Robin Camille Davis
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The Municipal Archives' tax photos collection, a.k.a. 1980s New York City "street view"

August 09, 2016
Tags: architecture, archives, history, NYC

The New York City Municipal Archives (part of the Dept. of Records) digitized and uploaded thousands of photos of buildings in New York, taken in 1983-88. The photos were taken for tax documentation, but you can use the collection to explore New York City in the mid-80s. The interface is not the greatest for exploration, but here's a guide...

Find 1980s tax photos by address

  1. Go to the New York City Municipal Archives Online Gallery
  2. On the left, choose DOF: [borough] 1980s Tax Photos
  3. On the left, choose Advanced Search
  4. Enter your search:
    • Ignore the first two fields for now, and in the 3rd field, choose Street Name (contains exactly) and enter desired street name
      • 10th Avenue is listed as "10 Avenue" here, and E 10th St is "East 10 Street." It won't autocorrect format for you.
    • Optionally, in the 2nd line, choose Building Number (contains) and enter the number — but know that not all building numbers were included in this collection, and the numbers change over time. You can try putting in just the first part of the building number ("83" will return 83, 830, 8300, etc.).
  5. Hit Search. Results are in alpha order by address, sort of. You'll have to spend some time clicking through pages.

Find 1980s tax photos by block (better)

Do a Borough, Block, & Lot (BBL) search. Find Block & Lot by address here, then enter at least the Block into the Advanced Search. (Lots often change over time.) Or explore a Block & Lot map to nab the B&L.

A handful of photos from Manhattan I found interesting (plus one from Brooklyn)

My workplace in Manhattan

My workplace in Manhattan, John Jay College of Criminal Justice — but back then it was slated to become Metropolis, an indoor mall that would have featured waterfalls, but never got off the ground

Times Square

You knew I was going to include Times Square. But look closer... It's Howard the Duck! Also — looks when they started the project, the photographer held up a job stick with numbers stuck on, before they moved to hi-tech computerized numbers, as below.

235 Bleeker

This is actually around 235 Bleeker, around the corner from Carmine. Beasty Feast is now (still?) a pet supply store.

Off Union Square

Off Union Square. I *think* this is where that smoking incense building is, judging by the subway stairs, but so many buildings there are new, I can't tell. (Link)

The square opposite the Flatiron Building

The square opposite the Flatiron Building, now a busy pedestrian area with tables and chairs, then a desolate concrete rectangle (Link)

guy with a camera

The original street view: a guy with a camera! This is on 5th Avenue in Brooklyn, in Greenwood Heights

East 8th St

East 8th St (St Mark's), between Ave C and D. I think they were clearing out part of the block to build the NYPD Station that's there now?

Street arts

Street art from yesteryear on St. Mark's. Oh dang, I just found out you can share permalinks of photos! (Link)

Apollo theater

Landscape, dammit! Landscape! The Apollo Theater. (Link)

abandoned building

And right next door to the Apollo, an abandoned building that was demolished. A Banana Republic and Red Lobster stand there today in a very new-looking building. Wonder what was there between this photo and now. (Link)

Central Park Zoo

Central Park Zoo under renovation (Link)

Hester St

Hester St., Chinatown. Are those food trucks in the lower left? (Link)

The digitization process

...included laser disks!!!! The Municipal Archives gives some detail at the bottom of the collection info in the online gallery:

From 1983 to 1988, using 35mm cameras, they [Dept. of Finance staff] photographed every property in the five boroughs, including vacant lots and tax-exempt buildings. They used color film stock producing over 800,000 photographs in both print and negative formats. Taking advantage of then-new technology ca. 1989, they recorded each print as a single frame on Laser Video Disks (LVDs), using analog video capture. The Archives extracted low-resolution tiffs of each frame from the LVDs for viewing in the gallery.

That explains why the photos look like video stills. So each photo I posted here is a screenshot of a screenshot of a video of a photograph...?

Notes

FYI, the Share This button at the top of the collection page gives you a permalink for that item! I did not know this until halfway down this post.

There are dozens more collections that the Municipal Archives has shared!! We were only looking at the DOF (Dept. of Finance) collections, but there are many other departments and topics covered in this archive of a million photos.

Metadata observation: The datespan of the tax photos project is 5 years, without further detail for individual photos, sadly. The photo details contain the estimated year the building was built and the name of the building owner at the time.

Why do these photos look so barren? NYC was not a lifeless permawinter city like these photos suggest. Keep in mind that the purpose of the photos was documentation for building taxes. So the photos don't explicitly show much in the way of community or human life. Many of the photos were taken during winter, perhaps so that foliage did not block building façades. The photos show enough to match buildings then and now, but you often can't read signs or see any signs of life. So some photos look really bleak and moody.

You can see the 1940s tax photos collection, along with better quality 1980s photos (the ones online are very low-res), at the Municipal Archives.

My secret hope: Someone will undertake creating a 1980s street view-like app with these photos.

PS. I poked around for a rights statement but found none. These were created by the city for public purposes, so I'm assuming I can post these with abandon.