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


One banana, two banana, three banana, four…

Answers to questions frequently asked about Bananas, United Fruit Company, ca. 1940. WPA Federal Writers’ Project collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The Municipal Archives contains one remaining scrapbook documenting food consumption, availability and recipes during the LaGuardia Administration. The volume is a compendium of yellowing clippings from newspapers, one layered on top of the other, covering the period of August 1942 to August 1943. It is titled, “Food News.”

It’s an interesting mish-mash of aging newsprint of various sizes with intriguing headlines and odd reporting. It takes a while to browse through because sometimes the stories on the reverse side of the clippings are equally as interesting as the food reporting. The volume isn’t part of the Works Progress Administration files that are the subject of our Feeding the City exhibit. But so much of the content gathered by the Federal Writers Project staff is echoed in the scrapbook. And the news stories quote some of the same sources used by the WPA writers. Much of the information seems odd.

Take corn, for example. 

Corn brochure, WPA Federal Writers’ Project collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The World’s Largest Grain Crop is U.S. Corn touts one headline. 

Old-Style Corn to Spruce Up states another atop a story by Clementine Paddleford detailing how a commercial bakery was producing a new corn bread, richer than the corn pone of the old West.

Food prices throughout the country, and certainly in New York, fluctuated a great deal. A bulletin issued by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics in 1942 attributed several shortages of fresh fruit and vegetables to three factors: high consumer demand, heavy purchasing by the U. S. government and poor crops for some items. Another factor would have been pricing. In part to make food more generally available at affordable prices, the Office of Price Administration established price controls. The bulletin stated, “Among the fresh fruits and vegetables price control was first extended to bananas in May, 1942.” Price controls on citrus, potatoes and onions soon followed in October, 1942. Prunes, it turns out, were not generally available to the public because the crop was earmarked for military consumption.

Recipe booklet, WPA Federal Writers’ Project collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The nation really got its first glimpse of the banana at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial, which also was the first World’s Fair to be held in the U.S.A. Taking the country by storm the banana was considered a staple by 1910. By 1937, the country imported ten million bananas annually, “a banana and a half each week of the year for every man, woman and child,” according to the Sun. And by 1942, New Yorkers were dismayed first by the cost and then by the dearth of this favored fruit.

The Salem News from Salem, Ohio, reported on the situation, with a dateline from New York City on April 29, 1942. Quoting the 1923 song, “Yes We Have No Bananas” the squib stated that bananas were priced at an ungodly nine cents apiece or five cents for a totally bruised item. Using pidgin English in the text (not replicated below), it quoted a vendor who had specialized in bananas but had begun to sell other fruits as well and who feared he would need to expand to vegetables. “Phooey,” the vendor retorted, blaming the shortage on the war. “They tell me it’s the shipping. The ships go down. Down go the banan(a). But the price, she is up.” (Interestingly, and unrelated to bananas, the paper included a photo of then-Crown Princess Elizabeth, all of 16 years old, signing up for national service and wearing her girl guide uniform.)

The scrapbook documents a food problem during August 1942: the banana shortage.

It starts with the household “Marketing Guide,” published in the Herald Tribune on August 14, 1942. The list did not include bananas among the available fruits for sale in the City. The next day, a headline in the Eagle blared,

Astoria Cops Hunt for Bananas, But Find Only 23 for Ailing Infant

“Virtually every policeman on duty in the Astoria Precinct spent last night in a store-by-store and restaurant-to-restaurant search for bananas for a 21-month old boy suffering from a rare disease, celiac, and today they turned in a total of 23, all they were able to locate.” The officers were attempting to help a Manhattan mother who had been searching for the fruit in vain but heard there might be help in Astoria.

Bronx Terminal Market, Wholesale Stores, 1935. NYC Municipal Archives collection

She was not alone. Another episode concerned a young child in Providence, Rhode Island who also suffered from celiac, which required a banana diet. The call went out. Markets were scoured. And Brooklyn came to the rescue. Sixteen bananas were located at a fruit stand and were sent by air express from LaGuardia to Providence. The New York Times cautioned, “Assurance that persons needing bananas for medicinal purposes only may obtain them without the necessity of scouring the city came last night from the American Banana Corporation at Pier 2, Bronx Terminal Market, the largest banana jobbers in this area. A spokesman for the concern said a small supply of the fruit always was kept on hand for medicinal uses and could be obtained easily if the demand was legitimate.”

