The basement of the Brooklyn Civil Court is a stark reminder that for most of mankind's history, you couldn't store information on computers. Huge stacks of court dockets line the wall in this bleak corner of local bureaucracy—thousands upon thousands of files. Divorce papers, deeds to homes, bankruptcies, foreclosures. These are living testaments to the ordinary lives of millions of people in Brooklyn. And to retrieve just one, you have to physically fill out a small slip of paper with its specific index number so a court employee can search for it. By hand.
The Clerk's Office is legally obligated to retain all undigitized court papers for 25 years, so this is where they end up. And to dive further past 1990, you'll have to request it from an off-site storage facility, which could take two to three weeks.
That is, of course, if it's still standing.
Last Saturday, a seven-alarm fire tore through a Williamsburg warehouse, creating a smoking, smoldering mess on the waterfront that could be seen from miles away. Fortunately, no injuries were reported, but the fire lasted well into the week, fueled by the mountains of papers stashed inside.
According to the New York Times, the CitiStorage facility held "40,000 boxes from the Administration for Children's Services, and 32,700 boxes from the health department, including 28,000 boxes of correctional health inmate records from 2009 and earlier." There were also 700,000 boxes from the city's Health and Hospitals Corporation, 143,000 of which were damaged. Luckily, city officials said Thursday that most of those documents were digitized, so the impact of their loss will be minimal.
Court records, however, are generally not preserved digitally. Though it's not clear yet exactly how much was lost, we know the fire consumed a significant chunk of Brooklyn's legal history, which means troves of information that could be useful to historians, experts, prisoners, and average citizens alike were lost. As one Clerk's Office representative said, "They're priceless."
"At this point, we don't have specifics [on what was lost]," Arlene Hackel, the assistant director of communications at the Office of Court Administration, told me. "What we do know is that these were closed cases before 1990; cases from Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn."
The cases, Hackel said, were primarily from those boroughs' Supreme Civil Court, Family Court, and Criminal Court, and may have included historical records. Half of the cases in storage were at a different location, so right now, her office is determining which half is which, and other possible methods of bringing those files back to life. This may include the digitization of microfilm, if available. To pinpoint what needs to be restored, though, is still fuzzy: "We cannot verify all of the facts right now," Hackel concluded.
But for Oren Yaniv, the Brooklyn courts reporter for the New York Daily News, this loss of knowledge could have been way worse. "Of course, if criminal case files or more recent civil files were lost—that would be a problem," Yaniv told me over email. "But that's not the case as far as I know."
Yaniv cited the work of Brooklyn DA Kenneth Thompson's Conviction Review Unit (CRU), which, since his inauguration in 2014, has already overturned over ten longstanding convictions, with more cases pending. And even though the DA's office has looked into convictions that are older than 1990—like that of David McCallum, who, after being convicted for murder in 1986, was recently freed—a spokesperson told me that no CRU cases were lost in the flames.
"It doesn't really affect my work because we never go back that far when looking for old lawsuits, and I imagine that even if we were to order a file from that storage, it would have taken months to retrieve," Yaniv continued. "That loss strikes me as more sentimental than practical."
The fire really impacts people like Marc A. Hermann, a Brooklyn native and photographer. His grandfather, Harvey L. Strelzin, was a man of the courts, serving as a private lawyer, an assistant attorney general, and state assemblyman. So if some estimates are true—that all of Brooklyn Civil Court records between the 1880s and 1950s were affected (which Hackel couldn't verify)—any history of his grandfather's work evaporated like the smoke into the cold February air.
"Of course, I don't know for sure what, if anything, was in there pertaining to my family, but it's a rude awakening for people like me who undertake historical and genealogical research," Hermann told me. "My grandfather died when I was 11, and [I was] too young to really appreciate his courtroom stories. Now, this is going to make it nearly impossible to research them.
"We often run into a big brick wall when we dig into the past because, oh, the 1890 Federal Census doesn't exist. Fire in 1921. Army records from World War II? Gone. Fire at the St. Louis National Archives," Hermann added. "Sometimes you think Well, that's a problem of the past. Records are obviously much better stored now, but then something like this happens."
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