Tax Records and Time Machines: The Property Cards of the Municipal Archives

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3912 5th Avenue, Brooklyn, NY, circa 1940. Department of Finance Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

3912 5th Avenue, Brooklyn, NY, mid-1980s. Department of Finance Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.


IT WAS 1933, AND THE AMERICAN PEOPLE had been struggling through the Great Depression for four years. Franklin D. Roosevelt had been elected president and established the New Deal, creating federally funded relief programs such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Public Works Administration (PWA), resulting in millions of jobs for out-of- work Americans. By 1935, WPA-funded construction projects built thousands of roads, schools, parks and bridges. It employed all types of artists to create cultural projects related to community devolvement. By 1943 the WPA and many other programs created under the Emergency Relief Appropriations were disbanded.


1451-55 Broadway, Manhattan, circa 1940. New Yorkers have been watching the New Year's Eve ball drop from the top of this building since 1908. Department of Finance Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.


Although many, if not all, of the programs generated by the WPA had long-term effects on New York City, one program in particular is near and dear to us at the Archives.  Between 1939 and 1941, the WPA financed teams of photographers to photograph the buildings on every block and lot in the City for the Department of Taxes (now the Department of Finance).  The 720,000 images they produced represent a snapshot of NYC life in those years.  The photos are startling in their simplicity, blunt images taken with 35mm cameras using black and white nitrate film stock. Each has a sign placed in front of the building containing identification numbers for the borough, block and lot. In the 1980s, the Department of Finance repeated the process, creating another set of hundreds of thousands of photos of every building on every lot in every borough.


245 West 42nd Street, date unknown. Department of Finance Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.


2390 Arthur Avenue, Bronx, circa 1940. In the heart of the Bronx’s Little Italy, we see a shop keeper and patron looking directly at the camera as the tax photo is taken. Department of Finance Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.



NOW LET'S TALK about the images themselves. Although, they are simple – just a photo of a building most of the time -- they offer a glimpse of New York City life during both the 1940s and 1980s. Neighborhoods that have been torn down during city redesign have been captured here; neighborhoods that have suffered through the best and worst economic times, are preserved here. You can catch children playing in the street, laundry hung out to dry, architectural details, cars lining the streets, store fronts with signs hung out and sometimes you can see a member of the photography team standing to the side.  The uses for the images are endless, and though currently most orders come from people looking into the preservation of their homes, these images depict the unique history of New York over a forty year period.

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4409 5th Ave, Brooklyn, NY, circa 1940. NYC Municipal Archives.

4409 5th Ave, Brooklyn, NY, mid-1980s. NYC Municipal Archives.

The City used these photographs to appraise real property values for taxation in conjunction with a form that could be updated as real estate values changed. Together, the photos and the attached 8 ½ x 14 inch forms, known as property cards, are organized in folders that are maintained in their original order by borough, block and then lot. Every property in NYC at the time got a card; sometimes more than one and occasionally as many as seven, depending on the size of the building and updates being done to the property.  The first card is typically the original containing a small 2 ½ x 3 ½ inch print of the tax photo, building information, and a diagram of the plot. Annual updates to the tax assessments and ownership of the properties are also recorded.


61 Richmond Avenue, Staten Island, circa 1940. Richmond Chandelier opened in 1926, selling lighting fixtures and electoral supplies, and is still there today. Department of Finance Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.


Property card for a block in the Rockaways, Queens, circa 1940. A property card from the Rockaways shows beach bungalows but not much other information; even the address has been left blank. Department of Finance Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.


It is not a perfect system, as some cards have been lost over the years, and some have a vast amount of information, while others have the bare minimum. As a general rule of thumb, the Manhattan properties have the most information and the further out you go into the boroughs, the less information is available on the cards. Unfortunately for the Rockaways, not many of those property cards remain.

Bowery between West 15th and 16th Streets, Brooklyn, 1964. The Thunderbolt roller coaster in Coney Island was built in 1925, two years earlier than the famous Cyclone. It made a cameo in Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall.” Department of Finance Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

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107 Norfolk Street, circa 1940. A view of Norfolk Street in the Lower East Side at a time when a lot of the residents were immigrant Jewish families from Eastern Europe. Beth Hamedrash Hagodol, one of the oldest Orthodox congregations in the United States, was just down the street. Department of Finance Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.


255 Brighton Beach Avenue, Brooklyn, circa 1940. The neighborhood of Brighton Beach is now sometimes referred to as “Little Odessa,” but in the 1940’s it was home to a lot of immigrant families escaping turmoil in Europe. Department of Finance Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.


7 Chatham Square, Manhattan, circa 1940. The elevated train tracks, once part of the IRT Third Avenue Line, have been demolished. Prices on signs include 35 cents for a hotel rooms and a 10 cent barber shop shave. Department of Finance Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.


The small tax photos have been stapled, glued and taped to the property cards, making it difficult to get a good quality digital image or print from these. In the 1980s the original nitrate negatives were accessioned by the Municipal Archives.  The nitrate film had been stored in 36-frame strips rolled in individual film canisters, which were labeled with an alpha numeric code, each one corresponding with a paper index arranged by block and lot numbers. Simply put, in order to use these negatives, the roll of film must be cross-checked against the original inventory ledgers and can only be found by block and lot, NOT by address.  Fortunately for the public, we do most of that legwork when copies of the images are ordered.  We only ask that anyone interested in looking up a specific tax photo provide the block and lot number. This can be found relatively painlessly through the Department of Buildings website. The 1940s images are not currently available online (we’re getting there) but the 1980s photos are available on our online gallery as low resolution “preview” images.  People can order high resolution digital and print copies of the tax photos from the 1940s and the 1980s, as well as property cards, online or in person at our office for a small fee.

15-17 Doyers Street, Manhattan, 1951. Established in 1920, the Nam Wah Tea Parlor was the first to bring dim sum to New York. Department of Finance Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.


15-17 Doyers Street, Manhattan, 1970. Department of Finance Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.


Further Reading

Goodwin, Aaron. New York City Municipal Archives: an Authorized Guide for Family Historians. Edited by Harry Macy, New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, 2016.

The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Works Progress Administration (WPA).” Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.,