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New York City Neighborhood Research: Local History

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

Local History

NYC Clippings File. For decades, former Milstein librarians clipped articles from newspapers and magazines on a multitude of subjects related to New York City, and arranged them in files like Hotels, Parks, Bookstores, Housing, Animal Life, and Ghosts. In addition to articles, the clippings files might include images, pamphlets, or ephemera like menus, letters, or flyers. The materials are located in Room 121 and are not digitized, but the files are cataloged and can be found searching the subject term and the term “clippings.” These can be a rich patchwork, and a handful of subjects are relevant to site research:

  • Buildings
  • Villages and Sections
  • Housing
  • Streets
  • Squares and Circles
  • Parks
  • Guides
  • Populations - which are then sub-filed under ethnicity or race (“Jamaican,” “Chinese.”)

1969: A Proposal. The city published each of these “proposals” just a few years shy of the 1970s fiscal crisis, when New York was unable to pay its debts, raised subway fare, and cut municipal wages. These publications are a time capsule of the late 1960s when the administration of Mayor John Lindsay sought to reboot New York City into a more sleek, more empathetic, more global city, only to encounter the 1970s, one of the most notorious - and exalted - decades in the 400 year history of the Manhattoes. These oversized volumes, each devoted to an individual borough, with a separate volume on “Critical Issues,” feature expressive photography and richly colored data visualizations, as if Abstract Expressionists were contracted by the City Planning Commission. The Proposals are excellent research materials for demographic and land use data, acting as a snapshot of NYC two years after the summer of love, and six years before the Municipal Assistance Corporation was formed to negotiate how the city would settle its arrears the size of King Kong. 

NYC City Map. Freely accessible online, this geospatial map designed by the Department of City Planning provides a slew of current municipal data, including local boundaries, landmarks, capital projects, and information on transit, buildings, schools, and cultural institutions.  See the user guide and the About page for more details.

NYC Population Fact Finder. Use this map, again designed by the Department of City Planning, to pull 2014-1018 demographic numbers at the neighborhood level, or by census tract, census block, or what the Census Bureau delineates as “Public Use Microdata Areas” (PUMA). You can pull up population profiles in four different categories: Demographic, Social, Economic, and Housing.

Landmark Preservation Commission (LPC). Since 1965, this city organization has determined whether a building or neighborhood (and sometimes, an interior) should be saved in its present form - no alterations, no renovations, no additions, no demolition, everything as-is but the real estate value. Shouldn’t they just go ahead and landmark people, too, deceased or still among us? There could have been petitions filed with the LPC for Walter Matthau, Liz Smith, Harry Belafonte, Nora Ephron, Blondie, Angie Xtravaganza, Bill Cunningham, Martin Scorsese…

When a building or neighborhood is landmarked, a highly detailed report is published by the LPC, sometimes hundreds of pages in length, with illustrations and citations. These reports are all freely accessible online, and now findable using this map at the LPC website.

NYPL Postcard Collection. The research value of a postcard is supplemental to local history research - it serves as a certain type of visualization of a building or neighborhood, maybe of a site that no longer exists, or shows a building that no longer looks like it does today. Would any of the millions of people who travel through the Lincoln Tunnel each year believe that it was once lionized in a postcard? The collection of postcards in the Milstein Division covers the entire United States, is arranged by state, then city, and then by subject within that city. It is presently uncatalogued and undigitized. Access is currently onsite only, with one exception - the 766 digitized items in the Staten Island Post Card collection. Also, there is a smaller collection of NYC postcards from the NYPL Picture Collection digitized online.

Land Auction Catalogs. See the research guide authored by the NYPL Map Division for details about these evocative resources potentially chock-full of relevant data.