One Man’s Quest to Visit Every Census Tract in New York

Down abandoned tunnels and across untamed islands, a dogged demographer's decade-long mission to visit every Census tract in New York takes him to some of the city's least inhabited quarters.

One Man’s Quest to Visit Every Census Tract in New York

New York is a big place. Exploring it is a pretty decent undertaking. If you want to see as much as you can, get the broadest experience possible, it helps to have some sort of a plan. There are a lot of different ways to go about this. In 2000, Dave Frattini wrote a book entitled “The Underground Guide to New York City Subways” detailing his trip to each of the 468 subway stations in New York City. Other people have tried to visit each of the fifty-one community boards, or all 176 zip codes. One friend of mine, Matt Green, is even attempting to walk every street in New York City—although that’s a full-time, years-long undertaking.

I’m a demographer, someone who studies population and how it changes, so I’m pretty familiar with the most common way to analyze the population: by Census tract. These are simply a geographic creation of the United States Census Bureau, designed to break the country up into bite-sized chunks of about 4,000 people each—a geography small enough to analyze the population effectively, yet large enough that there aren’t privacy implications for individuals when detailed information is released about their population. They’re a useful size for demographers, urban planners, and sociologists—smaller than a ZIP code, but bigger than a city block. I decided I would get to know New York by visiting all 2,217 Census tracts in the City (the number of tracts was reduced to 2,167 in the 2010 census, although I’ve kept with the 2000 geography).

New York City’s 2,217 Census tracts, for Census 2000
New York City’s 2,217 Census tracts, for Census 2000

The vast majority of Census tracts in New York City consist of primarily residential areas, which makes sense because, after all, cities are essentially just support systems for people. A typical Census tract in Manhattan and other densely populated parts of the five boroughs is something like five blocks long by two avenues wide. In the more suburban, less densely populated parts of the outer boroughs, tracts are somewhat larger. For instance, Howard Beach in Queens only has two tracts, and City Island in the Bronx only has one (which it shares with neighboring Hart Island).

Population-wise, 4,000 people is a fairly loose goal—any number between 1,200 and 8,000 will usually do for a Census tract, and because of some geographical quirks in how you’re able to draw boundaries, there are a few tracts of 10,000 people or even more: for instance, the Census tract that houses Co-op City, a huge apartment development in the Bronx, has about 26,000 people.

And there’s another quirk: every neighborhood, every block, every building, every tree, every geographical point in the city has to belong to some Census tract or another. So on my quest to visit all 2,217 tracts in New York, I traveled into a few areas with little or no population—where everyday city life isn’t really part of the equation.

1. Ruins: The Bronx

In 2000, twenty-four Census tracts had a population of zero. Ten are parks, ranging from New York City parks to Federal sites like Liberty Island to the Smithsonian-affiliated Snug Harbor. All of these are accessible to the public and regularly visited. Five more are active cemeteries that can also be counted on to have regular visitors (more on them later). Four are working environments: the Oak Point rail yards in the Bronx, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and two tracts that make up the Kings County Hospital Complex in East Flatbush. One is the Queens side of Jamaica Bay, consisting of a few unpopulated islands, but also includes the non-residential part of Broad Channel Island, which hosts Cross Bay Boulevard and several hiking trails. One is LaGuardia Airport. Another is really a ghost tract—Queens Tract 1622, which consists entirely of the Atlantic Ocean south of the Rockaway Peninsula.

Discounting this ghost tract, this leaves two Census tracts with no population, no workers, and next-to-no visitors. I think it’s fair to call these the most desolate tracts in New York City. The first of these is Bronx Census tract 5: North and South Brother Islands, located at the western edge of Long Island Sound between Riker’s Island and the coast of the Bronx.

