Hundreds of thousands of photos that offer snapshots of more than a century of New York City history are now publicly available online for the first time ever.
Together, they offer a close-up, gritty picture of the city’s history and development, from detective photos of gruesome crime scenes to Depression-era shots of everyday life to the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge.
This week, the city unveiled its first-ever online historical photo archive, which spans 160 years and includes 870,000 images now available to the public. The photos come from the city’s New York City Municipal Archives and represent dozens of historical collections from every mayoral administration from Fiorello LaGuardia through Rudy Giuliani.
The site, announced on Tuesday, has apparently gotten so much attention that it’s not available at the moment. Officials say they are fielding inquiries from all over the world.
But the Voice got a handful of these photos (below) and also chatted with Eileen Flannelly, Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Records, about the process behind this project and the significance of these photos.
How did the idea for this project come about?
We’ve had these photos for a long time, and of course we’ve realized the value of the historic content and how spectacular these images were. It’s just a question of, they’ve been here for years…and of course we were blessed with a technology mayor who’s very supportive of anything that has to do with…our mandate…to make this stuff available to the public. What better way to do it then digitize it and get it up on the internet? When we brought the idea to him…[he said] go for it, so we did. We actually have 2.2 million…in our collection. We’re continuing to add everyday.
What was the process like of putting this all together?
Our photos come from 25 different collections, and there’s thousands of photos within each collection that have historic significance. It was a question of having people sort through the various collections determining what has the most historical value, what would be most appealing, what people would like to see…It was a four year process.
This is the largest collection of its kind. Can you tell me a bit about that? What makes it unique?
[It’s] the basic documenting of our city’s history. These images come from city employees, photographers from different departments, or some cases, detectives from the NYPD, specifically as part of their job…They did this…as part of their daily work assignments…There’s crime scene evidence photos that show some of the notorious mobsters that we see in films. These people existed and we have it. We have their original records. It’s completely unique.
What are some of the stories these images tell? What’s the impact of having all of them together?
It’s not only for us. There’s an interest here. Normally with municipal archives, you have a lot of researchers and historians and filmmakers. With this, we’re putting it out there. There’s something in there for everybody, it doesn’t matter if you’re a small child or what age group you are…It’s the unique collection, and it’s gonna continue to grow.
How do these photos taken together show growth and change in the city overtime?
[Even with] the comparisons of places form the 1980s to today, it’s absolutely fascinating to look at this, to see how far we’ve come in such a short period of time…We’re not even talking about going back to photographs from the early 1900s. The 1980s for most of us doesnt seem like that long [ago]…but it’s a drastic change.
What do you hope these photos could be used for?
I hope that, first of all, the average person just enjoys them. I can sit down and scroll through these for hours. We already get filmmakers and researchers that go through our collection…come here for five, six hours a day trying to go through that. It’s time consuming, and it’s tedious…Now you can sit at home at your computer and click away and call us and give the order and we’re happy to provide it.
Do you have any favorite photos?
Everybody asks me that. I do have favorites. There’s so many of them. There’s a beautiful picture from 1912 of the Municipal Building. It’s half built. You see the base and half the building. It’s just all structural steel going the rest of the way up. You see horses…in the street. It’s a beautiful street scene…We have of course the iconic Brooklyn Bridge, everybody knows that. And I love the crime scenes. I’m a CSI buff…They’re gruesome and I love them.
Is this something you’re going to continue growing?
Our goal is to get every photo digitized, and out there. We set our goals really high until we get that done, we’re not…[finished]. We have more than 2.2 million and we’re actually growing the more attention this story gets. People are sending me family photos from the early 1900s!
Anything else you want to add about what this process was like?
We love what we do, everybody who works for this agency…I’m the newbie and I’ve been here ten years, going on eleven…Everybody who works here is very passionate…We’re thrilled at the response we’re getting from people. The reaction we are getting is worldwide.