I had the opportunity over the past months to help process a major collection at BHS: the records of the Brooklyn Bureau of Sewers (ARC.235). Sure, it does not sound especially appealing, but the collection has lots of useful documents, perhaps especially maps.
The bulk of the collection consists of the documents compiled by the Bureau of Sewers principally for the purpose of establishing the tax levy to be assessed on those connecting to newly-laid sewer lines from the late 19th century to about 1960. So in addition to information about the expanding sewerage infrastructure in Brooklyn, the collection also includes documents concerning property ownership and maps showing blocks, lots, streets, and sewer paths. In short, the collection can be useful to house and neighborhood researchers.
The collection is now well-organized–thanks to the hard work of several volunteers–and a finding aid describing the content is on-line. Yet the collection still can be difficult to use, principally because of its size. The collection holds over 50 feet of documents sprawling across 109 oversize manuscript boxes, record cartons and flat boxes. The variety of material and the changes in sewerage administrative structures over the course of a century also make for a complex collection. We hope to enhance the description with a block level index to the content to make the collection more efficient to use. But that is a long way off, so in the meantime we trust the finding aid will help users navigate the complexities. You can find the on-line guide by following this link.
A significant positive point for users of the collection is that the tax assessment binders forming the bulk are highly consistent in the type of documents they each hold. So, if you find the documents in one binder helpful, it could be worth going on to look through more of the other 3,000+ binders. On the other hand, if the documents in one binder do not impress you, you can likely skip the rest. Given that, I thought it might be helpful to potential users of the collection to see what the principal documents in the collection are.
About 85 manuscript boxes hold the 3,000+ tax assessment binders ranging from about 1900-1960. Actually, during processing we discarded almost all of the binder covers because, typically, they held no information and simply added size, weight and messiness to the collection. But we kept all the documents within the binders. Let’s look at a representative binder, number 579, dating from circa 1906-10, for a project in Red Hook near the iconic Gowanus Canal.
All the binders have a cover sheet that describes the project area:
The 20th century binders include the resolution of the local improvements board approving initiation of the project. A major portion of the collection is arranged in order of these Boards (e.g., Bay Ridge, Flatbush, Ocean Front, and so on).
The binders include other approvals and certifications, such as the sign-off by engineering and inspectors:
There are not a lot of technical specifications about the projects in the binders, but there are some details including contractor name, cost, and some description of the work. These photos show some of these details:
Then we get to a form (“Designed by Expert Accountants”) that records by block and lot number the property owners to be assessed:
Closing with gorgeous maps of the project area:
Most of the binders focus on a very narrowly defined area, usually just a few blocks as you saw above. Which is probably why there are thousands of binders. But many binders cover more expansive sections. For example, binder 2977 from circa 1950 covers a large area centered at Coney Island. This map won’t tell you much about the Parachute Drop, but it provides its own unique look at this beachfront area. The map is too large to be adequately captured with my digital camera, but here’s a detail. By the way, this map is just an overview; the binder also includes the more detailed area maps of the kind we saw above.
Although the bulk of the collection is from the 20th century, there are a few hundred assessment books from the 19th century, mostly 1870 or so forward. Though different in form and lacking some of the bureaucratic touches of the 20th century, the 19th century books retain the key ingredients:
The booklet cover describing the project:
The property owner list:
And tucked inside the small booklets, more gorgeous maps. This map, dating from the early 1880s, includes part of the Weeksville section of Brooklyn:
Here’s a detail from the upper left corner. Block 186 to the left is now one of the two blocks comprising the site of the Kingsborough Houses. The open diagonal space cutting through the block is Hunterfly Road. Follow Hunterfly to the right to block 185, where it essentially disappears. Only a narrow opening at the street remains on the map but it opens to an odd shaped space bounded by lots marked with the red numbers 82, 83, 90, 91, and 92. In that space in the 1880s you would have seen houses, houses that remain today and can be visited at the Weeksville Heritage Center.
Although I focused here on the tax assessment binders, which comprise the bulk of the collection, there is other material, including blueprints, land valuation assessments (mostly from the 1930s), field notebooks on special sewer structures, contract administration logs, and more. But no alligators or teenage mutant ninja turtles.
(All documents shown here are from the Brooklyn, N.Y., Bureau of Sewers records (ARC.235), open to researchers at the Brooklyn Historical Society. The 19th century documents shown are in Box 5, assessment binder 340. The Coney Island map is in Box 98, assessment binder 2977. All other documents are in Box 101, Red Hook assessment binder 579.)