Note this only applies to Washington, DC which until Home Rule on December 24, 1973, was a part of the Federal Government. But you can use some of the methods for your own locale.
For the purposes of this blog post I'm saying that it is like a family genealogy, but instead of looking for family members in the past, it is looking for neighbors from the past.
The US Census is one of the best tools looking for individuals, and the 1880 to the 1940 censuses (censi?) have addresses so you can say where somewhere lived linking them to a building or house. On a census page you can see households and neighbors, as the census goes from house to house to house, or apartment unit to the next apartment unit. A great number of houses in DC were built before or around 1900, so there is a good chance of finding several decades of information.
The National Archives has microfilm for the District of Columbia census, but using an on line resource is a zillion times easier. At the downtown Archives I facility there are computer terminals where the public can access Ancestry or Fold3 for free. Or you can have your own subscription to those paid services or maybe use a library that might have a subscription.
But first you need to know where to look. Here again computers to the rescue saving time. Someone has created an Enumeration District Finder. Plug "enumeration district finder" into your favorite search engine and you should come to Dr. Stephen Morse's site. To look at my own neighborhood it was made up of several enumeration districts (EDs), so this tool was very handy. Once you have your EDs, you can use them to find the neighbors on microfilm or with one of the on-line subscription services.
Sadly the US Census only captures one moment, 10 years apart. That's great if someone moved in the neighborhood in 1899 and moved out 20-30 years later. But DC is an urban place where people come, stay for a couple of years and move. This is what I love about cities, the hustle and bustle, people trying to make their way and their mark. Those movers and shakers who move may be captured in the city directory.
In this case the real thing is superior to the online version. At Archives I, in the back of the Central Research Room and Library there are Boyd's Directories (call # F 192 .5 .B6). There are several volumes but if you start with the year 1914 and work your way to 1970 you can find the section in the book that lists residents by street address. With this you can find names for every occupied house on your street, provided your street existed in 1914 or whatever year you are looking at. Only a household head is mentioned, but you can cross reference the name with searching the on-line subscription services' census to find out more.
Real Estate Tax Books
Sometimes people live in the house they own. Not always but sometimes and though landlords did not necessarily live among their tenants, it is interesting to learn who were the landlords of the neighborhood. From the census you can tell which households were renters and which were owners and you can track the owners in 3 year increments with tax records. There are also some family dramas that may play out in the land records when used with census and directories. What does it mean if at 1234 J St NW John Smith is the head of his family in the 1910 census, and in the 1920 census the Johnsons are at that address? But when checking the tax records you see John Smith is the owner of 1234 J St NW in the 1911, 1914, and later tax volumes until 1923. That's something you may want to ask or not depending on what other changes were going on in the neighborhood.
The General Assessment Books 1814-1879 (RG 351 PI-186 46), General Assessments, 1883-1903 (RG 351, P 28A), and General Land Assessment Files, 1902-1938 (RG 351 P1) have the names of the owners for land in the District of Columbia. Since they are arranged by square and plats, you're going to need a map before you grab your NARA researcher card head down to Archives I to take a look at these volumes.
Yes, the National Archives does have real estate maps to help you locate squares and lots, at Archives II in College Park in RG 351. However, there are far easier and quicker ways to find squares and plats that do not require going to Maryland.
The easiest for an individual address' square and lot is to go to the Government of the District of Columbia's Office of Tax and Revenue's website and look in their Real Property Assessment Database. However, they don't have plats and the modern square and lot numbers don't always correspond to older squares and lots, particularly if a lot's boundaries has changed.
Still easy is the DC Public Library's DC DIG site which has its Washingtonia Map Collection online. So far they have digitized real estate maps from 1874 to 1892, and plan to digitize more.
Another resource for on-line maps is the Library of Congress' Geography and Map Reading Room page. Search their Online Map Collections for "Baist" you may locate several of Baist's real estate atlases ranging from 1903 to 1913. If you hunt you may find the Sanborn Fire Maps, the maps from 1888 to 1916 for Washington are available online.
Hopefully these resources can help you connect with your neighbors from the past and give you a better sense of your neighborhood's history.