The Art of Data: Literary Cities

Nick Danforth & Evan Tachovsky

This map uses data provided by Google’s Ngram service to map the frequency with which the names of American cities appeared in print over the last two centuries. How surprising you find the results will depend on your preconceptions.

Las Vegas, it appears, carries less cultural weight than nearby Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Boston, having ceded its dominant role in American literary life nearly a century ago, continues to hold its own: with barely 300,000 people, it still looms larger in the language than LA. But more than anything, this map shows the enduring dominance of New York City, towering over the cultural landscape in a way that the map, with its pseudo-logarithmic scale can’t even do justice to. Were these letters written according to a more ordinary geometric scale (making Tucson visible to the naked eye) New York would blot out the entire Eastern Seaboard. And though it also proved impossible to show, for most of the 19th century Brooklyn appeared as often as Manhattan. That may in part have been on account of people simply referring to Manhattan as New York.

The map also reveals the unsurprising geography of America’s cultural development. New England had pride of place in the late 19th century, not only cities associated with the era’s high culture like Boston and Hartford (where Mark Twain moved in his later life) but also, say, Pittsburgh. Portland, Oregon’s prominence in this period is most likely the result of its post gold rush high, combined, one suspects, with the fact that its east coast eponym was also enjoying a period of maritime relevance at the time.