. Thanks to the amazing resources in the Archives, we can say that in the early 19th century, the Orange Street neighborhood was the home to a number African-Americans—quite possibly including George Washington’s master chef “Hercules.”

Researchers are welcome to explore the newly digitized census here: New York County Jury Census



Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of one of the biggest boondoggles in American history – Prohibition. The Volstead Act, which took effect on July 17, 1920 triggered a lawless 13-year era that effectively bankrolled organized crime, put mobsters like Al Capone, Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano and Bugs Moran on the map, led to vicious gang wars in New York and Chicago and put the “Roaring” in “The Roaring 20s.”

When most people think of that era and its speakeasies, they imagine glamorous and romanticized F. Scott Fitzgerald-like establishments like “21,” The Players Club, the Cotton Club and Chumley’s, where good booze flowed, “flappers” flapped and celebrities, mobsters and the rich and famous rubbed elbows and drank in a fun-filled atmosphere.

NYPD 8226b: Photo scenes of shooting at speakeasy at 127 West 33rd St, where 12 men were shot, May 16, 1926. C.A. Carlstrom, NYPD Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

But a trip through the Municipal Archives largely tells a story of the underbelly of that era -- the seamy, down-market “blind tiger” clubs that served up bad booze, deadly fights, murders, scams and robberies. Estimates of the number of speakeasies in New York City range from 30,000 to 100,000 and the overwhelming majority were anything but glamorous.

The archives hold some 446 pictures of gruesome speakeasy murders, dilapidated clubs and decrepit halls, bullet-riddled cars, raids on basement still operations as well as mayoral letters and police records that put Prohibition in a decidedly dim light.

NYPD 8529a: Automobile, showing bullet holes taken on East 25th Street pier for Insp. Noonon, October 27, 1926. E. Tobin, NYPD Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The Municipal Library also housed perhaps the most definitive book on Prohibition, The Night Club Era, by Stanley Walker, city editor of the old New York Herald Tribune. In the almost poetic prose of that era, Walker told a tale that encompassed the good, bad and worst of Prohibition in what has long been considered one of the most accurate accounts of that time.

“These people and these places filled a need which, however silly and anti-social it might have been at bottom, seemed real enough at the time …,” Walker wrote. “… While they lasted, the clubs contributed more than anything else to the mad house that was New York. If some of the night club owners were pretty bad, some of the customers were worse …. The wonder of it is that there were not more killings, beatings, stabbings and robberies.”

NYPD 8926a: Homicide of Thomas Reddington, found dead at 474 Brook Ave., Bronx (a speakeasy), April 9, 1927. George B. Nolan, NYPD Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

New York was never a big fan of Prohibition. In a November 23, 1920 proclamation, Mayor John F. Hylan noted the U.S. Supreme Court had struck down a New York State statute legalizing the sale of 2.75 beer, saying the states “lacked the power to pass such legislation with respect to alcoholic content.” Hylan lamented that despite his preference for a referendum on the Prohibition question, the City Corporation Counsel issued an opinion that said local police were required to enforce the Volstead Act.

An April 13, 1932 raid on a speakeasy at 115th St. and Second Ave. housed in a store called Baker’s Exchange. NYC Municipal Archives.

In the proclamation, he declared: “All patriotic people, whether they agree with the policy … should cooperate to enforce them, and if the state Act and the federal Act does not meet with the approval of the majority of the people they should, by lawful means, procure the repeal or amendment of either or both.”

Archival folders are filled with typed and hand-written letters and petitions from ministers, church-goers and women’s temperance organizations calling on the mayor and Police Department to ban the “wet element” from holding annual “anti-Prohibition parades on The Fourth of July, which, they said, would “attract the lawless and seditious.” But it was too late – not to mention a violation of the First Amendment.

Two men entering a “Café” speakeasy at 11 E. 115th St. at 12:45 p.m. The building had circus posters in the window. NYC Municipal Archives.

In the 1923 edition of the annual report from the New York Police Department (NYPD) to the Mayor, Police Commissioner Richard Enright wrote: “The federal prohibition laws have neither the support nor the respect of the public and the efforts of the Police Department to enforce them were met with obstruction on every hand.”

Enright declared that speakeasies were home to “the vicious elements, bootleggers, gamblers and their friends in all walks of life” cooperating to “evade the law, escape punishment for their crimes, or to deter the police from doing their duty.” And he wasn’t done yet, calling speakeasies, “resorts, dives, brothels and bawdy houses of every description,” as well as “the rendezvous of the criminal and vicious element of the city.”

