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A Tale of Two Cities

Exploring what characterizes the neighborhoods of

Rego Park

New York

Capitol Hill


We often speak of cities as singular entities, but in truth, they are amalgamations of neighborhoods: when I say I live in New York, what I really mean is that I live in Bedford-Stuyvesant, work from an office in Chelsea, and spend my weekends in Bushwick. My colleague Amber, meanwhile, is a resident of Seattle, but it’s more accurate to say that she lives and works in Belltown, and spends her free time exploring the green spaces in Broadmoor, Magnolia and Green Lake.

Below, Amber and I attempt to describe our cities through their neighborhoods. To do so, we examined the businesses that were more common within a neighborhood than in the city as a whole (e.g., if personal shoppers made up 1% of businesses in a city while comprising 10% of the businesses in a neighborhood, we deemed them to be uniquely representative of that neighborhood, since they were 10 times as likely to occur in a neighborhood than in the city).

We often describe our essays as data-driven “love letters” to particular topics. This story is our love letter to the places that we call home.

Most unique neighborhood businesses in Seattle, WA

I used to imagine that one day I’d choose my next travel destination by closing my eyes and blindly pointing to a spot on a map. Our decision to move to Seattle wasn’t quite so haphazard, but not by much. Neither my boyfriend nor I had been to the city. Neither of us had jobs, apartments, or family there. We were just looking for a change from our Orlando lives and thought that Seattle sounded like a place that was just our speed.

Luckily, we fell in love with the city almost instantly. Somewhere between the trees, the coast, the mountains, and the people, we found ourselves right at home. We settled in Belltown, a little neighborhood right near the tourist-y part of the city, and although it may not be everyone’s cup of tea coffee, we love it. We said goodbye to our cars and hello to walking shoes and bus passes. Contrary to public opinion, our days are more green and lovely than gray and dreary. And in true Seattle fashion, our dog comes with us on every adventure.

most characteristic
  1. Massage Therapy
  2. Acupuncture
  3. Massage
  4. Naturopathic Medicine
  5. Skincare

”Oh, you have to see the Fremont troll!” I had no idea what the “Fremont troll” was, but everyone told me that I just had to see it when I got to Seattle. As it turns out, it’s an enormous statue of a troll beneath the Aurora bridge, crushing a Volkswagen beetle. The statue itself is endearing and quirky and it turns out that Fremont, the neighborhood that it calls home, is no different. The area’s unofficial motto is “De Libertas Quirkas” or “Freedom to be Peculiar” and I couldn’t think of a phrase more fitting. The scene is artistic and entertaining and our analyses suggest that the neighborhood is home to an unusually high number of massage, skin care, and acupuncture businesses. For what it’s worth, every Seattleite I’ve mentioned this to laughs and says “That sounds about right”. You do you, Fremont.

most characteristic
Capitol Hill
  1. Cocktail Bars
  2. Bars
  3. Apartments
  4. New American Food
  5. Real Estate Agents

The first time I ventured to “Cap Hill”, I decided to walk there. But in Seattle, when a neighborhood has “hill” in the name, they generally aren’t kidding. My muscles burned as I made my way up the unbelievably steep incline but the views at the top were worth the effort. The streets were busy in a way that most of Seattle is not, but looking a bit closer, some people were actually dancing, albeit slightly awkwardly, in the middle of the walkway. There were bronze shoe prints and arrows adorning the sidewalk on Broadway, teaching passersby how to rumba, foxtrot, tango, or “obeebo”, a made-up dance that happens when you walk directly towards someone on the street and both awkwardly try to move out of one another’s way. The sidewalk dancing is entertaining both during the day, with people genuinely trying to learn the steps, and in the evenings, when people have left the nearby bars and nightclubs and take their alcohol-enhanced dancing skills to the streets. Rainbows are also visible throughout the area, as Capitol Hill is home to Seattle’s largest LGBTQ community. “Love is Love” signs hang in nearly every shop window and you literally walk across rainbows when passing through intersections.

most characteristic
  1. Family Doctor
  2. Physicians
  3. Reiki
  4. Naturopathic Medicine
  5. Acupuncture

Moving to Seattle marked a career-transition for me. I was leaving behind the world of marine biology and I was anxious about the change. So, before our apartment was even furnished, I trekked to the city’s Roosevelt neighborhood for a data visualization meetup. It was held in a coffee shop whose slogan was “an independent coffee haven for geeks”, so, naturally, I felt right at home. As I sat at the table, sipping a drink named after some Sci-Fi character or another, I had no idea what neighborhood I was in. So, even though our data suggests that most people may visit Roosevelt for some type of medical care, I will always think of that area as a place for new beginnings.

You’ve heard my story but everyone has their own story to tell. Explore our data for all 103 neighborhoods in Seattle. Does it match up to your experiences in those areas?

Most unique neighborhood businesses in New York

One spring day in 2014, as I meandered about Brooklyn with some friends, a lost woman who’d been asking for directions from passers-by with little luck turned to us for help. I was in town from Montreal, and my friends were Australian; we’d regretfully told her as much. She became exasperated. “Isn’t anyone around here actually from New York?!”

