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How to Research the Environmental Past and Present of Your Neighborhood- and Why You Should

By Heather Flanagan
May 1, 2017
Screenshot 2017-04-27 17.41.28

Fire insurance maps are a tool for uncovering environmental hazards from the past, block by block.  This map from 1903 shows the former Brooklyn Union Gas company site (a predecessor company to National Grid) that operated from the 1860s to the 1960s, polluting the ground and nearby Gowanus Canal so badly that the area is now a federal Superfund site.

By Heather Flanagan, BOP Communications and Curriculum Editor

The BOP Curriculum Team is hard at work writing and piloting middle school science units that hit state and city standards while engaging students in authentic, hands-on restoration work.  One core belief of our team is that our work should empower students to connect the science they’re learning to meaningful environmental justice work in their own communities.  Our latest unit guides students through an investigation of pollution that enters their local waterways, and culminates in students proposing site-specific green infrastructure solutions like green roofs and bioswales.  We’ve called it the “Steward-shed” Investigation, because it’s designed to foster stewardship of their local watersheds.

We would love to make this work accessible to people of all ages, not just students!  As New Yorkers, many of us feel a deep sense of place, and we take pride in our neighborhoods, rats and all.  (Especially if that rat is pizza rat! or churro rat! or even if it’s not a rat at all and it’s bagel pigeon!)  But it can be incredibly daunting to understand the environmental issues your neighborhood faces, and even more daunting to understand how you personally can make change.  In the aftermath of last November’s election, there is a lot of uncertainty about how the US will respond to some of the enormous environmental and public health challenges we face as a nation- from lead in drinking water to the consequences of climate change.  I’m not an environmental activist by trade- I’m an educator- but I think we all have the potential to be advocates for the causes we believe in in our own ways, in our own small corners of the world.

This post is designed to walk you through an approach to becoming familiar with environmental issues in your neighborhood, setting the stage for you to take action in a way that feels right to you, whether you’re eighteen or eighty.

But you may be wondering- why research the past, if we’re trying to make change in the present?  Unfortunately, we often live with legacy pollution.  For example, the Red Hook ball fields, where children have played for decades, are currently closed because of the discovery of elevated levels of lead from a factory that’s been closed for almost 100 years.  USA Today’s “Ghost Factories” investigation in 2012 of former smelter sites was the catalyst for the EPA to inspect and begin the current cleanup.  If researchers hadn’t dug through lists of old industry directories to find potential lead-polluting factories, this clean up may never have taken place, and children would still be playing at these sites today.  As a teacher, student, or concerned New Yorker, what you find out about your neighborhood could very well make you an important agent for change in your community!

(And if that’s not enough, you may be able to get government funds for your community organization through programs like the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation’s Brownfield Opportunity Areas program- more information on that below!)

Catching up with neighborhood issues

One entry point to this local work is to develop a deep understanding of the place you care about.  Catching up on your local news- at the neighborhood level- is a great place to start.  The New York Times is great, and other national outlets are important too of course, but your neighborhood news source is going to talk about the people and places you pass as you walk your dog or head off to work.  They’re going to have editorials about issues too small to make it into the Times, but that give you important information that could impact your everyday life and the health of your community.

For example, I live in Red Hook, Brooklyn, served by the Red Hook Star Revue, a free newspaper that also appears online.  In it, I found out that the Department of City Planning had conducted the Red Hook Transportation Study– and as anyone who has been to Ikea can attest, travel to the neighborhood can be quite a challenge since there are no subway stops.  Thoughtful transportation changes could help get more folks walking, biking, and using public transit options instead of driving, reducing air pollution in a neighborhood with high asthma rates.  The article pointed my attention to the study as a resource and provided important context- that the community needs to advocate for it because there’s no money earmarked for its implementation.  Your neighborhood newspaper is often the best place to find out what’s going on in local government and how you can get involved through events like community board meetings and citizens’ advisory committees on environmental issues.

Here are a few sources for local news I use personally and professionally to get a sense of environmental issues in my own neighborhood and the ones Billion Oyster Project serves:

  • DNAinfo is a fairly straight news site, and you can sign up to get alerts about neighborhoods you’re interested in.  Bklner and Patch are similar, although I personally like DNAinfo more.
  • Curbed offers coverage that’s a little more real estate focused, but its goal is to give an overall picture of the life of a neighborhood and city, so it has some really thoughtful longform articles that look at neighborhood history in addition to shorter updates about things like new parks coming to a neighborhood, ferry service, environmental cleanups, etc.
  • 6sqft is focused on the “people, places, and ideas that are shaping our city.”  It has a history tag with interesting stories, maps, and primary source documents, along with present day coverage of NYC.  Some neighborhoods have their own tags which you can find if you scroll down to the bottom of a post.
  • What am I missing?  Let us know if you’ve got some great citywide resources to recommend!

