I remember visits, when I was a boy, to my grandparents’ little house in a remote corner of Staten Island. My grandfather bought the newly built house in the 1920s and sold it in the late 1960s after my grandmother died. There weren’t many good photos of the old place, which is why I was thrilled to locate a high quality, black and white tax photo of the property in the New York City archives.
Between 1939 and 1941, the city photographed every house and building in the five boroughs – over 700,000 unique images. It was a project of the Works Progress Administration, creating jobs for photographers and allowing the city to make better assessments for tax purposes. The city commissioned another set of color photos in the mid-1980s. And all these photos are available for a price.
I learned you could order the 1939-1941 photos online or in person at the Department of Records on Chambers Street. An 8″x10″ print costs $35. The only catch is you need to know the official block and lot number for the property. Since I didn’t have that information, I visited the office in person and asked for help.
Finding the image was a bit complicated. I always knew my grandparents’ address to be 29 Storer Avenue, in the Charleston section of Staten Island. As I recall, Storer Avenue was a dirt road that came up behind their property. The front of the house had a sidewalk and a curb but no street. This was Lundsten Avenue, a road that was never built (it would have served only two houses). There was no photo for 29 Storer Avenue but I eventually did find one for 29 Lundsten Avenue.
I got it in the mail the other day. Just as I remember, Lundsten Avenue is a lawn. The feeling in the photo is somewhat eerie. The house seems to be in the middle of nowhere. There is no other structure visible all the way to the horizon. And there is not a person in sight. Still, the lawn, sidewalks and hedges are all impeccably maintained.
In an earlier post, I wrote about the 1940 census return for the Kowal household – right about the time this photo was taken. There were 11 people then living in the two-bedroom house: my grandparents Alex and Katarzyna (Katherine) Kowal, my father Anton, his six siblings (Mary, Nellie, Helen, Joseph, Stella and Walter) and two boarders who worked at a nearby smelting plant.
My Uncle Walter told me that the boarders took one of the bedrooms (the family needed the income) while the male members of the family took the other. The women probably slept in the dining or living rooms, although my uncle (who was a young boy at the time) says he didn’t know for sure.
According to the 1940 census return, the house was valued at $5,000 (which comes to $82,000 today, adjusted for inflation). It wasn’t the most expensive house in the neighborhood but it wasn’t the cheapest either.