An Introduction to the Criminal Neighborhoods Map

I. Introduction

New York City Below 14th Street, 1893
New York City Below 14th Street, 1893

Location is primary and immediate in identifying crime. The format of a news alert makes essential the “what” and “where” for citizens’ precaution and for the attention of authorities. Outside of their primary functions, criminal reporting, as well as perhaps a separate perception of crime, have seldom appeared to be homogeneously distributed in space in socio-political theory. As early as 1833, in the first American translation of Gustave de Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqueville’s book, On the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application in France, New Yorker Francis Lieber claimed simply in his introduction that “cities produced more crime than rural regions”. The theories of influence Lieber accounts, including those that population “size equaled deviance” were questioned since American Urban Analyst Adna F. Weber in The Growth of Cities.  Weber’s analysis went beyond sheer measures of population to refine theories of crime’s causality, relating nefarious activity to the number of saloons and bars per capita, to public anxieties and infrastructural decay from overcrowding, and to the development of shared ideology in packed spaces, with basis in German Analyst Dr. George Hansen. Though these theories held some clout during the 19th and turn of the 20th centuries, many are objectively fallacious (Erik H. Monkkonnen counted the conflation of a greater sample size in a populated city with more crime per capita). In his study on homicide cases in New York City in the late 19th into the turn of the 20th century, Eric H. Monkkonen asserts that Lieber’s and Weber’s analyses are empty abstract logic. Though their theories are unfounded, independent of actual observation and analysis of urban populations, some social clout was falsely created when observable realities were rationalized in academic work to fit the theory. Of Webner’s analysis in 1833, as well as the mistake of conflating sample size with inflated crime per capita, Monkkonnen finds that “if this was popular perception, which then was reinforced by sociological theory, and then, after the mid twentieth century, even came to be true, these confluences may be the source of our misconceptions. By the mid twentieth century, the association of big cites with crime had changed to conform to the theory [that] big cities did tend to have more crime per capita.”

A 1905 political cartoon shows the the disorderly and violent stigma behind a crime-ridden New York.
A 1905 political cartoon shows the the disorderly and violent stigma behind a crime-ridden New York.

Though the theory of location-oriented crime has been taken as a matter of fact, it could be compared to the collected evidence of arrests and sentences from 1865 to 1907 in New York City.  To reevaluate the concentration of crime in Manhattan in this frame of years and to later analyze the influence of perception and criminal targeting against social realities, I plan to create a visual catalog of early crime. Using CartoDB, an online database to draw and analyze data on a map, I am taking 1400 prisoner profiles from the Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York, and mapping three layers of data in Manhattan and the surrounding areas. These layers will be (I.) a map of the NYPD precincts and political wards at which the criminals were sentenced, (II.) a map of the residences of the criminals, and (III.) a map of the sites of arrest, if given. Through this process, I hope to open a discussion over whether “criminal neighborhoods” existed in this sample time scheme and, if so, if these neighborhoods developed from internal or imposed influence.

II. Precinct and Ward Map

The wards of NYC were redrawn and renamed from the 17th century until the turn of the 19th century, when their political relevance began to wane. This map shows the ward system as of 1897.
The wards of NYC were redrawn and renamed from the 17th century until the turn of the 19th century, when their political relevance began to wane. This map shows the ward system as of 1897.

Prisoner records from the Sing Sing archive (accessible via from the late 19th to early 20th century inconsistently account for the precincts in New York City at which a criminal was processed and sentenced. However, this first layer to the cartographic study looks at crime by following police activity. To account for the informational gaps where precincts are not named, the city’s political wards are to be drawn according to their 1897 boundaries. A cumulative list of precincts where Sing Sing’s prisoners came from, as well as comparative tallies of arrests made per ward from 1865-1912 will be available for further study. The map will include tabs with brief histories of each ward and relevant information on significant figures on the policing or judicial side, if any appear. The intent of this map is to gather data on the locations where crime was brought, and to cautiously search for influence that would concentrate crime to areas of Manhattan, or for influence that would justify a lack of concentration. Police records from 1865-1912 will be the basis of analysis of this map.

