The Lung Block: A New York City Slum & Its Forgotten Italian Immigrant Community

On April 25, 2019, the Department of Records and Information Services opened a new exhibit: The Lung Block: A New York City Slum & Its Forgotten Italian Immigrant Community. Set during the Progressive Era of the last century, curators Kerri Culhane, an architectural historian, and cultural critic Stefano Morello tell a story of immigration, public health, and housing reform as reflected in the experience of one block in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Visiting Nurse in tenement backyard, Jessie Tarbox Beals, ca. 1912.

Visiting Nurse in tenement backyard, Jessie Tarbox Beals, ca. 1912.

Co-sponsored by The Center for the Humanities of The Graduate Center, CUNY, the Calandra Italian American Institute, and Queens College Makerspace, the exhibit will be on display at DORIS’ 31 Chambers Street gallery from April 26 to August 29, 2019.

Co-curator Stefano Morello is a native of Torino, Italy. In 2013, Stefano set out to solve a family mystery. He knew that in 1913 his great-grandmother, Salvatrice Nigido had emigrated to New York City from Militello in Val di Catania, a small town in Sicily. She left behind a 5-year old daughter and was never heard from again. Thanks to the availability of on-line indices to New York City vital records and the Municipal Archives’ mail-order service he obtained his great-grandmother’s death certificate. He learned that she had died in the Lung Block of influenza in 1920. In 2015, Stefano came to New York City for graduate studies at CUNY Graduate Center. While his dissertation research focused on the punk world in the San Francisco Bay area, he also decided to try to learn more about his great-grandmother’s life in New York. His research led him to Kerri Culhane, and the work she did researching the history of the ‘Two Bridges’ neighborhood of the Lower East Side. Together, they realized the story of this area, and specifically the Lung Block, was more complicated than the accepted narrative that had assigned to it such dire conditions that its destruction was inevitable.

The following excerpt from the exhibition narrative recounts the story of Salvatrice Nigido and some of her fellow villagers.


THE PLACENTES & FAVARAS ARRIVE, 1904-1905

In 1904, Salvatore Placente arrived in New York City from Militello in Val di Catania. He was the first paesano from Militello to set foot in the Lung Block, preceding over 1,000 fellow-villagers who settled in the neighborhood over the following twenty years. The community from Militello was one of the largest on the block, and one of several Eastern Sicilian clusters that coexisted with enclaves from Italian districts as far apart—culturally and geographically—as Abruzzi, Piacenza, Western Sicily, Irpinia, and Tuscany. Although the general narratives treated the Lung Block as a discrete entity, its residents were indeed part of a larger community that extended well beyond its borders.

Passport photo of Salvatore Placente, 1921. United States Passport Applications, 1795-1925 Collection, National Archives and Records Administration. Courtesy of FamilySearch.

In 1905, Salvatore’s brother Sebastiano and brother-in-law Francesco Favara joined him in his rented tenement at 31 Hamilton Street. Unlike the Gaimaris, who came from a family of artisans, the Placentes and Favaras worked as peasants in their native land and arrived in New York at a time when the competition for manual work was fierce.

In 1913, Salvatrice Nigido fled Militello in rural Eastern Sicily to join her brother, Mario, and her sisters-in-law Arcangela, Genueffa, and Maristella Ragusa, in New York City. She said her goodbyes to her daughter Antonia, only five years old at the time, with the ultimate goal of earning enough money in the new world to eventually reunite. However, things did not go as planned. In the Lung Block, Salvatrice became romantically involved with Salvatore Placente, at that time president of the Independent Sons of Militello Society, and a prominent figure in the Militellese colony. Though her family disperses—brother Mario back to Militello and her sisters-in-law to Plainfield, NJ, Salvatrice stayed in the Lung Block. After seven years working as a seamstress in the tenement apartment she shared with Placente at 47 Market Street, she passed away in February 1920, due to the pandemic influenza still ravaging the city. She was barely thirty-two. Her family back in Italy would not learn her fate until 2013, when great-grandson Stefano Morello uncovered her story and through it, the story of the Lung Block.

Photo of Salvatrice Nigido, 1919. Courtesy of Stefano Morello.

During his first year in the United States, Salvatore held several blue-collar jobs in and out of the city, mostly seasonal construction work common to Italian laborers. In 1905, Salvatore embarked on a white-collar career as a clerk for the local banca La Sicilia, serving the Militellese community from 61 Catherine Street. A banca—combination travel agency, post office, and bank—was a lifeline between the Italian immigrant and the home country. Francesco and Sebastiano continued to work as laborers in the neighborhood. Between 1907 and 1913, all the women in the family, Concetta and Grazia (Salvatore’s sisters) and Nicoletta (Sebastiano’s wife), also immigrated from Militello to New York City.


GAIMARIS, PLACENTES & FAVARAS IN THE 1910S-20S

The Gaimaris took ownership of the property at 142 Cherry in 1921, while continuing to act as brokers for other buildings in and around the block. Together with the Rofranos, the Garones, and the Torregrossas, the Gaimaris were among the Lung Block’s prominenti: middle-upper class Italian professionals and business owners, often earlier-comers, who gained financial and political prominence within the community. The family’s influence in local politics and their lobbying for neighborhood improvement continued throughout the decade. This is exemplified by the petition filed by Albert Gaimari in 1922 to convert the neighborhood from unrestricted use to residential and business, to protect the thriving community that had come to life.

In 1910, the Placentes & Favaras lived in different units of the building at 148 Cherry Street, owned by the Gaimaris. By 1915 on the Lung Block, most Italian residents were renting from fellow-countrymen. Although they tended to move frequently, Italians generally stayed within the neighborhood, in proximity to work, kin, and fellow-villagers. This trend of frequent residential mobility decreased as they were able to find steadier employment and more desirable living conditions. Between 1904 and 1914, the Placentes resided at several addresses on (or in close proximity to) the block: 31 Hamilton, 2 and 8 Monroe Street, 153 and 148 Cherry. Despite being employed in different parts of the city and different lines of work, after 1914, Salvatore and his siblings finally established lasting living quarters in the neighborhood: at 122 Cherry, on the Lung Block; and ½ a block away at 47 Market. …

Map of the “Lung Block” from A Brief History of the Campaign Against Tuberculosis in New York City, Department of Health, 1908. NYC Municipal Library.

Readers are invited to learn more of the fate of the Gamaris, Placentes and Favaras and their homes in the “Lung Block” of the Lower East Side in the new exhibit The Lung Block: A New York City Slum & Its Forgotten Italian Immigrant Community, on display at DORIS’ 31 Chambers Street gallery from April 26 to August 29, 2019.

Riots, Rebellion and the City’s Second Attempt to “Sink” Rikers Island

Rikers Island, 1980s Tax photograph. NYC Municipal Archives.

The tumultuous 1970s at Rikers Island described in Part One were just a quiet prelude to the 1980s and 1990s, as a raging crack epidemic and soaring rates of murder and violent crime exacerbated the overcrowding and incendiary conditions on what became the world’s largest penal colony in the 1990s.

After its failed 1979 attempt to get rid of Rikers by leasing it to the state for a downstate prison and replacing it with eight smaller jails across the boroughs, the city added nearly 4,000 beds to the complex, bringing capacity to 13,188. But even with the new Anna M. Kross Center and the North Facility aka the Otis Bantum Correctional Center, Rikers remained a pressure cooker on the edge of explosion.

Adolescent Reception and Detention Center plan from A Study of Violence and its causes in the New York City Adolescent Reception and Detention Center. NYC Municipal Library.

Records at the city’s Municipal Library show that in March 1986, a two-year City Board of Correction report, A Study of Violence and its causes in the New York City Adolescent Reception and Detention Center found the number of violent incidents and injuries in the facility were “far higher” than at other jails on the island. In November 1985, for example, 47 percent of all serious incidents on Rikers involved male adolescents, even though they made up less than 20 percent of the island’s population.

The report, which noted that young prisoners are generally harder to control than older ones, said corrections officers wrote an average of 19 reports a day involving serious incidents, including slashings, stabbings, broken bones and the January 12, 1983 fatal stabbing of a 16-year-old boy. It reported that self-inflicted injuries and suicide attempts increased 600 percent between 1983 and 1985 and recommended assigning more experienced officers to deal with the young, violent inmates.

The ink on that 1986 report was barely dry when Rikers was hit with what could best be a called a 10-day rolling riot at three buildings from October 9 through October 18. Things got so bad that the State sent an investigative team to the island on October 17 because “the situation presents an imminent danger to the health, safety and security of the inmates or employees.” In a report issued in April 1987, the state Commission on Corrections blamed the insurrection largely on “serious overcrowding,” noting that despite the recent expansion program the city was “unable to keep pace with the persistent growth of its inmate population.”

Inquiry into Disturbances on Riker Island, October 1986. NYC Municipal Library.

The kickoff incident in the rolling riot was a violent altercation involving 30 inmates in the law library at the always tense Adolescent Reception and Detention Center. Four days later, at 8 a.m. on October 13, 150 inmates who had been sentenced to state prison but were still in Rikers because the upstate jails also were overcrowded, barricaded themselves in a dormitory at the Correctional Institution for Men (CIFM) after refusing to stand for the morning count. The inmates took down the barricades after submitting a list of demands to Corrections Department officials that included more services and free time. Officials agreed to most of the demands, even though a search of the dormitory yielded “a number of weapons … and extensive structural damage” inside the dorm.

The next day brought a job action by CIFM guards who refused to take their posts for the second shift in anger over concessions to the inmates.