The Archives’ collection is replete with crime scene photos of murders in low-class speakeasies with cheap furniture, peeling paint, walls decorated with pennants and cheap prints, well-worn pool tables and hodge-podge collections of liquor bottles.

One of the most notorious speakeasy murders was the December 26, 1925 murder of Irish gang tough Richard (Peg Leg) Lonergan in the Adonis Social Club at 154 20th St., in Brooklyn, allegedly at the hands of Al Capone and others who were still celebrating Christmas in the early morning hours.

NYPD 7890c: Homicide at speakeasy at 154 20th Street, Brooklyn. Shooting of Richard (Peg Leg) Lonegan, Aaron Haines and Neil Ferry, December 26, 1925. George B. Nolan, NYPD Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The December 27 edition of the Brooklyn Eagle breathlessly reported that detectives were investigating the murders of “Richard ‘Peg Leg’ Lonergan, gang leader, and two of his pals as the aftermath of free gunplay that followed a Christmas night revelry in a dilapidated ‘speakeasy club’…” The paper reported that Lonergan and fellow “White Hand” gang members Aaron Heins and Neils “Needles” Ferry “met quick deaths after the revolvers started blazing.” Capone and a few accomplices were arrested but never charged.

NYPD 8051c: Also photo showing speakeasy where John Daly shooting took place at Hicks and Amity St., February 5, 1926. Det. Gilligan, NYPD Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Six weeks later, the Archives show a man named John Daly was found shot and killed at a speakeasy at Irving Place and Van Brunt St. in Brooklyn and on May 16, 1926, 12 men were shot in a wild gun battle in a speakeasy at 127 W. 33rd St in Brooklyn (nypd_08226).

In 1926, Fiorello LaGuardia, who would not become mayor for another eight years and who was adamantly opposed to Prohibition, declared in a radio speech that “Prohibition cannot be enforced for the simple reason that the majority of the American people do not want it to be enforced and are resisting its enforcement.”

NYPD 9127a: Photos of 2 stills at #2097 Bergen St., Brooklyn, July 2, 1927. M.W. Butler, NYPD Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

NYPD 9159 Photo of still at 163 Attorney St., July 19, 1927. Det. Gilligan, NYPD Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Yet, the Archives detail the rising violence it wrought.

NYPD 8734e: Photo of stick up and possible homicide of James Masterson at 214 W. 103rd St., 1928. Engbert, NYPD Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Police officers were not immune to the speakeasy violence. In the 1928 annual report to the mayor, the NYPD said Patrolman James Masterson was shot and killed during an armed robbery at a speakeasy at 214 W. 103rd St. Police arrested Peter Seiler, Walter Tipping and Jerry Cohalen for Masterson’s murder. Seiler was convicted and went to the electric chair in Sing Sing; Tipping was shot to death by police when they tried to arrest him, and Cohalen was committed to the Mattewan Asylum for the insane.

In 1929 Police Commissioner Grover Whalen, a fierce Prohibition proponent issued the NYPD report , to Mayor Jimmy Walker, who never hid his taste for drinking, partying and going to upscale speakeasies. Whalen wrote that the “illegal nature” of the liquor business and speakeasies “attracts to it the stickup thug, the gangster, the degenerate, the racketeer and the gunman … during the past year, particular attention has been given to all places in which it was suspected that the Prohibition Law was being violated, particularly to speakeasies, night clubs, cabarets and like resorts catering to gangsters, gunmen, racketeers and those of that ilk.”

Former Mayor Jimmy Walker’s Drinking Set in pawn shop, includes 3 sterling silver quart flasks, May 1935. Associated Press, NYC Municipal Archives.

That annual report detailed two 1929 murders: On March 20, 1929, James Donofrio was killed while leaving a club at 103 Christopher St. His killer, Anthony Ferrara, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to 20-to-25 years in prison. On April 28, 1929, Thomas Colby aka Joseph Shields, and John Collins were shot dead in the rear of a speakeasy at 31- E. 32nd St., Manhattan. Killer James Keely was sentenced to 35-to-life.

Stanley Walker’s The Night Club Era recounts one of the more notorious speakeasy murders. It was in the summer of 1929 in the Hotsy Totsy Club on Broadway, controlled by flamboyant and hothead gangster Jack (Legs) Diamond. As Walker told it, Diamond and his partner, Charles Entratta aka Charles Green, were tending bar when three waterfront toughs named Simon Walker, William (Red) Cassidy and Peter Cassidy walked in and soon got into an argument with Diamond and Entratta.

