Broadly speaking, New York City has three languages: English, Spanish, and Other. The first two are almost universally applicable, about as prevalent in the northern Bronx as in the stretches of Brooklyn and Staten Island that face the Atlantic Ocean. But the third is the most interesting, because it varies dramatically by location. In Astoria, Queens, for example, Greek is the tertiary tongue. In vast sections of Brooklyn, surrounding Coney Island and Brighton Beach, it is Russian. Further east, in vast stretches of southern Queens, French Creole takes the bronze metal.
So what is Lower Manhattan’s lingua franca, twice-removed? For the answer, we turn to a fascinating online map created by Jill Hubley, a Brooklyn-based web developer who works at the intersection of science, technology and art, creating beautiful visualizations of environmental data. Her interactive “Languages of New York City” map (which can be found at www.jillhubley.com/project/nyclanguages/) illustrates a colorful, polyglot landscape that brings to mind the phrase, “gorgeous mosaic.” Using data compiled by the 2014 American Community Survey, from the United States Census, Ms. Hubley has mapped every census tract in the five boroughs by its most prevalent languages. (One cautionary note: the Census is not infallible, deeming Randalls and Wards Islands — where nobody actually lives — as Yiddish-speaking enclaves.)
Zoom in on Lower Manhattan (with the default setting of “exclude English and Spanish” active) and you will find three colors. The largest swaths are green, signifying Chinese are the third most-common language. These fields of green cover Battery Park City, the Seaport and Civic Center neighborhoods, and most of the Financial District. One section of this area (bounded roughly by Maiden Lane on the north, Broadway on the west, Maiden Lane on the north, the East River on the East, and a jagged line formed by Exchange Place, William Street, and Old Slip on the South) is different, however. This neighborhood (known formally as Census Tract 7 and colloquially as “FiDi East”) has more speakers of “Other Indo-European Languages” than any tongue apart from English or Spanish.
North of Battery Park City and west of the Financial District is another vast field of a different color. The light blue of Census Tracts 21, 33, and 39 (corresponding the neighborhoods of Tribeca South, Tribeca East, and Tribeca West, respectively) all speak French as their third most common vernacular. Vive la difference.