Monthly Archives: October 2013

The Provenance of New York City Buildings

Old and new building illustration Library Manifesto

What’s one thing city streets have in common with research? Sometimes there are dead ends.

On October 7th as part of Archives Week the Brooklyn Historical Society held a free workshop event hosted by Librarian Elizabeth Call. I left the event feeling curious about the history of the places I’ve lived, who lived there, and when they were built.

If you’re interested in a landmarked neighborhood or building, The Brooklyn Historical Society archives landmark neighborhood and building reports. For non-landmark buildings, atlases and land conveyances provide information, for instance when property changed hands. At the Othmer Library, a landmark itself, wood paneling, columns, and high ceilings shape the ambiance for research. Information about their in-house collection can be viewed here.

For researchers who can’t make it to the Society, there are many options to pursue online. It’s often helpful to go beyond the address for a property and find the building and lot number. The NYC Department of Buildings provides that and other really basic, but useful information.

Once you look up a property there may be a link to see “Actions” that include digitized files available as PDFs. Call warned that sometimes these PDFs are mislabeled and often the quality is so low they may be illegible. The Department of Buildings has many records on site at 210 Joralemon Street, but other records are located in Jamaica, Queens. Researchers might travel back and forth more than they’d expect to. Here is an example of a random address, 219 Dekalb Avenue, Brooklyn, searched on the NYC DOB website.

Department of Buildings Screen Shot

On NYC DOB search an address on the bottom left

Department of Buildings Screen Shot

Click on “Actions” on the left bottom column to find PDFs

Department of Buildings Screen Shot

Certificate of Occupancy for 219 Dekalb

The Department of Finance offers ACRIS, an online database of property ownership records. ACRIS allows you to search property records and view document images for Manhattan, Queens, Bronx, and Brooklyn from 1966 to the present.

A fun visual supplement to document research comes from the Tax Photography Collection at the New York City Municipal Archives. First completed in the 1930s and 40s (way before Google put cars on the road for their maps), these photographs captured each building in New York City for tax appraisal evaluations. The Municipal Archives took on the task of restoring the old 35mm negatives (720,000 or so) and they’re now available on microfilm. In the 1980s the project was repeated. Elizabeth Call showed us a photograph of a charming brownstone house that in the 80s was boarded up. It’s striking to see the history of a building when it’s down on its luck and then on its comeback. Below you can compare 219 Dekalb Avenue, from the example above, in the 1980s and then a more recent image from Google Maps. The liquor store signs remains.

Tax Photography Colection Screen Shot

219 Dekalb circa 1980 from the Tax Photography Collection

Google Maps Street View

219 Dekalb circa 2013 from Google Maps

Columbia University’s Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library is another well of research materials for the real estate biographer. Real Estate Records and Builders Guide has thousands of property articles dating from 1868-1922 and the NY Real Estate Brochure Collection which covers 1920-1970 and includes floor plans, price lists, and commercial property brochures.

See the excellent research guide from Brooklyn Historical Society of what’s available outside the library.

P.S. Architecture historian and writer Christopher Gray created this practical guide for researching New York City buildings. Check out some of his research finds on the NY Times.

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See: Last Year at Marienbad Redux

Last Year At Marienbad

Entering Last Year at Marienbad Redux, a group exhibit and event series at a Midtown gallery, visitors are welcomed by tall mirrors, reminiscent of a funhouse, skewing their reflections.

Artworks in the exhibit reflect the themes of “Last Year at Marienbad,” a 1961 French New Wave film. Like the film’s puzzling nonlinear plot, the art attempts to piece together past events and document people, places, and things.

“The exhibition seeks to remind us that our understanding of a reality is a constructed one,” said James Voorhies, the exhibit’s curator, via e-mail. The inspiration first came out of the 2012 Presidential election. “I think many people watched in awe,” said Voorhies,“at the intense and repetitive narrative spun through the media machines of sound bites and images to become accepted fact for a majority of the American population who believed what the media told them about these candidates.”

The exhibit’s artwork again and again unveils human perceptions as flawed, a theme explored in the film “Last Year at Marienbad.” Voorhies said, “Our understanding of history is edited and cobbled together through the pieces of information and artifacts that survive and come down to us through both digital and printed materials.”

Iman Issa

Iman Issa recalls past events using three individual objects in Triptychs. In this example, a photograph, architectural detail, and larger still life photograph vaguely reconstruct an event.  While we can guess at some of the crucial elements, our inability to put the pieces together speaks to the flaws in the narrator’s storytelling. (Images from Rodeo Gallery)

Gordon Matta-Clark

Blast From the Past, a playful, but sinister puzzle from the estate of Gordon Matta-Clark, instructs players to recreate a scene from a history of a floor. A pile of cigarette butts, dirt, screws and rusty nails swept together in a vitrine awaits interpretation.

Josh Tonsfeldt

Josh Tonsfeldt created Marion, an installation based on documents the artist found in a box of a New York socialite. In the example above, from afar you can see a photo of Marion (or another woman?), but when looking directly down at the image, a layer between the viewer and the photo renders the image invisible.

Karen Cytter

In Video Art Manual, a how-to montage, tips about making video art are combined with scenes of familiar television shows and original footage by the artist, Keren Cytter. Messages are convoluted with news footage and a cheer-leading Richard Simmons.