NYPD 9348b: Photo of body and scene where Jacob Orgen, alias Little Augie, was shot and killed in front of 103 Norfolk St., Manhattan while in the company of Jack Diamond, October 15, 1927. George B. Nolan, NYPD Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

“Diamond and Entratta pulled their guns,” Walker wrote. “Red Cassidy fell with a bullet in his chest and Diamond, leaning over him, emptied his gun into him. Peter Cassidy was badly wounded but not killed. Simon Walker … was shot and killed by either Diamond or Entratta.” Entratta was acquitted at trial – after two witnesses were killed and a third went missing forever. Diamond was not charged.

By the end of 1929 – the year of the infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago – Americans were totally fed up with Prohibition and the end seemed near. It came on December 5, 1933, when Congress finally repealed the 18th Amendment – ending a foolish law that spawned violence and gave rise to organized crime. Tens of thousands of New Yorkers celebrated with a drink or two.

The Mayor’s Commission on Conditions in Harlem – 1935

The Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia collection contains several folders detailing the work of the Mayor’s Commission on Conditions in Harlem after the 1935 one-day riot.

256 West 125 Street, ca. 1939. The 1935 riot was sparked by an incident at this Kress department store. Department of Finance Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

On March 19, 1935 a young man was temporarily detained at a Harlem store for shoplifting a knife. A small crowd gathered. Rumors spread that he had been beaten to death in a back room, although in truth he was released out a side door. Communist organizers gave out leaflets tying the incident to broader discrimination against Harlem residents. The crowd grew. A hearse passed by. Rumors flew. One window was broken, then another and soon a melee ensued that continued for most of the evening. Three black men were killed, including another young man who was returning from the movies. More than 100 men were arrested; at least 100 people sustained wounds, chiefly from falling glass and thrown objects; and 250 stores had sustained damage.

The next day numerous organizations—many affiliated with the Communist Party—the Fur Workers Industrial Union, Industrial Labor Defense, Branch 41 of the United Councils of Working Class Women, the Alteration Painters Union, the Office Workers Union, the Working People of Amboy and Pitkin, sent telegrams denouncing the violence. The telegram below is only one of several sent on behalf 100, 500, 200 workers gathered at intersections and apparently participating in marches against the violence.

Telegram sent by protesters from the Needle Thread Workers. (The NRA stamp is for the Federal National Recovery Act, not the National Rifle Association.) Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Walter White, the Secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) sent a telegram with a different message. He urged the Mayor to “appoint immediately a biracial commission to make an investigation of rioting in Harlem last night.… We suggest commission be chosen with due regard for fact that last night’s trouble and possible future trouble are rooted in economic distress of Negroes…”

Telegram from Walter White of the NAACP urging the forming of a citizens committee to investigate conditions in Harlem in order to prevent further trouble. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Some played the blame game citing communist incitement and invoking racial and ethnic stereotypes. On the other hand, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia appeared to have heeded White’s recommendation and established a high-level commission to explore the events, examine conditions that contributed to the violence and recommend strategies that might prevent another occurrence. He made a radio appeal to the People of New York City and issued a handout.

Mayor LaGuardia’s appeal to “the People of New York City” the day after the 1935 Harlem Riot. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Letter from Walter White of the NAACP laying out the proposed investigation questions the committee should follow. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Walter White, praised the Mayor’s action. He quickly submitted a five-page list of possible research topics for the commission and suggested that prominent sociologist E. Franklin Frazier be retained to conduct the research. White’s questions offer a roadmap to the final report, which was researched and largely written by Frazier. Concluding the list, he wrote, “Done properly this study may not only be of inestimable service to New York City now and in the years to come but to the entire country.”

A description of the Commission stated that it “was composed of persons who either had experience in the community or special interest in the problems involved.” That’s true. Another feature was the ground-breaking backgrounds of several members. One was prominent in the Harlem Renaissance, another was the first black Alderman, and another the first black woman attorney at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. Several had founded the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). All in all, a stellar group. Lester Stone, Secretary to the Mayor described the group as “predominantly negro, and the white members are intelligent, liberal, and sympathetic.”

