In 1973 and 1974 the artist Gordon Matta-Clark bought 15 small parcels of NYC land at auction for $25 - $75 per lot. Each one was either too small for any building or not accessible from the street.
He came upon these properties while looking for sites for alternative art projects with Alana Heiss (founder of PS1). The city was auctioning off small slivers of land left over from rezoning processes over the years. Some too narrow or small to build on while others are surrounded by residential lots and inaccessible to the street. Though there are mentions of plans he had to have artists create site specific art projects on the lots, Matta-Clark died before he did anything with them, and his intentions behind the purchases are not totally clear; perhaps the act of buying the inaccessible land was the project.
Beyond questioning the meaning of land ownership, the project sheds light on some quirks of City tax lots that still exist today. The story of these lots and their stewardship by Matta-Clark shows the city during a ten year period where these bits of land were sold off at public auction and put in private hands. All of Matta-Clark's lots were bought from a pool of hundreds up for sale from the city through public auctions. All but 3 returned to city ownership along with hundreds more that were seized in 1979 for delinqent tax payments. According to Cabinet Magazine (whose editorial team did extensive research on this project in 2005) the city stopped selling the small parcels at auction in 1980 or so. Since then hundreds of these parcels throughout the city remain in city hands.
53 Drive, Queens, NY
Assessed value 2016: $8400
At $25-$75 per lot Matta-Clark bought the lots over the course of a few auctions. At the time, $25 - 75 was a significant amount for an artist to pay for land that couldn't be occupied or lived on. After the first purchase he did not have enough money for the others he wanted, so a sympathetic friend Manfred Hecht helped out and transferred the deeds to Matta-Clark's name. As part of the project Matta-Clark went to each site to photograph them, having to cross other peoples' backyards and trespassing to access many.
Photo taken by Gordon Matta-Clark in 1974. From "Odd Lots, Revisiting Gordon Matta-Clark's Fake Estates", Cabinet Magazine. All Fake Estate lots were photographed by Matta-Clark except one.
39 Place, Queens, NY
Assessed value 2016: $2000
Before the public auctions these lots and hundreds of others, came to be city owned through foreclosure and a court order for unpaid taxes. This one was reclaimed by the city in 1968.
Deed transfer document showing public auction price of $25 and purchase by Matta-Clark for $75.
49 Street, Queens, NY
Assessed value 2016: $10,000
Matta-Clark was unable to pay the property taxes which amounted to about $25 per year. He gave materials to friend Normal Fisher who paid taxes until his death in 1977. Then materials were returned to Matta-Clark who then died in 1978. The Fake Estates project was not discovered until years later when the box of papers, photographs and records associated with the lots was returned to Jane Crawford in 1979 or 1980. Before this, she had received notices from New York City Department of Finance about unpaid taxes in 1978, and not knowing what they were about, nor understanding the disorganized box of materials, she left them unpaid. In 1979 the properties were reclaimed by the city through foreclosure for unpaid taxes.
Page one of a 1973 Queens list foreclosures and property transfers. This is the first two of 91 pages listing the lots seized by the city.
Arlington Terrace, Queens, NY
Assessed value 2016: $78,000
Block 10142, lot 15 1965 city tax map
Woodward Avenue, Queens, NY
Assessed value 2016: $42,000
Photo taken by Gordon Matta-Clark in 1974. From "Odd Lots, Revisiting Gordon Matta-Clark's Fake Estates", Cabinet Magazine.
53 Road, Queens, NY 11378
Assessed value 2016: $2000
48 Street, Queens, NY
Assessed value 2016: $4000
Block 3165, Lot 155 2009 tax map
69th Place, Queens, NY
Assessed value 2016: $6650
96 Street, Queens, NY
Assessed value 2016: not available
This lot is so small it's barely visible on any map. 1.17 x 1.83 feet.
