By Brian J. Pape, AIA, LEED-AP
Our founding fathers established our post office and the decennial census as vital instruments for the benefit of our citizens and government. Throughout wars and economic turmoil the census has been taken, to help us know what this country has become and where our resources may need to be allocated.
The 2020 census planning began in 2019 with high hopes that technology would allow us to get a truer picture of who lives here and where they live. The pandemic and politics have changed all that.
First, the recruitment and training of census takers that began in December was halted in February and March as the nation began closing down gatherings. When the training resumed in July, social distancing meant many days of very small groups gathering in classrooms. Although millions initially responded to questionnaires sent to every postal address, field workers, called enumerators, needed to go to all addresses that had not replied, in order to have forms filled out in person or to leave notices reminding occupants to please do it asap. Almost 250,000 people needed to be organized into an army of information gatherers.
Equipped with smartphones programmed with addresses, forms, questions, and protocol, this intrepid army of citizens was sworn to a lifetime of secrecy to never reveal any of the personal information requested from those they contacted (citizenship status is not asked). Details were sensitive, such as birthdates, race, ethnicity.
Like our trusted postal workers, census workers would also face the perils of venturing into private streets, yards, porches and even vestibules or lobbies, facing potentially angry dogs, disgruntled citizens, and impatient doormen. We faced unmarked buildings, confusing numbering systems, locked gates, and multi-family directories with unlabeled or mislabeled buttons. We stood in doorways and on sidewalks being attacked by any pesky stinging bugs that got the opportunity to bite us.
Doormen/doorwomen would guard the privacy of residents, refusing entry to census takers.
But nothing really prepared us for the reality of the empty city caused by the pandemic; some had to be staying to work at the many jobs that had to get done, right? Slowly, as multi-family hi-rise after townhouse after tenement was visited, the story became clear. Many residents had chosen to leave in March or soon after, waiting at second (or third, etc.) homes, or parents’ suburban homes, or friends’ places elsewhere for things to return to normal. For others, NYC was a second (or third) home to which they had not yet returned.
Was it worth the effort and hassles? Perhaps the reminder notices left behind will prompt many to answer the census. Without an accurate count, New Yorkers will suffer the loss of funding for schools, hospitals, streets and infrastructure, many civic programs, and even our members in the House of Representatives. For me, the answer is yes. Encourage everyone to complete the census.