The New York Sun got to the bottom of the issue in its August 18, 1942 edition:

Map of banana trade routes, ca. 1940. WPA Federal Writers’ Project collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Bananas Spoil and Die on Stem

War Has Laid Its Deadly Hand on Importation

The problem, they reported, was that ships that formerly carried bananas were carrying war materials. As the number one fruit imported into the United States, the banana was not only tasty but also “an important force for good neighborliness in the Americas.” One must wonder if this slant was influenced by the two major companies that grew and imported bananas—United Fruit and Standard Fruit (now Dole). As the titans in so-called banana republics, the notion of their monopolies leading to hemispheric friendship was part of a public relations campaign. The same story, word-for- word, was also published in the Independent Grocer on August 21st.

One can only imagine the joyous shouts from readers of an August 25, 1942 report in the New York Times. For the first time in several weeks, two shipments of bananas were scheduled to arrive in New York.

 Bananas Reaching South Brought Here By Truck

August 25, 1942 report in the New York Times. Mayor LaGuardia collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

264 Washington Street, ca. 1940. Sal Traina’s wholesale shop received an emergency shipment of 24,000 lbs of bananas in 1942. Department of Finance Tax Photo Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

In another clipping, a New York Tribune food column extolled a new development: the availability of dehydrated bananas.

Answers to questions frequently asked about Bananas, United Fruit Company, ca. 1940. WPA Federal Writers’ Project collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

“Consider the banana. No longer do numberless hands of the brown flecked yellow banana decorate the shopfronts. Once in a while we see them and we feel warm toward them like friends returned…. The packages of dried bananas, now sold in one-pound sizes, contain between fifteen and eighteen whole bananas; the cost is about one-half the price of the fresh fruit. They taste like bananas, but concentrated in flavor and fig-like in texture. They can be simmered in water and served with cream. They can be cut up and served in salad or eaten plain. A luxury at the moment. They will have wide distribution soon.”

By September, bananas were not so newsworthy. The last clip on the topic for the month, a “special cable” to the New York Times on August 28, reports on the end of banana contracts.

United Fruit Acts in Costa Rica Because of War Conditions

The company cancelled all contracts with growers in Costa Rica because of shipping issues.

There were no bananas that day.

Outtakes: Behind the Scenes with the Tax Photo Photographers

Defaced outtake negative from the 1940s Tax Photos. Despite appearing throughout the collection, the names of the men on the tax photo project remain a mystery.

The first job I had at the Municipal Archives was as a photographer, which basically meant I spent eight hours a day in the darkroom printing 1940s tax photos. Day after day looking at thousands of tax photos a year, I started to wonder about the photographers who took the pictures and the men who often appear in them. Just who were they? It is one of the research questions that has stymied us over the years. However, by the nature of their method, which involved a metal sign with interchangeable numbers and letters to designate the borough, block and lot (the BBL), the assistant often had to hold the sign to steady it and, therefore, appears as an incidental subject in the photographs. Were these men also photographers? We were never sure. They appeared to work in pairs, one shooting and the other changing the sign and recording the roll number for each BBL in a ledger book.

A recent review of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s records in the Municipal Archives reveals that he was sent monthly progress reports on the tax photos. These provide details on the timing and working methods of the project. We knew that the photographers used 35mm Leica cameras (one is clearly visible in a group portrait). They were a specialty item at the time, purchased with funds from the Works Progress Administration (WPA). In May 1939 the Assessor in Charge of the Department of Taxation Research Bureau complained [in a report in Mayor LaGuardia’s files] that “the materials are still being held up by Washington authorities and the W.P.A. has submitted to Washington further information to justify the purchase of certain cameras…” He also noted that Municipal Building alterations were being “made to Room 910, Manhattan, which will be used as our new photographic room.”

Unidentified clerk in Brooklyn with a BBL sign, 1940s Tax Photo outtake. The clerks of the Tax Photo project most frequently appear in the photographs, but sometimes the photographers do too.

A horse-drawn delivery wagon in the Bronx, ca. 1940.

By October 16th, 1939 the Assessor in Charge, John F. St. George, reported: “During this month [September] the photographic phase was begun with a small group of photographers and film processors. About 1200 buildings have been photographed and prints made.” So we know that the photography did not begin until September 1939, and that was only in Manhattan; work in the other boroughs would start “in the near future.” In November he was able to report that “10 photographers were working in the field and four in the laboratory. 6200 exposures have been made and 3100 enlargements are completed. These pictures are being placed on the property cards.” By December 5th, he reported that work was underway in Brooklyn as well as Manhattan and that there were 22 photographers in the field and 9 in the laboratory. By May they reported that photographic work was underway in the Bronx and Staten Island, and Manhattan was almost completed. By July 1940 Manhattan photography was completed except for reshoots.  The semi-annual progress report for July to December 1940 states that 108 people were working on the photographic phase as of December (most of these would have been working in the office) and that “Identifying and Photographing Buildings in the Field” was “performed by photographers assisted by clerks.” These clerks then are the ones most often appearing in the photographs holding the sign, or in the outtakes filling out ledgers or relaxing.

When loading a roll of 35mm film, it is customary to shoot 1 or 2 frames to advance the film exposed during the loading process. These junk frames might have fogging from the loading process and are often just random angles. However, the outtakes in the Tax collection have always intrigued us because they often showed bits of the tax photographers’ daily routine, the clerks and sometimes photographers themselves. In shots both deliberate and intentional there are photos of the teams at work (filling out the shot ledger books, carrying or changing the metal sign that showed the block and lot numbers) and taking breaks, smoking a cigarette, eating at a diner (or a bar). One clerk carries the numbers in a box strapped around his neck, one goofs around by placing a 0 over his eye, one man is fond of bow ties, and there is at least one African-American clerk. One young photographer was prone to taking selfies as he loaded the camera. He also seems to be the same photographer who took portraits of curious kids on the street. He may be responsible for the most artistic of the outtakes, but we have no idea who he was or if he went on to a longer career in photography.

The unidentified young photographer above frequently took “selfies” as he loaded the camera.

This photo in front of the 23rd Regiment Armory on Pacific Street and Bedford Avenue in Crown Heights, Brooklyn must have been taken by the young photographer above. The frame just prior is a selfie that shows a corner of the armory.

Given the all-male working environment, some might expect the occasional shot of a pretty woman walking by in a summer dress, but no, the outtakes are surprisingly sweet: photos of curious children, kittens, and a clerk feeding a squirrel in Central Park. One photographer even finished off a roll of Staten Island film with photos of his family’s outing to the Bronx Zoo. Very rarely there is a shot of something else that caught their eye, a sign, a horse, a parade, a car accident. And just once that we have found, the photographic team standing on a street corner in Brooklyn and posing for a group portrait. Two frames showing 11 men on a sunny day, two of them holding their cameras, familiar faces.

A group portrait of the photographers and clerks in Brooklyn, ca. 1940.

An accident scene in the Bronx captured by an anonymous Tax Photo photographer, ca. 1940.

A day out at the Bronx Zoo with his family was recorded by one Tax Photo photographer.

Most of the photographic work seems to have been completed by the summer or fall of 1941 (the attack on Pearl Harbor in December prevented them from producing a year-end report). Defense work now took precedence, and in March of 1942, the new President of the Tax Commission asked Mayor LaGuardia to declare the project vital to civilian defense in order to retain staff being diverted to defense projects. With the end of the WPA in 1943, the continual updating of the property cards became a function of the Research Bureau of the Tax Department. How much work was done during the war years is unknown, but the 1946 Annual Report of the Tax Department mentioned the work of the photographic division, then mostly busy documenting new development in Queens County. By 1951, an estimated 50,000 parcels of land were photographed by the Research Bureau staff. These 1946-1951 reshoot negatives held by the Municipal Archives are distinguishable from the original WPA project in that the photographers and clerks have abandoned the metal block and lot signs of the original series. Since they no longer needed to hold a sign, the clerks less frequently show up in the images. However, in some of the original film canisters from Queens we recently discovered paper slips with a name and a roll number. Presumably these are the names of the photographers then employed by the agency:

Munday; Hackman; Pat McCullagh; Evans; Chambers; Garnes; Dummett; Suffal; Gordan; Cenzar

Whether any of these photographers were part of the original project we do not know. Someone out there must know more about these men, a family story, a recognizable face, but as of yet, no one has come forward. We are waiting….

A Tax Department clerk feeding a squirrel in Central Park, ca. 1940.

All photographs from the 1940s Tax Department Collection, NYC Municipal Archives. Browse more outtakes and unidentified photos from the 1940s Tax Photo collection online.

Skating in Central Park

The sport of ice skating in Victorian-era New York was so popular that all submissions to the 1857 design competition for Central Park were required to include a winter skating area. As one of the few socially acceptable activities that could be enjoyed in mixed company (along with tennis and bicycling), the Department of Parks’ Board of Commissioners recognized that a public skating rink would be a great source of healthful recreation for city dwellers. Called the Skating Pond on Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted’s winning Greensward plan, the Lake was one of the first areas of the park to be open to the public for the 1858-59 skating season, well before construction of many other park areas had started.

