A-Train Classic

Neighborhood Research and the Census for Undergrads

Each semester I visit several undergraduate classes in public affairs and journalism, to introduce students to census data. They’re researching or reporting on particular issues and trends in neighborhoods in New York City, and they are looking for statistics to either support their work or generate ideas for a story. I usually showcase the NYC Population Factfinder as a starting point, mention the Census Reporter for areas outside the city , and provide background info on the decennial census, American Community Survey, and census geography and subjects. This year I included two new examples toward the beginning of the lecture to spark their interest.

I recently helped reporter Susannah Jacob navigate census data for an article she wrote on hyper-gentrification in the West Village for the New York Review of Books. A perfect example, as it’s what the students are expected to do for their assignment! Like any good journalist (and human geographer), Susannah pounded the pavement of the neighborhood, interviewing residents and small businesses and observing and documenting the urban landscape and how it was changing. But she also wanted to see what the data could tell her, and whether it would corroborate or refute what she was seeing and hearing.

NYRB Article on the West Village

Source: Jacob & Roye, New York Review of Books, Oct 2019. https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2019/10/09/what-happened-to-the-west-village/

We used the NYC Population Factfinder to assemble census tracts to approximate the neighborhood, and I did a little legwork to pull data from the County / ZIP Code Business Patterns so we could see how the business landscape was changing. The most surprising stat we discovered was that the number of 1-unit detached homes had doubled. This wouldn’t be odd in many rapidly growing places in the US, but it’s unusual for an old, built-out urban neighborhood. A 1-unit detached home is a free-standing single family structure that doesn’t share walls with other buildings. Most homes in Manhattan are either attached (row houses / town houses) or units in multi-unit buildings (apartments / condos / co-ops). How could this be? Uber-wealthy people are buying up adjoining row homes, knocking down the walls, and turning them into urban mansions. Seems extraordinary, but apparently is part of a trend.

We certainly ran up against the limitations of ACS data. The estimates for tracts have large margins of error, and when comparing two short time frames it’s difficult to detect actual change, as differences in estimates are clouded by sampling noise. Even after aggregating several tracts, many of the estimates for change weren’t reliable enough to report. When they were (as in the housing example) you could only say that there has been a relative increase without becoming wedded to a precise number. In this case, from 214 (+/- 127) detached units in 2006-2010 to 627 (+/-227) in 2013-2017, an increase of 386 (+/- 260). Not great estimates, but you can say it’s an increase as the low end for change is still positive at 126 units. Considering the time frame and character of the neighborhood, that’s still noteworthy (bearing in mind we’re working with a 90% confidence interval). In cases where the differences overlap and could represent either an increase or decrease there are few claims you can make, and it’s best to walk away (or look at larger area). I always discuss the margin of error with students and caution them about treating these numbers as counts.

While census data is invaluable for describing and studying individual places, it’s inherent geographic nature also allows us to study places in relation to each other, and to illustrate geographic patterns. For my second example, I zoom out and show them this map of racial-ethnic distribution in the United States:

Map of US Racial and Ethnic Diversity

Source: William H. Frey analysis of US Census population estimates, 2018. https://www.brookings.edu/research/americas-racial-diversity-in-six-maps/

This is one of a series of six maps by demographer William Frey at the Brookings Institute that highlights the geographic diversity of the United States. In this map, each county is shaded for a particular race / ethnicity if the population of that group in that county is greater than that group’s share of the national population. For example, Hispanics / Latinos represent 18.3% of the total US population, so counties where they represent more than this percentage are shaded.

For the purpose of the class, it helps make the census ‘pop’ and gets the students to think about the statistics as geospatial datasets that they can see and relate to, and that can form the basis for interesting research.

Some footnotes – if you like Frey’s maps, I highly recommend his book Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics are Remaking America. It explores the evolving demographic and geographic landscape of the US with clear, accessible writing and more of these great maps (in color).

I used the pic at the top of this post as the background for my intro slide. It’s a screenshot of a city from A-Train, a 1992 city-building train simulator that was ported from Japan to the world by Artdink and Maxis, following the success of something called SimCity. It wasn’t nearly as successful, but I always liked the graphics which have now attained a retro-gaming vibe.

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