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House History Research at The New York Public Library: NEIGHBORHOOD HISTORY

A Guide For Researching the Histories of NYC Residential Buildings


Greenwich Village, U. S. A. [1960]Knowledge of the history the neighborhood where a building is situated will give your building research context, helping to establish such information as 

  • when the streets were laid out
  • when boundary lines were drawn
  • who the founding families were
  • who the big names in real estate and property development were
  • the identity of government offices connected with construction
  • the demographic makeup of the neighborhood's residents
  • the economy, business, manufacturing, and employment
  • the names and histories of the cultural features, like churches, museums, schools, and libraries, that served the community
  • when real estate records were first collected, and where they are located now

For further information, please consult the NYPL guide New York City Neighborhood Research

See also: 

Above: Greenwich Village, U. S. A. [1960] / Friedman-Abeles (New York, N.Y.) (NYPL Digital Collections).


Research begins (and often continues) with secondary sources — reference books: encyclopedias, guidebooks, dictionaries, and local histories. Kenneth Jackson's latest edition of the Encyclopedia of New York (2010) is a good first stop for all kinds of information pertaining to NYC history. Entries are short but rich in detail, well written, and usually include further reading suggestions. Another invaluable text is I.N. Phelps-Stokes's The Iconography of Manhattan Island, 1498-1909, especially this six-volume set's index and chronology (volumes four, five, and six). This reference book records important daily events taken from contemporary sources, like historical newspapers, and features an index that includes information about land grants and farms, entries for streets, buildings, and individuals, and much more from the history of the island. This text is also available online, courtesy of Columbia University, and at the Internet Archive:

If you're researching the history of a building in Brooklyn, you might at some point consult A History of the City of Brooklyn: Including the Old Town and Village of Brooklyn, the Town of Bushwick, and the Village and City of Williamsburg / Henry Stiles (1869), a history contains a lot of very useful data about property owners, buildings, farms, businesses, streets, and other aspects of the built environment. A digital version is available through the Internet Archive. 

The Neighborhoods of Queens by Claudia Cryvat Copquin and The Neighborhoods of Brooklyn edited by John B. Manbeck are two examples of local history texts that examine NYC boroughs more closely, whilst Eugene Armbruster's Brooklyn's Eastern District (1942) is a good example of a book dedicated to a single neighborhood, and describes the development of Williamsburg in the mid-19th century.

In addition to reference materials, the Milstein Division has a collection of over 1,000 historical New York City guidebooks, from the early 19th century to the present day, designed for a number of audiences: people new to the city, tourists, shopping, restaurants, and entertainments. City guides may include demographic data, street directories, information about public and cultural institutions, maps, illustrations, and biographies and histories, and are an invaluable local history and family history resource. 

Above: The iconography of Manhattan Island, 1498-1909 / I.N. Phelps-Stokes Volume 5, p1719, for March 13, 1833.

Perhaps you live in a building located in a New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission Historic District? If so it may be described in a Historic District Designation Report, available in the Library or on the Commission's website. Detail varies, but reports sometimes include information about when a building was constructed. The Landmarks Preservation Commission has also mapped "Individual, Interior, and Scenic Landmarks, as well as Historic Districts in all five boroughs", allowing you to search for data on buildings using a map search tool, Discover NYC Landmarks.

Land Mark Preservation Report Greenwich Village You can also tell if your building has Landmark status / is in an historic district by checking its Property Profile Overview at the New York City Department of Building's Buildings Information System


Right: 385 Avenue of the Americas, from Greenwich Village Historic District Designation Report, Vol. 1 (1969), [Area 4], p.134

	 Naming New York  Manhattan Places and How They Got Their Names ISBN 9780814727119Many patrons wonder how old their street is, and whom it was named for. Many general and local history texts, such as the Jackson, Stiles, Stokes, and Armbruster sources already mentioned, include information about the history of streets, when they were laid out, when they were paved, extended, and so on. In addition to those texts, there are some books and websites that concern themselves specifically with the past and current names and origins of neighborhoods, streets, roads, lanes, parks, bridges, and more. Some useful titles are:

Search for more titles in the NYPL Research catalog, using the following subject terms: