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Topics / Census

What the Census Reveals About New York City

With billions on the line, Who We Are exhibition presents census-based data visualizations of NYC

New York City rivals the richest, most vibrant environments one can imagine for counting things. But spring 2020 has altered its landscape. Times Square, which typically welcomes 380,000 pedestrians per day, is nearly silent. The city’s 12,750 miles of sidewalk are all but deserted, except for the pigeons. Its 9,000 pizzerias are shuttered or serving only delivery and take-out. Like the rest of the world, New York City, which has prevailed through countless other crises since being settled in 1624, is coping with the novel coronavirus pandemic.

In a moment when many New Yorkers are staying home, self-isolating to slow the spread of the virus, and therefore largely unseen, it is vitally important that they be counted in the U.S. Census.

Occurring every decade since 1790, the census counts every person living in the United States. The 2020 Census is the nation’s 24th such undertaking. Census forms are currently arriving in U.S households by mail, and for the first time, individuals are being encouraged to complete them online.

Getting these numbers right is foundational to U.S. democracy. The population count determines how electoral districts are redrawn, ensuring each American gets the political representation they deserve. It guides the dispersal of tax dollars to schools, healthcare programs, and much, much more.

This year’s census numbers will add yet another layer to a trove of data that is now 220 years old. In this way, census numbers not only clarify the present, they also let us see trends and learn from the past — where things are changing, where they are staying the same, and where history is repeating itself.

Who We Are: Visualizing NYC by the Numbers, an exhibition presented by the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY) and supported in part by Carnegie Corporation of New York, reveals the metropolis’s stunning patterns and complexities through visualizations by data analysts, demographers, and artists. “Our hope,” says MCNY director Whitney Donhauser, “is that by featuring contemporary art and presenting the data in a visual way, we can humanize and decipher the swirl of information and help everyone better understand our city and its residents.”

Representation Counts

The Who We Are: Visualizing NYC by the Numbers exhibition is part of a broader effort at Carnegie Corporation of New York to support this year’s census and build a strong, accurate bedrock for the next 10 years of U.S. democracy. “Millions of people were undercounted in the 2010 Census, including people in rural and Native American communities, as well as those who are low income and/or minorities. And of particular interest to the Corporation, up to 2.2 million children under five years old were undercounted,” says Geri Mannion, director of Carnegie’s Strengthening U.S. Democracy program. “They were left," Mannion continues, "without the resources or representation they and their communities deserve. We want to make sure that doesn’t happen to anyone this year. The Who We Are exhibition helps people understand how important the census really is.”

Ultimately, the exhibition underscores the importance of being counted. With the census season upon us, says Sarah Henry, the museum’s chief curator and deputy director, “No matter what has changed, accurate numbers — and a share of the billions in federal funding that comes with them — is, as always, essential to New York’s future, as well as to the health and well-being of the U.S. overall.”


While the museum and the exhibition, on display through August 23, are temporarily closed due to the coronavirus, presented here are select works that prompt novel and provocative questions about who New Yorkers are as individuals — and as a society.


NYC Immigration by the Slice

One easy truism about New York City is that the city never stops changing. In fact, Who We Are shows this is wrong in only one regard: New York was the country’s most populous city during the first census, and it has remained so every year since. It’s just that the “big” in Big Apple keeps getting, well, bigger. Think about it: New York’s nation-besting 33,131 residents counted in that first census of 1790 couldn’t even sell out a modern-day Yankees game. By 2010, the city held over eight million people. This dynamic piece depicts the city’s growth and complexities in a form more familiar to fifth-grade campers than to policymakers: a dendrochronology, or “tree trunk slice.”

Here, an interdisciplinary team of faculty from Northeastern University has visualized the shifting origins of immigrants as growing tree rings in a pointillist mixture of colors. Using census microdata from the Integrated Public Use Micro Series (IPUMS), the designers used each ring of this metaphoric tree to represent one decade of immigrant arrivals to New York City from 1840 to 2017, with each cell representing 40 people. They color-coded the cells by geography and positioned them in the direction of the immigrants’ home countries.  Rings that are more skewed toward the east (green), for example, show more immigration from Europe, while rings skewed south (yellow) show more arrivals from Latin America, and those from the west (pink), Asia. The full impact of the historical formation process of this tree can be observed in this animation, where the granularity of the dataset is unveiled as hundreds of points of origin are laid out.

