Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
A combination of national and local resources can help you learn what happened in your house generations ago.
Here’s what I already knew: I live in the garden level of a brownstone building in Sunset Park, about halfway between Park Slope and Coney Island in Brooklyn. We have built-ins and a tin ceiling and thick layers of white paint on the doorframes. We’re uphill from the factory spaces-turned-artisanal-havens at Industry City, and downhill from the bustling Chinatown on 8th and 9th Avenues. I’m up the block from a barber shop and across the street from a tattoo parlor where an ice cream truck parks every night in the summer, its jingle still ringing. I use subtle landmarks to direct people to my apartment: It’s the first lamppost on the left; there’s a Japanese maple tree out front—it’s small, and hasn’t been there long.
But that’s just what the street is like today. It doesn’t illuminate anything about how my neighborhood has changed over time. (Which it has, dramatically. Once predominantly Scandinavian, it was then home to Irish and Italian immigrants, then Puerto Ricans and Mexicans. Today, it’s largely Latino and Asian. The number of non-Hispanic whites increased almost 8 percent between the 2000 and 2010 census, but it's still a minority demographic in the area.)
I wanted to get a sense, in a street-level way, of what the lived experience was like for people who slept and ate in this building before I did. I’m not alone. Home history research is one of the most popular research requests at the Othmer Library at the Brooklyn Historical Society. It's also a major component of the Washingtoniana Collection at the D.C. Public Library. As Kerrie Cotten Williams, Special Collections Manager at the D.C. Public Library, says in this short film about archival research within the collection,
Oftentimes, people move into houses, [and] it's not just that they're moving into a physical space, but they're moving into a community with historical memory.
Thankfully, there are several easy ways to bridge the gap between your experience and the life a building and its inhabitants had before you arrived. Here's how to get started:
Find the basics
Building and property information—such as permits—are very helpful when you're trying to locate more information later on. County archives or local historical societies are likely to have this information. Find a state-by-state list of historical societies here. I consulted NYC.gov, which has a comprehensive search tool that brings up an aerial map view, dimensions, and more. I learned that our building was built around 1901. It’s lot number 28 on our block.
Search for historical records
When I began to dig deeper, I started with the more recent past. In 1980, New York City's Department of Finance embarked on a project to photograph every building in the borough for tax purposes. I found the façade of my building in those records, and it doesn’t look very different—that lamppost is there!
Then, I went further back. Old city directories (like the 1908 example below) functioned like comprehensive address books. They cross-referenced residents’ names and addresses with occupations. I learned that my home was once occupied by a pair of carpenters.
The Library of Congress has a national collection of directories that span the 19th and 20th centuries. The Brooklyn Public Library has digitized versions of city directories from 1856-1908. (The full collection, spanning 1796-1986, is available on microfilm.) Historical city directories from Utah, Kansas, Michigan, Georgia, and more have also been archived online.
Find additional resources
The Sanborn maps, created to assist a fire insurance company with assessing risk, are a valuable digital resource. More than 600,000 maps dating from 1867-1970 chart the growth of 12,000 cities. (Since this is a subsricption-based ProQuest project, you may need to visit your local library to gain access.)
If your home is in a landmarked neighborhood you might be able to glean some information through the National Register of Historic Places or local landmarks preservation commission.