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New York from the 1940s to now

New York in the 1940s was a very different city from what we know today.  To supplement our Welcome to 1940s New York website, our Center has compared the 1940s-era demographic characteristics found in a little-known 1943 New York City Market Analysis to population patterns based on current Census data.  The sections below discuss major differences and similarities between New York circa 1940 and now.

For an overview of the 1943 document, please click here.

In June 2012, the New York Times published a full-page feature about the project, comparing contemporary photos to the 1943 photos in 5 neighborhoods, along with a related article.


Dramatic, though not surprising, population changes between 1940 and now

The 1943 Market Analysis divides the city into 116 neighborhoods and provides statistics and maps for each one from the 1940 Census, as well as photos of streetscapes in each area.  The document also provides boro- and citywide maps and statistics.

In its neighborhood profiles, the 1943 Market Analysis compares the population size of each NYC neighborhood with another U.S. city. For example, Williamsburg, Brooklyn's 1940 population of almost 180,000 was "larger than Fort Worth, Texas."  The comparisons reflect a time when the city's population -- overall, and even for specific neighborhoods -- dwarfed most other urban areas across the country.

In the 70 years since, there have been substantial changes in New York City's -- and the nation's -- population.  For example, Williamsburg experienced a net decrease of almost 35,000 people while Fort Worth's population skyrocketed to more than 740,000.  In general, the size of almost all the city's neighborhoods have changed and the diversity of the population has shifted dramatically.

The map below shows the net percent population change between 1940 and 2010 based on the 1943 neighborhood area boundaries.  The map reflects the overarching pattern of post-WWII population shifts from urban areas to the suburbs.  New York’s "inner city" areas lost population, while the outer boroughs gained substantially.  The neighborhoods in Queens and Staten Island that had the greatest net population gains were even described as suburban in the 1943 document.


See this PDF version of the map, as well as this Excel spreadsheet with 1940-2010 neighborhood-level population changes.

Some areas have changed greatly due to major housing and infrastructure developments that did not exist in 1943 but have since dramatically altered the landscape.  Examples include (in no particular order):

  • Co-op City: located in what was called the Baychester-City Island area in the Bronx in 1943.  This community had a population of just 6,000 people in 1943.  "Baychester proper" was described as "very sparsely populated." In 2010 Baychester-City Island area population was almost 51,000 – a 740% increase.
  • Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village: the Stuyvesant Square area in 1943 was described as having "[t]enements … constitut[ing] the general type of dwelling." The 1943 map shows regular spaced streets as part of Manhattan's grid where these two housing developments would be built.  The area's population grew from almost 61,000 people in 1940 to just over 72,000 in 2010 (a 20% increase).
  • JFK Airport: this international travel hub was referred to modestly in the 1943 South Laurelton profile as the "new Jamaica Bay Airport."
  • Riverside South: located in what was called the "De Witt Clinton" area in 1943.  According to the 1943 document, this neighborhood had lost 10,000 people between 1930 and 1940 (total population in 1940 was just over 22,000), and the remaining residents lived primarily in "low rent dwellings" located east of Twelfth Ave which was described as being "packed with automotive dealers of various kinds."
  • Fresh Kills Landfill (opened in 1947): the area in and around Travis was described in 1943 as "the center of truck farming and nursery areas of Staten Island. Produce and flowers are shipped daily to Manhattan. Considerable area is marsh land."
  • Starrett City: in 1943, the land on which Starrett City would eventually be built – in the "Spring Creek Basin" area -- is described in the document as "vacant marsh land" even though streets in that section had been mapped.  The Spring Creek Basin area had the largest net percent population gain in Brooklyn: an increase of more than 330% (from a meager 9,000 residents in 1940 to almost 40,000 in 2010).

A More Diverse "Melting Pot"

The demographic data in the 1943 document is presented with language from that era that contemporary society would consider dated at best (such as the document's use of "Negro" instead of Black or African-American). Nonetheless, the information is historically informative.

New York’s population in 1940 was overwhelmingly white: fewer than 500,000 non-whites in a city of more than 7.4 million (less than 7% of the population).  And though the foreign-born population was a major component of many neighborhoods (there were more than 2 million "foreign-born whites" citywide in 1940), the term "foreign-born" in the 1943 document typically means Italian, Irish, German,  Scandinavian or Finnish, or Polish, for example.  Only one or two passing references are made to "Latin Americans."

Fast forward to 2010, and the demographic transformation experienced by the city has been nothing short of striking.  Today whites make up only one-third of the population.  Immigration starting in the mid-1960s from non-European countries (especially Latin America and the Caribbean, China, India, Korea, and the former Soviet Union) has been a central factor in completely altering the demographic composition of many neighborhoods across the city.

(Some areas are an exception to this rule, such as Greenpoint -- which still has a large Polish concentration -- and Coney Island -- with a large Russian population then and now in the Brighton and Manhattan Beach sections.)

Even the demographic categories in the 1943 market analysis reflect the homogeneity of the city's population.  The 1943 document uses only four categories, shown below with citywide population totals (along with annotation from the document itself):


Compare that with the scores of race and ethnicity combinations available in recent decennial censuses, not to mention the detailed Hispanic ethnic subgroups or the extensive lists of countries of origin in recent censuses.