Getting started with neighborhood history

I’d like to start by talking a little about the study of history in general, because some people love it and some people hate it, with good reason!  I’m hoping that I can suggest an approach to researching local history that works for both camps, so please bear with me on the long introduction.

If you spent your childhood reading historical fiction (guilty!) and your adulthood visiting historical houses and tiny volunteer-run museums (also guilty!) you might be super enthusiastic about diving right in to primary source documents from Dutch colonial Brooklyn, and that’s lovely!  But if you’ve never felt like history was your thing, that’s understandable.  For many adults, learning about history in school meant focusing on wars, politicians, and memorizing facts and dates.  Even as a student who loved history, I felt like things I wanted to know about were missing.

Some of that was intentional.  A historian I’ve worked with once directed a room full of teachers to “listen for the silences in the archives.”  Very often, the voices of women, people of color, and others with marginalized identities were erased or never recorded in the first place.  Sometimes, what we do know about them comes from accounts from the more powerful people in their lives.  When studying American history before the abolition of slavery in particular, the autobiographical accounts by enslaved Africans we do have are so crucial because the vast majority of people writing about them were invested-literally- in a system that denied black people their humanity.  White slaveholders’ accounts of the people they held in bondage were influenced by scientific racism and any rationale, no matter how illogical, that justified their treatment of their fellow human beings.  All too often, the biases of and erasures by people who recorded history in the past still slip uncritically into children’s textbooks.

So the history education that you received, especially if it happened decades ago, may have turned you off to the study of history.  You might find it heartening to know that the current generation of NYC public school teachers, public historians, and non-profit museum educators are more dedicated than ever to telling everyone’s history, and students increasingly work on interpreting primary source documents for themselves, rather than passively memorizing facts or accepting someone else’s analysis.  But understandably, if you’re an adult reading this whose school days are long past, you might need to take a different approach.

Whether you love history or hate it, I recommend starting by reading the kinds of short, fun blog posts on local history you can read on some of the sites I listed in the neighborhood news section (especially Curbed and 6sqft), as well as a few I’ll list below.  There is a ton of writing on New York City history for a pop audience, and that’s awesome!  It doesn’t pay to be snooty here.  These kinds of posts tell you things like how 19th century people went to the bathroom when they lived in tenements, and where their poop went.  They’ll give you an answer to questions about weird things you spot around your neighborhood.  They’ll show you what’s behind the wall in that vacant lot you always pass by.  As you read these kinds of posts, you’ll learn some of the endearing quirks of your neighborhood, and it will start to familiarize you with aspects of its history, even if you don’t have all the pieces in place to feel like you fully understand it yet.

Here are some blogs I recommend:

For a very comprehensive list, scroll through Best of the Web: New York City History, which is a list of resources about NYC history curated by the New York Public Library.

Wikipediaing and all the history stuff you’re not supposed to do

After you’ve used some of the more interesting elements of your neighborhood’s past as an entry point, start googling summaries of your neighborhood’s history online- even Wikipedia is a totally fine place to start.  Read a bunch of them, no matter how not-scholarly they are- just do it with a critical eye.  Some of the content will overlap, some will be unique to each source, and one source might contradict another- which is actually great.  Getting to the bottom of which source is true, and following up on any questions that pop up in your mind while reading are a perfect way to go about this.  Follow what you’re interested in.  You may not care about the architecture of the buildings, but maybe you’re interested in your local park.  That’s perfect!  Do more googling and see what you can find out about that park.  Why did it become a park?  Who owned the land before it became a park?  Did people in your community have to fight to get that park?  Who was the park built for?  Did the company that owned Vaseline dump oil and waste into it and did locations in and around it explode and catch on fire a ton of times, in 1870 killing $2000 worth of “fancy pigeons” despite one man’s heroic effort to save them, like my closest park?

