When Sarah Larson walks through a neighborhood, she sees significance in things that other people take for granted: street lights, bus shelters, fire stations and parks, for instance.
Larson is a chronicler of local history. She shares her knowledge with amateur historians at the National Archives, where she teaches a workshop called "Local History: Where to Find It, What to Ask." A recent workshop was filled to capacity, as amateur historians came from as far as Richmond to hear the three-hour session, a bargain at $5.
The growing interest in neighborhood history is evident in many places besides Larson's workshop. Ten years ago, the Washingtoniana room at the Martin Luther King Library was filled with "genealogists and Civil War buffs, and that was about all," says librarian Kathryn Ray. "Now you see all kinds of people."
Ray says the American Bicentennial raised consciousness about neighborhood history. So has urban renewal. "When a neighborhood is threatened," says Ray, "residents begin to appreciate the social fabric and how it got that way."
Larson credits heightened interest in part to suburbanites moving to the city and renovating houses. "Most of those houses have an interesting history," she says. "After you peel layers and layers of paint, you're bound to want to know who was there before you and how it looked."
The television mini-series "Roots" also is believed to be a contributing factor; it spurred uncounted Americans to research their family trees. "People who start by researching their families often end up fascinated by the neighborhood where the family lived," she says. "Sources for genealogy and local history are pretty much the same. For local history, you ask new questions of familiar sources for the genealogist."
In her National Archives workshop, Larson provides tips for genealogists who want to look beyond the begats, and for renovators who want to look beyond the history of their own homes.
Before entering a library to begin research, an amateur historian should walk around the neighborhood, observing and questioning.
"Look at the street lights," says Larson. "Decades ago, they went into the affluent areas of a city first. More recently, high-crime areas have been the beneficiaries. Who got the lights when suggests who had the most effective lobbying force at the time." The locations of bus shelters, fire stations and parks can suggest the same thing.
After the walk, the neighborhood historian should seek out long-time residents. Larson suggests starting at senior citizens' or nursing homes. Sometimes it pays to knock on doors: Much of Washington, D.C., and its suburbs were built in the 1930s; today, many neighborhoods are inhabited by original residents. Neighborhood institutions including churches, cemeteries, businesses, photo studios, schools and civic associations often have accessible archives that will reveal a lot. Just learning who the local school is named after can enhance appreciation of a neighborhood's past. The D.C. school system has a booklet about school names.
Eventually, however, the amateur historian will benefit by visiting libraries and government archives. A necessary first step--not always easy--is to determine what the neighborhood is called in the card catalogue. Many D.C. neighborhoods are catalogued by the appellation used in the assessor's office, which traditionally has split the city into 74 parts.
"Adams Morgan," however, a common usage today, fails to show up as such. The same is true for "Dupont Circle." My neighborhood in Far Southeast is often called "Fort Dupont Park" or "Penn-Branch" by current residents. On the assessor's map, it is called "Hillcrest."
Learning the proper name can be difficult, but that obstacle is almost always possible to overcome. Once the name is established, one of the least imposing places to start researching is the Washingtoniana room of the D.C. library, or similar local-history areas of libraries in the Virginia and Maryland suburbs.
Earlier this year, the Washingtoniana room opened its collection of clippings and photographs from the Washington Star, beginning in 1852 and ending with the newspaper's demise in 1981. Probably the majority of neighborhoods in the District and the suburbs have been mentioned in the 13 million clippings arranged by subject and personal name. Perhaps the neighborhood is shown in one of the million photographs. The Washingtoniana room also has microfilm of all major daily newspapers published here since 1800.
Other especially useful sources for neighborhood research in the public library include maps beginning in 1612, city directories beginning in 1822 and biographical sketches and obituaries of area residents.
After walking the neighborhood and visiting public libraries, the amateur historian should mine the documents of government bodies, Larson suggests. Demographic studies can be helpful. For example, the D.C. government earlier this year published "notebooks" for each of the city's eight wards. They contain historical summaries plus easy-to-understand information about housing, transportation, schools, recreation, population growth or decline and other topics.
In city halls, county courthouses or state archives, the amateur historian will often find records: deeds, wills; real and personal property tax lists; birth, marriage, divorce and death certificates; vote tallies; building permits.
A lot of information also is stored in the National Archives. Documents relating to Washington, D.C., are in "Record Group 351." Other major collections are at the Columbia Historical Society, Moorland-Springarn Research Center of Howard University, George Washington University Gelman Library, Library of Congress and D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development library.