In the summer of 2008 I took a boat with the artist and sailor Marie Lorenz (the same boat that visited Fresh Kills for this Narratively piece) and two others out to North Brother. We launched from Port Morris in the Bronx early one Sunday morning when it was still dark, and beached on North Brother maybe twenty minutes later, dragging the small rowboat into the woods in order to avoid detection from the NYPD harbor patrol, as the island is a restricted bird sanctuary.

There are two main things to see on North Brother Island: ruins and birds. The island was formerly home to several hospitals and residences, although there has been no permanent population since at least the 1970s.

An abandoned building on North Brother Island (Photo by Marie Lorenz)
An abandoned building on North Brother Island (Photo by Marie Lorenz)

There are not many Census tracts in New York City dominated by ruins or abandonments, especially today, after so many years of redevelopment. The Farm Colony in Staten Island is the only other real one, although there are some tracts, such as the one housing the Creedmore Psychiatric Facility in Queens, that have a fair amount. I spent some time traipsing around the island, poking into the various ruins and trying to avoid the copious amount of poison ivy. The most interesting find was a room full of old books, several of which bore a “Queens County Library” stamp and checkout dates from the 1950s. Strangely, even with the overgrowth and lack of civilization, it still felt like part of the city. Even without the city looming on the horizon, I would never have mistaken it for an island in the middle of the Mississippi River, or the Great Salt Lake.

The ruins were fairly oblivious to our visit. The birds, however, were not. Until 2011, when many of the birds stopped nesting at the island, from March to September North Brother Island was their private domain. And when we were there, they made it very clear they were not happy to see us: squawking, puffing out their wings, and, most ominously, circling above us as they gradually flew lower and lower. After leaving, I felt selfish for intruding, (almost) accepting for the first time why some publically-owned places in New York City are off-limits to the public.

Today, the island probably sees a few dozen visitors a year or so—scientistsstudents, reporters, and, of course, your occasional curious urbanist. While we simply took our chances with the direct route, if you’d like to get to North Brother Island officially, you can contact the NYC Parks Department and try to jump through the hoops. Here’s a short primer.

2. Nature Reserves: Brooklyn

The Jamaica Bay islands, part of the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge and mostly off-limits to the public, are actually split between Brooklyn and Queens. As a result, they’re divided into three different Census tracts: the populated part of the islands (which is the Broad Channel neighborhood, in Queens), the unpopulated stretches of the Queens side (which include a section of Cross Bay Boulevard as well as the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge visitor center), and the Brooklyn side. The Brooklyn islands have no residents, no industry and no land connection, save for a tiny sliver of the island that hosts Cross Bay Boulevard.

A few years after the North Brother Island trip, I took the same (slightly more beat-up) rowboat out to a few of the Jamaica Bay islands with Lorenz, the artist. The most interesting thing about Jamaica Bay is how shallow it is; one time, we literally walked through the bay from one island to another.

Here, the only ruins were the occasional old beat-up boat or Jet Ski, some of which had somehow found their way onto the middle of one of the landmasses. Each of the islands we visited were different—one a tangle of reeds, barely capable of meriting the term “land”; another mostly dry and sandy; a third overgrown with vegetation, with a lake in the middle of it. There also wasn’t much in the way of birds or any other zoological life either (although one of the Queens-side islands was eerily filled with the bones of what must have been generations of dead birds). They seemed even more remote than North Brother, even though on both islands the Manhattan skyline is always looming within sight.

An island in Jamaica Bay
An island in Jamaica Bay

On the bony island, we ran into a guy walking his dog along the beach (where we also both picked up a decent pair of flip-flops from among the detritus). When we asked the man how often he saw other people out here, his answer was “Hmmm…the last time was probably about a year ago.” A few more pleasantries and we headed out.

3. Industry & Waterfront: Staten Island

Throughout the vast majority of its history, New York’s economy was based on the water. Its large, calm, defensible, year-round harbor is the reason why an otherwise nondescript series of marshy islands—not even inhabited year-round by the local Lenape Indians—became the continent’s most important metropolis.

