Who would want to leave New York?

The big apple, far from its tree

Lunar New Year parade in Manhattan Chinatown
Based on a photo by Patrick Kwan for Explore Chinatown, published under CC BY 2.0

Hi, this is Rose. I’m a writer at Datawrapper. And right now I’m doing that job from New York City—which has prompted a few questions…

When I introduced myself to colleagues a couple weeks ago, there was one question that seemed to be on a lot of people’s minds: Why would I want to move from New York to Berlin? Yes, it’s far away from friends and family, and yes, I will need a different plug for my phone charger. But I’m not even the first person at Datawrapper to move to Germany from abroad, let alone the first person in the world. I think their surprise had more to do with New York itself—it just seems like a city that people move to.

So is that a misconception, or am I really making an unusual choice? And if I’m an atypical New Yorker, what does a typical New Yorker’s migration look like?

Am I normal?

In fact, just having been born here makes me an atypical New Yorker. Of the approximately 8.3 million people who live in the city today, just under half were born in New York State. Eleven percent come from other US states and 40% from the rest of the world. So we’re not wrong to associate New York with immigration—the average New Yorker comes from somewhere else.

I got these numbers from the US Census Bureau, who do their best to estimate not just how many people live in each county, but how they got there: by birth, by migrating from another country, or by migrating from elsewhere in the US. When you take away the people who died, moved abroad, or moved domestically, you’re left with each of these three streams’ net effect on the population that year.[1] Those are the numbers that will show us whether it’s unusual to move away:

So, is it normal to leave New York? That depends on where you're going. Domestic migration has been net-negative for decades—however many Americans move here to make it big, they'll always be dwarfed by the number streaming out to greener suburban pastures. But internationally, the opposite is true—the city is a worldwide magnet and relatively few people emigrate away. Strange as it may seem, leaving New York for Berlin, New Hampshire, would put me in the mainstream, but leaving it for Berlin, Germany, doesn't.

Who is normal, then?

So far we've seen that the typical New Yorker is a migrant, not a born-and-bred local, and that the typical international migrant is heading towards New York, not away from it. What does this immigrant city look like?

The size of each circle on this map represents the absolute number of present-day New Yorkers who were born in each country. Some of the big circles shouldn't be that surprising—sure, a lot of people have come here from China. But many of those countries simply have large populations. If you look at the color of the circles, you'll see that Chinese-born people are actually underrepresented in New York City compared to in the world at large.

Maybe more noteworthy are the countries in dark green, which send a disproportionately large number of people to New York. Our neighbors in the Americas unsurprisingly stand out here, as do Eastern and Southern Europe. Topping the charts is tiny Guyana, where 129,492 New Yorkers were born—though the country itself is home to only 782,775! The Dominican Republic, birthplace of New York's largest immigrant community, also comes in strong on this measure.

What's so great about normal, anyway?

Looking at the numbers, it seems like my coworkers were right. It was kind of a weird idea to have been born here and maybe it's kind of a weird idea to leave. If you want a more typical New York story, you should probably talk to a Manhattanite in New Jersey or a Jamaican in Brooklyn. But I'm not sorry to be stepping out a little; I prefer to think of it as making room for the next person.

That's all for today! I'd love to hear about your cities and how you came to live in them — write me at rose@datawrapper.de or leave a note in the comments below. Next week we'll hear from David, our head of design. See you then!

  1. Every year, the Census Bureau calculates an estimate of the three components of population change: natural increase (that's births minus deaths), net domestic migration, and net international migration. Natural increase and domestic migration are counted directly: the first from birth and death certificates, and the second from a combination of tax returns, Social Security Administration records, and Medicare enrollment. International migration is estimated from a more complex model that includes the yearly American Community Survey, other countries' census data, and observed population change that is otherwise unaccounted for. ↩︎