Visit a historic house and you’ll learn about its famous inhabitants: people like Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Frederick Douglass. But at two historic houses in New York, there are no famous people. At the Tenement Museum, visitors learn about European immigrants. At the Weeksville Heritage Center: black property owners. While stories of ordinary people are refreshing, the people who inhabited these houses are frozen in time.
If we follow the thread of these residents’ lives instead, from their birth in the 1890s to their death in the 1970s, we can see how the city of New York evolved. Harry Nelson bought a house in Riverhead. Octavia Grey sold her inheritance on Troy Avenue and bought on Putnam. All the white people bought property in outer Brooklyn, sold it, and made a profit. Meanwhile, all the black neighborhoods: redlined.
We followed ten NYC residents — all born about 1890. Five from each historic house. By following these ten people through their lives, we’re tracing the formation of today’s real estate market.
My students uncovered the basic facts. (See their findings here.) Now I’m using mortgage documents and deeds to piece together their financial stories. Bankers created maps to assess home values; I’m looking at those. I also have maps of “racial colonies.” Census data shows us how the population changed or migrated. The goal? To reveal the choices people made, the context in which they made them, and the collective results: the social landscape we’ve inherited. In other words, how did we get here?
Learn more about color-coded redlining maps at Mapping Inequality.
See more about our class research project on the class blog.
Also see my relational database here. Using Airtable, I’m collecting information about Weeksville and Tenement Museum residents and their wealth trajectories.
I’m interested in questions like:
- Did they buy property?
- When did they buy?
- When did they sell?
- Was the area redlined before or after selling?
- How did redlining affect each family’s ability to accumulate wealth — to extract economic value from the landscape?
- How did redlining affect inter-generational wealth accumulation from the 19th-century to the present?