A city organized in black and white

A city organized in black and white

At one point, the city of New York took a 35-mm black-and-white picture of every single building in the five boroughs:

The city’s physical evolution is vividly illustrated in photographs, and a rich trove of them has been made available to the public. Between 1938 and 1943, about 700,000 stark, unsentimental black-and-white pictures of properties in every borough — known as tax photographs — were taken for the city, to make assessments and as an employment program for the federal Works Progress Administration. They have been available to the public for 20 years.

But where are they?

Currently the only way to view an image before purchase is to go to the city’s municipal archives and examine the microfilm, using the block and lot number. Under [a] deal, Google would pay the estimated $50,000 cost to digitize and then index some of the photos — the 90,000 images of buildings in Manhattan — which the company would be allowed to use in its mapping feature for one year with the city holding two one-year renewal options.

Stemming from an interest in Brand’s How Buildings Learn, I’m next to obsessed by looking for opportunities to track buildings over time — whether in photographs or in actual time. Considered in these terms, everything is in a state of iteration and change, and these instances rich with questions about opportunities for improvement. Contrary to O. Henry referring to New York — “It’ll be a great place,” he said, “if they ever finish it” — I hope they never do. It’s fascinating just the way it is.

The evolution in photos at NYTimes.