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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The City According to NY Magazine

Hey New Yorkers - you recognize this, don't you?

No, this isn't a strange Rorschach blot. This is New York City. At least, this is what New York City looks like according to NY Magazine. Or, to put it another way:

As you probably know, Nate Silver's "Best Places to live in NYC" piece has come out in NY Magazine. Now, I am a big Nate Silver fan, mostly because he brings a much-needed dose of data-driven reality and intellectual honesty into an area - namely political writing - where very often people just make shit up and expect to be believed.

And going through the methodology for the NYC neighborhoods article, I'm more and more impressed with how Silver conducted this study - not only did he go way above and beyond the call of duty in gathering and analyzing data, he also made this great tool that lets you weigh the different criteria according to your own definition of what you want in a neighborhood. Got your panties in a bunch because Silver counts schools for 6% and you don't have any kids? Easy - adjust the weighting to make schools count for nothing, and you've got the rankings that matter to you. You can never satisfy everyone, and there's tons of debate you can have over the minutae of the methodology and results - I, for one, am on record as saying the neighborhood that ended up first is a giant social ponzi scheme. But with something like this it's easy to hate and pick out faults, but really, really tough to actually create. All in all, this is a wonderful quantitative analysis - of half of New York City.

So my problem is not with Nate Silver, my problem is what NY Magazine gave him to work with. And what he had to work with was this:

5 neighborhoods in Staten Island, representing about an eighth of the population.

7 neighborhoods in the Bronx, representing about a quarter of the population.

8 neighborhoods in Queens - including all the neighborhoods west of the BQE -representing about a third of the population.

18 neighborhoods in Brooklyn - including all of the area north and west of Prospect Park - representing about half the population.

22 neighborhoods in Manhattan consisting of the entire borough (with the exception of Marble Hill, if you want to get nitpicky).

All in all, a little under half the population of the city is represented in the 60 neighborhoods that are surveyed. As for the the neighborhoods chosen - need you ask? It's everywhere the NY Magazine readership might already consider living (all the usual yuppie and trending-yuppie neighborhoods of Manhattan, Brownstone Brooklyn, and West Queens), with a few bones thrown seemingly at random to the other parts of the city (Belle Harbor? Westerleigh? Co-op City?). In short, the "best neighborhoods" are determined by considering a self-selected sampling of neighborhoods. The best proof of this? The neighborhood everyone seems to be up in arms about getting left off is Forest Hills - the one yuppie area that wasn't included.

Silver addresses this by saying "-- The choice of neighborhoods, and the geographic boundaries assigned to them, were determined by New York magazine staff. I thought they did a very comprehensive job, on balance. It's not trivial to include additional neighborhoods because a lot of this involves counting things -- whether laundromats, toxic waste dumps, or murders -- by hand. The 60 neighborhoods within our scope are not necessarily the 60 best neighborhoods. Yes, we'll get Forest Hills included if we do this next year."

This is ridiculous. Under half the city is nowhere near a "very comprehensive job." No newspaper, magazine, or any other reputable publisher would dream of putting out an article where they analyze the 19 states East of the Mississippi River and North of the 36th Parallel, plus Montana, Florida, Alabama, Oregon and New Mexico, and then list the top 20, call the article "The Best States to Live in America," and respond to criticism of this by claiming they did a "very comprehensive job, on balance," and complaining that doing the other 25 states would be too much work. But yet, that is exactly what this article does - just substitute "New York City" for "America" and "Neighborhoods" for "States."

I don't necessarily even have a problem if NY mag wants to discount everything outside of Manhattan and Brownstone Brooklyn. But it is not "the 50 best neighborhoods to live in New York." It's "the 50 best neighborhoods to live in yuppie New York." I would have actually liked this a lot better than throwing in a few neighborhoods outside this area for what seems to be the sole purpose of showing they're considering more than Manhattan, Brownstone Brooklyn, and Western Queens. When I was in college at my very white Midwestern state school, one year they noticed the cover of a University publication happened to only feature white faces. So did they look for another scene on campus to shoot that was more diverse? No. Did they try and recruit more minorities? No. Did they even just say "hey, I guess this is who we are, so we'll just go with it." No. They used the same picture - but just photoshopped in a few random, darker faces. This is the first thing that came to my mind when I saw the neighborhood selection for the article.

Really this is about me, and many other residents and lovers of the city, being fed up with half the city being completely ignored. If you like Brownstone Brooklyn better than the East Bronx, hey, I don't have a problem with that - so do I. But I at least give both of them a chance. I don't pretend the East Bronx doesn't exist, and don't pretend that it's somehow not part of New York City. And if you only have the resources to survey half the city, why is it always taken for granted that everywhere in Manhattan, Brownstone Brooklyn, and Western Queens must automatically be included, while a few of the rest of the neighborhoods of the city maybe get squeezed in if there's room? Why not distribute them equally throughout the 5 boroughs? Or, better yet, why not first eliminate the neighborhoods where 90% of New Yorkers won't be able to even afford in the first place, instead of starting with them?

There's a lot of publications in this city that focus on one or two particular areas, or ethnic groups, or cultures. But Caribbean Life doesn't call itself "New York Life." The Jewish Press doesn't call itself the "New York Press." The Queens Tribune doesn't call itself the "New York Tribune." Only one culture - the upscale yuppie culture - has the chutzpah to focus on one part of the city and call itself "New York Magazine."