It's Hard As Hell To Party Like Its the 1940s (Census)
Let there be records! Yesterday, the National Archives flicked on the switch for the 1940 census, marking the end of 72 years of confidentiality that held the records back from the public. In less than four hours, the site was paralyzed after being hit with 22 million visitors as people across the country clamored to fact-check their family's oral histories heard from grandparents everywhere.
With a database like this, New York in the 1940s is open to the public's eye. Think about it: you could find Truman Capote, James Baldwin and Allen Ginsberg (to name a few members of the city's cream of the crop at the time) if you put enough effort into it. But, here at the Voice, we found that the search can prove to be tedious, long and unsuccessful if you only have snippets of information to toss into the browse window.
Here's how it works: the 1940 Census does not have a simple last name search feature so, right away, you must do a little web adventuring of your own unless you know where Capote lived (our guess: somewhere near Tiffany's). Instead, the homepage asks you for your ancestors' enumeration number (ED #) - the code given to cut up and organize areas. Assuming you or someone close to you knows this tidbit of knowledge offhand, memorized in the case that the 1940 Census would
ever go online or be needed on Jeopardy, your quest is exponentially easier. Alas, if you do not know the ED #, the site directs you to the Location Search.
This is where it gets technical. Once you have inputted 'New York' as your state and entered one of the five boroughs as your county, you are faced with a neighborhood conundrum. The 'City' option does not include any small towns inside of these boroughs; so, for example, you couldn't look strictly at areas like Williamsburg, Bensonhurst, Harlem or Greenwich Village. Instead, you are forced to enter a street name and hope for the best.
We searched for two family members to test the efficiency of the system. The first one's street address was known: Elderts Lane in City Line, Queens. After that data was entered, hundreds upon hundreds of ED #'s flashed the screen since, to our dismay, Elderts Lane spans through other neighborhoods. In a "I'm Feeling Lucky" Google move, the first ED# was chosen and put into the ED search feature. Now, you are faced with one census schedule that's twenty-eight pages long. And these are not simple windows to flick through: the documents given appear similar to a shitty scanned document your professor gave you in college. With 28 pages, averaging about 20 to 30 people on each, we were about ready to rip our hair out at this point. Now, with this being said, imagine the results we received for the other
family member, whom we only had one piece of data for: that he or she lived in East New York, Brooklyn. The neighborhood that lies due west of Park Slope is not necessarily large in the least bit so there was no sensible reason why it spanned numerous ED#'s. To look through every resident's last name would take years off of our lives, so we gave up, information-less and ancestrally alone.
Fortunately, according to the U.S. National Archives' Twitter, 300,000 volunteers of presumably pissed off family members are putting together a name index to get this overload in order. As the site rebuilds itself after its Monday evening collapse, the Voice will try again in the near future to see if New York in the 1940s was all what
it was cracked up to be.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.