In order to compare the population categories from the 1943 document with contemporary New York City, we need to use the Census Bureau's American Community Survey (or "ACS"; the 2010 decennial Census did not inquire about native- or foreign-born).  The following table summarizes the borough- and citywide totals for the period 2006-2010 from ACS data (total population estimates may differ from the 2010 decennial counts due to sampling and the different time period):


(Detailed spreadsheet available here.)

The number of "native whites" has fallen from almost 5 million to just over 2.5 million.  The black population grew from less than 500,000 to more than 2 million.  The "Other" category skyrocketed from roughly 20,000 to almost 2.5 million. These changes are not surprising to long-time city residents and observers of the city's demographic trends.  But the statistics are dramatic, nonetheless.

Housing generally more affordable in 1940

The 1943 document includes more than 100 color-shaded maps visualizing the patterns of monthly rent levels on a block-by-block basis: one map for each of the 116 neighborhoods across the city, one map for each borough, and a citywide map.  Using ESRI's ArcGIS, our Center georeferenced the scanned borough maps and created a composite citywide map that is displayed at Welcome to 1940s New York and reproduced below.  It is also available for display in Google Earth [KML].

(PDF version)

Seventy years ago, rents in New York ranged from under $30 to $150 per month or more. After adjusting for inflation, the high-end rent would be just under $2,500 in today's dollars -- still a relatively modest rent in some contemporary neighborhoods, and substantially less than the average Manhattan rent this year of $3,400.

In order to prepare the maps of rent levels, the publishers of the 1943 market analysis conducted a thorough citywide assessment.  They converted home ownership costs to rent values using a formula based on market value (according to the document, "[o]wned homes were reduced to a rental basis, on the assumption that the average market value of a home is one hundred times its monthly rent").  And they conducted "personal interviews" to make sure the rent levels were accurate.  The analysis notes that:

"We do not claim perfection, but we believe this is the most authoritative market analysis ever made for New York City."

Rent patterns in the 1943 document are not directly comparable to contemporary, publicly accessible data (for example, the 1943 document lists families at different rent levels, rather than households, while the Census and ACS provides rent data only for households). 

But the 2006-2010 ACS data can provide an approximation of local rent trends to compare with 1940.  Using two data files from the ACS (table B25001: total housing units; and table B25056: rented housing units by contract rent payments), the table below shows how rent levels have changed in selected neighborhoods across the five boroughs.  The following links take you to the rent tables & maps for these neighborhoods in 1943: Jefferson Park (Manhattan); Highbridge and Morrisania (Bronx); Williamsburg (Brooklyn); Corona (Queens); and Brighton (Staten Island).

(Detailed spreadsheet available here.)

Map(Note that this table only includes rent-paying households; it does not convert owner-occupied expenses to rent amounts, as was done in the 1943 market analysis.  So the statistics above are useful primarily for comparisons in areas where most people are renters, which is why the total housing unit figures are included for each area.)

Aside from any statistical comparisons with data today, you can use the 1943 maps to see for yourself how closely or not the patterns match life in our city today.  Even though the dollar amounts are different, the general contours of the rent patterns in many neighborhoods have not changed from 1940 to now.

As you review the maps, take a moment to appreciate the cartographic craftsmanship involved in color coding each block based on Census data. No desktop computers or Google Maps back then!


Each of the 116 neighborhood profiles includes a short narrative emphasizing local commercial trends and potential residential buying power (the document's purpose was to help local advertisers). But the descriptions provide insights into local demographic changes at the time. Here's the narrative for Maspeth, Queens:

"Maspeth is not a thickly settled district, but it enjoyed a 10 percent population growth in the 1930-1940 decade. The southwestern portion is an industrial area. Much of the southeastern portion is devoted to cemeteries. The residential area consists almost entirely of one and two-family dwellings. Most of the houses adjoining the industrial area are old and in the low rental group. There are some newer homes in the northern section of the district. The balance of the homes are of the less pretentious type. Grand Avenue is the main shopping street."

The document is intended as a guide for business seeking to place local newspaper advertisements.  So of course its narratives and choice of statistics have an emphasis on expenses such as rent, cultural/population trends, and the patterns of residential housing versus commercial centers.  But several neighborhood profiles presage the more contemporary argument that large retailers have made about urban areas regarding a city's substantial purchasing power due to the sheer density of people rather than overall affluence.  For example:

  • The 1943 profile of the Lower East Side says "its importance as a market is due entirely to numbers and not to individual family purchasing power"; and
  • The "North New York" profile (generally the South Bronx/Mott Haven area today) notes that the area "makes up in numbers what it lacks in purchasing power."

Borough & Citywide maps and statistics

The 1943 document also provides six fold-out, color maps -- one for each borough and one citywide -- along with economic statistics such as:

  • manufacturers (number of establishments, wages, and value of products);
  • manufacturing employment (more than half a million jobs in 1940 compared with fewer than 90,000 today);
  • wholesale and retail trade;
  • number of families owning a radio set (almost all 2 million families in the city);
  • aggregate value of savings deposits (almost $4.4 billion); and
  • number of residential telephones (only 787,000 - far fewer than the number of radios above).