Census Numbers: Calling Jackson Heights

Friday, March 25, 2011

2010 Census form (Quinn Dombrowski/flickr)

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on The Brian Lehrer Show, John Mollenkopf, Director of the Center for Urban Research and Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Sociology at the CUNY, discussed what the census results reveal about Queens.

Released yesterday, New York City's census numbers are as interesting for what they tell us as for what they don't.

For starters, a five percent drop in the African American population highlights a longstanding trend of black flight that the census doesn't always reflect. John Mollenkopf explained that the financial crisis may have something to do with the noticeable change.

This continues the trend of past decades; the decline of the African American population in the past has been offset by immigration from the West Indies and Africa. Evidently, the economic crisis of the last part of the decade was associated with the slowing of migration from many places, but those two in particular I think. As a result, immigration didn't offset the decline of the native born [black] population, which has been aging, suburbanizing, and retiring to North Carolina.

There was also a decline in the number of people claiming to be mixed or multiracial, which Mollenkopf said could be attributed to a growing desire for more well-defined ethnic or cultural identities. That's another factor that might contribute to the lower-than-usual numbers for African Americans in New York; those with mixed racial backgrounds may not be reporting as black.

"There are a lot of black Latinos and people from the Dominican Republic or Panama or wherever," Mollenkopf said, "so it's a fine art deciding which category they fall in, and both sides can claim them."

More troubling to demographic researchers—and to Mayor Bloomberg—are the general numbers for Queens and Brooklyn. According to 2010 data, Staten Island experienced the most growth since 2000, followed by the Bronx and Manhattan. But Brooklyn and Queens experienced inconsistent, sluggish growth; the former's population increased by 1.6 percent, while the latter's increased by a mere 1/10th of one percent. That's low enough for the Mayor to publicly question the census' accuracy.

Looking for some help to unpack those numbers, Brian Lehrer asked for callers from the Queens neighborhood of Jackson Heights. Missy, a census worker, was able to provide some explanation for why the borough's population total might be artificially low.

I personally didn't have that much trouble counting but I did experience resistance with the immigrant population. There are a lot of Hispanic people where I live and I don't speak Spanish that well, so sometimes I had to get a native speaker to help me. Sometimes they just wouldn't answer the questions or open the door. I'm sure my colleagues experienced that as well, so I would imagine that there's an undercount.

A large immigrant population, either distrustful of government or perhaps living here illegally, raises hurdles to census data collection. It may be that Queens and Brooklyn did experience more substantial growth, but the numbers only reflect the people who agreed to fill out the form.

John Mollenkopf said that was certainly an issue, especially in one of the most diverse locales in the United States. However, he said it's not a problem that the Census Bureau is blind to: The government has been taking steps to peel back the anxiety immigrant communities may feel when confronted with documentation.

There are five factors that the census used to project hard to count places in advance of the 2000 census...Where you have a lot of families living in not strictly legal situations, maybe single men crowded in a basement apartment or something like that, people are understandably reluctant. Then you've got language issues, some people coming from countries where there's just skepticism of government and not wanting to be involved with anything official...But the census this time I think went further than ever before to try to cope with those problems and sponsor community organizations to do outreach and to keep track of how progress was going and put extra resources into areas where they were falling short of expectations.

Be sure to explore WNYC's interactive census results maps for Queens and the entire region below!


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Comments [9]

Elizabeth from Bronx, NY

I live in the Bronx. Here, the census workers came around in groups of three (at a minimum). There was always at least one person in the group who spoke Spanish. It is not that people in this neighborhood feel that it is the government's obligation to speak Spanish. Rather, they feel bad that they do not speak English as well as they would like to so they feel shy. I think having a Spanish speaker on each team made a difference here in that someone could explain, in Spanish, that there were only a few questions and that it was important to get this information and that people shouldn't feel bad that they did not speak English well, they still counted! This ability to speak the language in the moment helped with the excellent pre-count outreach of the census team.

Mar. 25 2011 03:14 PM
RLewis from the bowery

15 states have less people in the entire state than Brooklyn (one of 5 bororughs). Do these states really deserve 2 senators???

If New York City were a state, it would be # 10 in population, but yet, all these other 41 states get to tell us what gun laws we should live by. That's just not right!

How about a show on these numbers, Brian?

Mar. 25 2011 11:03 AM
RBC from FiDi

Katie from Brooklyn has hit it on the head. It is no surprise that the population was stagnant or dropped... gentrification is one of the main culprits. A consequence of attracting the monied class to the city has been that many of these upper income families consolidate housing spaces - they take two apartments and turn it into one big apartment, they take a brownstone that used to house four families and convert it into two duplexes or one single family home. This has caused a decrease in the amount of available housing and an increase in the cost of housing. The middle class just can't afford to stay here any longer.

Mar. 25 2011 10:56 AM
Pauline Park from Queens

I moved to Jackson Heights in 1997, in part because I was invited to co-found a center for the lesbian, gay, bisexual & transgender (LGBT) community of Queens. I'm now president of the board of directors of Queens Pride House (, and I can attest to the growing diversity of Jackson Heights, which now has the largest LGBT community in NYC outside of Manhattan as well as the most racially & ethnically diverse LGBT community anywhere in the United States (if not the world).

Mar. 25 2011 10:55 AM
DB from NJ

Why are all the callers from Jackson Hts? Why not other Queens neighborhoods? Odd that people are so shocked that population didn't go up more... many people move into the City, but other people move out.

Folks I know who lived in Brooklyn, for example, moved to less expensive areas as they got priced out of their previous neighborhoods, then eventually left the boro (or City) altogether.

Mar. 25 2011 10:45 AM
Lauren from Manhattan

I know there is a narrative that local politicians want to get out about this but come on,. I am not surprised by the lack of growth. Fully over half of my friends and family have moved out of the city and state over the past 10 years and I know I'm not unique. Its just to expensive. Taxes, fees, housing, ticketing, energy, insurance, food... etc. It costs more here than anywhere and you just dont get what you pay for here... maybe at one time but its a myth now.

Mar. 25 2011 10:43 AM
katie from Brooklyn

I'm curious whether gentrification may have had the effect of lowering the population density in Brooklyn by attracting single people into apartments that may have housed whole families or groups of roommates in the past.

Mar. 25 2011 10:42 AM
Elsie from Brooklyn

I'm not sure why people are surprised by the results that people have been leaving NYC. It's unlivable and for people in the middle class there is no reason for us to stay.

It's truly amusing to hear Bloomberg question these statistics since he's been largely responsible for pushing the middle class out of the city. What is happening here is an influx of poor immigrants to service the rich. No one else need apply.

Mar. 25 2011 10:37 AM
Edward from NJ

I left Queens in 2005, so the me population plummeted.

Mar. 25 2011 10:36 AM

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