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Researching the History of Your Address
Shortly after arriving in New York City, this writer lived in an Alphabet City walk-up at 619 East 5th Street. Within days, neighbors—many still hanging on to enviably inexpensive rent-stabilized units they had acquired in the 1980s—started to share stories about the building’s history. “You know, RuPaul lived here back in his Pyramid Club days,” said one neighbor over a pile of dirty socks in the laundry room. As time past, other neighbors shared more sordid tales, including one about a mysterious death that had taken place in this writer’s below-market-rent apartment. There were also countless stories about the rats, which apparently once outnumbered tenants 200 to 1. But was there a way to confirm these rumors?

While neighbors talk, verifying who once lived at your address, whether or not it was ever the scene of a crime, and its health and safety history is something better done in the archives than the laundry room. Fortunately, whether you’re a prospective buyer or seller who requires information to finalize a sale or a curious renter hoping to explore your address’s history, the city offers myriad of in-person and online resources to help you investigate.

This guide walks you through the process of researching your address from start to finish.
Resources at the Municipal Archives
The Municipal Archives holds information on every address in the city, but don’t expect to get too far with an address alone. First, you’ll need to know your block number and lot number. There are two ways to obtain this information.
The first and least convenient option is to visit the City Archives at 31 Chambers Street. There, you’ll find a stack of tattered books on the front table, which are labeled Manhattan Land Book 1955 (updated 1975). Use the index to find your street, and this will guide you to the “plate” or map for your address. From there, you can find your block and lot number. Next, fill out a form at the circulation desk and be certain to indicate your block and lot numbers on the form. The staff will then tell you to come back on Friday (block and lot “folders” are only pulled from storage once a week). If you want to skip the extra trip to 31 Chambers Street, simply visit the MyCity site and type in your address. Your neighborhood map will appear and on right hand side of the screen, you’ll find your block and lot number.
Email or call the Municipal Archives, give them your block and lot information, and request access to your folder; the relevant materials will be waiting for you on Friday.

When your folder finally arrives, you may find a single page or a thick stack of materials. For any building constructed or altered in Manhattan from 1866 to 1959, the file should at least contain information about the building’s architect, the dimensions of the building, and date of construction. The folder may also include information about any buildings or structures that occupied the lot before the current building was erected.
Sample page from the New York City Directory, 1859; author Herman Melville appears in the city directory at 37 Pine but the “h” indicates that his house is actually in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
Resources at the New York Public Library
Anyone hoping to dig up the complete history of their address should also visit the New York Public Library’s Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy in the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building’s at 42nd Street. While some of the resources available in the Milstein Division can also be found also be found at the Municipal Archives, if you’re new to archival research, the staff at the Milstein Division are highly knowledgeable and readily available to assist. Also, the collection has one key source of information you won’t find at the Municipal Archives—access to early city directories.

Prior to telephone books and the Internet, city directories were a key source of information for finding out who lived where. For this reason, if you’re looking to confirm that a famous early American once occupied your address, the city directory is the place to begin. Some but not all city directories have been digitized, so be prepared to visit the library’s Microforms Reading Room. If your home was erected before 1859, however, there is at least one New York City Directory available online that may contain relevant information about your address. Notably, if you type Herman Melville into the 1859 directory, you’ll find the author residing at 37 Pine Street in Lower Manhattan and in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. By 1850, Melville, who was struggling financially as a writer and trying to support a growing family, had moved to Massachusetts. However, like so many of the city’s artists and writers today, he was evidently attempting to keep one foot in the city—at least on paper.
Screenshot of Acris' Digital Tax Map
If you want to know exactly how much your building is worth and how its assessment value has changed over time, go to the Automated City Register Information System (ACRIS) . Once you get to the site, scroll down and click on “Begin Using ACRIS.” On the next page, click on search property record; if you have your block and lot number, click on “Parcel Identifier.” Once you type in your block and lot number, you’ll be brought to a new page displaying ownership, going back to the 1960s, as well as property and tax assessment information.

Building Permit Search
For building permits from 1900 to 1986, visit the Office for Metropolitan History’s website and click on The Building Permits Database. In this case, you can just type in your address. The database offers access to any building permits issued between 1900 and 1986.
The Rat Information Portal (RIP)
Finally, just in case you have a specific interest in researching the rat history of your building, there’s the Rat Information Portal. As advertised on its homepage, the aptly named RIP is exclusively dedicated to disseminating “facts about rats.” You can use this helpful city-funded portal to find out whether there is currently a rat problem or potential problem at your address and to research your building’s recent rat history. For historical data on rats, you may need to go back to your I-Card.
I-Card for 619 East 5th Street (June 1916).
What You Can Expect to Discover
Despite going to great lengths to verify the many rumors circulating about 619 East 5th Street, this investigation turned up more unsolicited than solicited facts. The RuPaul mystery, which is repeated in a commentary stream online, could not be verified. This is partly due to the fact that it is difficult to verify information about former renters. The alleged death that took place in this writer’s apartment could also not be verified, although a search in the New York Times Article Archive did turn up evidence of earlier deaths occurring in the building, including the tragic asphyxiation of two children due to a building manager’s negligence. The rampant rumors about the rats, while possibly exaggerated, were most likely true.

Beyond the questions that drove this investigation, other notable facts were also recovered, including the building’s recent and rapid rise in value. In 1985, when nearly all the other buildings on East 5th between Avenues B and C had been abandoned by their landlords and eventually burnt to the ground, 619 East 5th Street sold for a mere $190,000. By 2012, the building was valued at more than 10 million. In the end, the building’s biggest story may be the one it tells about soaring real estate values in the East Village and Alphabet City over the past two decades.
With RIP (the Rat Information Portal), in just a few seconds, New Yorkers can generate a current visual map of the rat situation in their building and neighborhood; recent historical data on inspections is also provided.

Additional Info About the Building

Contributing Writer Cait Etherington Cait Etherington has over twenty years of experience working as a journalist and communications consultant. Her articles and reviews have been published in newspapers and magazines across the United States and internationally. An experienced financial writer, Cait is committed to exposing the human side of stories about contemporary business, banking and workplace relations. She also enjoys writing about trends, lifestyles and real estate in New York City where she lives with her family in a cozy apartment on the twentieth floor of a Manhattan high rise.