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.

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Photo of the Week: Festival of Lights

Brilliant Luna Park at Night, 1903, v1972.1.1031; Early Brooklyn and Long Island photograph collection, ARC.201; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Brilliant Luna Park at Night, 1903, v1972.1.1031; Early Brooklyn and Long Island photograph collection, ARC.201; Brooklyn Historical Society.

This week’s photo is to acknowledge the Festival of Lights, Chanukkah.  The festival began on Tuesday at sundown and continues all the way to Christmas Eve!  Enjoy the chocolates, dreidl spinning, and fried food.  If you find yourself unfamiliar with this holiday, read more here.

The above stereograph is of Luna Park in its heyday when electricity was still a novelty and Coney Island was a major attraction.  A new Luna Park opened in Coney Island in 2005 and consists of a combination of amusement park attractions, retail shops, and residences.

A stereograph is a photographic technique that renders a 3-d image when viewed through a stereoviewer.  The obsession with stereographs continues today: the New York Steroscopic Society, The Stereoscopic Society (in the UK), and the National Stereoscopic Association offer information and events in which to participate.

Interested in seeing more photos from BHS’s collection? Visit our online image gallery, which includes a selection of our images. Interested in seeing even more historic Brooklyn images? Visit our Brooklyn Visual Heritage website here.  To search BHS’s entire collection of images, archives, maps, and special collections visit BHS’s Othmer Library Wed-Sat, 1:00-5:00 p.m. photos@brooklynhistory.org

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Shop Talk with Brooklyn Makers: In the Seam

Welcome to Shop Talk, our regular series highlighting some of the fantastic Brooklyn-made products (and their makers) available in the BHS Gift Shop, open daily from 12pm to 5pm!

Ronda J. Smith

Ronda J. Smith of In the Seam

For people who create, inspiration can come in many forms. For Ronda J. Smith of In the Seam, it came in the form of her cat Keywan, who had a bout with illness some years back. Ronda, who makes pillows using her personal photography, started by simply snapping pics of her pet, and before she knew it a company was born. Keywan pulled through and is still posing for pics at the age of 14, and In the Seam is now providing comfy ways to celebrate everything from your beloved pet to your favorite NYC landmarks.

We recently caught up with Ronda to chat about how she came to be in the pillow business and what else has inspired her fun creations…

Tell us a little bit about yourself…
I was born a raised in Michigan, moved to Florida for college at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, and lived in Miami for 10 years before relocating to New York.

What do you make?
I make pillows using my photographs. I also make custom pillows using user supplier images.

How long have you been at it?
I made my first sale was almost four years ago. I had made my first pillow a few years before that and thought for a while that it was a good idea.

What is the story behind how you developed your product?
My cat was sick, so I was photographing him a bit more. Inspired by my loves of photography and sewing, I decided to print the image on fabric, cut it out, and sew a pillow. Yes, he is still alive at age 14!

Walk us through a typical day…
On days when I work at my In the Seam studio, I leave my apt at 9am (I drive and that’s what time street cleaning comes). When I get to my studio, I respond to emails, print POs and organize myself for the day. I usually have a plan for the week, but each day something always comes up so I’ve learned to take it day by day. Most days I print, sew, cut, respond to emails, develop new pillows, make them, photograph them, list them, and try to remember to post to social media. On days when I work on-set as a freelance photographer, I show up to the studio location (usually in Manhattan somewhere), shoot products mainly for ecom and the web, go home, then drive over to my studio and work there until around midnight, when I drive back home.

What are you doing when you’re not working?
Thinking about work, ha ha.

How has NYC inspired what you make and how you make it?
I have an entire NYC series/collection of pillows. This city has so much to see and photograph. I could shoot, cut out, and make everything in NYC into a pillow.

If not creating, what else would you be doing?
Making and photographing food!

For more In the Seam products, visit the BHS Gift Shop, open daily from 12pm to 5pm! You can also learn more on their website, intheseam.com.

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Photo of the Week: House Research

[House on back of parking lot at 47 McDonald Avenue], 1956, v1974.16.1423; Edna Huntington papers and photographs, ARC.044; Brooklyn Historical Society.

[House on back of parking lot at 47 McDonald Avenue], 1956, v1974.16.1423; Edna Huntington papers and photographs, ARC.044; Brooklyn Historical Society.