From the early 1600s through the middle of the twentieth century, our waterfront was a working one, with Manhattan bookended by dozens of piers up the East and West sides, and shipping all along the Brooklyn Waterfront. As the city transformed, the heavier maritime industry moved over mostly to New Jersey, and today parks, promenades, and high-rises line our shores—with the few remaining vestiges of industry, such as the Port Authority Piers in Brooklyn Heights, now undergoing or being slated for transformation.

There is however, one part of our waterfront that’s only partly transformed: Staten Island Census Tract 15, which covers about half of the waterfront of the North Shore, before rounding the St. George Ferry Terminal and covering a bit of the South Shore as well. While there are a few staples of the new type of waterfront—warehouses-turned-condos, well-maintained walkways, and the Yankees’ minor league baseball stadium near the Ferry Terminal—in most places you can still stroll along a waterfront with no landscaped parks or bike paths in sight: just piers, industrial buildings, and, for a great deal of it, an abandoned railroad, a remnant of the old North Shore rail line which carried passengers until 1953 and continued carrying freight up until 1989. While some of the actual rails remain, many are gone or buried. But the undisturbed path—the right-of-way—remains. I headed out one day a few years ago to walk this abandoned right-of-way with Matt, my friend who is walking every street in New York City.

There are several sections: we found the old rails at-grade, running level with the earth through the underbrush, and followed their path as they climbed up onto a short stretch of abandoned elevated trestle reminiscent of the old High Line. Farther along, the right-of-way ran through an open cut. Here, there were old platforms, crumbling and long abandoned. A small Shrek doll sat on one platform, the only manufactured object among bundles of branches and leaves. The tracks eventually lead into an active rail yard, which carries freight across the Arthur Kill Bridge from New Jersey.

The North Shore Line, with the Bayonne Bridge in the background (Photo courtesy Matt Green)
The North Shore Line, with the Bayonne Bridge in the background (Photo courtesy Matt Green)

But my favorite stretch was across from Snug Harbor, where the right-of-way runs through a wooded area next to a short beach. Here, someone had built an entire BMX obstacle course out of wood. It went on for several hundred feet, ending with a quarter-pipe ramp about eight feet tall.

The obstacle course is now gone, its ramps turned into driftwood after constant storms, with Hurricane Sandy the final blow. But Sandy did make a tradeoff, depositing an oil tanker on the shore of the southern end of the tract.

The best way to see most of this tract is probably not even by walking but by joining one of the Working Harbor Committee’s Hidden Harbor Boat Tours that travel alongside the North Shore of Staten Island.

4. Underneath It All: Manhattan

The Census is a one hundred percent count of the population—there’s no statistical margin of error; the number is supposed to be the right number. But there is one tract where I can tell you that the number is, beyond all reasonable doubt, wrong.

According to the 2000 Census, Manhattan’s tract 315 was comprised of the section of Riverside Park from 72nd  up to just short of 125th Streets along the Hudson River. There were sixty-eight people counted—most likely homeless residents of the park, although there might have also been an inhabited building that snuck its way into the tract. Census enumerators make an honest effort to find the homeless and count them alongside the housed population; not only is it part of the Census’ mission to count everyone, but each additional person enumerated brings corresponding revenue and aid from the federal and state governments. Still, I’m pretty sure there was no Census Bureau worker, no matter how dedicated, who ducked through a hole in the ground and into the tunnel that runs underneath Riverside Park in order to count the residents who live down there.