Present Day Maps

Maybe it’s a stretch to say that everybody loves maps, but there are tons of cool visualizations of neighborhood info in map form and you can learn a lot from them.  An exhaustive list of interesting NYC maps could definitely be its own post, but for researching environmental conditions in your area, resources the BOP Curriculum Team highlighted in our “Steward-shed” Investigation are a great place to start.  For this unit, we specifically pulled together maps that could help students research pollution that is dumped directly into or could make its way into local waterways, as well as maps that could help them design ways to stop it by increasing permeable infrastructure (like green roofs, bioswales, and parks).  For this, students look at:

  • Topographic maps- to get a sense of how water flows through their steward-shed.
  • Pollution maps- to identify sources of pollution in a steward-shed.
  • Permeability maps- to show which areas are permeable and impermeable.
  • Demographic maps- to identify stakeholders in a steward-shed, like local elected officials and non-profits.

One map we absolutely love that can do all of those things is the OASIS map, a free community map of NYC that lets you show and hide dozens of features, from treecover to brownfields to local stewardship organizations.  The second most useful map we found for this unit was the Environmental Protection Agency’s Envirofacts database/map.  It’s the EPA’s master database/map of places that are subject to environmental regulations or of environmental interest- even things as small as manhole covers.  It includes information from federal databases and some state databases.  We wrote student-friendly guides to using OASIS and Envirofacts, both of which appear in a document we wrote called “Our Steward-shed Library of Resources,” which we included with most of the lessons in the Steward-shed Investigation.  We also put them online as a blog post here.

(I know what you’re thinking- why would manhole covers be “of environmental interest?”  Apparently, underground electrical and communications infrastructure, like manholes and vaults, can fill up with water and sediment that has been polluted with oil, lead, and other contaminants from the streets and from electrical equipment.  When electrical companies remove this sediment, they sometimes have to treat it as hazardous waste.  This means the manholes end up falling under the “Resource Conservation and Recovery Act,” the law that creates the framework for dealing with hazardous and non-hazardous solid waste.  The more you know!)

Other databases connected to maps that might come in handy come from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC):

NYC Open Data, a resource from the City of New York, has a ton of data as well, but we found that maps like OASIS that draw from this data were often a more accessible way to view it.  Some of the datasets that piqued our interest the most didn’t have accompanying maps, making it difficult for students to research hyper-local conditions.  Still, it’s well worth checking this resource out for things like water quality data from the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and for their set of NYC planimetric maps.  (Planimetric maps are maps made by digitally associating aerial photography with a map coordinate system.  Computer programs can identify specific features on these maps, like streets, parks, boardwalks, and more.  You can find a full list of these features here by scrolling down to “feature classes.”)

Historical Maps

19th century fire insurance maps are still used today in fields that seemingly have nothing to do with history, and they’re a fascinating glimpse into what your block looked like over 100 years ago- and what pollution might persist.  Fires were a devastatingly common experience in New York City, especially as it industrialized, and to determine a building’s insurance risk these maps noted a building’s footprint, what it was made out of, and what “special hazards” it might pose because of what it contained or manufactured.  Today, city planners, developers, community organizations, and others can use these maps to find detailed information about past uses of a building or site in order to re-envision its future- and whether government funds might be available to help clean it up.

For example, the DEC’s Brownfield Opportunity Areas program offers “financial and technical assistance to community-based organizations and municipalities working towards the revitalization of areas affected by brownfields.”  A brownfields study of Red Hook for this program by the Department of City Planning cites Sanborn fire insurance maps as one of its data sources.  This company’s maps are the most common ones you’ll see, but there are others.

To find maps of your neighborhood, the New York Public Library has compiled this fantastic list by borough: NYC Fire Insurance, Topographic, and Property Maps.  You can view zoomable versions of these online in their Atlases of New York City collection, but if you want to view them in person you’ll have to go to the map division at the main branch on 42nd St, where you can schedule a visit for a class or group.  (Did you know that you can chat with a librarian on the NYPL’s website?  That’s how I found out these maps aren’t located at the branch libraries.  The NYPL is awesome!)  You can also check them out in person New York Historical Society’s library and at Brooklyn Historical Society’s library (which is one of the few interior landmarks in the city- though there’s a push to make the NYPL’s map room an interior landmark as well).

Here’s some key information about these maps:

    • This key explains what the colors and symbols on the buildings mean on a Sanborn map.
    • Other mapmakers generally used similar conventions, but here are links to keys for other maps on NYPL’s list: Hyde, Bromley, Robinson.  Perris eventually merged with Sanborn- the keys are similar.
    • “Hazardous” buildings are marked in green.
      • If you find green-marked buildings in your search, the Sanborn map key includes a “Special Hazards” section that provides more information about what kinds of businesses were considered hazardous.