This week’s photograph is interesting on many levels.  First, it’s a wood frame house (although in a sorry state); second, it’s on a weird shaped lot in Windsor Terrace; and third, it was taken by our own Edna Huntington.

Let’s start with the first area of interest: wood frame houses.  Wood houses were common until the fear of rampant fires set in within urban environments caused them to be banned.  Wood was replaced with brownstone and brick and what we think of today as the housing stock of Brooklyn.  Unfortunately, it means there are few wood frame houses left.  Those that are still around date to the early to mid 1800s.

Weird shaped lot and information about the building: is this structure still standing and covered over in aluminum siding or some other fate?  Sadly or thankfully, it was replaced by a modern residential building across the street from Green-Wood Cemetery.  If I wanted to know more, I would start by doing a Building Information Search at the Department of Buildings which tells me it’s located on block 895, lot 7502: the tip of the iceberg for house research.  We have an extensive guide to doing house research on our website.

Finally, the photograph was taken by Edna Huntington, a long time librarian at Brooklyn Historical Society – from 1926 until 1960 when she retired.  While a librarian here, she documented Brooklyn in photographs dating from the late 1930s to the mid 1940s.  She cataloged them extensively and they are available for searching our image catalog in our reading room.

Interested in seeing more photos from BHS’s collection? Visit our online image gallery, which includes a selection of our images. Interested in seeing even more historic Brooklyn images? Visit our Brooklyn Visual Heritage website here.  To search BHS’s entire collection of images, archives, maps, and special collections visit BHS’s Othmer Library Wed-Sat, 1:00-5:00 p.m. photos@brooklynhistory.org

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December Staff Pick from the BHS Gift Shop: Park Slope Neighborhood & Architectural History Guide by Francis Morrone via Brooklyn Historical Society

Welcome to the latest installment of Brooklyn Historical Society STAFF PICKS, a fun way to explore our awesome gift shop! The BHS Gift Shop features many items crafted right here in Brooklyn, as well as an array of fascinating books on the history and culture of New York City and our favorite borough. Once a month we feature a staff member and their favorite book from our gift shop because, let’s face it, who better than our Brooklyn-lovin’ staff to give great gift ideas?

This month we chat with BHS President Deborah Schwartz, whose favorite book in the BHS Gift Shop is the Park Slope Neighborhood & Architectural History Guide by Francis Morrone via Brooklyn Historical Society.

Deborah Schwartz

December Staff Pick from BHS President Deborah Schwartz

The history of Brooklyn is so rich that many people who have lived in the borough for years are unfamiliar with the history that surrounds them. Neighborhood & Architectural History Guides were created by Brooklyn Historical Society as a way to connect everyone from tourists to long-time Brooklynites to our incredible borough. Using images from the BHS archives and information provided by local historians and residents, these guides bring the history of each neighborhood to life and reveal the fascinating stories behind how communities grow and develop.

You can also use these guides to find evidence of a neighborhood’s past on your own. Each comes equipped with one or more walking tours and maps that allow you to explore an area’s monuments and sites of historical and cultural interest at your leisure! Guides are available at the BHS Gift Shop for a variety of neighborhoods, including Park Slope, Flatbush, Fort Greene/Clinton Hill, Williamsburg/Greenpoint, Red Hook/Gowanus, DUMBO, and Bay Ridge.

Deborah Schwartz/ President/ South Slope/ Garden Reader

The neighborhood guides are researched carefully by amazing local historians, and written beautifully. They are the perfect mixture of social history and architectural history. If you love exploring neighborhoods: Fort Greene, Park Slope, Flatbush, and others, these books are for you! They make great gifts too! – Deborah

What is the last book you read? The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick by Peter Handke. It’s about anxiety and psychic breakdown.

Any favorite hobbies? Gardening, cooking, and collecting labels.

Why Neighborhood & Architectural History Guide? I love the way this series of books gets you deep inside the story of Brooklyn’s fabulous neighborhoods. They are fun and clear to read, and easy to stick in your backpack or purse (or your new BHS Duck Bag!).

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Pick up one or more of the Neighborhood & Architectural History Guides ($10 ($8 for BHS Members) +tax) at the BHS Gift Shop and start exploring! We’re open Monday through Sunday from 12pm to 5pm.

Gift Shop Photo

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