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Documenting New York ca. 1940 via ‘Tax Photos’

From 1939 until 1941, the New York City Department of Taxation collaborated with the Federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) to take photographs of each building in the five boroughs. Known then as the “Real Property Tax Card Record System for the City of New York,” the initiative started in 1938 when the Department of Taxation (known today as the Department of Finance) took advantage of the sponsorship opportunities presented by the New Deal

Various Tax Photo Outtakes, 1940s Tax Department photographs, 1939-1951; Municipal Archives, City of New York

Instituted during the Great Depression by FDR, the efforts of the New Deal were rooted in the restoration of prosperity for all Americans. From the notable “fireside chats” to the expansion of Federal programs we know today, like the FDIC, the New Deal significantly changed the American government. When the Works Progress Administration was established in May, 1935, the success rate of the New Deal was still relatively low. Millions of Americans were still facing unemployment, and the Dust Bowl brought further physical and economic devastation to the heart of the country. 

Poster for the WPA’s Federal Art Project, 1936. Federal Art Project, Photographic Division collection, circa 1920-1965, Smithsonian

In New York City, nearly every neighborhood was assisted by the efforts of the Works Progress Administration. Most notably, LaGuardia Airport was fully funded by the WPA. Other prominent examples of this funding are the WPA Swimming Pools found throughout our city, including the small, children’s “mini pool” found within Tompkins Square Park. The agency went on to fund and produce thousands of federal infrastructure sites throughout the United States. Another central element of the WPA was job creation, as exemplified by this massive record-keeping project.

Harry Gottlieb, WPA and Federal Arts Project artist

Photographing each building in New York City required a massive effort and the recruitment of various photographers. The project employed 900 white-collar workers—most of whom were bookkeepers and auditors—and an estimated 32 photographers, who the WPA hired as “skilled, non-manual Class III workers.” The photo collections often contained various behind-the-scenes shots that included a cast of characters, as the WPA photographers usually traveled in pairs. Other repetitive tropes in these photos include the signboards that listed the block, lot, and borough to help differentiate between various structures in a shot. 

Created as a program to document value in an economically distressed city, the entire project benefited not only workers of the Great Depression but the researchers of today. In 2018, we highlighted the digitization of these photos and its tremendous impact on historic preservation and research as a whole. At Village Preservation, we use these tax photos in our everyday research to assist our constituents in learning more about their building’s history and to identify architectural significance as we continue landmarking efforts throughout the East Village, Greenwich Village, and NoHo.    

Find other fascinating research sources here.

View all NYC 1940s tax photo via map, created by Julian Boilen.

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