BONUS: for the young/young at heart/bored at work, a fun way to play around with fire insurance maps to get familiar with them is NYPL’s “Building Inspector” game!  From the NYPL: “The Library is training computers to recognize building shapes and other data on digitized insurance atlases. Via these easy, bite-sized tasks, you can help check the computers’ work and capture other valuable information.”  There’s a quick video intro (you don’t need the sound on to get it) and you can pick a job like telling the computer what color a building is, outlining a building’s shape, or typing in the hand-written descriptions on buildings.

One last map tool from the NYPL that we recommend is the Map Warper, which lets you view and download high resolution historical maps.  Many of their maps have been “rectified,” which means they’ve been aligned over a present day map so you can view the historical map in context.  (They also have a Creative Commons license so you’re free to use and share them as much as you’d like!)

For further research…

After exploring how the land in your steward-shed was used historically, the NYPL’s Old NYC Map will show you archival photos mapped to locations in your neighborhood, so you may be able to track down photos of potentially polluted sites.  You can also search NYPL Digital Collections, a digital archive of items from their collection, including everything from books to streaming film.  (Part of their collection is in the public domain so you’re free to reuse and remix it, if something piques your interest!)  If you’re in Brooklyn, check out these two resources:

  • Brooklyn Visual Heritage is a collaboration between Brooklyn Historical Society, Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Museum, and Pratt to make historic images of Brooklyn searchable and accessible to the public.
  • Brooklyn Newsstand– the Brooklyn Public Library has made searchable copies of three Brooklyn newspapers (dates ranging from 1841-1955) free to the public.

If you find yourself really fascinated by a historical source of pollution in your neighborhood and want to do a deeper search, I guarantee that the library system and historical society in your borough are also treasure troves of information.  If you’re an educator who’d like more information on teaching with primary sources, check out for articles and exercises on using primary source documents with your students.  It’s based on a project designed for college freshmen, but the approach could definitely be modified for a younger audience.  (I like their article on incorporating place-based learning into an archives experience.)

Next steps

Once you have a wealth of information about the past and present of your neighborhood, where do you go from here?  You might want to get inspired by the even longer ago past by checking out the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Welikia project and its map of what New York City would have looked like in 1609 before the arrival of European colonizers.  They argue, “New York does not lack for dystopian visions of the future…. But what is the vision of the future that works? Might it lie in Mannahatta, the green heart of New York, and with a new start to history, a few hours before Hudson arrived that sunny afternoon four hundred years ago?”

In the culminating lesson of the Steward-shed Investigation, the “Steward-shed Challenge,” students take a look at green infrastructure designs- here’s a short list of some:

The teacher notes for this lesson are a useful resource for anyone looking to make change in their neighborhoods (in quotations below):

“Per the EPA’s publication, ‘Engaging Stakeholders in Your Watershed‘[PDF]:

‘A stakeholder is a person (or group) who is responsible for making or implementing a management action, who will be significantly affected by the action, or who can aid or prevent its implementation….

‘Stakeholder involvement in watershed issues has gained momentum in recent years because of the nature of water quality problems in our country. Forty years ago, most water quality problems were linked to discharges from factories and wastewater treatment plants. Today, however, about 40 percent of our nation’s waters do not meet their water quality goals because of runoff from streets, farms, mines, yards, parking lots and other nonpoint sources of pollution. Solving these problems requires the commitment and participation of stakeholders throughout our communities.

‘Stakeholder involvement is more than just holding a public hearing or seeking public comment on a new regulation. Effective stakeholder involvement provides a method for identifying public concerns and values, developing consensus among affected parties, and producing efficient and effective solutions through an open, inclusive process….

‘Stakeholders might be aware of localized flooding, old dump sites, popular recreational areas, and other aspects of the watershed not captured in monitoring or other reports. They can also help to identify social and environmental concerns in the watershed….’

The absolute necessity of effective stakeholder engagement is particularly clear in settings where Environmental Gentrification stands to undermine Environmental Justice.  This is a live issue in NYC right now.  Here are two good introductory articles based on local research:

And a few scholarly articles reporting original NYC research:

The BOP Curriculum Team has been so excited and motivated by the energy and enthusiasm of BOP teachers and students as they practice environmental stewardship on their waterfronts and in their communities, and we can’t wait to see how they’ll reimagine their neighborhoods for the better!  You can check out the Steward-shed Investigation, along with investigations of New York Harbor organisms, the Nitrogen Cycle, and in-class Oyster tanks, and much more, by logging on to the BOP Digital Platform.  You can also sign up for free professional developments, scientist workshops, and Oyster Restoration Station trainings on our Events page.  We hope to see you soon!