What New Yorkers think about conditions in their neighborhoods
What is the relationship between a city’s livability, crime and “disorder,” and how closely do residents’ perception of safety and livability correspond to the realities? We care about this connection between perception and reality because perception so often drives action. Which streets are thronged and which are empty, whether subways and buses, parks and playgrounds and other civic amenities are used or deserted — all of this drives the life of the city. And all of this can contribute to a vicious cycle of flight and abandonment or a virtuous cycle of attraction and growth.
Yet, as in many things, it is the rare city that is in regular and meaningful touch with its residents or that shapes its services in response to regular feedback. However, in a period spanning about ten years, New York City first (2008) and, then the Citizens Budget Commission (2017) each commissioned just such a citywide survey.
The results were remarkably stable. The most striking finding was the extraordinary consensus among wealthier neighborhoods about their relative satisfaction with their quality of life, and a similar consensus among low-income neighborhoods about their dissatisfaction with their quality of life. The neighborhoods most dissatisfied were also overwhelmingly home to Black and Brown New Yorkers while the satisfied neighborhoods had more white residents.
There were some changes over the decade. Of the 45 indicators, ten registered a positive or negative shift of 5 percent or more. Of those changes, there was a relative optimism, with more people approving of their neighborhood as a place to live, and approving in big numbers of after-school programs, air quality and even the levels of street noise. But there was some increasing dissatisfaction too, particularly around ease of travel, economic growth and, perennially, parking enforcement.
Pressing just a little bit deeper, residents’ perceptions appear largely to track with the underlying conditions in their neighborhoods — to the extent these conditions are also tracked. For example, dissatisfaction with cleanliness was in fact most concentrated in those neighborhoods where the City’s own “scorecard” showed more trash on the street. Most sobering was the distinct overlap between neighborhood unhappiness and the number of shootings. As we showed in the first issue of Vital City, gun violence has been concentrated in the same handful of neighborhoods for decades — and those neighborhoods are overwhelmingly poor, home to a high concentration of Black and Brown New Yorkers and suffering from high levels of social distress.
The pandemic has radically changed much about our lives and so it is fair to ask how relevant these survey results might be today. We offer them not as a precise measure, but as a reasonably good guide as to what New Yorkers think about their city. As decades of research have revealed, not just about New York City but also other large urban areas, the concentration of disadvantage in neighborhoods has a confounding durability. The data shows, sadly, that the places bearing the brunt of distress, whether COVID-19 or shootings, remained the same places as before the pandemic, even as levels of distress increased across the city.
We look forward to presenting a deeper analysis of the complicated intersections of crime, perception and quality of life in the days to come.
A special thanks to the Citizens Budget Commission for their generosity in sharing both the underlying data related to the feedback survey and their thoughts about the implications of the survey results.