I’d always loved that about the city. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in Russia, Canada, and Australia that I’ve always felt drawn to New York, that great immigrant metropolis. Or, perhaps it’s the city’s limitless size paired with its densely packed streets, which continue to yield surprises the more one wanders; the heady sense of human industry as soon as you step foot into Penn Station; the celebrated literary and artistic pedigree. It is, to me, all the things a city would be — warts and all — if one were to distill so many of the world’s population centers down to their essence, and use the concentrate to build something anew. Or, as Truman Capote said, “New York is the only real city-city.”

most characteristic
  1. Bike Rentals
  2. Hotels
  3. Landmarks and Historical Buildings
  4. Tours
  5. Jewelry

The first time I’d visited New York, I’d done so with my family, when I was 20. It was a muggy, summer evening, and after passing the blaring horns of the George Washington Bridge, we’d arrived, like so many New York visitors do for the first time, in Midtown. If you’ve never been to New York, there are worse spots to visit first than Midtown, no matter how emphatically a New Yorker will assure you that it is a tourist trap. Yes, it’s filled with bike rental shops, hotels, and bus tours, like our analyses suggest; but for someone who’s never seen the city, the smells of hot dog sellers and roasted nut carts wafting by as the nonstop light show of Times Square washes over them is a singularly memorable experience.

most characteristic
East Harlem
  1. University Housing
  2. Colleges and Universities
  3. Real estate photography
  4. Latin American food
  5. Towing

I’d moved to New York in the mid-2010s to attend graduate school at Columbia, and after a month-long stint subletting a playwright’s bedroom in Crown Heights, I decided to cut my commute and move closer to school. I’d opted for a room in a 5-bedroom apartment, at the corner of Madison and 110th street. Evidently, with university housing characterizing the neighborhood, the area remains a hub for college students. New Yorkers often say that if you want the right price, location, and apartment, you’ll have to pick two out of three, and mine fit that equation. Sure, my East Harlem room was an 11-minute bike ride to class, but it’d also taken me 8 hours to scrub the tiny bathroom clean. My room hadn’t been cleaned in years; neither had the kitchen cabinets. Above the stove, what looked like hair was growing out of an air duct. To boot, one of my roommates was gouging my rent, and paying nearly nothing himself. I moved out shortly after graduating.

most characteristic
  1. Pet Photography
  2. Musical Instruments
  3. Musicians
  4. Marketing
  5. Taxis

I’d moved back to New York in the winter of 2016, settling in a quiet block in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood. I’d known little about the neighborhood beside the fact that rent was somewhat cheaper than it was in much of the city, but quickly learned that its former warehouses and influx of twentysomethings had given it the reputation of the next hub for artists and musicians. I was almost immediately charmed by the way it almost deliberately played into stereotype: there were three thrift stores upon exiting the subway station, a series of lofts, and two coffee shops. Two blocks away stood the soon-to-be-closed Silent Barn, a communal space which hosted bands, workshops, and all manner of other events. And, while I can’t speak to the fact that Bushwick is the New York home of pet photographers, as our data showed, I’m not surprised to see music emerge as unusually popular in the neighborhood. Behind the youthful facade, however, lay a far less rosy Bushwick: one inhabited by lifelong denizes rather than new arrivals, who felt the neighborhood’s epidemic of K2 overdoses, much more than they did its ascendance to the status of World’s Coolest Neighborhood contenders

Explore the character of New York’s 252 neighborhoods, spread across the city’s five boroughs. Each has its own distinct features: the Upper West Side’s most unique traits include personal shopping, pet training, and interior design, while Bedford Stuyvesant over-indexes on videography and photography.

Thomas Wolfe, a transplant to New York, once wrote “It’d take a guy a lifetime to know Brooklyn t’roo an’ t’roo. An’ even den, yuh wouldn’t know it all.”

It’s not just Brooklyn. That sense of endless possibility characterizes all large cities. To be sure, our data analyses show visible and important facets of the neighborhoods we’ve analyzed. After all, the shops, community centers, music venues, and landmarks of a place are core parts of its identity — no Manhattanite will find Columbus Circle’s association with private jet charters or town car services surprising, and few Seattleites will be shocked that the most over-indexed businesses in First Hill are doctors’ offices.

Nevertheless, data can only take us so far in helping unearth the true nature of a neighborhood. Amber and I are two recent transplants to our respective homes, and while our experiences in Seattle and New York often touch on the characteristics that we’ve identified, they also frequently diverge. I’ve never once encountered a pet photographer in Bushwick, and Amber’s yet to notice the abundance of laundry services in West Queen Anne. Still, there’s time to get to know them better; we’re new arrivals, after all. Wolfe ballparks it at a lifetime. I intend to use whatever I’ve got left for precisely that.


We initially became interested in exploring neighborhoods after discovering Zillow’s neighborhood-level shapefiles while working on a project which focused on the geographic differences in popularity of different cuisines. We had originally decided to compared neighborhoods based on myriad factors, ranging from census data to NIH maps, but eventually settled on Yelp data after coming across Katie Hempenius’ analysis of Yelp businesses in San Francisco zip codes.

We used a similar approach. Once we isolated the names of each city’s neighborhoods using Zillow’s shapefiles, we queried the Yelp API to search each neighborhood for available Yelp business categories (focusing on top-level categories), using a radius of 2 miles (3210m). Using the lat/long coordinates for each business, we mapped each category to a neighborhood polygon, and compared the ratio of businesses in each neighborhood to their ratio in the city as a whole (e.g., if hairdressers made up 10% of a particular neighbourhood’s businesses but only 5% of a businesses in the city overall, they were judged to “over-index” in that neighborhood). We then visualized these results in Mapbox.

View or download our aggregated data here.