Members included:

  • Charles H. Roberts who served as the Chair and had been the first black member of the Board of Alderman

  • Oswald Garrison Villard, publisher of the Evening Post and one of the NAACPs founders

  • Eunice Hunton Carter, the first African-American woman to work as a prosecutor for the Manhattan District Attorney

  • Countee Cullen, a poet, playwright and novelist who was part of the Harlem Renaissance

  • Hubert. T Delaney, Commissioner of Taxes and Assessments

  • Morris Ernst, a prominent attorney and co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)

  • John C. Grimley, former hospital director and commanding officer of the 369th Infantry

  • Arthur Garfield Hays, founding member and general counsel of the ACLU

  • A. Phillip Randolph, labor leader and head of the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters

  • John W. Robinson, prominent minister in the Methodist Episcopal Church

  • William J. Schieffelin, social reformer and trustee of Tuskegee Institute

  • Charles E. Toney, Municipal Judge and NAACP Board Member

  • Reverend W. R. McCann, Roman Catholic pastor of St. Charles Borremeo Church

The Commission established six subcommittees: Crime and the Police, Education, Housing, Discrimination in Employment, Health and Hospitalization and Relief. The subcommittees held hearings, gathered personal testimony, analyzed budgets, and tracked employment statistics. Their work was complicated by the refusal of several officials to participate. For many, the Commission offered an opportunity to present grievances and suggest solutions, as shown by correspondence in the files.

One hundred and sixty witnesses testified at the 21 public and four closed hearings. The Commission invited “persons representing all stratas of the population of Harlem. Anyone who had a complaint against any public official… any laborer at the most menial occupation, etc., was given the same opportunity to express himself… as was the most powerful representatives of private or public interest.

The historically black sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha, founded in 1908, circulated a resolution that was submitted by several organizations opposing discrimination against black student nurses and dieticians. The two largest, best-equipped training hospitals, Bellevue and Kings County hospital, denied admission to black student nurses. The black trainees were only admitted to Harlem and Lincoln Hospitals and then, upon graduation, were employed at only four of the twenty-nine City hospitals.

The Police Department Commissioner Lewis J. Valentine refused to meet with the members or testify before them. New York County District Attorney M.C. Dodge complicated the commission’s review by directing the police officers who made arrests during the riots not to participate. In a letter to Valentine he wrote, “Under no circumstances should any police officer who has any case pending, whether in the Magistrate’s Court or Special Sessions, be required to reveal at a public hearing any of his evidence. Will you please, therefore, be good enough to direct your commanding officers to instruct all officers who may have cases pending, not to reveal any of their testimony at any public hearing.”

Letter from Adam Clayton Powell to the commission. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

That did not stop the commission. When a grand jury failed to return an indictment for the killing of Lloyd Hobbs, the young man shot by officers when he was returning from the movies, ACLU founder Hays questioned whether the eye witnesses in the matter had been asked to testify in the proceeding. He wrote that it was important for all of the facts to be presented to the public in order to determine “if there was any justification for the shooting, the public may know it.” In conclusion he noted that “one of the most ominous features which emerges from the evidence we have taken appears to be a lack of confidence the people of Harlem have in the police, and their feeling that Negroes cannot expect justice”

Pastor Adam Clayton Powell of the Abyssinian Baptist Church wrote Hays a letter describing another violent incident between a police officer and a black man standing on a breadline.

Approximately one year after the riot, the Commission submitted its report to the Mayor. And then? Sections were circulated to department heads for comments. Comments were received. Various people asked for copies. The New York Post (then with a different editorial view than today) and The Daily Worker, issued by the Communist Party, both published sections of the report.

Chapter 4, “The Problem of Making a Living,” described employment discrimination by many public utilities that either refused to hire black people or slotted them into the lowest-paying positions. Chapter 5 detailed how the Home Relief Bureau used race as a factor in determining which employment opportunities would be offered. The Housing chapter considered the 800% growth in black Harlem residents, making it one of the most densely-populated areas of the City. The housing stock was decrepit and families were substantially overcharged, paying $30-$50 per month while Lower East Side residents paid less than $20. Chapter 6 detailed the deficiencies in Harlem schools. “Since Poverty is the problem of primary importance to the Negro of Harlem, it is surely responsible for many of the problems of the schools of the community. Many of the children stay away from school simply because they lack food, and are in special need of clothing.” And for those who sought advancement, “In the special courses which prepare girls for the outstanding women colleges, not a single Negro girl was enrolled for the term of 1935.”

Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Every chapter presented an indictment of how the City was serving the 200,000 black residents of Harlem. The report also listed dozens of steps that could help remedy the conditions.

City government never issued the report. Some recommendations were partially implemented—new schools and a federally-funded health center. LaGuardia appointed black judges and executive staff.

In 1946, riots again broke out in Harlem, with the underlying causes very similar to the events of 1935. Overcrowded housing, unequal employment opportunities, a strong sense that justice was lacking. There was greater destruction. More people were killed and wounded. If the recommendations issued a decade earlier had been fully, or even more completely implemented, what would have happened?

In 1969, during another period of urban unrest, Arno Press published the full text of the report. The Municipal Archives has now digitized the report. It is available at the pop-up exhibit at 31 Chambers this week and will be available to readers online in the near future.

