Tony the Tour Guy's Blog

A not very regular series of posts on New York City history, historic preservation, genealogy and related themes.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Find your family in old City Directories

If you're curious as to where your family used to live and what they did then there is no easier thing to do than head over to the New York Historical Society on Central Park West and 77 Street, where you can consult city directories going back as far as the 1830s for free in their beautiful library.

For decades before telephone directories were introduced various private companies published listings of the residents of Manhattan and Brooklyn, along with their addresses and the occupation of the head of household. Widows were also listed along with the names of their deceased husbands. Just look for your ancestor in the alphabetical listings. I've found numerous family members this way.

City directories are fun to browse even if you don't care about family history. They contain numerous ads for businesses and services, and you can get a good idea as to what ethnic groups lived where by looking up common surnames.

There are other places where you can access old city directories, but the NYHS has many in print form - much easier to deal with than microfilm. They also have very friendly staff, and a beautiful building, which features history exhibits, a fun gift shop and a cafe.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

One More Step Towards Landmarking Sunnyside Gardens!

Today the NYC Council's Landmarks sub-committee voted 9 to 0 to approve landmarking for Sunnyside Gardens, New York's most successful planned community. This is yet more good news for perservationists and lovers of our town's history.

Located 20 minutes from Manhattan and just north of Queens Blvd, SG is a beautiful oasis of small homes and low-rise apartment houses, surrounded by plenty of green space. Architecture and urban planning students study the Gardens all of the time, and for good reason.

Landmarking has been a cantankerous issue for Gardens residents, largely due to a small contingent of arrogant, noisy neighbors who either want the freedom to do whatever they want to their homes (such as put in illegal carports), or believe their own race-baiting propaganda. They made a lot of noise at a few meetings, but quickly shrank into insignificance after the Landmarks Preservation Commission voted unanimously to classify Sunnyside Gardens as a Historic District.

If you've never seen SG, Fall or Spring is the best time to go. Just take the 7 train to 46 St, and exit at the 47th Street staircase. Go up 47th north of Queens Blvd and you'll see it.

To view the Landmarks Preservation Commission's beautiful presentation on SG, click here. Then visit the site of the Sunnyside Gardens Preservation Alliance.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Go to the Pros for Family History

Here's one place that you can get invaluable help in researching your NYC History. This is the Queens Family History Center, located in Woodside, just 2 blocks from the 7 train and the LIRR. Like all Family History Centers, it's affiliated with the gigantic LDS (Mormon) Family History Library in Salt Lake City, and you can order microfilms from Salt Lake for a small fee. But more than that, the FHC is a friendly, supportive place, staffed by eager volunteers. You'd much rather do your research there than at the Municipal Archives; believe me (the last time I visited the latter they didn't even have a men's room key!) Besides renting films from Salt Lake, you can use a variety of online resources and consult a small library of how-to books. Everything is completely free, except for the rentals, which are about $5.75 per microfilm.

Now, I know what you're thinking: A bunch of guys in white shirts and dark ties are going to start preaching at me. NO!! Trust me on that one; proselytizing is not allowed in any FHC, and they really keep to their word. Most of the volunteers are not missionaries, anyhow, but amateur genealogists, just like you, except typically better. The Latter Day Saints Church has the best in the business. Use 'em.

Researching YOUR New York History

If your family has been in NYC for any length of time, then the best way to learn some of the social history of this town is to research your own genealogy. OK, I know what you're thinking; genealogy is a lot of stuffy nonsense about "pedigrees" - a hobby for those who want to get into the Daughters of the American Revolution or some other group. Well, wrong. What we're talking about here is family history, and what your family has done is intimately tied to the history of NYC.

An example: I've long had a professional interest in the Lower East Side because so many people have descended from immigrants settling there. But it wasn't until I found, through Census records and old City Directories, that my own family had roots there going back to the 1840s when Ludwig Meyer, a tailor from Alsace, France, set up residence in the area, that my fascination with the place really grew. Ludwig and his progeny, along with several other branches of my family, were part of the huge migration of Germans to the Lower East Side in the 1840s and 50s. At that time the place was actually called "Kleindeutschland," or "Little Germany." Why would a Frenchman settle amongst Germans? Of course, he was from Alsace, a region of France close to Germany.

As I dug through records, a process made much easier nowadays due to online resources such as Ancestry, Kleindeutschland really came alive to me.Everything fell into place.

Another example: we don't read much about New York's contribution to the Civil War. Two of my ancestors, I learned, served in that war, and I was easily able to order their Army records from the feds. History comes alive when it's your own.

Some practical stuff on family history will follow.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Honoring Chaplain Mychal Judge with a Church In Dallas

Friends will know that I'm big on honoring the memory of Fr. Mychal Judge, the FDNY chaplain killed on 9/11. In a nation where the term "Christian" has come to mean "arrogant, right-wing, Bible-thumping bore," it's easy to forget what the term really stands for. And Judge was the real thing, dedicating his life not only to firefighters, but to many whom the Catholic church has turned its back on. I've heard of a movement to have Fr. Mychal canonized. That's great, but given the leanings of the current occupants of Vatican City, we shouldn't hold our breath.

In the meantime, some folks in Dallas have taken the daring move of naming their church for "St Mychal." No, this isn't the "official" RC Church, but apparently a spin off of the Dutch Old Catholic Church. Take a look at their web site. Mychal would be pleasantly amused, I think.

Let's Abolish "Fedders Houses!"

You've seen them - those cheap-looking brick 2 and 3-family homes, sometimes with a garage, that developers are throwing up all over Queens. They call 'em "Fedders" houses on account of the air conditioner covers that typically adorn them.

Fedders Houses have no class. They're certainly not ritzy. Nor do they have the funky charm so evident in many working-class communities. No, they are just boxes for people.