When I moved to New York from Chicago last April, I had an awful lot of trouble picking a neighborhood. I looked at apartments almost everywhere—Williamsburg, Park Slope, Carroll Gardens, Chinatown, Tribeca, Soho, the Lower East Side, Greenwich Village—and each seemed to have its own pitfalls and charms. Eventually, I settled on a place just off Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn Heights, a neighborhood that, ironically, hadn’t been on my not-so-short list originally. I’ve been happy here, but like most New Yorkers, I suffer from a bit of grass-is-greener syndrome. Would I be better off living in Astoria? Prospect Heights? Chelsea?
It is of course impossible to come up with a completely objective answer to that question, but there is value in trying to understand and measure livability. Luckily, there is a wealth of information to study. The Bloomberg administration gathers reams of data about almost every element of life in the city—from potholes to infant-mortality rates—as do New York University’s Furman Center and the U.S. Census Bureau. Sites like Yelp provide a reasonably objective perspective on the popularity of neighborhood bars and restaurants. StreetEasy.com and Zillow.com publish the costs of apartment space per square foot. Ethnic diversity is now broken down in much finer gradients than black and white: You want to know how many Albanian-Americans there are in Sheepshead Bay? The answer is 734.
Our goal was to take advantage of this wealth of data and apply a little bit of science to the question. If there was anything that could plausibly affect one’s quality of life in a particular neighborhood, we tried to incorporate it. We sorted the dozens and dozens of statistics we compiled into twelve broad categories: housing cost (as measured on a price-per-square-foot basis, for both renters and buyers), housing quality (historic districts, code violations, cockroaches), transit and proximity (commute times to lower Manhattan and midtown, the density of subway coverage), safety (as measured by violent- and nonviolent-crime rates), public schools (test scores and parent satisfaction), shopping and services (the number of neighborhood amenities, especially supermarkets), food and restaurants (judged by density and quality of options), bars and nightlife (ditto), creative capital (arts venues as well as the number of residents engaged in the arts), diversity (in terms of both race and income), green space (park and waterfront access, street trees), and health and environment (noise, air quality, overall cleanliness).
Of course, not all of these categories are equally important: Most people would value safety over access to cool bars; public schools may be very important to some and not at all to others. The formula we finally devised weighted the categories based on a combination of objective and subjective approaches. On the one hand, we thought about what factors might be most important to five different types of New Yorkers, then averaged their answers together. On the other hand, we conducted an online survey of over 3,000 people nationwide and 700 in New York, asking respondents to rate the factors most important to them. Reassuringly, the two approaches produced very similar results, and we settled upon:
Housing Cost: 25 percent
Transit: 13 percent
Shopping and Services: 9 percent
Safety: 8 percent
Restaurants: 8 percent
Schools: 6 percent
Diversity: 6 percent
Creative Capital: 6 percent
Housing Quality: 5 percent
Green Space: 5 percent
Health and Environment: 5 percent
Nightlife: 4 percent
Perhaps the most difficult decision was how to weight affordability. More expensive neighborhoods are generally more expensive for a reason; the correlation between prevailing rents and a neighborhood’s amenities is high. We went with 25 percent simply because it represents the midpoint between the best-bang-for-the-buck scenario and the cost-is-no-object scenario.
That was not the end of our challenges. How does one define a neighborhood? In the most literal sense, we defined neighborhoods block by block, Census tract by Census tract, corresponding to generally accepted, commonsense boundaries. They vary greatly in size—from about 8,000 people (Todt Hill in Staten Island) to more than 220,000 (the Upper West Side and Upper East Side). So statistics were tabulated on a per-capita or a per-square-mile basis. We assessed 60 neighborhoods in all, though only the top 50 are ranked in these pages.
It was important to go into this much excruciating detail because New York contains an abundance of great neighborhoods. The differences in our list sometimes boiled down to tenths or even hundredths of a percentage point, with the subtlest tweak in how we weighted the component factors—especially cost—sending neighborhoods zooming up or down in rank.
A few of our model’s conclusions are liable to be controversial. The front of the list is dominated by brownstone Brooklyn. This is largely due to how we calibrated the cost variable: Pay slightly less attention to price, and Manhattan starts to dominate; if price matters more, a number of Queens neighborhoods rise toward the top. But this group of Brooklyn neighborhoods is generally the most balanced in the city, with few obvious drawbacks and plenty of charm.
On the other side of the spectrum are the Upper East Side and Upper West Side, which ranked just 35th and 36th, respectively. These are large neighborhoods, and some individual parts of them might have ranked higher. But the principal issue is value. Compare Brooklyn Heights and the Upper West Side: They score within a few points of each other in most categories (including transit—commute times to Union Square are identical, at eighteen minutes). But Brooklyn Heights is about $1,000 a month cheaper for a comparable two-bedroom apartment. Likewise, compare Harlem, which ranked a disappointing 50th, to Fort Greene, which placed 18th. Fort Greene wins out in schools, safety, creative capital, housing quality, diversity, shopping, food—and affordability.
The East Village and, especially, the Lower East Side scored better than some might expect. Although nightlife makes up just 4 percent of the ratings, it does make some difference in these cases: The LES would fall three places without it, and the East Village would move from tenth to sixteenth. But these neighborhoods are appealing even to those who would never venture into a bar, as they also have excellent restaurants and shopping, and are more diverse and less expensive than their immediate neighbors.
The top 25 include a pretty even mix of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, of more affordable and less so, of hip and square. This is not a reflection of our methodology so much as a reflection of neighborhood life in New York. Of course no static set of rankings can—or should—completely satisfy any one individual. Livability means different things to different people. Our Livability Calculator allows you to determine for yourself which factors are most important and see how the rankings re-sort themselves to point to your ideal neighborhood. But not even the most thorough and personalized statistical analysis can override a gut feeling: that sensation of stepping out of the subway and knowing that you are home.