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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.
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.
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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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.
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.
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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.
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., www.britannica.com/topic/Works-Progress-Administration