Walking under Riverside Park (Photo courtesy Allison Davis)
Walking under Riverside Park (Photo courtesy Allison Davis)

The rail tunnel that runs under the park is gigantic—two and half miles long, perhaps twenty feet high, and about three times as wide as it is tall. Two sets of rail tracks run down the middle on which Amtrak trains, swift and surprisingly silent, will barrel down every hour or two. But the Riverside tunnel isn’t technically a “tunnel” at all. In the mid-1840s, the Hudson River Railroad constructed a rail line down the West Side of Manhattan. It ran at-grade next to the Hudson River, and then turned onto city streets when it reached 60th. In the 1930s, the rail line was taken completely off of the street, with various sections either put onto elevated tracks or depressed below street level. The section from 123rd Street to 72nd Street, next to the Hudson River, didn’t actually change grade at all. Instead, the rail line was covered over with an extension of Riverside Park. In 1980, this entire West Side freight route was abandoned; the elevated section south of 34th Street became today’s High Line; the section under the Riverside Park extension, where we are now, had a less glorious but no less interesting fate: It became the largest underground homeless encampment in New York City.

The tunnel and its residents have been a strange sort of quasi-celebrity for almost two decades now. “Dark Days,” a film by Marc Singer about the people living in the tunnel, won three awards at the Sundance Film Festival in 2000. “The Mole People,” a book by Jennifer Toth, largely set in the tunnel, was published in 1993. Despite tens of thousands of homeless men, women and children in New York City, each with their own stories, it’s the few living underground who serve as the media’s continuing obsession. One resident I know, a woman named Brooklyn, told me upon our first meeting, “You should know me—I’ve been in mad movies.” And it’s true: Brooklyn has been in three documentaries I know of, and probably many more that I don’t.

Ever since the High Line became a landscaped park complete with an espresso bar, the Riverside Park tunnel has probably taken the title as the most trafficked “off-limits” place in New York City. I go once or twice a year—generally for the purpose of escorting guests from abroad, but I always like to see what might have changed since I was there last. Especially if it’s a weekend, it’s a good bet that you’ll run into a few other visitors. I’ve even randomly run into one person—an assistant church pastor, of all people—twice.

Once, in 2010, I ran into eleven different people on the same trip. Immediately upon entry we encountered six teenagers, with their own group they called Urban Odysseys. Their attitude was pretty endearing—it reminded me of being young and following rumor and mystery for adventure. Halfway down the tunnel, the kids headed into an area where people live and started taking pictures without announcing themselves. Brooklyn, who is by far the most sociable resident of the tunnel, yelled at them and they booked it out of there, looking like they’d seen something out of the Blair Witch Project. I apologized to her and smoothed things over.

Three-quarters of the way down we saw flashlights, which turned out to be a couple of guys who, despite a friendly wave and “how you doing,” walked by, eyes fixed straight ahead, without saying anything. This is a phenomenon that’s happened to me more than once. It’s always strange when people act like they’re passing you while walking down 14th Street instead of in an underground dirt tunnel. Finally coming out, we ran into four graffiti kids hanging out on the lawn over the entrance. They told me they went in the tunnel but thought we were “VS” (Vandal Squad, the police officers charged with catching graffiti writers) and bailed.

There used to be hundreds of people who lived in the tunnels of New York, mostly in the subways and the Riverside Park tunnel. But today there are no more than a very few who remain underground, and certainly no secret colonies of “mole people” like the media will erroneously report from time to time. Not even in the Riverside tunnel. In the ’90s, Amtrak acquired the abandoned tunnel and began running passenger trains through to Penn Station. Most of the homeless encampments were dismantled, the people evicted, and today the tunnel is mostly a quiet place frequented by graffiti writers, photographers and curious urbanists.

5. Cemeteries: Queens

If Brooklyn is the Borough of Churches and the Bronx the Borough of Parks (there’s by far a greater percentage of parkland in the Bronx—twenty-six percent—than in any other borough), then Queens is the Borough of Cemeteries. There are nine Census tracts in Queens that are entirely, or almost entirely, cemeteries (one tract, on the Brooklyn-Queens border, is part of NYC’s “Cemetery Belt,” and has no less than eleven cemeteries within its border). Together, they make up about three percent of the land area of the borough. But this three percent holds far more of the dead than the other ninety-seven percent holds of the living. In fact, just one cemetery complex alone—Calvary Cemetery in Maspeth and Woodside—holds over three million of the deceased, more than the entire population of Queens and Staten Island combined.

