Posted on 16.05.14 By Sarah Krasnostein

The New York City Municipal Archives

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It’s hard to get real jazzed about anything with the word ‘municipal’ in it. But when I talk about this website, the excitement in my voice is so high that I’m always on the verge of a yodel. Stay with me.

Susan Sontag said, about photography, that ‘one can’t possess the present but one can possess the past’. Thanks to the New York City Municipal Archives, we can all possess a piece of New York. In 2012, it launched an online database of over 870,000 photos from its collection of over 2.2 million images of New York during the 20th century (there are audio records here, but more on that later).

The thing that makes the great cities great is not just different people co-existing in the same time and space. It’s also the fact that different times co-exist in the same space. This is what Walter Benjamin, the great German critic exiled in Paris during the 1930s, meant when he described the past, present and future of that city as a continuum. Benjamin would’ve lost his mind over this  Database.

The past is not a foreign country; it is the air we breathe and sometimes choke on. These photos show that when we stroll through Washington Square Park, or across the Brooklyn Bridge, or down the Bowery, we are walking back through time. Humans are great like that – not only can we say that WE BUILT ALL OF THIS! but we can also defy the laws of physics.

Sometimes, though, it doesn’t work like that. Because though the light is the same, and the sidewalks are the same, and the farmers’ markets and the beards are certainly the same, we are different. Take, for example, the old Penn Station. Or the 1938 photo of the Lower Manhattan skyline at night. Take its Twin Towers–shaped hole that doesn’t even know yet that it’s a hole. Things looked the same after 9-11 and very, very different. Changing cityscapes remind us that absence is a presence, like dark matter or black holes. But the outline of what we’ve lost is traced by what remains and what continues. And that is all the tragedy and all the glory of human history.

Some of the Archive’s images will offend. Others will delight. Still others will lull you into a micronap. But together they testify that New York City – like everyone anywhere – is an infinite text.  And that while our histories are sometimes written in monumental gestures, mostly they are just a collection of tiny moments like the ones captured here. For example:

The 1899 death certificate of Henry Hale Bliss, the first person in America to be killed by a car

 Dizzy Gillespie, in a tam-o-shanter, on the steps of City Hall

Mug shots of ‘Wolf’, a child of great gravitas in tiny suit and hat

Antoiniette Bufo, young girl with bangs (1937)

A fingerprint on a knife, 1916

The Sanitation Department baseball team

A book binder named Ralph

So stop here and take up – and take heart in – the Department of Records’ invitation to “return frequently as new content will be added on a regular basis”.


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