I am searching for an analogy that would best describe my relationship to the Belcher Hyde Desk Atlas of Brooklyn, of 1929. It is intense and ongoing, much like the relationship a serious language student has with a good dictionary. It is less messy than human relationships, because the atlas never answers back, never betrays, always gives me something when I turn to it, even if it is not exactly what I am looking for. Unlike my dogs, it never disobeys or embarrasses me, and while it lacks warmth it is constant and true. You would not call it beautiful, but you might call it fascinating, like an older actress with slightly asymmetrical features. And just as readers of Proust return to his volumes again and again finding something new every time, the atlas constantly surprises me with previously unnoticed details.
Well, enough of this. An atlas is only an atlas. It is a tool of the trade, and as such I imagine it invokes some of the same feelings a carpenter might harbor for his favorite plane. I could wish its publisher had a more mellifluous name--the Florian Devilliers Atlas, perhaps--but you have to accept people, and atlases, just the way they are.
Which is not to say that you can't help them along in life. We have had a preservation photocopy made of our Belcher Hyde, so that we can slap it onto a copy machine with impunity and share it with any visitor who needs it. When this one wears out, which it soon will, we will order another from our bindery, and so its future is assured.
Our original copy belonged to a Carl Kirsch, Real Estate and Insurance, 141 Broadway NY 6 Phone WOrth 2-2776. In four volumes of about 200 pages each, it covers the whole borough in extraordinary detail. It is big enough that one can read it without a magnifying glass, but not so big that one needs bulging biceps to carry it around the room. Goldilocks might say that the atlas of 1886 is too big, of 1912 is too small, but the atlas of 1929 is just right.
For the pleasure of it, I have just opened the atlas at the atypical page that shows the spot where I am right now, on the second floor of Brooklyn's Central Library at Grand Army Plaza. Most atlas pages are dense with colored buildings, but the unpopulated park and the Botanic Gardens are shown in black and white. Back in 1929 I would have been floating somewhere above a big hole in the ground. To my left would have been the half-built Flatbush wing of the building with an elaborate beaux-arts facade. Flying around my head would be the pigeons that inhabited what was known as the city's largest pigeon coop. And to my right would have been Eastern Parkway and the Union Temple House with a still-empty lot giving onto Plaza Street. The atlas shows this wing as a pink lozenge on Flatbush Avenue, with the Mount Prospect Reservoir (now filled in and called Mount Prospect Park) directly behind it. I must have looked at this page a hundred times before, but only today did I notice that right next to the Lefferts homestead was the "Deer Paddock," and at the other end of the park, between Prospect Park West and the West Drive, between 9th and 11th Streets, were the "Archery Grounds." That tricky old Belcher Hyde, always pulling some rabbit or other out of its hat.
Pictures: Top, Desk Atlas of Brooklyn. New York: Belcher Hyde Co, 1929 Vol 1, p.107
Bottom: Central Library, Flatbush wing designed by Raymond Almirall. Photograph by Roy Pinney, c 1938. Brooklyn Public Library--Brooklyn Collection