The Public Advocate Election


Legions of New Yorkers are wondering, “What’s the deal with the weird political party names in the special election for the Public Advocate?”

“Where are the Democrats and Republicans?”

It’s a result of the political shenanigans that roiled the City in 1986 and led to a series of charter changes to reform the way New York City government conducts business, including how vacancies in elected offices are filled.

A review of the ballot for Tuesday’s election shows a Fix the MTA party along with the No More Delays group, both referencing the City’s transit system, maybe with the hope of harnessing riders’ dissatisfaction. Party names such as Unite Immigrants and Equality for All skew toward the progressive side. Two reference forward motion—Power Forward and It’s Time Let’s Go. There are the inevitable community-based references: Community Strong, Residents First and For the People. And that’s only about half of the party names.

This nonpartisan election will be the first to replace a Citywide elected official since voters approved a ballot measure in 1988 to require candidates to run without using traditional party names such as Democrat, Republican, Conservative or Working Families. And therein lies the tale.

Let’s quickly recap 1986—a year filled with political scandals. Ed Koch was serving his third term as Mayor. Several top officials were indicted for accepting bribes related to Parking Violations Bureau contractors who collected parking ticket fines. The Queens Borough President Donald Manes committed suicide as the investigation drew closer to him. Several officials accused of corruption resigned or were fired. The Bronx Borough President Stanley Simon was indicted and convicted, Both the Bronx Democratic Party leader, Stanley Friedman, and the former Brooklyn Democratic Chair Meade Esposito, were indicted and also convicted. New Yorkers needed a cheat sheet to keep up with the news. Good government groups loudly advocated for stronger enforcement of ethics codes and removing money from politics. *

New York City Charter Revision Commission Report, 1988. NYC Municipal Library.

In that same year, a federal district judge ruled that City government’s decision-making body, the Board of Estimate, violated the one person one vote Constitutional guarantee. To research possible remedies, Mayor Ed Koch appointed a charter revision commission, chaired by Richard Ravitch, former head of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and future candidate for Mayor. The Commission was composed of a who’s who of government leaders including former Mayor Robert Wagner, Urban League CEO Harriet Michel, Fordham University President Joseph O’Hare S.J. among others.

In February, 1988, the U. S. Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments on the matter and the Ravitch Commission decided that it was not feasible to propose a new governmental structure before the Court ruled. Instead they would focus on charter issues that would not impact the powers of elected officials. By that time, the Commission staff had completed 18 months of research on topics such as establishing a system for when a Mayor is not capable of or unable to fulfill the duties of office, strengthening the campaign finance program, maintaining the City’s infrastructure, creating a strong ethics code and how vacancies in public offices would be filled.

A report by SUNY New Paltz Professor Gerry Benjamin quantified the number of borough presidents who were appointed to the office to fill vacancies between 1960 and 1988. A staggering 17 out of 26 individuals, including the successors to Manes and Simon, were initially appointed not elected. Of the five sitting borough presidents, only Guy Molinari of Staten Island had been directly elected by the voters. Vacant positions were filled by a vote of the council delegation from the particular borough. Similarly, if a council member left office during a term, the vacancy was filled by a vote of all remaining members of the Council. The recent replacements of B.P. Manes with his deputy Claire Shulman and Bronx B.P. Simon by Council member Freddy Ferrer received considerable news coverage, much of it unfavorable. The bad press wasn’t a commentary on the merits of Ferrer or Shulman. Instead, it reflected dissatisfaction with the political party chairs pulling strings and hand picking the replacements, mocking any notion of electoral democracy.

This convergence of government scandal and government reorganization is reflected in the deliberations of the charter commission and in the six ballot questions that they submitted to the voters in November, 1988. That February, the commission members still thought they would be remaking all of City government. Nevertheless, they also focused on approaches to ensure fair and open elections.

Archibald Murray, then the head of the Legal Aid Society, stated the case for change at a February 25, 1988 meeting.

“…you started off with the notion that we are working in a democracy, and that, I think, is the critical factor. It seems to me that the whole idea of a legislative body is to get a group of people together who have been selected by the people to represent the people.

And if that is so, one ought to, at every possible turn, afford the people the right and opportunity of deciding who it is that’s going to represent them. And that argues very much against the notion of choosing by appointment. It seems to me perfectly valid to leave the office vacant for a few days, if that’s what it’s going to take, than to take the choice way from the people for the next six months or whatever it’s going to take.”

As the debate continued, various commissioners, including Amy Betanzos and Frank Macchiarola expressed support for filling the vacant posts by the electorate, leading former deputy mayor Nat Leventhal to comment on the disproportionate impact that the appointments had.