Block 3165, Lot 155, 1965 tax map
23 Street, Queens, NY
Assessed value 2016: $9000
Clyde Street, Queens, NY
Assessed value 2016: $8400
Lot 11 is one of the two lots that is now in private hands. The most recent deed online is from 2004. Though the current owner is listed as Samuel B. Cohen on Oasis, the New York City land use database, the 2004 deed shows transfer of property from NYC to Rubin Howard.
Lot 155 was purchased with neighboring lot 51 in 1987 and presumably they've continued to be sold and owned together since then.
Block 3165, Lot 155 1965 tax map
Block 3165, Lot 155 2009 tax map
55th Avenue, Queens, NY
This lot no longer exists. In 1979 55th Avenue was widened and this and other parts of the surrounding blocks became part of the street.
1965 tax lot map of block 2366. Former lot number 241 was in the angle where 54th changes to 55th Ave.
2008 tax lot map
31st Avenue, Queens, NY
Assessed value 2016: $5000
Coonley Court, Staten Island, NY
Assessed value 2016: $1440
This is the only one in Staten Island.
3423 Steinway Street, Long Island City, NY
In the case of Block 672, Lot 106 records show it was joined with Lot #6 on this block. An existing building was built there in 1934 and from aerial photos appears to cover the whole of Lot 6. However, original tax lots show the triangular space sandwiched between 3 industrial buildings. On a visit to the site in the 1990's Matta-Clark's wife Jane Crawford was not allowed access to the lot by the adjacent building owners so they were unable to photograph.
1965 NYC block and lot tax map
2008 NYC block and lot tax map
There are hundreds of odd lots in New York City today. After working with and looking at the New York City tax lot data (NYC Map Pluto) for other projects, I started noticing these little slices of land. I also noticed that NYC has official designations and classifications for these lots that affect what can be built there, on the neighboring lots, and taxes that are collected by the city. The designations must also impact urban planning and development in terms of how various land types can be used.
Exploring the tax lots carefully will reveal many lots that are misclassified. Some are shown to be submerged though they clearly aren't. Many interior lots were mis-classefied as "inside" rather than "interior"; an understandable mistake given one doesn't think of mid-street lots as "inside". In making this map I reclassified many of these for my own database. Part way through the project I brought in a new basemap made in Mapbox Studio that allowed me to zoom in much closer revealing many more even smaller odd lots. They remain misclassified for the moment.
As classified by New York City (these statistics are based on the data provided in the NYC PLUTO dataset which contains errors):
• New York City has classified 677 lots as odd; (too skinny to build on, inaccessible from street, submerged or an island) in Brooklyn. They occupy 1,843,962 square feet. Of those square feet 29,134 are listed as owned by the Department of Parks and Recreation.
• Brooklyn has 429 interior or inaccessible lots.
• Of those lots 75 are owned by city, state or federal entities.
• The average size of these lots is 1239 square feet.
• The smallest is 5.85 square feet.
• The total land area covered by these inaccessible lots that are owned by the Department of Parks and Recreation is 23,424 square feet.
• There are 121 parcels that are too skinny to build on.
• Of those 20 are owned by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.
• The average size of the skinny lots is 446 square feet.
• The average width of the skinny lots is 4.5 feet. And 2.5 feet for the city owned lots.
• Apparently there are eight submerged lots and island lots (surrounded by water, not traffic islands) in Brooklyn
click here for a partially functioning map with street views of the lots. To be updated soon.
I learned most about this story from the following books:
Cabinet Magazine Book's "Odd Lots: Revisiting Gordon Matta-Clark's Fake Estates". Edited by Jeffrey Kastner, Sina Najafi, Frances Richard. ©2005.
"Gordon Matta-Clark", edited by Corrine Diserens. ©2003.
Other data was found in NYC Pluto data sets, and through the NYC Oasis interactive land use map.
Images of deeds, property transfer files, and tax lot maps come from ACRIS or the website of New York City Department of Finance Office of the City Register.
An interesting exploration of the Fake Estate project by architect Martin Hogue can be found at this website: www.martinhogue.net
Please contact me with any questions or corrections:
eichnersara at gmail dot com