Selling Condoms or Pet Food? Inside New York's Business 'Bible'

The New York Times

Posted at Apr 29 2019 09:46 AM

The City Record in New York, April 9, 2019. Since 1873, the City of New York has put out a daily paper that is essential reading for those who want to do business with the city. Stephanie Keith, The New York Times

NEW YORK — The first issue of The City Record, on June 24, 1873, listed a procurement notice for a steamboat engine for the New York City Department of Charities and Corrections.

A more recent notice, from 2017, listed the purchase of almost $4.4 million worth of condoms and lubrication packets as part of a city public health campaign.

In between lies the vast history of the city and of The City Record, a bottomless trove of municipal minutiae and legally required announcements that calls itself the “Official Journal of the City of New York.”

While most New Yorkers have never read, or even heard of, this city-published paper, it is indispensable to many city officials and to those seeking city contracts.

“This is the bible of doing business with the city of New York,” said Eli Blachman, the paper’s longtime editor. “If you want to bid for a city contract, it’s like the lottery,” he said. “You’ve got to be in it to win it.”

The paper carries no outside advertisements or conventional news, no photographs or color pages.

“We’re black and white because the news is black and white — what is there to color?” Blachman said.

For those with the patience to slog through columns of densely detailed listings, the paper provides a peek at the vast scope and inner workings of a city with more than 300,000 full-time employees and an annual budget of $92 billion, more than that of most states or, for that matter, countries.

Each business day, the paper publishes the official listings of more than 100 city agencies and departments about public hearings, meetings, property auctions, agency rules, personnel changes and contracts to be awarded, such as those needed for plumbing work at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office building, and replacing sewage pumps at the Marcy public housing complex in Brooklyn, where Jay-Z grew up.

Blachman, 66, and his small staff of Department of Citywide Administrative Services employees put out the paper, which runs from 16 pages to more than 100 on days when large reports are released, from offices in lower Manhattan. As each notice arrives, Blachman presses a button on his desk attached to a digital counter on the wall that assigns each notice a tracking number as it makes its way through the editing process.

Recent items chronicled the city Health Department’s $4 million purchase of a helicopter to spray mosquito larvicide; the New York Fire Department’s need for “fast response fire boats;” the Parks Department’s expenditure of $25,000 for almost 7,600 uniform T-shirts; the city Office of Emergency Management appropriation of $48,000 for a “shelter stockpile” of pet food in case a crippling coastal storm deluges the city; $150,000 going toward new toilet stall partitions; and a $4.2 million contract to run a family shelter in the Bronx.

Other listings sought contractors to paint the University Heights Bridge, a Harlem River span that connects Manhattan and the Bronx, and a tennis pro for a Queens park.

Could you provide firehouse garage doors or kennel service for bedbug detection dogs? How about tens of thousands of police department emblem patches for officers’ uniforms? The City Record provides the contract details and a contact person.

The paper is also a vital cog in the city’s bureaucracy, since many projects and transactions cannot proceed until they are announced in The City Record, said Blachman, who regularly pushes back deadlines as important pieces of mayoral business are completed at City Hall across the street.

“Whatever business the city does, it has to be published in The City Record, so everything runs through us,” said Blachman, who proudly points out that the paper has never missed a publication day in its 146-year history.

That would be every weekday except legal holidays since 1873. In his own 25-year tenure as editor, he said, “We’ve had blackouts, blizzards, transit strikes, even 9/11, and we still got the paper out.”

The City Record was created by reformers to monitor city business in the wake of several municipal scandals. City law still mandates its publication, in the interest of governmental transparency, and to satisfy state laws requiring legal notices to be posted in a print publication.

The paper serves as a mirror to an ever-changing city, said Jonathan Soffer, a New York University history professor organizing the digitization of The City Record. He likes to cite old listings such as a sanitary code item from the May 1, 1874, issue that specified the streets and times that livestock could be driven through Manhattan streets.

So far the digitized database runs from 1873 through 1947 and can search more than 1 million pages.

“It’s an overview of the infrastructure of the city,” he said. “Every contract, every payment, every bid. You have budgets and election results, precinct by precinct.”

Some of the paper’s language retains a dated tone, such as a recurring notice by the police department’s property clerk that lists unclaimed items ranging from furniture and furs to “surgical and musical instruments.” The listing describes the items as being “obtained from prisoners, emotionally disturbed, intoxicated and deceased persons; and property obtained from persons incapable of caring for themselves.”

Blachman said he has done his best to modernize the paper since becoming the editor in 1995, after working at a Yiddish-language newspaper in Brooklyn.

Since 2004, when listings began to be posted online, print circulation has declined steadily, and is down to 379 print subscriptions, Blachman said.

Most print copies are delivered by mail to government officials’ offices, to some libraries and to a handful of “old-time lawyers who don’t use the internet,” said Blachman, who lives in Brooklyn and has nine children. Single copies also can be purchased at the paper’s newsroom in lower Manhattan.

The paper’s webpage gets an average of nearly 35,000 clicks a month; Blachman said many are from city employees checking up on salaries of fellow workers, since The City Record lists employees’ pay and raises.

“We are the municipal record of everything that’s happening in city government,” Blachman said. “If the mayor issues a new ruling, if your property was condemned, if parking fines were raised, if the city raises your taxes or your water rates, you can find it in The City Record.”