Exploring complaints that pre-date 311 by centuries


By Skye H. McFarlane

Visitors on the most recent “Access Restricted” free tour explored the Surrogates Court building at 31 Chambers St.

Belongings scanned and name tags applied, a motley crew of visitors gathered Friday afternoon in the entry hall of the Surrogates Court building at 31 Chambers St. Above them arched the vaulted ceilings, celestial mosaics and ornate woodwork of the 1907 civic building. Waiting for them below were the labyrinthine headquarters of the Hall of Records. Ahead of them lay a trip back in time, courtesy of a new behind-the-scenes tour program developed by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council.

The program, called “Access Restric­ted,” takes visitors into areas of Lower Manhattan that are usually off-limits to the general public. Though the tours often take place in historic and architecturally significant buildings, they are led not by traditional tour guides. Instead, artists and professionals with unique knowledge of the spaces turn the tours into a sort of roving lecture series.

“There are always tours, but it’s generally encyclopedic information and generally, you can get that on your own,” said Adam Kleinman, an artist and former architect who works as an assistant curator for the Cultural Council. “We like to think of the space as a second condition for holding a unique conversation.”

The tours are part of a larger L.M.C.C. focus on “amnesia” — an exploration of the city’s forgotten stories that includes performance art, sculpture, discussion groups and self-guided outdoor walking tours that can be downloaded to an mp3 player from the group’s Web site (www.lmcc.net).

Friday’s tour, the third installment in the Access Restricted series, was led by Matt Bakkom, an L.M.C.C.-sponsored artist who used the Hall of Records to create a project called the New York Museum of Complaints. Published as a newsprint tabloid last summer, the “museum” reproduced a selection of complaint letters written to the Mayor’s Office throughout city history. Dating as far back as 1751, some of the letters were selected for their uniqueness, such as a 1906 note from the director of the New York Zoological Park defending his decision to keep a living African pygmy man on display with the animals. Most of the missives, however, demonstrate the enduring nature of gripes about sanitation, construction and city politics.

“A dead horse is waiting to be taken away for the last 24 hours in front of 41 Henry St. The stench is unbearable and the people in the neighborhood, of which I am one, were forced to sleep with closed windows last night. Not a pleasant thing, I assure you,” wrote Albert Oegler on Aug. 21, 1888. Though dead horses are no longer a common problem in the city, a substitution of “pile of garbage” for “dead horse” shows how timeless the note’s sentiment has become.

“The man who seemed to be the ‘boss’ said he did not know the name or address of the person who employed him, or who paid him, or the name or address of the owner of the house or lot,” wrote David M. Kellis in 1866, complaining to Mayor John Hoffman about a reckless demolition job going on next door to his house.

Ushering tour-goers into the public portion of the Hall of Records, Bakkom said he was drawn to the city’s collection both for the information it contained as well as the beauty and craftsmanship of historic documents like hand-scripted registers, maps and blueprints.

“It’s hard to imagine, but almost every piece of information that comes through New York City is kept for posterity,” Bakkom said.

That information, including papers, photographs, video, microfilm and digital records, takes up thousands of square feet of storage space in the Chambers Street building, as well as larger storage facilities in Brooklyn, Queens and western Pennsylvania.

“About three-quarters of our budget goes to rent to store it all,” said Brian Andersson, commissioner of the Department of Records, who helped guide the tour. Andersson told the visitors that the department’s “biggest sellers” are the city’s tax photos — the block-by-block shots of buildings taken by city photographers from 1939 to 1941 to verify property tax information. The photos are requested both by individuals putting together family histories and by developers and preservationists working with historic buildings.

From the airy public research room, the tour descended into the bowels of the building, where documents are stored, restored and archived. Because digital technology frequently evolves and can be quick to degrade, the archivists remain dedicated to the microfilm format. In a dark basement laboratory, the department continues to shoot microfilm of the city’s most important records. The boxy overhead camera in the lab has been in use since the 1950s.

“We’re in the forever business,” said Kenn Cobb, a department staffer. “If it’s done right, this film will last 500 years. And 500 years from now, you’ll be able to look at it and see that it’s a picture. All you’ll need is something to magnify it.”

With such a huge collection, there is a constant need to preserve and restore documents. In two tucked-away rooms, paper conservators Jennifer Sainato and Ellen Chin showed the group how a combination of special techniques and old-fashioned patience can put long-forgotten and damaged documents back together.

As Chin’s work on a series of court documents demonstrated, the records sometimes contain more than just paper. In addition to case files and Bertillon cards (stiff turn-of-the-century mug shots with criminal information typed on the back), the boxes also held brass knuckles, a vial of poison and scores of counterfeit bills from the days before central banking. The visitors smiled in amazement as the guides allowed them to examine, photograph and even touch some of the artifacts.

Andersson said that the record-keepers constantly rediscover information that they never knew existed. As an example, the guides held up a poorly marked record book that had gone unread since the 19th century. When department workers brought it out to restore it, they discovered a meticulous documentation of slave life in Flushing, Queens from 1800 to 1825, including births, freeings and other “transactions.”

In the photo lab, city photographer and archivist Michael Lorenzini told the tour-goers about his discovery, after countless hours of research, that a single staff photographer had captured many of the city’s most iconic images. Lorenzini set out to give the uncredited civic artist his due. The result, a book called “New York Rises” that will hit shelves in April, celebrates the career of Eugene de Salignac, who shot more than 20,000 photos for the city between 1906 and 1934.

“I could look at this stuff forever,” said Christy Dailey, a Parks Department employee who came on the tour after reading about it on the L.M.C.C.’s Web site. Dailey’s favorite part of the tour was a trip to a basement vault that was packed from floor to ceiling with the same mayoral records that produced the Museum of Complaints. Dailey said she would love to sit down and look through some of the room’s white rectangular boxes, marked with cryptic but enticing labels like “Indecent Magazines” and “Marijuana Use.”

Kleinman said that one of the strengths of the Access Restricted program is that it appeals to an audience beyond the council’s typical artist crowd. Many people, Kleinman said, come simply to see the insides of historic buildings. For that reason, Friday’s tour ventured briefly outside the Hall of Records and into the Surrogates Courtroom upstairs.

A theater-like space with a balcony, crystal chandeliers and intricate wood carvings, the courtroom prompted Andersson to joke, “When this building goes residential, this’ll be my room.”

Previous tours have given visitors glimpses into the abandoned City Hall subway station, Tweed Courthouse and the roof of the Municipal Building. In the future, Kleinman hopes to bring guests into hidden areas in the Seaport, the Federal Reserve and Trinity Church. After coming up with an idea for a tour, the council calls and negotiates with building owners to secure access. Space on tours is limited and spots are hard to come by. For each of the past two tours, the council has had 10 to 15 times more applicants than slots available, forcing Kleinman to institute a lottery process.

Asked if the council would ever take advantage of the high supply/demand ratio and start charging for the tours, Kleinman laughed and shook his head. “That’s not a nice thing to do,” he said. “We’ll absolutely keep it free.”