Brooklyn’s Corporation Counsel records now open to researchers!

(left) The Corporation Counsel records in their original storage container. (right) The records after processing -- neatly organized and open to researchers.

(left) The Corporation Counsel records in their original storage container. (right) The records after processing — neatly organized and open to researchers.

This is the final post in a series on the records of Brooklyn’s Corporation Counsel, which were processed with funding provided by a Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) “Hidden Collections” grant.

After seventeen months of hard work, I’m happy to report that the records of Brooklyn’s Corporation Counsel are now open to the public. The records, which date from 1843 to 1920, document legal cases that were brought against the City of Brooklyn (and after 1897, the City of New York), by citizens, corporations, and even other municipalities. Although primarily composed of legal documents, the records also include maps, property records, correspondence, and even a few photographs. Originally housed in about 50 dusty record cartons, the records have been organized and rehoused in over 200 archival boxes.

In addition to the creation of a standard inventory and finding aid, we have also geocoded any records found in the collection involving specific locations. This will allow researchers to browse cases visually on a Google Map, providing yet another access point to the vast collection.

The records of Brooklyn’s Corporation Counsel have numerous research strengths, some of which I will outline below.

Property and building research

Property and building history questions are one of BHS’s primary research inquiries. Our collection includes numerous maps, thousands of building photographs, and land conveyance records dating back to the Dutch settlement of Brooklyn. As it turns out, the Corporation Counsel records contain a tremendous amount of information on Brooklyn property ownership in the late 19th century.

There are two types of cases involving property which appear frequently in the records, damage claims and assessment disputes. Damage claims include the names of property owners, which are always useful for researchers, but the assessment disputes sometimes include even more information. Tax disputes involved investigating property title ownership, so these records sometime include lists of former owners, along with deeds and other supporting documents.

The Corporation Counsel was also involved in opening of streets throughout Brooklyn. Naturally, the street opening files include the names of numerous property owners along the newly opened roadways. The city was also involved in foreclosure proceedings, which included careful documentation of property ownership. Finally, the records include a number of maps, which were sometimes used as evidence in cases.

List of property transactions; Brooklyn, N.Y., Department of Law, Corporation Counsel records, 2013.015; Brooklyn Historical Society

List of property transactions; Brooklyn, N.Y., Department of Law, Corporation Counsel records, 2013.015; Brooklyn Historical Society

Municipal government and civil service research

The records of Brooklyn’s Corporation Counsel represent one of the largest collections of the municipal records of the former City of Brooklyn. They provide unique insight into the governing of the city, particularly the role of the city’s Law Department. The Corporation Counsel records include a series of correspondence containing communications between the Department of Law with other municipal agencies and officers. The departments of Finance, Water Supply, Public Works, Health, Education, Fire, and Police are all well represented.

The records also include numerous grievances related to the city’s civil service. There are numerous cases involving salary disputes and dismissals for a wide variety of positions in the city government. Common positions included policemen, teachers, and clerks. There were some more esoteric positions as well, such as a biologist employed by the Department of Health, and the Inspector of Leaky Plumbing.

The City of Brooklyn ceased to exist in 1898 when it merged with the Greater City of New York. Researchers interested in the merger’s effect on city workers should examine the many disputes related to civil service employment and salary which were filed in years following the city’s consolidation.

This trolley speeding violation is example of a record relating to Brooklyn's transportation system.

This trolley speeding violation is example of a record relating to Brooklyn’s transportation system. Brooklyn, N.Y., Department of Law, Corporation Counsel records, 2013.015; Brooklyn Historical Society

Infrastructure research

The evolution of Brooklyn from a village in a rural county to a metropolis is well documented in the records. Numerous cases involve the city’s transportation system, specifically the numerous elevated and surface railroad lines which crisscrossed the countryside in the late 19th century. The city’s sewer and drainage system was greatly expanded at this time, which of course resulted in endless civil suits involving homes flooded with raw sewage. Cases involving Brooklyn’s gas and electrical power supply system also provide insight into the growth of the city.

The major infrastructure problem of the day, however, was the city’s water supply. The records document the city’s effort to obtain new sources of fresh water, which involved the construction of an aqueduct that ran from East New York, through Jamaica, and well into central Long Island. This naturally led to conflicts with local land owners and other municipalities, which can be explored in the Corporation Counsel records.

Mapping and GIS

Map of legal cases filed against the City of Brooklyn.

Map of legal cases filed against the City of Brooklyn. You can search around the map yourself here.

In an effort to make the records of Brooklyn’s Corporation more accessible to researchers, tagged all the legal records involving specific locations with geographical coordinates. All of that data was assembled in a spreadsheet, and then displayed on a Google Map. This will be useful for researchers who are interested in a specific location or a general area. For instance, someone conducting property history research can simply zoom into their street address to see if there are any claims for damage to their building. Other research applications might include searching for intersections or streets which were particular hazardous to pedestrians, or areas of Brooklyn which were especially prone to sewer flooding.

We will also be making the raw GIS available to the public, and invite and expect our users to interpret the new data in new and interesting ways.

A complete guide to the collection is available online. The mapped version of the collection is hosted on BHS’s catablog, Emma. For more information on the Corporation Counsel records, please see my series of blog posts over the past 17 months.

About John Zarrillo

I am an archivist at Brooklyn Historical Society. My job is to make the historical records of Brooklyn openly available to students, scholars, and anyone else interested in the borough's past!
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