Monday, February 2, 2015

Seven-Alarm Fire Exposes Private Records

There was a huge fire in Brooklyn over the weekend. The building, which was located on the shore of the East River, was a storage facility for New York government files, including documents from the state court system, the city Administration for Children's Services, the city Health and Hospitals Corporation, legal and financial records, and more. Many of those documents, whipped by winter winds, were expelled from the building during the fire and are now littering the river, the shore, and the surrounding neighborhood. Examples include the medical photos and sonogram shown above.

This superb New York Times article provides a good overview of the types of documents that were strewn about:

[A] glance at a rocky jetty just south of the warehouse revealed a scattering of records stamped “confidential,” a health insurance form with a person’s Social Security number, a urinalysis report complete with a patient’s name, and copies of checks featuring bank account numbers.

“If you wanted to steal an identity, I’m sure if you looked at that piece of paper, you’d find a medical record,” said Sherry Hanson, 50, one of the many curious onlookers who clambered down the rocks at the edge of Bushwick Inlet Park to get a closer look at the heaps of paper on Sunday.

The city has dispatched a team of "disaster recovery contractors" to collect as many of the documents as possible. Here's a shot of one such contractor gathering those medical photos shown above (which, as you can see, are quite large):

Obviously, I don't want to encourage identity theft or privacy invasion. But there's something very enticing about all these records, many of which are similar to other documents we've examined here at Permanent Record. Decades from now, will people be finding some of this ephemera buried along the shore?

I'm clearly not the only one who gets a little tingle from such materials. Again, quoting from the Times article:

The current carried more papers to shore, luring people who paged through some documents, photographed others and kept more than a few as souvenirs.

“What if this was all diaries, instead of personal information? Love letters?” mused Loretta Rae, 38, who lives nearby. “If it was diaries,” she joked, “I’d definitely be down there reading it.”

You can read the entire Times article, which is accompanied by lots of additional photos, here.

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Update: After I posted the link to this entry on Facebook, my friend David Brown quickly noted that the "medical photos" I referred to are actually shots from photographer Richard Avedon's book In the American West. You can see two of those photos on this page from the Richard Avedon Foundation's website.

It's not clear, at least to me, whether those are original prints, pages from the book, or what. If they're prints, they're highly valuable. It's also not clear why Avedon photos would have been stowed in a municipal storage facility. Hmmmmmm.

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