While listening to Spotify a few months ago, a James Taylor cover of “Up On The Roof,” by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, began playing. To me, the song is quintessentially about New York. As luck would have it, I was putting together flash drives of old family photos for my siblings at that moment and had a picture of my paternal grandmother on the roof of a Brooklyn apartment building on my screen. The song and that image are the geneses of this offering.
I am going back to mid 20th century Brooklyn with a little help from the National Archives, NYC Municipal Archives, and some old family photos. I want to take you up on the roof and out on the stoop. If you grew up in Brooklyn or had family from there, you’ll understand.
Between 1939 and 1941, the Works Progress Administration, in conjunction with the New York City Department of Taxation, organized teams of photographers to shoot pictures of every building in the five boroughs of New York City. The photographs were taken to improve the process of determining and recording property value assessments. 1
Both sides of my lineage settled in Brooklyn in the mid 19th Century. Five to seven generations of the Irish diaspora and a lone German immigrant, whose surname I carry, called Brooklyn home. Even though my parents moved our family to Pennsylvania after I finished 7th grade, I consider myself a Brooklynite to this day.
My father’s people were from the Red Hook section of Brooklyn. Gerard R. “Jerry” Baumann was the only child of John Gerard Baumann and Alice Catherine (Flood) Baumann. He was born during the Great Depression; his family lived for a few years in “The Red Hook Houses.” Now generically referred to as the “Projects,” the Red Hook Houses were part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a New Deal program designed to get people back to work while completing infrastructure projects and providing low-cost housing. Both sides of Dad’s extended family lived nearby, close to the Todd Shipyard, where his father found work as a welder. My grandfather was orphaned at a young age and lived with his mother’s family growing up. my grandmother had grown up in Red Hook, the daughter of Henry and Alice Flood. Henry Flood was a prominent undertaker on Van Brunt Street.
Dad’s maternal great aunts and uncle, the Gaynors, lived in apartments at 80 Wolcott Street. My father and grandfather’s photo below dates back to the late 1930s, very close to the time frame of the NYC tax photo. That building was razed for a school that now stands on the site.
In the early 1940s, Dad’s family moved from Red Hook up to Park Slope neighborhood just west of Prospect Park. His mother’s family, the Floods, moved from Van Brunt Street to 9th Street after Alice’s father suffered a stroke and had to retire from his business. The 1940 census has all of Alice’s family (her parents Henry and Alice, brothers Henry and Robert, and her sister Eleanor) living at 491 9th Street. Dad would call that building home as well from the early 1940s through the 1950s.
The apartment house at 491 9th Street is a four-story building in a row of similar apartment houses. As is the case for most of the blocks in Park Slope that have not been devoured by the New York-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital campus, the building’s facade has changed little in the 80 years since the 1940 NYC Tax Photos. The only visible alterations to 491 are the fire escape and the window air conditioning units.
With windows only in the apartment’s front and rear rooms, natural light for photos was best found by climbing the roof’s stairs. A series of brick chimneys, skylights, vents, and blackened staircase enclosures dominated the row of apartment buildings’ rooftops. The view to the west was of lower Manhattan. I imagine that a climb to the roof was done for pivotal moments. Here are a few.
Put down what you’re doing tonight and climb up the stairs with me and seeCarole King and Gerry Goffin
We got the stars up above us and the city lights below, oh
Up on my roof now
My parents married at the altar in St. Saviours Church on the corner of 8th Avenue and 6th Street in 1957 after he completed flight training with the Navy. By then, he had upgraded his Aviation Cadet “Cracker Jacks” for Officer’s “Chokers.”
I have more stoops to visit in Boerum Hill and Park Slope from the Kelly side of my family and the brownstone on 4th Street that I called home as a child. We will leave those photos for another day.
Thanks to my parents Jerry and Kelly Baumann, who entrusted me with boxes of photos and slides to digitize.
You can search the tax photo collections of the NYC Municipal Archives by clicking on the link provided.