II. Residential Map

The same prisoner records used in the first map will be re-sorted in a separate map or separate layer on the map of Manhattan crime to profile the prisoner as an individual. The social and cultural influence of New York neighborhoods will also be outlined. CartoDB aggregates data from Excel and Google Sheet spreadsheets, as meticulously copied by the research team, and thus the team’s inclusion of each prisoner’s (a) date sentenced, (b) name, (c) date received, (d) place of birth, (e) marital status, (f) age, (g) height, (h) weight, (i) eye color, (j) hair color, (k) complexion, (l) additional description (usually physical), (m) religion, (n) literacy, (o) occupation, (p) crime sentence, (q) recidivism, (r) temperance, and (s) any additional information and/or story (t) original file on will be placed on a popup marker at the listed address of residence of each prisoner. This will create an interactive biographical cluster, also gradated by decade. Whether types of crime committed or assumed “criminal types” are geographically located and/or subject to cultural typification will be better assessed after the organization of this map.

III. Criminal Activity Map

Unfortunately, the criminal records at Sing Sing prison glaze over what is perhaps the most relevant geo-political information on the crimes themselves: while the place of sentencing and processing is identified and the neighborhood that the criminal hails from is identified, the scene of the crime itself is, in many cases, omitted or scantly approximated. In order to visualize the placement of criminal activity on a map next to improper accounts of criminal activity, I plan to place highly-saturated color markers at the scenes of crimes where a specific address is located. When the crime was committed or an arrest made in a nonspecific location (e.g. ‘Brooklyn’ or ‘NYC Eastern District’ rather than ‘16th & 1st Ave, NYC’) the marker will be grey. A tally outside of the map will collect the total numbers of (a) specific locations listed of arrest, (b) non-specific or semi-specific locations listed of arrest, and (c) lack of location listed of arrest. With this information collected, police accountability, record-keeping emphasis on certain traits and details, and the actual concentration of criminal activity can be further analyzed.

IV. Conclusion

This essay lays out a preemptive plan of the tripartite digital cartography and analysis to come. In mapping the process of crime from separated criminal-centric, policing/sentencing-centric, and crime-centric slants, I hope to provide an image of where and how crime and incarceration developed in New York City over the span of five decades after 1865.


[1] Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library. “Outline & index map of the City of New York, lying south of Fourteenth St.” 1893. New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed November 11, 2015.

[2] Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “Little Old New York, Or “Nothin’ Doin’.”” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed November 11, 2015.

[3] Richardson, James F. “Wards.” In The encyclopedia of New York City, edited by Kenneth T. Jackson, 1236. New Haven & London: Yale University Press; New York: The New-York Historical Society, 1995.


[1] Beaumont, Gustave de. On the penitentiary system in the United States and its application in France : with an appendix on penal colonies, and also, statistical notes / by G. de Beaumont and A. de Tocqueville ; translated from the French, with an introduction, notes and additions by Francis Lieber.. Nineteenth-Century Legal Treatises 0 (January 01, 1833), (accessed October 01, 2015).

[2] Erik H. Monkkonnen, Murder in New York City, chapter 1, online edition

[3] (As cited in Monkkonnen, ibid.)

[4] (As cited in Weber, 370: Ein Versuch, Die Uraschen für das Blühen und Altern der Völker nachzuweisen, München, 1889.) “Its most impressive statement has been formulalted by Dr. George Hansen in his oft-abused and oft-praised work, Die Drei Bevölkerungsstufen, which is essentially an argument for the preservation of a peasantry or agricultural class, not only as a military measure, but as the fundamental condition of national vigor and well-being. Hansen’s argument for the superiority of country-bred people [researcher’s note: people whose upbringing was not affiliated with highly populated cities] embraces a considerable number of propositions that require critical examination, the principal ones being the following… (3) The city-born contribute an unduly large proportion to the class of degenerates (criminals lunatics, suicides, etc., pages 196-202)

[5] Erik H. Monkkonnen, Murder in New York City, chapter 1, online edition

[6] Joseph Fernandino, “Minority Threat Hypothesis and NYPD Stop and Frisk Policy.” Criminal Justice Review (Sage Publications); Jun2015, Vol. 40 Issue 2, p209-229. This study is especially relevant to the state of policing in the United States today, and I plan to draw parallels to location-biased policing and racial stereotypes in Joseph Fernandino’s 2012 study of NYPD stop and frisk policy using Blacks in White-dominated neighborhoods in 297 geographic information system (GIS)-defined New York City (NYC) neighborhoods