These cemeteries are a diverse array: Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, non-sectarian and non-religious, some in states of meticulous upkeep, others all but derelict, ranging in location from Astoria to the Nassau Border. More noteworthy people are buried in the cemeteries of Queens than can possibly be recounted here, including Harry Houdini (Machpelah Cemetery in the Cemetery Belt), Louie Armstrong (Flushing Cemetery), and Dred Scott (Calvary Cemetery).

There’s not really a lot of difference in walking these nine separate cemetery tracts; while the cemeteries have somewhat different character and layouts, the variety of landscape is fairly limited. My most interesting experience was probably visiting the grave of the Lubavitcher Rebbe in Montefiore Cemetery, way out in Laurelton. But when you’re just walking, after a while the gravestones generally blend into one another, with only an interesting name or quirky quote catching an eye. Still, I always enjoy these walks. Cemeteries are peaceful and relaxing places in general, an underutilized expanse of scarce green space in New York City.

It wasn’t always this way, though. For a short period of history—in between the time when New York was still small enough that there was plenty of natural open space within walking distance, and the time when landscaped parks were developed—the only place people could go for a small respite from the crowded conditions of the urban environment was the nearest cemetery. In fact, it was this phenomenon of more and more people gathering in cemeteries that first convinced the city that a public park was needed—hence the development of Central Park, and the beginning of parkland’s debut as a necessary component of a proper city.

One interesting trend I’ve noticed lately is placing a likeness of the deceased on the gravestone. This started among the Russian Jewish population (you can see row after row of stern men and women with Slavic and Ashkenazi surnames gaze at you from Brooklyn’s Washington Cemetery in Bensonhurst) but this tradition has since spread to the general population in many cemeteries.

Calvary Cemetery in Queens (Photo by Moses Gates)
Calvary Cemetery in Queens (Photo by Moses Gates)

It’s now been more than a decade since I started this project, and I’m scheduled to finally finish up this spring—ending with a walk through Brooklyn Census tract 614 in Manhattan Beach before a celebratory ride on the Cyclone. Still, I don’t remotely feel like I’ve seen everything there is to see in this city. I just feel like I now have a passing familiarity with most everywhere, a baseline that allows me to get my bearings wherever in the city I happen to be. New York is exponentially too big and complex for any one person to truly know in its entirety. And even if this were somehow possible, the city changes way too fast for anyone to keep up.

The biggest change between when I started and ended this project has been the explosion of Internet mapping technology, and the subsequent instantaneous knowledge of the city being constantly at my fingertips. When I started, I carried a beat-up Hagstrom 5-Borough Atlas, one of the old hand-drawn ones, and marked my progress on giant printouts of Census tract maps I got from the Department of City Planning. I had a sense of wonder and discovery every time I got off a random subway stop in the boroughs. Maybe I’d remember a tidbit or two about the area that I’d read in an article or guidebook or had heard about from a friend, but for the most part I was flying blind. Now, I almost feel like I know a place before I even arrive. I can’t get lost, because of GPS technology. If I’m curious about the restaurant across the street, I ask Yelp instead of just trying it. There are no real questions about anything I run into that I can’t find the answer to within thirty seconds on my smartphone, and if I decide to invest fifteen minutes with Google before I go, I don’t even have the questions anymore. I fill out my progress on a GIS map now, and even that seems kind of low-tech.

But there’s still a world of difference between your own eyes and the filter of the Internet. Walking around town with the goal of visiting all 2,217 Census tracts has been a great hobby over the last ten years of my life, one I’m glad I engaged in, and one I definitely encourage other people to do as well. But I must admit: I’ll have cheated a little bit though. There’s one tract I never did actually did visit, and hopefully never will: Bronx Tract 001—Riker’s Island jail.