Thursday, April 23, 2009

A Visit To The NYC Archives


I’ve heard a lot about the New York City Archives (NYCA) from other people tracing their genealogy but never had the need to visit since much of what I was looking for was available on-line. Sites like Ancestry.com have much of the information that you would normally need to search for in the archives, like birth, marriage, and death records.

But I’ve always wondered about the old houses my deceased relatives lived in when they first came into this country, or in the years before I was born; I had no chance to see or visit some of the sites that no longer exist. I also have old photos of people, like my parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents, standing by certain old houses or buildings, and would really like to identify them so I’d know where the photos were taken and in what time frame.

I recently learned that the NYCA, located in the Surrogates’ Court building at 31 Chambers Street, in Manhattan, had hundreds of thousands of old photos on file. These were pictures that were taken of every property in the five boroughs for tax assessment purposes between 1939 and 1941. I finally decided to visit on Wednesday, January 14th, with Ro’s cousin, Anthony. He was curious to see if he could find photos in the archives of the building where he lived as a very young child, over a store in Brooklyn, to show his grandchildren. He was also searching for images of his uncle’s Italian Bakery and other scenes from the past.

Easily accessible by the Long Island Railroad into Penn Station, and the A,C,E, 1,2,3, or 4,5,6 trains to the Chambers Street or Brooklyn Bridge Stations, the old court building is a fascinating destination by itself. Quite imposing from the outside, with massive stone columns and fa├žades, the inside is a treasure of marble and granite floors, walls and staircases. The woodwork and doors are all quite bold and ornate as well, and handmade mosaic tile designs adorn many of the hallways

Upon entering the structure, you must check in with two security guards at a table where you show photo identification, are photographed, and issued a self-adhesive photo ID badge that you must wear until you leave the building. From there, you pass through an airport screening-type area, complete with a conveyor belt x-ray machine to check for weapons or bombs, I suppose.

Fortunately, the archives are located on the first floor but we got a chance to check out other parts of the building, and the fourth floor, when we decided to visit the men’s room; that’s accessible with a key from the agency you’re dealing with (in this case, the archives), after leaving your original photo ID (driver’s license) and retrieving it upon your return. You can see that they’re quite paranoid about losing their key to the rest rooms.

Once inside the large Archives room, you can see dozens of computers and microfilm reading machines available to folks. There’s a charge to utilize the computers and databases for birth records and the like, and charges for copies of same. But, if you’re simply looking up old photos, there’s only a fifty-cent charge for each photo you decide to print through a computer printer beneath your station.

I didn’t look close at the reels but I think the images are “negatives” on film. In any case, the projected photos on the screen are “positives” although the photos I printed out were “negatives.” If you have a computer and scanner, these can easily be converted back into “positives” after returning home and scanning the images, then opening up the .jpg’s in PhotoShop Elements, and clicking on “Image>Adjustments>Invert.” At that point, you may also want to make a photo lighter, darker, or improve the contrast, as some of the old pictures in the Archives are pretty bad. Some are downright unusable due to deterioration over time and others may have been taken during adverse conditions (low light, harsh shadows, etc.)

Note: I've since discovered during a second visit that you can print out either a "positive" or "negative" image by selection the appropriate setting on the computer terminal at the archives. Whoever used that station before me during my first visit had it set to print out "negative" images and I think they give better detail than the "positive" image prints do.

If you’re looking for an old photo of a house your grandmother lived in, for example, you need the block and lot number to find it. Since most people don’t have that, you can go to an area of books in the room to look them up; there are four books on Brooklyn. The books are quite worn and contain what are probably copies of the original 1940’s maps, but they look to be very old and may be the same books in use for decades.

In my case, I took 84 Starr Street–where my mother and her parents lived around 1902–and found Starr Street in the index of book 2. I located number 84, and then was directed to page 76, which contained a map with several blocks of properties and their corresponding streets. After locating 84 Starr Street, I discovered the block number to be 3186 and lot number 47. Next, I had to go to a file cabinet, find the microfilm index roll that contained that block & lot, insert it into a machine and scan until I found that block number and lot number; I was then given the microfilm reel number (Q-4875) that contains the images of that block and lot. Then, I took the index reel out of the machine, went back to the file cabinet, found the proper reel number (Q-4875), brought it back to the machine and inserted it, and scanned that reel until I found the block and lot in question.

84 Starr Street (around 1940). Click on image to enlarge.

There’s only one little hitch: the block numbers are mixed and not in any order on the reel. For example, you might start with block 3124, which may have the images of the properties/homes on lot numbers 1 through 35, and then find a black space followed by block 6120, lots 20 through 45. After another black space, you could find block 251, lots 1 through 7; ironically, block 251, lots 8 through 30 could be on an entirely different reel . Granted, you would learn this when you searched the index but it gives you an idea how confusing it can be. The bottom line is, you may have to look through an entire reel before finding the one you’re looking for even when you have the correct reel.

If all you were looking for is one house, it’s really not a big deal; a little time-consuming, but pretty straightforward. In my case, I was looking for over a dozen old locations including 84 Starr Street (see above); 516 Central Avenue, where my mom and her parents lived after Starr Street (book 2, map on page 96, block 3389, lot 33, on reel M-3656); 494 Lincoln Avenue, where my father’s family lived until 1914 (book 2, map on page 114, block 4201, lot 33, on reel S-5658); and 738 Madison Street, where the Bauserts moved after Lincoln Avenue (book 1, map on page 180, block 1647, lot 25, on reel T-5953). The photo of 738 Madison was of really bad quality but, fortunately, this house is still standing and I’ve already visited it and photographed it (published in previous issues of my printed/paper version Ken Chronicles).

516 Central Avenue (around 1940). Click on image to enlarge.

494 Lincoln Avenue (around 1940). Click on image to enlarge.

2007 view of (driveway space) where 494 Lincoln Avenue used to be.
Click on image to enlarge.


I was also looking for 754 Bergan Street, where my father’s mother’s family lived around 1880 (book 1, map on page 114, block 1147) but, I couldn’t find a lot number. The lots on each map are only about a quarter-inch by one-half inch in size, and there’s so much writing on the page (lot numbers, dimensions, house numbers, distances from lots to streets, etc.) that it’s often hard to find the number you’re looking for. In addition, to save space, they start the house numbers on a block with 110, for example, and after that just list 12, 14, 16, etc., skipping every-other number; similarly, the lot numbers are sometimes alternately eliminated as well, so by one lot, you may find both an “8” and a “10” and have to figure which is which. Let’s just say it’s not the easiest task you’ll undertake.

When I tried to locate 254 and 262 Forbell Street, where the Bauserts moved after Madison Street, I was reminded that in 1940, it was called Forbell Avenue... no big deal, right? But while I found the block and lot with no problem, there was a blank space next to each on the index reel.

I asked the clerk at the desk about that and she replied, “Oh, that means no one knows for sure which reel those photos are on... they could be anywhere.” Once again, these houses still stand and I’ve already visited and photographed them so I wasn’t too upset.

It’s obvious to feel frustration when you run into problems during these searches but you have to keep things in proper perspective. The original photos were taken over the course of three years and their negatives and positives must have taken up a massive amount of space when originally produced. The mere fact that these hundreds of thousands of photos were scanned or catalogued at all, and exist in a searchable form after seventy years, is pretty amazing so some problems are bound to pop up and must be discounted.

I don’t imagine too many people will have a desire to go through what’s involved just to look at some old photos but, if you’ve got the urge, it can be a very enlightening experience. Besides, just seeing some of the old stores and cars depicted in many of the old photos can be lots of fun.