As New Yorker writer and author E.B. White once noted, “Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion.”

Simulated Dendrochronology of U.S. Immigration, 1840–2017. Pedro Cruz, John Wihbey, Felipe Shibuya. 2019. Courtesy of Pedro Cruz, John Wihbey, and Felipe Shibuya.



The Color of Money: Patterns of Wealth in NYC

Artist and urban planner Neil Freeman reminds us that the census, which divides New York City into geographic units of blocks and tracts, is an intermediary construct. By disassembling the census map and reordering its units in a grid according to their relative values with regard to specific metrics, Freeman reveals patterns of inequality and injustice that play out across New York City.

Here, using data from the 2017 American Community Survey five-year estimates, census block groups are laid into a grid according to median household income. Freeman uses this reordering to show the distributional differences across tracts. The groups are colorcoded by borough, with the colors derived from the borough flags. Manhattan is dark blue, Brooklyn light blue, Queens yellow, Staten Island Green, and the Bronx orange. The size of each group corresponds to the total population of the area. The wealth of Manhattan compared to that of the Bronx should not surprise anyone, but seeing the boroughs broken down and intermixed like this provokes a new way of considering the obvious, and reassessing the implications.

Grid Series. Neil Freeman. 2019. Courtesy of the artist.



Free & Unfree in 1790: The First New York Census

Who We Are also confronts troubling parts of past counting efforts. Indeed, in carefully ruled columns, this page from the 1790 census for New York City’s South Ward divides people by the cruel divisions of the day:

■ Free white males of 16 years & upward including heads of families
■ Free white males under 16 years
■ Free white females including heads of families
■ All other free persons
■ Slaves

Page from the United States federal census for New York’s South Ward (detail), 1790. Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29.



Where Were You Born? New York Nationalities in 1890

In the 1890s the Tenement House Committee was formed to examine the state of overcrowding in lower Manhattan, then the most densely populated area in the world. The committee produced a series of maps, including this one showing the distribution of nationalities by district. It is intended to represent with data what the public already knew from their experience — that New York is a patchwork of people from many different countries (at that time mostly European).

Map No. 2 of City of New York Showing Distribution of Principal Nationalities by Sanitary Districts (detail), 1895. Prepared by Frederick Erastus Pierce, under the direction of the Tenement House Committee of 1894. Courtesy of NYC Municipal Archives.



Peaks & Valleys: Mapping NYC's Population Density

While New York City is the most densely populated large city in the United States, its population is distributed unevenly, in peaks and valleys, as Manhattan’s dense fabric of high-rises gives way to row houses and single-family homes in the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. Parks and natural areas provide respite for people seeking to escape this density.

Here, geographer James Cheshire and designer Oliver Uberti visualize population density data as cross-sections, an approach used by early pioneers of computer mapping. This work, using data on total population from the 2018 American Community Survey five-year estimates, shows areas of high residential population density as peaks and areas with lower density as valleys. The result is a visualization that resembles the iconic cover of the 1979 album Unknown Pleasures by English rock band Joy Division.

Population Lines NYC. James Cheshire and Oliver Uberti. 2019. Courtesy of James Cheshire and Oliver Uberti.



Rich Town, Poor Town: Income Segregation in New York

New York City is a place of economic extremes, home to some of the wealthiest and poorest neighborhoods in the nation. Here, artist Herwig Scherabon visualizes these differences as abstracted forms that uncannily mirror our usual reading of the urban landscape mapped onto the street grid.

In Scherabon’s rendering, the geography of New York remains, but the city itself takes on new forms as income segregation boundaries appear as wall-like structures, a metaphor for how residents in the same city can live in very different worlds. The height of the extruded cubes corresponds to median household income, with higher sections of the matrix representing higher incomes and lower areas representing lower incomes. This work relies on block-level median household income data from the 2017 American Community Survey five-year estimates.

Landscapes of Inequality: New York City No. 2, 2019. Herwig Scherabon. Courtesy of Herwig Scherabon.



Census 2020 has commenced! If you are not counted, your community’s at risk of being underrepresented. The census is easy, safe, and 100% confidential. Click here to complete the census online today.

Note: Some captions have been adapted from the exhibition texts of Who We Are: Visualizing NYC by the Numbers, on view at the Museum of the City of New York through August 23, 2020.

Top: “I Count Because” sign used at a New York City Council press conference, April 23, 2019. Photograph by John McCarten, courtesy of John McCarten/New York City Council.