The way Department of City Planning senior demographer Frank Vardy sees it, the Empire State is in a fight—a battle to be waged over the next four years from maternity wards and immigrant enclaves in the five boroughs to the tobacco country of the American south to the halls of power in Washington. It’s a battle to see who’s bigger. More accurately, it’s a contest to see who does the better job of counting people. The prize is political clout, and the federal dollars clout delivers.
Vardy, who for 32 years has counted and characterized New York City’s residents, is focused on the looming 2010 Census. Three years off, the national headcount is very much on the minds of City Planning experts who have wrestled for years with federal officials over U.S. Census Bureau methods, which the city has proven to undercount the population.
“It may cost New York an extra legislative seat,” Vardy told attendees of a forum on the changing demographics of the Bronx held at Hostos Community College in the south Bronx. “North Carolina is very close on our heels. Somebody is going to get that seat. It’s us or them.” Looking out at the crowd of representatives from community groups, politicians’ offices and human service providers, Vardy added: “You people are the ones who are actually going to do it.”
Urban areas have long complained that the decennial Census undercounts poor people and minorities. Twice in the past three years New York has successfully challenged the Census Bureau’s update of its population—victories that translate into more federal grant money. Despite those wins, City Planning is worried about the upcoming national count. While the Census Bureau surveys the population constantly, it’s the once-a-decade tally that is supposed to count everyone, gather the most detailed information about households and form the basis for allocating congressional seats. And some recent trends in the city—like the illegal partitioning of houses and apartments into multiple units—augur against an easy count.
“The last couple years we’ve been roaming around the city trying to find problems with housing counts,” Vardy said. That means going to multiple-unit dwellings and “trying to get every unit listed so the survey will get mailed out.” He added: “If the landlord’s not reporting that he has two units in his former one-unit house, scratch those people from the count. You’ll talk to a guy standing in his driveway in front of two electric meters, and he insists it’s a one-family house.” But the Census Bureau has decided to take a property owner’s claim on the number of housing units as the final word. “If he says it’s a one, it’s a one, even if we say it’s four,” Vardy adds. “This particular group of leaders in Washington hasn’t been particularly friendly to New York City.”
Another point of contention is what to do about city residents incarcerated in upstate prisons . Still another is whether to allow more check boxes for different nationalities on the census long form, the detailed survey mailed to about one in six households. In 2000, Hispanics could self-identify as Cuban or Puerto Rican or Other. That would make Dominicans “other,” despite accounting for about 5 percent of the city’s population.
Part of the problem is that the census is national, so local trends that loom large here are less visible to Washington. For example, the Census Bureau considers an immigrant from the former Soviet Union to be either Russian, Belarussian or Ukrainian. In Rego Park and Forest Hills, expatriates of the former USSR tend to be Uzbeks—a major force in Queens, but mere “others” in census terms.
Deciding who gets their own category is complicated, however. Some groups lose out or are left out. “There are people who don’t want to deal with ‘West Indians’ because it will vitiate the African American population,” Vardy says. “And if you give a check off to Jamaicans, what do you do for people from St. Lucia? What do you do with every small island there?”
Despite the uncertainties about today’s data and what the census will find, the city’s statistics reveal a lot about what’s happening in the northernmost borough. The 150,000 or so residents who moved out between 2000 and 2006 were more than made up for by new immigrants and births, so the Bronx saw its population swell. While the Bronx bears the city’s highest unemployment rate (11.8 percent versus a city average of 7.8 percent), highest poverty rate (29.1 percent compared to a city average of 19.2), and lowest median household income at $31,494, Vardy says “the good news” is the strength of the Bronx housing market, with permits for new privately-owned residential buildings quadrupling from around 1,100 in 1999 to more than 4,500 last year.
The drop in crime is part of why the Bronx has regained some of the population it lost in the 1970s. Another is a steep increase in immigration: In 2006, 31.8 percent of the borough was foreign born – twice as high as in 1970. Like the rest of the city, the Bronx gets major contributions from the Dominican Republic, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Mexico, Ecuador and Guyana. But where Chinese immigrants rank second among foreign-born populations citywide, they don’t make the top 10 in the Bronx. And where citywide figures show Haitians, Indians and Colombians among the major players, the big Bronx enclaves are instead from Ghana, Honduras, Italy and Bangladesh.
Growth potential is strongest among Dominicans, who as a group are young and can be expected to bear more children. Puerto Ricans, on the other hand, are aging, so their growth will fall off. These trends fit patterns established by earlier groups. “What [the Dominicans] are doing is the same thing that the Irish and Italian populations did 30 years ago which was to start in Washington Heights and then migrate to the high ridge of the west Bronx, which is every bit as attractive and as good, with its river breezes, as Washington Heights,” says Vardy, a walking encyclopedia of the ethnic tides that have ebbed and flowed through the city’s neighborhoods.
Through those changes, certain truths have held. Neighborhoods with lots of rental apartments are where immigrants go because they don’t have the money to buy houses. Immigrant groups that dominate a major housing complex, like Parkchester in the Bronx or Lefrak City in Queens, also fill the blocks around the complex as the friends and family of the pioneers gather round. Areas with nice houses—like census tract 50 in the Soundview section of the Bronx—will attract diverse populations, generation after generation, simply because no one ethnic group has enough moneyed people to buy up the neighborhood. And while the first wave of immigrants is male-dominated—as African arrivals were a few years back—it doesn’t last long. “You started seeing the hairbraiding shops and you knew something had changed,” Vardy says of the African enclaves. “It’s the same for every group.”
Sometimes, those differences blur even further. Driving around at midnight, Vardy says, you can’t tell who’s living in Melrose or Park Slope or Richmond. Life’s routine of dinner and dishwashing, TV and tucking in the kids, trumps the manifold differences that the census catalogues. “People are people,” he says.