Detail of Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted’s 1857 Greensward plan submission drawing showing the skating pond. Black ink with colored pencil on paper. Department of Parks Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

In the early days of the park, ice skating on the Lake drew huge crowds—some thirty thousand people daily. Beginning in 1868, a three-story chalet-style “skate tent,” as it was called, was put up and taken down at the south end of the lake during the winter season. The 1870 report of the Board of Commissioners described the tent amenity: on the first floor it had concessions, changing areas, a place to warm up, a refreshment stand, and a cloak room. The second story provided windows for spectators to view the skating while enjoying a beverage, and the third level served as a “ladies look-out exclusively.” 

Design for a Skate House. Julius Munckwitz, architect, 1884. Ink and watercolor on paper. Department of Parks Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

To replace the original “skating tent,” actually a wooden structure, after it had fallen into disrepair, architect Julius Munckwitz prepared this drawing for a new Skate House in 1884, which provided a detailed elevation view and a floor plan with restaurants for men and women as well as a parlor and smoking room.

In addition to the main skating area, Vaux and Olmsted also provided a more secluded space reserved for women who preferred to skate away from the mixed-gender, social atmosphere on the Lake. Located on a small inlet just beyond Balcony Bridge, the Ladies Skating Pond provided a “ladies only” option for the more modest skaters of the day. As construction in the park continued, other bodies of water such as the Conservatory Water and the Pond also became popular skating venues.

In an effort to make the man-made Lake safe throughout the year, it was equipped with waste weirs (to lower water levels) and sluice gates (to raise water levels). During summer, sluice gates kept the water level at seven feet deep to accommodate boaters. In winter, the waste weirs lowered the level to just four feet to lessen the possibility of an accidental drowning if a skater fell through too-thin ice and each night, a series of eighteen hydrants, or valves, spread water to create a fresh sheet of ice.

Design of the sluice gate for the outlet of the Skating Pond, c. 1858. Black and red ink with pencil, blue crayon, and colored washes on paper. Department of Parks Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

With large crowds arriving daily, Olmsted instituted many park rules for wintertime users of the Lake. He stipulated, for example, that visitors should “not drop any tobacco, segar-stumps, paper, nutshells, or other articles on the ice” and that, “a ball will be hoisted to the top of the pole, near the bell tower whenever the ice is in full condition for skating.” However, Olmsted did relax one rule during the ice-skating season—park closing time—extending it from eight o’clock to midnight. Harper’s Monthy Magazine in 1861 described the nighttime spectacle: “The dramatic aspect of the jubilee [of skating] is greatly increased by the sparkle of the moonbeams and the glare of the Drummond lights, which flood the scene with startling brilliance.”

Summer and winter water levels at the site of the Rustic Bridge crossing an arm of the Ladies Skating Pond, c. 1860. Black and colored inks with pencil on paper. Department of Parks Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The levels of the water of the Lake ranged from seven feet deep in the summer to provide ample room for boaters and swimmers to only four feet in the winter as a safety measure should anyone fall through the ice.

While the popularity of ice skating waned in the later part of the century, it never completely fell out of fashion and remained a wintertime draw for the park, albeit one contingent on the fickle nature of New York weather. In 1949, philanthropist Kate Wollman donated $600,000 toward construction of a new kind of "artificial rink" to be built in Central Park. The Parks Department publicity materials stated that the rink guaranteed access to safe skating for New Yorkers "who have been deprived of the pleasure of regular, uninterrupted outdoor ice skating throughout the winter half year because of vagaries of our climate." Created as a memorial to her parents and four brothers, Wollman Rink opened at the south end of the park in 1950. More than 300,000 visitors arrived in the first year and by 1953 the rink had welcomed its one millionth skater. Noted for its vast size of approximately 31,000 square feet, the rink required over sixteen miles of 1 ¼ inch wrought-iron pipe for construction.

Wollman Memorial Skating Rink, Central Park, 1960. Mayor Wagner Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

In addition to Wollman Rink, Central Park is also home to the Lasker Rink and Pool located at the northern end of the park near the Harlem Meer. Named for its major benefactor Loula Davis Lasker, a philanthropist and social worker, who donated $600,000 to help build the rink in 1961, the skating rink opened in 1966 and is converted into a public swimming pool during the summer months.

This blog is adapted from the Municipal Archives’ forthcoming publication, The Central Park, Original Designs for New York’s Greatest Treasure.

The book is now available for pre-order from the publisher, Abrams Books: