Originally published by For the Record, the blog of the NYC Department of Records & Information Services, March 16, 2017.
AS RESEARCHERS click through search results in the online gallery of the NYC Municipal Archives, which features almost one million digitized images, they are likely to find some surprises. Perhaps it’s an image that creates a new theory in their project, or one that challenges their ideas about it. Or, because search terms can be vague and widely inclusive, maybe it’s just an amusing, unrelated image.
So as I was recently searching for images of a particular area in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood, I kept seeing images of vacant lots. These quiet scenes stood out from the otherwise vibrant, bustling shots, and I sought more, trying to uncover their unusual appeal.
In the 1940s and again in the 1980s, staff at the Department of Finance photographed every lot on every block in New York City for tax appraisal purposes. The 1940s versions are black and white, but the 1980s photographers used 35mm cameras and color film stock and produced more than 800,000 photographs, all available online. Some of those lots were empty, but they still needed to be documented. This means the Archive contains quite a few tax photos featuring vacant lots.
The search term “vacant” retrieves nearly 40,000 results. Like any search, they’re not all images of the thing we’re looking for — some results show vacant buildings, others show vacant lots that were documented for reasons other than the tax photos. But there are still many, many tax lot images of lonely, decrepit, trash-strewn lots. Lots turned into playgrounds or dumping grounds, lots filled with cars, lots filled with boats, lots guarded by dogs, lots taken back by nature — so many, many ailanthus trees — or never having been de-natured, the forests and marshlands of our outer boroughs’ interiors and coasts. Some aren’t vacant, but just empty of built property — “vacant” lots for tax purposes, but lots that are well-tended, lots that are lawns and gardens. Most — particularly when viewed all at once — feel mechanical, a required municipal exercise in documentation. But others have art, humanity, and — incidental, purposeful? — gorgeous composition.
When removed from context, they stand as a unique documentation of 1980s New York City: such breathtaking diversity, in landscape and in economy. Sometimes desolate, sometimes hopeful, always, always beautiful. It’s a tour of parts of the city that few ventured into then or today. In a city where every square inch can feel overcrowded, there’s something meditative in examining what’s empty, in considering the vacancies.
This collection is functional, but when the “vacant” spaces are viewed as their own, internal collection, they’re like the work of some street photographers: Douglas Ljungkvist, Stepan Handzha, Will Steacy. Which leads to the thought: Is it only art if there’s intention? Can this assortment of tax photos be anything more than a curiosity?
Maybe, maybe not; but at the very least, this collection can be incredibly useful. Somewhat like Google Maps’ Street View timeline option, having access to photos over time — from the Archive’s 1940s collection, which is currently in the process of digitization, and from the 1980s collection — presents researchers with opportunities to see how a particular address, block, or neighborhood changed over time. What existed during those decades, and what’s there today? If there are differences, what governmental policies may have influenced those changes? It’s possible that some answers might be found in the Archive’s non-photo collections of mayoral and agency records.
Other things found in those images might be more personal. The property photos are not sterile — they include people as well as places. New Yorkers often request printed copies of tax photos from the Municipal Archives. Sometimes the customers relay surprising comments to the Photo Unit staff: “That’s my mother on the stoop!” or “That’s me as a child in the yard!”
You never know what you’ll find when you start looking.