Sunday, January 13, 2008


These images come from Brian Merlis' terrific books on NYC history, as featured on this wonderful site on East New York history. Since "Sunday In New York" was on TCM today I decided to use the song from that movie (here by Shirley Horn).
I'M kind of a renegade,'' the Brooklyn-born Brian Merlis says about his obsession -- an obsession with collecting that in the last 20 years has cost him $250,000 -- and his marriage. Mr. Merlis doesn't gamble, scuba dive or fly fighter planes. He is an amateur historian and a collector of photographs and artifacts who has apparently published more books on the history of his native borough than anyone else. Mr. Merlis was born in Brooklyn in 1955 and spent part of his childhood in a 1940's house at 1302 East 51st Street in Flatlands, a neighborhood that at the time was only partly built up. ''I saw Brooklyn as it was still developing,'' he said. ''I could catch butterflies in vacant lots next to 18th-century farmhouses.''
As an adult he began collecting picture postcards of Brooklyn and soon expanded to ephemera -- old printed matter like posters, ads and theater programs -- and, especially, documentary photographs. ''Even as a kid, I wondered what things had looked like in the past,'' Mr. Merlis said. Mr. Merlis said that he loves to sink his eyes into the fine grain of a print from a glass plate negative: the store signs, the passersby, the life on the streets. He said he has collected more than 10,000 pieces of ephemera, 5,000 negatives and several thousand prints. ''Images are what run the world these days,'' said Mr. Merlis, whose full-time job is as a teacher of vocal music at Springfield Gardens High School in Queens. Mr. Merlis also runs Brooklyn Collectibles, buying and selling photographs, ephemera and other items. He has put out six books of historic photographs, through various publishers: ''Welcome Back to Brooklyn'' (1993), ''Brooklyn: The Way It Was'' (1995), ''Brooklyn's Gold Coast: The Sheepshead Bay Communities'' (1997), ''Brooklyn: The Centennial Edition'' (1998), ''Brooklyn's Park Slope: A Photographic Retrospective'' (1999) and ''Brooklyn's Bay Ridge and Fort Hamilton: A Photographic Journey'' (2000). Four of the books were written with other authors: Oscar Israelowitz for ''Welcome Back to Brooklyn,'' I. Stephen Miller and Lee A. Rosenzweig for Sheepshead Bay and Mr. Rosenzweig for Park Slope and Bay Ridge. Mr. Merlis said that he sees each book as a step forward in introducing new images to the public, rather than leaving them buried in a library or a historical society. ''So many books use the same stock photos,'' he said. ''You see them over and over again.''

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