Tension boiled over again in a mess hall at 12:46 p.m. on October 17, when an inmate tried to take an extra juice with his lunch. An officer ordered the man to put it back; the inmate threw the juice at the officer. A melee broke out involving dozens of inmates; eleven officers and five inmates were injured.

At 11 p.m., on October 18, officers began a planned transfer of 133 inmates on buses from the Anna M. Kross Center to the Correctional Institution for Men. It turned into a violent insurrection, lasting hours. It began when an inmate kicked a guard in the chest, knocking him to the ground. Inmates began yelling and cursing. Mass confusion ensued as some inmates were pulled from buses and reportedly made to run a gauntlet through a double line of baton-swinging officers. Twenty-four inmates were injured, eight seriously with contusions, lacerations and possible broken ribs. Two altercations at the Anna Kross Center quickly followed.

The New York State Commission on Corrections issued a report on the October riots on April 17, 1987. The report concluded that officers used “unnecessary force” on several occasions and, at one of the incidents at the Anna Cross Center, found “a nearly complete breakdown in command … and a failure to maintain order and discipline” among staff. In addition to the overcrowding, the state said corrections officials were generally unprepared for such incidents, and recommended reorganizing the island’s Emergency Response Team, which was blamed for much of the “unnecessary force.”

Typical Dormitory, from The Disturbance at the Rikers Island Otis Bantum Correctional Center, August 14, 1990: Its Causes and the Department of Correction Response. NYC Municipal Library.

Overcrowding got ever worse as the city’s murder rate climbed steadily, hitting a record high of 2,245 homicides in 1990 and pushing the city’s jail population to 20,000. That year also featured one of the most infamous riots in Rikers Island history. In early August, three inmates beat, stabbed and robbed corrections officer Steven Narby, breaking his jaw, knocking out several teeth and stealing some jewelry. The corrections officers’ union demanded that the inmates be charged with attempted murder. When they were charged only with robbery and assault, hundreds of corrections officers blocked the entrance to the bridge to the island jail in a driving rainstorm, allowing access only to emergency vehicles. The officers, who blockaded the bridge for two days of tense negotiations, also protested the “use of force directive,” which they said limited their response to violent attacks by inmates.

The blockade meant hundreds of inmates could not be taken off the island for court appearances, food deliveries were halted causing shortages, jail movements and activities were curtailed, and prisoners were becoming unruly, facing off with officers who had worked more than 40 hours straight. Minutes after a settlement was reached on the blockade, the Otis Banum Correctional Center, which held 905 inmates, erupted in violence. Inmates erected barricades, armed themselves, set fires, flooded sleeping areas and smashed windows.

By the time the dust settled, 21 corrections personnel were injured and more than 100 inmates were hurt, 81 seriously. Inmates claimed they were brutalized. Mayor David Dinkins directed the city Department of Investigation to probe the riots.

After and before scenes from The Disturbance at the Rikers Island Otis Bantum Correctional Center, August 14, 1990: Its Causes and the Department of Correction Response. NYC Municipal Library.

The Archives contains an April 1, 1991 DOI report that concluded “correction officers used unnecessary or excessive force,” and that the bridge blockade “caused a rapid and severe deterioration” of conditions in the jail. DOI said most of the officers and supervisors in the Otis Banum center did not cooperate with the investigation: “They have chosen silence to protect those among them who may have violated their duty as uniformed officers.” The report also faulted corrections officials for failing to control the officers and found that “supervisors at every level failed to do their jobs effectively.”

There were periodic disturbances through the 1990s and several suspicious inmate deaths, for which the city paid out $11.8 million in settlements between 2012 and 2016. But through efforts and investments to reform the city’s justice system, crime and murder rates reached historic lows under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, allowing officials to reduce the jail population to about 8,000 and eventually close one facility on Rikers Island.

Demands for closing Rikers grew in 2015, after Kalief Browder committed suicide. He had spent more than three years on Rikers Island awaiting trial for stealing backpack at age 16 before the charges were dropped. His family attributed his death to mental and physical abuse he suffered on Rikers.

In 2016, then-City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito created a commission, headed by Jonathan Lippman, the former chief judge of the State Court of Appeals, to study what to do about Rikers Island. In language that was strikingly similar to the 1979 findings, the Lippmann Commission issued a scathing report in early 2017, calling Rikers a “19th century solution to a 21st century problem” and said it must be shuttered and replaced with “something that is more effective and more humane” within 10 years.

The commission recommended building smaller jails throughout the city, contingent upon the city reducing the overall jail population to about 5,000. In 2018, Mayor de Blasio announced a plan to replace the facilities on Rikers Island with four community-based jails—one each in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens and The Bronx. 

Hearings began in late March in an approval process that could take seven months. If the plan is approved by the City Council, it would represent a marked moment in New York City’s history.

The Central Park: Original Designs for New York’s Greatest Treasure, a conversation with author Cynthia Brenwall

The Department of Records & Information Services is pleased to announce The Central Park: Original Designs for New York’s Greatest Treasure, will be in bookstores beginning Tuesday, April 16. We asked author Cynthia Brenwall, conservator at the Municipal Archives, to share her favorite stories about the park and to highlight some of the beautiful drawings from the collection that are featured in the book.

Kenneth Cobb: One of the most striking drawings in the collection, the gilded bird cage, is on the cover of the book. Is it true that the cages contained live birds in the early years of the park?

Ornamental birdcage on a blue stone pedestal, 1864.

Attributed to Jacob Wrey Mould, architect.

Black ink and watercolor with pencil on paper, 18 ½ x 13 ¼ inches

Cynthia Brenwall: Yes, they put live birds in the cages for the enjoyment of visitors promenading on the mall near the Terrace. We do not know when they removed the cages, but their bases are still in the park today, used to hold large floral planters.

KC: It must have been difficult to choose from the more than 1,500 drawings of the park in the collection. Can you describe how you came up with the overall organization of the book?

CB: With so many amazing drawings in our collection, my hardest task was selecting items that best represented different areas of the park. The creators of the park, Olmsted and Vaux, felt that the view and the scenic landscape that they devised were the most important aspect of the park. I wanted to find a way to convey how they made sure a visitor would experience a “respite for the eye and the soul,” as I put it, from any point in the park. In the southern end of the park they installed a formal landscape with linear views and features such as distinctive bridges, natural looking bodies of water and pathways for pedestrians, horses and carriages. Moving northward in the park, the view becomes more rugged featuring the natural landscape of rock outcroppings, rolling hills and long vistas. Finally, there is the ceremonial and architecturally detailed Bethesda Terrace and Mall—the heart of the park.

Map of Central Park, c. 1875. Black ink on linen, 24 x 74 inches.

This map shows work both planned and completed as of the mid-1870s. It includes Drives, Rides, Walks, bridges, named gates, and major structures as well as several building that were being planned at the time but were never completed.

In the early stages of shaping how I would display the drawings in the book, I found a very detailed map of the park from 1872. As I began identifying all the places on the map that corresponded to the drawings I realized I could organize the book as though the visitor were strolling through the park, enjoying these ever-changing, but always pastoral, views.

Huddlestone Arch, plan showing the southern elevation and a schematic sketch of the north side, 1864.

Black ink with pencil on graph paper, 13 ¼ x 16 ½ inches

KC: We often say that along with the Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park was one of the greatest public works achievements of the 19th century. What were some innovative features of the park that you found illustrated in the drawings?

CB: Probably the best known feature is the transverse roads. Again, it was all about the views. The designers knew they had to accommodate vehicular traffic across the park but did not want to spoil the views, or the visitors’ sense of being in a natural landscape. The below-grade transverse roads brilliantly solved the problem. This design feature contributed to Vaux and Olmsted’s submission, “The Greensward” being selected as the winning entry in the contest to design the Park

Another of my favorite innovative designs is the Huddlestone Arch in the northern section of the park. It is constructed completely out of stones excavated during park construction. It uses only gravity (no mortar or other binding materials) to hold it together and it is still today a load-bearing (cars and trucks instead of horse drawn carriages) roadway carrying the East Drive over the Loch. The largest stone is estimated to weigh two tons.

Plan of Terrace drainage, showing drains and basin, 1863. Black and red ink colored washes and pencil on graph paper, 16 x 13 inches

Some of the most fascinating drawings are those pertaining to the unseen, but very necessary drainage system devised for the swampy areas of what became the park. George E. Waring, Jr., age 23, was the original drainage engineer. He developed a spider web of clay drains that carried water in and out of the park lands, and the collection contains stunning drawings of the wells and how the system worked.

Another new technology illustrated by the drawings were tree grates—probably not something that park visitors give much thought to. They were first developed in Paris as a way to allow trees to root deeper in the earth along walkways, and to prevent people from trampling on new plantings. The first use of tree grates in America was our Central Park.

Ornamental tree gratings, ironmonger’s details, c. 1872. Ink and watercolor on paper, 18 x 20 inches

KC: What are some of the other hidden secrets of the park that you discovered during your research for the book?

Drinking fountain on the Esplanade, elevation, stonecutter’s and ironmonger’s contract, 1865. Jacob Wrey Mould, architect.

Black and colored inks with colored washes on paper, 14 x 10 inches

CB: Drinking fountains! The park planners knew how important water would be for park visitors, both human and animal. And speaking of water for animals, the design for the drinking trough for horses is a lovely example of their attention to the smallest detail. We have two drawing that show drinking fountains for horses, one of which is still in the park today at Cherry Hill near the Lake. It features Minton Tiles and bird baths above the drinking trough.

The drinking fountains for people are placed throughout the park. Several near the Terrace included a hidden luxury—water would pass over blocks of ice providing chilled water on hot summer days. During the early years of the park, the drinking fountains featured a shared common cup attached with a chain to the fountain. Fears of communicable diseases, such as cholera and yellow fever, led to the end of the common cup practice after 1910.

KC: I expect that many readers will enjoy the drawings of the Paleozoic Museum and the rendering of what they thought a dinosaur would look like.

CB: There was to be a Paleozoic Museum on the west side of the park. They built the foundation for the museum, and plaster models of the dinosaurs, but the City’s political leaders at that time, ca. 1871, preferred lighthearted entertainment rather than educational or cultural institutions within the park.

Paleozoic Museum, transverse view with specimens, 1870. Ink and watercolor on paper, 19 x 26 inches.

This side view shows an example of an interior scene proposed for the museum, which was to include aquariums, geological specimens as well as reconstruction of dinosaurs in the main exhibition hall.

KC: Have you thought of a name for your dinosaur?

CB: No, not yet. Maybe we should make that into a contest… name the dinosaur??!!

KC: Are all the features of the park that we enjoy today included in the original design?

Swedish Schoolhouse (Svenska Skolhauset), perspective view and ground plan. Magnus Isaeus, architect, 1876. Black ink and pencil on paper, 21 x 14 inches.

The Swedish Schoolhouse is the only structure in park that was originally designed for something other than Central Park

CB: The Swedish Schoolhouse (now the marionette theater and called the Swedish Cottage) is the only building that was not designed specifically for the park. It had been built as the Swedish entry into the Philadelphia World Exhibition of 1876 and was later transplanted to Central Park. Over the years it has served as a bike shelter, an entomological laboratory, a library and even a Civil Defense headquarters during WWII.

And of course legendary Park Commissioner Robert Moses made numerous changes to the park. The original park plan did not include playgrounds as we know them, but rather large open areas for “healthful recreation.” Moses installed nearly forty “pocket playgrounds” throughout the park in the 1930s and early 40s.

KC: I know that you conducted a great deal of research to provide context for the illustrations in the book. What were some of the most useful resources?

CB: I made extensive use of Parks Commission and Department annual reports here in our Municipal Library, as well as the minutes and reports of the City’s legislative bodies—the Common Council, Board of Aldermen, etc. in the Municipal Archives. These government records helped me follow how changes in the city’s political landscape translated into changes in our park landscape. They also provided good factual data about payments, work timelines and specific projects that were completed during a given time period.

KC: What is your favorite place in the Park?

Drinking fountain for horses, bronze details, 1871. Black and red ink with colored washes on paper, 17 x 25 inches

CB: I love the more wild and untamed landscapes of the north end of the park. There are many hidden features to discover near the Loch and it feels like you are wandering through the country-side.

KC: Favorite drawing?

CB: There are so many amazing drawings in our collection. I love the tilework designs within the Bethesda Terrace Arcade. I spent a lot of time on the conservation treatment of that drawing and the tiles are stunning. But my absolute favorite drawing is the simple temporary enclosure post that I used at the end of the book. It is minimal and elegant and represented to me that no detail was too small to be overlooked in the design of the park. That, and the fact that it is one of the few drawings to include the names of the architects Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould as well as Frederick Law Olmsted who was serving as the president and treasurer of the Board of Commissioners.

Temporary enclosure posts for Central Park, 1872.

Ink and watercolor on paper, 19 x 12 inches

This preliminary study was prepared by Vaux and Mould and was approved by Olmsted, who was serving as the president and treasurer of the Board of Commissioners at the time.

Remembering Neighborhood Voices, Part I

In 1985, New York City’s municipal broadcast television station WNYC-TV produced Neighborhood Voices, a limited series on unique and changing city neighborhoods.  Comprised mostly of interviews with longtime residents and prominent local figures, this series provided a vivid and personal window into the ever-changing City, its residents, and the communities they created.

One such neighborhood was San Juan Hill. Located in Manhattan from 59th to 65th Streets, between Amsterdam and West End Avenues, it had been site of the first affordable housing units in the country, the childhood home of jazz legend Thelonious Sphere Monk, and the inspiration for the musical West Side Story.

Beginning in the 1890s, Afro-Caribbean emigres and African-Americans migrating from the American South began populating the neighborhood along with churches and community organizations. The community also attracted veterans returning from the Spanish-American War of 1898, possibly giving the area its nickname—from the Battle of San Juan Hill. In the 1910s, philanthropist Henry Phipps, Jr. constructed the Phipps Houses on 63rd Street. These buildings constitute the country’s oldest affordable housing units and provided a quality of living that working-class people of color rarely had access to at the time. In 1940, Robert Moses, Chairman of the Mayor’s Committee on Slum Clearance declared the neighborhood a slum, displaced its inhabitants, demolished the buildings and constructed what stands there today—Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

Roseanna Weston, one of the last living residents of the Phipps Houses, remembered the neighborhood before Lincoln Center. She recalled that prior to moving into the Phipps Houses in 1917, her family had been living in a tenement with wooden stairs and toilets shared by the entire building. Roseanna’s family was vetted and approved for the Phipps Houses after her father’s boss, a wealthy businessman, personally vouched for him as a reliable worker and good man. Rent was set at $6 a week, making it equivalent to roughly $475 a month in 2019 dollars—less than a quarter of even the cheapest rents in the area today.

Roseanna Weston sits in the same Phipps Houses apartment she grew up in, the last of her family to live there.

Thelonious Sphere Monk, jazz legend and New York City icon grew up in the Phipps houses alongside the Weston family. Monk passed away in 1983 following years of ill health. Neighborhood Voices interviewed Monk’s son, Thelonious Monk Jr. about his father, his relationship to San Juan Hill and how it had changed since his childhood. Monk Jr. recounted how personally involved his father was in the San Juan Hill area and how the character of the neighborhood informed his musical development. Following his death, Monk’s family established the Thelonious Monk Foundation to improve music education across the country. One of their first projects was starting a jazz dance and music class for students in Martin Luther King Jr. High School at 122 Amsterdam Avenue. Students in this class learned how to play and breakdance to Monk’s music.

Thelonious Monk Jr. weighs the impact of urban renewal (or urban removal) on his childhood neighborhood. Neighborhood Voices, WNYC Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Nina Garland, a member of the Thelonious Monk Foundation as well as a long-time choreographer and dance instructor assisted Monk Jr. in this effort. Garland, still a dance educator today, admired how teenagers in 1985 adapted modern break dancing techniques to the unfamiliar beat of Monk’s jazz. Classes like these were part of a larger push to make the lessons taught in City schools reflect the lives and experiences of their students. In another interview, school Principal Nellie Jordan explained how the class was originally planned as an after-school activity, but thanks to its popularity, became part of the regular school schedule.

Nina Garland marvels at the impact many famous African American artists and performers who first rose to prominence in San Juan Hill made on American culture. Neighborhood Voices, WNYC Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

In the 1980s, Neighborhood Voices was meant to empower members of rapidly changing and sometimes disappearing neighborhoods. In addition to the artists in San Juan Hill, the series also highlighted the departure of the fur and shipping industries from Chelsea, socialist cooperatives based in the Allerton Coops, community gardens in the South Bronx and much more. These programs are now being digitized. Recorded on ¾” u-matic tapes, these videos were some of the most degraded in the WNYC-TV collection. Many required special treatments prior to digitization. The tapes themselves will continue to degrade, but the personal oral histories of New Yorkers contained within them have been preserved for future generations.

Iron Gall Ink

Archivists and conservators at the Municipal Archives face many challenges in their work to preserve and provide access to the City’s historical records. This week’s blog discusses the effects of the iron gall ink used to create some of the earliest documents in the Archives collection.

Example of "burn through" in an untreated page with iron gall ink.

Iron gall ink was the ink of choice in the Western world for well over a millennium. Its indelibility and rich dark tone were desirable traits for artists, scribes, letter-writers, bookkeepers, i.e. virtually anyone documenting something on paper. While other types of inks were also available, such as carbon black and lamp-black ink, iron gall made up a significant proportion of the inks used up to the early 19th century, tapering off rapidly after that time. Iron gall ink, however, also has the unfortunate trait of damaging the paper it is written on. Over time and depending on certain conditions, the ink can fade to a light brown, create a haloing effect around letters, or “sink” through the paper. The ink in extreme cases will corrode the paper support, leaving areas of losses resembling burn marks in the paper. The effects can be seen in drawings by Leonardo Da Vinci, early drafts of the U.S. Constitution, and manuscripts of Victor Hugo, to name a few. The ink poses a formidable challenge for institutions with pre-19th-century manuscripts in their collections, including the Municipal Archives.

Oak galls.

The effects of iron gall ink have long been known to conservators but are still not fully understood. The ink is composed of four main ingredients: tannins, which come from oak galls—a growth triggered by parasitic insects that attack oak trees; iron sulfate in the form of bluish-green salt crystals; a binder, usually gum arabic from the acacia tree, added to improve the flow of the ink; and lastly, water or wine. The ink achieves its rich bluish tone after the solution is exposed to air while writing.

Iron sulfate

Research has shown that the two main ingredients in the ink, iron salts and tannic acid, each pose separate risks to paper, risks that are exacerbated by certain environmental conditions. The concentrations of the ingredients, the preparation method, the presence of other contaminates in the ink such as copper or zinc, the amount of ink that is absorbed into the paper, and even the type of writing instrument used, all influence and further complicate the degradation process. As a result documents that are produced at roughly the same time may exhibit a wide range of condition levels.

This variability is easily seen in the pages of manuscripts in which one page appears stable, while the adjacent page may show signs of severe degradation. In these cases it’s possible that the writer used a new batch of ink on the adjacent page or a new writing instrument, or even perhaps a new writer with a much heavier hand stepped in on the following page. It’s often impossible to say. These numerous factors, of course, complicate the role of the conservator, who must determine the best approach to treating and preserving collections.

Book of 17th-century land conveyance records showing the variability in condition of different pages. NYC Municipal Archives Collections.

In some of the Archives’ original Dutch and English records, which document the founding of New York City by Dutch colonialists in the mid-17th century and the subsequent English takeover, the wide-ranging effects of iron gall ink are on full display. Some of the Dutch records were treated by Archives conservators in the late 1980s by a process called leaf casting. The treatment involves filling in losses on a damaged sheet via a water bath with new paper pulp. The water is slowly pumped out, allowing the pulp to fill in any missing gaps in the original document and create a more stable structure. The treatment also washes away water soluble iron II ions and acidic elements in the paper that contribute to its deterioration.

Dutch records that were treated by leaf casting in the 1980s. NYC Municipal Archives Collections.

The documents that underwent this treatment more than 30 years ago are in markedly better condition today than those that have undergone no treatment. While leaf casting does not address the full range of issues that iron gall ink brings—a near impossible task for conservators racing against time and often less than ideal storage conditions—it has certainly proven to have been a worthwhile approach that likely prevented significant future losses.

The treatments available for collections with iron gall ink continue to evolve, as more research is conducted. And, additional options have been developed since these collections were treated years ago, such as a calcium phytate/calcium bicarbonate treatment. Municipal Archives conservators will continue to monitor the remedies for these important materials.

The Birth, Life and—Maybe—Death of Rikers Island

MAC 1928: Model of new penitentiary on Rikers Island “to be completed in 1933.” Photo taken in front of the Blackwell’s Island Prison, ca. 1932. Edwin Levick, NYC Municipal Archives Collection.

Rikers Island once called—“The City’s Island of the Damned” —was born in tragedy and scandal.

Severe overcrowding and a spate of riots and legal battles across the jail’s first 45 years of existence led the city to try to get rid it and replace it with eight smaller detention centers across the boroughs in the late 1970s and 1980s. That highly touted, but controversial effort ultimately failed, and, despite its well-earned notoriety, the 413-acre island jail continued to grow, fester and become increasingly dangerous for the inmates as well as the correctional officers who worked there.

Now, 85 years after it officially opened, the city wants to shutter it for once and for all and replace it—again with several smaller jails across Manhattan, Brooklyn, The Bronx and Queens.

With that in mind, a trip through the city’s Municipal Archives reveals a harrowing, but by no means complete, tale of how Rikers grew into a sprawling, horrific and riot-torn lockup that once housed over 20,000 inmates—and points to problems the city may once again face trying to close it.


Named after Abraham Rycken, whose Dutch family once owned the island, Rikers was home to a military training ground during the Civil War. It was sold to the city for $180,000 in 1884 and became a garbage dump.

The city first considered using it as a workhouse. Nothing happened until the late 1920s, when officials announced plans to build a modern jail to replace the crumbling Blackwell’s Island complex of badly deteriorating jails and asylums that had held prisoners and mental patients for over 100 years.

Construction of 26 buildings consisting of seven cellblocks for 2,600 inmates, an administration building, receiving center, mess hall, shops, a chapel and homes for the warden and deputy warden began in 1932—and disaster struck almost immediately.

On the Friday after Labor Day 1932, the steamboat Observation, ferrying 150 construction workers to the island, exploded in the East River, killing 72 people. Investigations ensued, but construction went on and Rikers Island soon began taking inmates.

MAC_1935: Aerial view of unfinished Rikers Island penitentiary buildings, ca. 1936. Department of Corrections, NYC Municipal Archives Collection.

Scandal quickly followed. In a January 18, 1934, report to Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, the city’s Commission of Accounts found “many irregularities and abuses in the construction of Rikers Island Penitentiary,” largely due to “Tammany Hall Corruption.” For starters, the report noted that the architects had been awarded a no-bid contract and that multi-million-dollar construction contracts have “clearly been violated in a number of particulars with a probable loss to taxpayers of more than $100,000,” or nearly $2 million in today’s dollars.

The report found “serious cracks” in some of the newly constructed buildings and violations in plumbing and roofing contracts, all of which “constitutes an illustration of the reckless way in which the city’s money has been spent with the approval of the Finance Department of the prior administration.”

MAC_1058: Department of Sanitation tractor at Rikers Island Dump, ca. 1936. NYC Municipal Archives.

Two years later, another report to LaGuardia noted garbage was still being burned on Rikers and critics feared the smoke and stench would make the 1939 World’s Fair in Queens unattractive to visitors. “It is inconceivable that the City of New York can tolerate (this) unsightly and unsavory nuisance,” the report harrumphed. Modifications were made to the garbage-burning process, and the show went on.