The Bureau for Open Culture (I first found them at the NY Art Book Fair, but they are based in Vermont) have organized a number of interesting exhibitions and programs and publish related books. “Bureau for Open Culture publications are results of lived engagement in real time with the public,” said Voorhies. “Each of the books departs from exhibitions, performances, research and residencies. Over the years, the books are increasingly less documents of these projects and more integrated extensions of them.”

The Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts hosts Last Year at Marienbad Redux until October 26, 2013.

Many thanks to James Voorhies for answering our questions. Images courtesy Bureau for Open Culture, Zach Feuer Gallery, and Library Manifesto.

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The First Date Archive

Library Manifesto

Lots of young lovers keep mementos: movie stubs, tickets from amusement park rides, mixtapes or mix CDs, even receipts. I have collected them all and then some. In the case of my boyfriend, Matt, I am lucky to have something more unique; photographs documenting our first date.

For that momentous date in 2007, I proposed a walk around Brighton Beach, a boardwalk east of Coney Island in Brooklyn, to find something photogenic to capture for my black-and-white photography class. But Matt became my main focus and the scenery faded. Looking at the photos now, I find them romantic. You might be able to sense how shy I was, from the shots of Matt’s feet and the back of his head. I usually keep the photos stashed away but I recently scanned a few. I hope you like them!

Library Manifesto

Library Manifesto

Library Manifesto


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An Archive Whose Subjects Are Permanent Residents

Green Wood Cemetery

Last week I spent an evening in a cemetery chapel crowded with archivists, genealogists, and Sunset Park locals. We were gathered at  Green-Wood Cemetery, where some of New York’s most infamous VIPs RIP, to hear cemetery staff highlight their collection of ephemera and records spanning their 175-year history.

Professor of archival management at Brooklyn College, Green-Wood Archivist, and boxer Anthony M. Cucchiara has dedicated some elbow grease toward making the archives at Green-Wood a usable and accessible resource. Cucchiara gave much credit to volunteers and interns who have -with Cucchiara at the helm- spent approximately 6,000 hours processing archival materials. Volunteers still meet some Saturdays to refine and continue their work.

Green Wood Box of Stereographs

Jeff Richman, Green-Wood Historian and writer, spoke about the collection and showed off some stereographs from the cemetery’s archives. Photographers, he said, were drawn to the cemetery as a peaceful break from the city scenes. Richman displayed some on tables for post-talk browsing.

Of the many types of archives housed at the cemetery, burial orders sparked my interest most. The documents can show family relationships and fill in gaps researchers might not find in U.S. census records. Burial orders are packed with useful information like official death dates and interestingly, signatures of relatives that might verify other signed documents. If you’re lucky they might also include renderings of monuments on site.

Green-Wood also introduced a program, “Green-Ealogy,” which allows you to submit research questions online. Mark Daly, Manager of Genealogical Research Services, said they receive an impressive 30 or so research inquiries a week.

Green Wood Cemetery

Brooklyn’s Green-Wood celebrates its 175th anniversary this year with an exhibit at The Museum of the City of New York.

Green-Wood has recently purchased a beautiful abandoned greenhouse that resides across the street on 5th Avenue. They plan to restore the lot into a welcome center. The cemetery offers creative programs, walking tours and trolley tours throughout the year. Check them out here.

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Copenhagen’s DIY Libraries

Demoteket Public Library Project

Demoteket, an underground zine and arts library, has sprung up locations within public libraries around Copenhagen.

Demoteket may be the most freeform concept I’ve seen in public libraries. Public submissions to the collection range from artwork, films, music recordings, software, to knitted lobsters(?!), or just about anything else you’d like to reach an audience. Even the Demoteket library’s shelves are designed and built by local DIYers. Here’s why I love this idea. First, it provides a new place for artists to distribute their work. Second, the contributions and users come from the same geographic community. Last, the system cuts out big publishers. Read more about Demoteket and see examples of submissions here.


I heard about Demoteket at this year’s NY Art Book Fair when I asked the TTC Zine Gallery, an arts collective and indie publisher from Denmark, about the zine scene in Copenhagen. TTC has its eye on the international zine community. Their book, Zine Soup, compiles some of these publications into one hefty volume. Each is handmade with individually silk screened covers so each copy is slightly different.

TCC Gallery Zine Soup

P.S. Summer coverage of International Zine Month.

Images found on,  Bureau Detours and Graphic Dirt

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Prepare your archive: Sign up for ART’s Disaster Planning Symposium

Symposium Library Manifesto Cartoon

Next week, as part of an engrossing lineup of events for Archives Week, Archivists Round Table of Metropolitan New York is putting on a symposium titled Disaster Planning for Archives and their Communities. The event lands just weeks before the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, a disaster that many libraries and archives are still recuperating from.

Disaster planning is increasingly important as extreme weather patterns increase, buildings age, budgets shrink, and international archives become collateral damage in war. The symposium will emphasize resources and tools for an updated understanding of disasters and archiving practices.

Full disclosure, I am one of the committee members helping to put the symposium together and I am enthused to hear all of the panelist’s strategic advice. I would be thrilled to see not only archivists, but first responders and community organizers in attendance. If you are going, spread the word! Get a head start on topics with this handy Disaster Recovery Resources list from MoMA.

Archivists Round Table is an organization of volunteers that build the archivist community in and around the New York metro area. Archivists Round Table puts on educational programs and classes, often in conjunction with Metropolitan New York Library Council, for the community to share knowledge and stay in the loop on trends and issues important to archivists.

Symposium Library Manifesto Cartoon

Illustrations: Library Manifesto

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