It’s no secret that we are big fans of the New York City Municipal Archives digital collection of all 720,000 of its tax photos of most building in New York City, taken 1939-1941. An intrepid NYer has created a website that mapped each photo to its location, making finding the location of interest exponentially easier (the Municipal Archives required you to type in the block and lot number for any site you wanted to see — a much more cumbersome process). The new map tool is a dream come true for researchers, historians, and all New York lovers, as it provides thorough visual documentation of the city at a critical moment in time, allowing us to see what has changed, and what has stayed the same. All searchable on a map!
The project is described this way on the website:
Street View of 1940s New York. Between 1939 and 1941, the Works Progress Administration collaborated with the New York City Tax Department to collect photographs of most buildings in the five boroughs of New York City. In 2018, the NYC Municipal Archives completed the digitization and tagging of these photos. This website places them on a map. Zoom in! Every dot is a photo.
Village Preservation reached out to the creator of the amazing 1940s.nyc website, Julian Boilen, who graciously shared some of his time in his busy schedule to talk to us about this Herculean project and labor of love:
How did you first become aware of the 1940s tax photos?
Someone in the museum world sent me this article when they were digitized in November 2018. I immediately purchased the domain name and started trying to figure out how to make a map.
Why did you want to map these photos with this project?
This is an amazing collection of photos, maybe the closest you can get to time travel ;-). The Municipal Archives did an excellent job digitizing these photos which was a massive project. They also went through the painstaking work of going back to old maps to find addresses for each photo. Unfortunately, the way they were presented was less than ideal—having to look up your BBL (borough, block, lot) number on a tax map and then go back and search the archives. It seemed obvious there should be a way to browse around freely by putting them on a map.
There are so many stories in these photos: the hustle and bustle in Bryant Park and Times Square, or the rural houses in deep Brooklyn. In the photo of my own apartment, my landlord recognized some of his uncles standing out front of their candy store.
For a layperson, what is the “automatic and imperfect process” you refer to in your description of how the map came to be?
To each photo on a map, I needed to figure out the latitude and longitude position. The Municipal Archives already tagged each photo with the BBL and went back to old maps to find an address. In the case where the BBL still exists today, I used NYC’s PLUTO (Primary Land Use Tax Lot Output) data. Otherwise, I tried to get a location from the address using a combination of NYC Geosearch (an address search service from the city) and Google Maps. Things have moved and these services can get confused when an address no longer exists. My program then does a sanity check to see that it at least landed in the right borough. It’s not perfect enough for research but it’s pretty good.
Julian mentioned the Works Progress Administration impetus for the photos.
It’s time to take this model of a nationally organized job-creating infrastructure program and apply it to today’s two biggest challenges: climate change and economic recession.
You went to the Rochester Institute of Technology in Upstate New York, and this is such a labor of love. Did you grow up in NYC?
I’m from Maryland in the DC area, though my father is from Howard Beach, Brooklyn. I moved to New York for work in 2014 where I live in Park Slope, and I think I’ll stay in the city for a long time.
Any other interesting projects on the horizon that you could share a bit about?
I don’t have any other side projects going right now. At some point the full resolution version of the 80s photos will come out, and I’d like to integrate them.
(We can’t wait for the higher resolution 1980s images and for Julian to map them! Wonder if he has the domain www.1980s.nyc?)
One area that really surprised me was not in the photos but in the historical Manhattan map layer I added. I wanted to present the photos with a historically accurate map. The closest I found was a 1930 tax atlas of Manhattan in the NYPL online collection. Unfortunately no one had yet “warped” this map onto a present-day digital map, so I painstakingly aligned 186 map pages covering Manhattan so you can see some of the buildings as they were then. One thing that really jumped out is the giant Central Railroad terminal at 69th street. I used to live on the Upper West Side and had no idea this was here.
Besides the clear building shots easily found on the map, Julian also added an “Outakes” section of images form the era that are fun to view as well.
Happy searching! Some people get started and engaged for an hour or even hours, looking all over the Big Apple for how their favorite place or parts of town used to look. What are your favorites?