Despite steady overcrowding—press reports in 1954 show that the city’s jails held 7,900 inmates in spaces designed for 4,200 prisoners—no new buildings were added until the mid-1950s. That’s when additions and alterations were made to buildings housing adults and adolescents to accommodate another 1,900 inmates. In addition to cellblocks, kitchens and enlarged mess halls, the city built a 107,000-square-foot industrial building to house a new bakery, print shop, shoe shop, garage and diagnostic center. New buildings for adult males, women and adolescents, were added in the mid-1960s and early 1970s.

dpw_0975: Rikers Island Laundry Site, cell blocks, September 20, 1939. Joseph Shelderfer, Department of Public Works Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Still, overcrowding continued to worsen; in 1969, the city held 14,000 prisoners in spaces designed for 8,000.

 A spiraling crime rate and raging heroin epidemic made conditions so bad in the early 1970s that a headline in the New York Times called Rikers “The City’s Island of the Damned,” and a prescient New York Post story screamed: “Pressure Cooker Ready to Blow at Rikers?” In November 1975, rioting inmates seized two cell blocks at the Men’s House of Detention and 318 inmates were transferred to other buildings as a result. A few days later, 350 corrections officers refused to take their posts during a six-hour protest over budget cuts, overcrowding and inmate violence.

dpw_0974 Rikers Island Laundry Site, Chapel Building and Mess Hall, September 20, 1939. Joseph Shelderfer, Department of Public Works Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

At least six lawsuits were filed in Manhattan Federal Court in the early 1970s, alleging inhumane conditions, Draconian rules and policies that the inmates and their lawyers said violated the prisoners’ civil rights. Press reports and archival records show that Federal Judge Morris Lasker found overcrowding and stench in the old Tombs prison and vermin and unsanitary conditions on Rikers Island, where thousands of prisoners waited months for trial, and where an estimated 25 percent of the inmates suffered from mental health problems.

The city cited budget restrictions and asked for more time to correct conditions, but Lasker eventually ordered the Tombs closed in 1974; it reopened nearly a decade later after a $42 million makeover. Lasker also found conditions at Rikers and other city jails to be unconstitutional. He ordered the transfers of sentenced inmates to state prisons and told officials to come up with a new classification system, expand visiting hours and allow contact visits.

Then city officials came up with a bright idea: Lease the island to the state for $200 million and use the money to build eight smaller city jails in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and The Bronx. Under the proposed 99-year lease, the state would also spend $100 million to upgrade Rikers.

eik_08.010.0469: Mayor Edward I. Koch at Rikers Island filming a commercial on gun legislation, August 5, 1980. Mayor Koch Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

An October 1, 1979, report called the Rikers Island Project Working Document explained the original prison building “is now in a decrepit condition which creates a potentially dangerous environment for both staff and inmates,” and noted that 25 percent of the existing buildings were erected in the 1950s and needed “substantial upgrading.” The document estimated the city’s capital costs at $351 million.

The city’s Board of Correction held two days of hearings on the plan in early October 1979. Herb Sturz, the city’s criminal justice coordinator, recounted the court battles and riots of the mid-1970s and told the board there had been “an alarming number of suicides” on Rikers Island. He said there were “two basic things wrong with our corrections system: It is in the wrong place,” and would need $100 million in repairs to make it safe. Sturz said the lease deal would allow the city to rid itself of Rikers Island and “make a fresh start” to “build the best system in the nation.” Corrections Commissioner Ben Ward said a system of smaller jails would be more secure and easier to control. Archibald Murray, executive director of the city’s Legal Aid Society, told the board “Rikers Island was a mistake; it never should have happened.”

MAC_1926: “The Tombs” (Men’s House of Detention): Centre to Lafayette Street, Leonard to Franklin Street, ca. 1941. Courtesy of Jail Association Journal, NYC Municipal Archives Collection.

But Diane Gordon, of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, testified that the plan was ill-conceived and would not accomplish its goals. She said the plan would not reduce the jail’s population and urged the board to “develop a more careful plan based on a sounder analysis.” Mary Ann Gangi from the Queens chapter of St. Francis of Assisi said area residents were fearful of increased traffic and a greater risk from hardened state inmates. She vowed that community area residents would “organize and mobilize... to oppose the state takeover of Rikers Island.” Phil Seelig, president of the Correction Officers Benevolent Association, called the hearings a “sham” and refused to even take questions from the board.

Opposition from the community and city corrections officers continued to grow and then, in January 1980, a report from the city’s Office of Budget Review showed that the city’s cost estimates for constructing the new jails were way off. The report said the actual capital costs would be upward of $433 million—rather than the $351 million estimate in the Rikers Island Project Working Document and that other costs related to the lease would be as much as $126 million, rather than the Working Document’s estimate of $81.5 million.

That was the beginning of the end. Soon afterward, Mayor Ed Koch quietly dropped the idea and in mid-1981, Commissioner Ward told the City Council the grand plan was “dead and buried.”

To Be Continued

Rikers Island Dump: Guard on horseback looks at Administration and other buildings across graded area, June 1937. NYC Municipal Archives Collection.