“And history tells us that even though you are appointed, once you have the job for however brief a period of time, you have the job, you all of a sudden take on all of the aura of an incumbent and it makes it that much more difficult to have elections truly from the will of the people. So, if it can be done practically, it seems to make a lot of sense.”

The Charter Review, 1988 Election Special, Vol 2, No. 2. NYC Municipal Library.

Ravitch clarified the difference between an open election in which a voter could cross party lines to vote and a nonpartisan election in which candidates run without the name of the official parties identified. “It would be just a general election in which people who qualify by having the requisite minimum number of signatures would appear on the ballot. Not under a party designation but in their own name, in their own right. That is a truly nonpartisan election and that has nothing whatever to do with primaries.”

Later, the Commission determined that a ballot line would need a name beyond that of the individual running. In succeeding months, the discussion evolved to a more arcane debate about the timing of the nonpartisan election and its relationship to the schedule of primary and general elections established by State law. The final dense charter language includes several schedules for the replacement election depending on the point in the term when the vacancy occurs and how quickly the election must be called.

The Summary of Final Proposals listed guiding principles for filling vacancies in public offices more democratically. Vacancies “should be filled by prompt elections rather than by succession or appointment.” The elections to fill the vacancies “should be open to all viable candidates and not restricted to those chosen by political party leaders.” And these elections should not require a runoff “thereby cutting campaign and election expenses.”

More than a million people voted for the charter reforms in 1988. All passed. Nonpartisan elections received support from 87.2% per cent of those voting. Thus we have 17 unique party names on the Public Advocate ballot.

And now, thirty-one years later, when the grip of party leaders has weakened and the most recent City elections produced several upset victors, City voters will directly choose the next Public Advocate. Whoever wins will serve for ten months, until midnight on December 31, 2019. And that person or his/her successor will be chosen in this year’s scheduled primary and general elections to serve through December 2021.

*For more on this tumultuous period, read City for Sale by Jack Newfield and Wayne Barrett.

From the Dank Recesses—the Department of Parks General Files

“Swim” original art for subway, 1937. Tempura water color on tissue paper; artist unknown. Department of Parks General Files, NYC Municipal Archives.

A life-long swimmer, Parks Commissioner Robert Moses vastly expanded access to aquatic facilities for New Yorkers. In 1936, he opened ten new swimming pools and during his long tenure he built and improved public beaches throughout the city.

Recently, the Municipal Archives received an inquiry from a potential patron asking if it was true “…that their [Department of Parks] internal records from 1934-45 are offsite and inaccessible, perhaps rotting away in a barn somewhere in New Jersey, piled up in banker’s boxes...” The answer is . . . not true! Although the Parks records did make a brief trip to New Jersey, they are very much accessible in the Municipal Archives and constitute one of the most important collections documenting the built environment of New York City and the decades-long era of Parks Commissioner Robert Moses.

It is possible that this patron’s remarks concerning the Parks records originated from Robert Caro’s epic Moses biography, The Power Broker [Knopf, 1974]. In notes about his sources Caro described gaining access to the “internal memoranda” of the Parks Department, then located “… in the dank recesses below the Seventy-ninth Street boat basin near the West Side Highway.”

In 1984, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) awarded the Archives a grant to identify and appraise historical records still held in municipal offices. During the course of the project, City archivists visited the Parks storage facility at the Boat Basin and discovered nearly 800 cubic feet of administrative records. Despite their location only a few hundred yards from the Hudson River, directly below a busy traffic interchange, the archivists found the records to be in remarkably good order.

Aerial view of the 79th Street Boat Basin and Henry Hudson Parkway interchange, ca. 1936. NYC Municipal Archives Collection. Moses leveraged federal highway funding to complete an earlier “West Side Improvement” plan and added a marina, known as the 79th Boat Basin in Riverside Park.

Recognizing the importance of this material, City archivists transferred the records to the Municipal Archives, after a detour to a laboratory in New Jersey for mold remediation.

The significance and value of this collection cannot be overestimated. It provides a complete chronicle of the achievements of Robert Moses, New York’s legendary “Master Builder.” Moses planned and constructed public works on a scale that was the envy of the world in its day and all but inconceivable now. The list of his accomplishments in the New York City metropolitan area—well documented in the collection—includes fifteen parkways and twelve expressways; eight bridges and two tunnels; over one thousand housing projects; more than six hundred playgrounds; and thirty new parks and beaches. He was responsible for the Lincoln Center complex, the United Nations’ building, the New York Coliseum, Shea Stadium and both the 1939 and 1964 New York World’s Fairs. In the words of Columbia University Professor of History, Kenneth T. Jackson, “More than any other person or institution, Robert Moses was the single-minded genius who molded New York City into a twentieth century metropolis.”

