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New York City Neighborhood Research: Demographic

Researching the history of the life of places in New York City takes on a life of its own.


Neighborhoods have heart, mind and soul. What are some of the resources that will reveal these qualities?

1978 Manhattan Address Directory

Though not as common as directories arranged by surname - which were typically published annually in New York City and then replaced by telephone books - directories arranged by address have been published on and off in New York City since at least 1851, when Doggett’s New York Street Directory circulated. For boroughs other than Manhattan in the 19th century, with the exception of parts of Brooklyn, address directories were not published. Beginning in the 1920s and up to the 1990s, telephone directories arranged by address were printed yearly for each of the five boroughs. These are one of the most sought-after resources in our division, and are accessible on microfilm; for example, see the catalog record for Bronx address telephone directories. The address directories show both residents and businesses, and are especially useful to gain a sense of the commercial character of an area, or the business occupants of a building.

Cole's Cross Reference Directory is a New York City address directory published yearly since 1971 in hardcover volumes the size of the Flatiron Building. The directories list each occupant of the building (however sometimes incomplete), phone numbers, and may feature an apartment number, which is an extremely difficult detail to find - apartment numbers are rarely included in typical local history and genealogy resources. Cole’s directories are located in Room 121 and public access is onsite only.

The federal census is digitized in a handful of databases, where keyword searching the census schedules requires a first and last name, in addition to corroborating data relevant to the subject individual. One of the pieces of corroborating data is a residential address. The federal census is arranged by “enumeration districts,” which are tracts of an area assigned to a census-taker (known in federal parlance as an  “enumerator”), and follow no pattern or boundary line other than what has been mapped for that census year by the U.S. Census Bureau. For the purposes of neighborhood research, the census is also searchable using the number of the enumeration district (E.D.). You can then browse the pages, analyze the data associated with each individual living in that E.D., and note any patterns. Addresses first appear in the census in 1880 - for years prior to that, you can use the ward or assembly district or whatever municipal boundary lines are employed in the locale you are researching. For the steps involved in determining an enumeration district and using it to access the census, see the Milstein Division’s Guide to Searching the Census by Address.

Additional publications that have compiled local New York City population data:

1970 Census of Population and HousingPulling historical population numbers for a specific locale can be a tricky, multi-step, and sometimes frustrating process. The go-to resource for population numbers is the federal census, and the Census Bureau routinely published reports on the data collected by census-takers. Depending on the year, there is a process to find local numbers. For some years, there are publications that have abstracted and organized the data from the census reports.

  • Local population numbers for New York City for the first half of the 20th Century are published in Census Data with Maps for Small Areas of New York City, 1910-1960 / Bowser et. al., with the companion Census Data with Maps for Small Areas of New York City, 1910-1960: A Guide to the Microfilm.
  • For years that have not been abstracted and published, researchers must first determine the "census tract" number assigned by the US Census Bureau to the area where the neighborhood is located. Population numbers at the tract level are published by the Census Bureau, however the description of the tract locale is not included. To match a census tract number to the area it represents, there are maps that identify the actual location.
  • Census tract maps have been digitized and made freely available at Michigan State University. After locating your subject census tract number, find the listing in the relevant report in the online database of Census Publications. Use the date range filters in the left-hand sidebar to narrow the results to your subject census year or decade.

  • There are a number of things complicating this process. Earlier censuses did not arrange data by census tracts; earlier censuses may never have published population numbers at the neighborhood level; census tract numbers are different with each new census year; often multiple census tracts will comprise one neighborhood, and the parameters of census tracts do not match exactly the boundaries of a neighborhood; also, neighborhoods change - what was the Lower East Side in 1930 versus 1990, and what was the East Village?

Browse the NYPL catalog using these recommended subject headings: 

If you hit the brick wall researching census publications, or have any questions related to this complex research process, email our division: