With its five boroughs that were brought together into one big, beautiful city in 1898, New York City is steeped in incredible stories from its long history. Weaving together culture, religion, ethnicities, and various languages, this history gives the Big Apple and its residents a sense of legacy and importance. To understand your little slice of the city’s history, here’s a guide to uncovering the genealogy of your home.
Find the Right New York City References
Understand that you’re going to have to buckle down and sort through some data and documents, but where should you begin? It’s best to start with a broad historical overview of the area in which you live. If you live in a neighborhood that’s designated as a historic district, you may find a report on its designation through the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission.
The New York Public Library has collected many resources related to the history of specific neighborhoods in its Milstein Division of U.S. History, Local History, and Genealogy. The library’s website recommends starting with secondary sources such as reference books. Top picks include the Encyclopedia of New York and The Iconography of Manhattan Island. You can find historical reference books for each of the boroughs as well as guidebooks to get you started.
Explore Primary Sources
You need primary sources to help you narrow your search for specific information about your home. Gain a sense of when your building was constructed by chasing down its building permit. Municipal records at the Office of Metropolitan History and Department of Buildings may have this document for your construction. The city’s Finance Department has deeds, which show the conveyance of property and may help you trace details about your building’s past. The Automated City Register Information System lets you comb through property records and images. It covers all boroughs and goes back to 1966.
Use historical maps and the deeds for your building’s lot and surrounding parcels to examine assessment records. Though very early assessments often failed to include street addresses, you can use lot measurements with maps to verify locations and ensure you’ve got the right assessment for your building. Censuses and directories help you identify previous occupants of your building, possibly of your specific apartment. The public library, historical society, and Ancestry.com are good places to look for these records.
Learning About the Builder
Image via Flickr by Trodel
The city’s Building Information System lets you search for applications. There are tools online to help you sort through the abbreviations that are in the “actions” section. This part of the application reveals the history of the building, including alterations made to it over the years. Use this data to examine the docket books from the Buildings Department, located at the city’s archives. These logs may drive you back to the maps where you’ll have to translate the log’s shorthand before you can verify the information matches your building’s lot on the map.
When tracing your home’s history, don’t forget to be creative in your research. Talk to older adults who have lived in your building for decades. Even if they don’t remember specific names of families, they may recall details that can help you along in your search.