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New York City Neighborhood Research: Subject

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

Subject

Once you have a general sense of the identity of a locale, you can then gear your research toward a particular subject about the area, or a certain approach to the neighborhood that reveals it in a certain cast of light. Use some of these examples as a springboard. Some of them intersect, as much of this research guide is synchronous - the point of neighborhood research especially is to decategorize, and find where things snap together.

How did the neighborhood develop? Was there an industry on which the area or city was founded? What is the environmental character of the area? Is it located on a river or seacoast? Why did they put the sewage treatment plant here? How many floral shops are still in the Flower District compared to thirty years ago? Such are questions that suggest an approach to a regional history of a site. 

Group portrait of (left to right): Bob Rogers, Ishmael Reed, Jayne Cortez, Léon-Gontran Damas, Romare Bearden, Larry Neal; seated: Nikki Giovanni and Evelyn Neal, in New York City, 1969Is there a tradition of the arts in the area? Is the neighborhood associated with a certain political leaning? Have there been significant political events in the area - demonstrations, protests, civil rights history, etc.? Any well-known artists or figures from the neighborhood, or who live there now? Bedford-Stuyvesant is located in the Congressional District that elected Shirley Chisholm, “the first black female Congressman,” as expressed by Ms. Chisholm, who lived in the district. "So-and-so" wrote/painted/recorded XYZ" in the neighborhood..." Fill in the blanks and your neighborhood research benefits.

160 West 58th Street - Seventh AvenueSome of the structures in the area you are researching will have interesting stories about them. Architectural history; a business which occupies the building, or an industry (the Con Edison plant on W. 14th Street, the cement factory next to the BQE in Gowanus); or the people who live, or who once lived, in the building. Focusing on the “built history” of a neighborhood is a tour itself; buildings have character, identity, and personality just like people - sometimes more.

230 Park Avenue - East 45th StreetThe fundamentals at the core of local history are “when” and “where.” These set the parameters for your research, give your subject traction, and determine which resources will be available. Did they publish address directories for that locale in that year? Are there photos of that building in that year? These are the types of questions you will be asking - and the type of questions commonly fielded by librarians.