Astoria Pool, Queens, August 20, 1936. Department of Parks Collection, NYC Municipal Archives. Opened July 2, 1936, Astoria Pool is the largest of the eleven pools Moses built with funding from the federal Works Progress Administration program.

And fortunately for generations of historians, Commissioner Moses and his staff were prolific correspondents and meticulous record-keepers. The records extracted from the Boat Basin consisted of two series—740 cubic feet of the Department of Parks General Files, 1934-1966, and 44 cubic feet of the Office of the Parks Commissioner/City Planning Commissioner files, 1940-1956. The material includes carbons or originals of incoming and outgoing correspondence, memoranda, transcripts, reports, contracts, news clippings, maps, blueprints, plans, printed materials, press releases, invitations, and photographs. The records document virtually every component of the Department’s administrative actions from 1934 through 1966. The General Files series is further divided into three subseries: Administrative Files, Borough Files and Index Cards.

Sara Delano Roosevelt Park, March 6, 1934. Department of Parks Collection, NYC Municipal Archives. Several blocks of tenements in Manhattan’s lower East Side, from Houston to Rivington Streets, were razed for construction of the Sara Delano Roosevelt Park.

The Parks/City Planning Commissioner series comprises the files created by Moses in his capacity as Commissioner of the Department of Parks, Commissioner of the City Planning Department, and after 1946, City Construction Coordinator. (Moses simultaneously held up to twelve official positions.) The material in this series is 100% Robert Moses. With the exception of a few folders labeled “Hazel Tappan,” his personal secretary, it does not contain the correspondence of any of his deputies or assistants.

Both series provide abundant examples of Moses’ direct and vivid writing style. “I say its spinach!” he wrote to Mayor LaGuardia, in a letter dated August 25, 1943, reporting on a meeting about the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The letter also contains a typical Moses comment on social workers: “These people never get anywhere, and it is a waste of time to get excited about their plans.” Moses believed parks and playgrounds would solve all social ills and so concluded to the Mayor: “If I had the sense God gave geese, I would have insisted that the only thing worth accomplishing was to get rid of Raymond Street and substitute a playground.”

Pelham Bay Park: Concessions Building and comfort station, October 22, 1941. Department of Parks Collection, NYC Municipal Archives. No detail was too small or building too insignificant for Moses and his talented team of architects as illustrated by the handsome design of this comfort station.

Moses was a fearless correspondent. He even took on the United States military at the height of World War II. On May 24, 1943, he replied to Brigadier General P. B. Gage, Commanding Officer of the U.S Army, stating: “I cannot possibly give you permission to overrun Jacob Riis Park. This is one of the most important summer recreation areas in the Metropolitan district, and there is no reason on God’s green earth why it should be turned over for maneuvering of troops.”

Invitation to the Menagerie in Central Park, 1934. Color half-tone on paper; artist unknown. Mayor LaGuardia Parks Department correspondence, NYC Municipal Archives.

Good design was a hallmark of Commissioner Moses’ public works as evidenced by this 1934 invitation and during the Great Depression he could draw on a large pool of readily available talented architects and designers.

As he did with parks and arterial highways, Moses played a major role in the development of public housing projects throughout his career. In a letter dated July 7, 1958, Moses took the opportunity to express his views on the European model: “As to Sweden, I have just come back from that highly socialized country. I did inspect some of the housing, and while I found it good, it was no means as marvelous as it is described by Mr. Straus [owner of the WMCA radio station and life-long advocate for improved housing], and I found few things which could be successfully imitated in this country. I am no chauvinist, but I get rather weary of Americans who can only find achievements abroad.”

In 1998 the NEH awarded $64,000 to the Municipal Archives to microfilm the entire Commissioner series, and selected documents from the General Files series.

Robert Moses’ career and the physical changes he wrought on New York City, for better or worse, have long been the subject of analysis and debate. Beginning even before his death in 1981, there has been a steady stream of works pertaining to Moses ranging from the Caro biography to innumerable articles, dissertations, papers, conferences, documentary films and at least one opera. Access to the voluminous Parks collection—and its rich content of Moses-related material—will continue to facilitate the ongoing debate about one of the most influential figures of 20th century New York City history.

I Lift My Lamp Beside the Golden Door

Signed into law on November 29th, 1990 by President George H.W. Bush, the Immigration Act of 1990 reformed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, fundamentally changing the way the United States evaluates and admits immigrants. In order to explore what this reform would mean for one of the greatest immigrant cities in the world, WNYC-TV produced an extra-long episode of their current events show, New York Hotline. This episode assembled a panel reflecting perspectives from City demographers, anti-immigration groups, recent immigrants to the City and experts from CUNY and Columbia University. Produced in 1993 after the end of the Bush presidency, it aired one year after the law took effect.

Passed by significant bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate, the Immigration Act of 1990 made a number of basic changes to America’s immigration system, by:

  • Increasing the worldwide limit for immigration visas from 540,000 to 700,000[i]

  • Specifically increasing the number of visas used solely for family unification

  • Creating diversity immigrant visa lotteries to increase immigration from countries under represented in coming immigrant groups

  • Clarifying the authority of Immigration and Naturalization Service enforcement officers to make arrests and carry firearms

  • Expanding the number of non-immigrant H1-B visas and green cards for foreign laborers

  • Providing for the more expeditious deportation of violent offenders

  • Eliminating exclusion of homosexual immigrants by labeling them as mentally unfit or “sexual deviants”

  • Ending English language tests for naturalization tests

President Bush commented at its signing that “The Act maintains our Nation’s historic commitment to family reunification by increasing the number of immigrant visas allocated on the basis of family ties.”[ii] This increase in visas to family members would prove to be a deeply controversial aspect of the 1990 Immigration Act. Opponents of the law, both then and now, argue that this policy leads to an unfair pattern of ‘chain migration.’ For advocates and those who benefit from the law, it is a humane way to keep families together and creates tighter community bonds.

REC0047_II_150_2007: Frank Vardy describes the historic family nature of immigration into the United States. WNYC collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Perhaps more than any part of the country, New York embodies the country’s ‘historic commitment’ to immigrants, with more migrants passing through its port during the 20th century than any other city in the United States. Frank Vardy, then a demographer in the City’s Planning Department, traced the movement of immigrant communities through different City neighborhoods. He did this so the City could provide better services to new arrivals, like adult English language education, foreign language signs in public buildings or interpreters in schools. More than anything else, Vardy argued in his interview, the opportunity to find work and a better life for their families is historically what drove most immigrants to New York, no matter where they came from. Crucially, though, it was the family ties to already established prior immigrants that helped new arrivals find work, learn English and ultimately begin the process of becoming American.

One organization featured in this Hotline episode was FAIR, or the Federation for American Immigration Reform. FAIR, founded in 1979 by ophthalmologist John Tanton, sought to repeal the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 as well as the 1990 reforms.  The organization wanted to significantly reduce immigration into the United States on environmental, cultural and economic grounds. FAIR, still in existence today, has been a controversial group despite its non-partisan and non-profit status. On one hand, it has advised major politicians for years, contributed to countless studies on immigration and its representatives have testified in front of Congress many times. On the other hand, FAIR was labelled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2007 and its founder has made a litany of explicitly racist remarks in official internal memos, often referring to people of color in inhuman terms.[iii]

REC0047_II_150_2012: FAIR advisory board member Edward Levy expresses his concern that the 1990 law’s expanded family unification policy will fundamentally damage American democracy. WNYC collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

In the middle of this were people like Yan He, a Chinese immigrant who had arrived in New York in 1990 just as the Immigration Act was being debated in Congress. Following family members who had already emigrated from China, Yan He and her husband came to the United States seeking work and opportunities. Throughout her interview, Yan He details the difficult and often complex experience of coming to America, including conflicts with abusive employers and the hope she has for her children to get better jobs through the American education system.

REC0047_II_150_2010: Arriving in America was only one step in a much longer journey for Yan He, her family and the City of New York. WNYC collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The NYC Municipal Archives has hours of interviews with Frank Vardy, Edward Levy, Yan He and other experts on the subject of the 1990 Immigration Act. Although in this blog post we focused primarily on family unification, the other provisions of the Act like the diversity immigrant lottery or the expansion of H1-B visas have also proven to be controversial. Underneath the debates over these narrow issues lies the larger questions that residents of New York and America have been asking about the place immigration holds in American society. Digitizing these interviews from the 1990s helps preserve the history of this debate for future New Yorkers of all kinds, whether they be native- born citizens or one of the 3 million-plus foreign-born residents in the City.

[i] Highlights of the U.S. Immigration Act of 1990, by Warren Leiden and David Neal, Fordham International Law Journal

[ii] Statement on Signing the Immigration Act of 1990, President George H.W. Bush https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/statement-signing-the-immigration-act-1990

[iii] https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/group/federation-american-immigration-reform