In its purest form, data describes the world around us. It doesn’t extrapolate or infer. It doesn’t show cause and effect. It’s a simple tool for converting reality into fun facts.
But we can’t blast out a news alert about the most valuable interstate highways or the least diverse cities. So we’re carving out a dedicated space to dive into the humble data sets and rankings that delight us but might otherwise escape notice.
Without further ado, let’s take a Data Dive.
Yes, cities are more diverse than rural areas — especially if you define “diverse” as less White, as we typically do in American English. On average, U.S. cities clock in at 56.6 percent White, compared with 83.5 percent in rural areas. But 1 in 4 metro areas — home to about 18.6 million people — are actually less diverse than the average rural area.
Pittsburgh, the largest such metro, is 84.9 percent White, according to the Census Bureau’s 2016-2020 American Community Survey. With 2.3 million residents, Pittsburgh is bigger than many more-diverse metros, including Las Vegas, Austin and San Jose.
The least-diverse metro areas are concentrated in Appalachia, the northern Great Plains and Rockies, and just outside major cities in the Midwest, such as Chicago, Minneapolis and Indianapolis.
The least diverse metro of all is Parkersburg-Vienna, alongside the Ohio River in West Virginia, at 95.1 percent White. Several other West Virginia metros join it in the top 10.
Statues paint an idiosyncratic portrait of American history. Consider Casimir Pulaski and Thaddeus Kosciuszko. The two Polish noblemen turned Revolutionary War generals are honored with more U.S. statues and monuments than all but a handful of native luminaries, according to the National Monument Audit.
The audit was a year-long project by Monument Lab to build a list of about 50,000 monuments from 42 smaller catalogues, such as the Historical Marker Database. It covers tributes from mighty Mount Rushmore to a small monument in Ohio that pays homage to the man who “brought the tuberous rooted begonia to this country from Belgium.” (That man was, of course, Carlton Lowe, who established Lowe’s Greenhouse in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, in 1926.)
Our colleague Gillian Brockell has already covered the report’s headline findings. A.) Half of the 50 most represented men owned other human beings. And B.) Women are so rarely represented that mermaids easily outnumber congresswomen. (Counts of men in statues include Pulaski, who some scholars believe may have been intersex.)
Top spots in the rankings hew closely to the national mythology. Abraham Lincoln leads, despite a notable lack of memorials in the South, followed by George Washington, Christopher Columbus — admittedly a controversial Italian who never set foot on the U.S. mainland — and Martin Luther King Jr.
But from there, the list unravels. There are more statues of Saint Francis of Assisi (another Italian), disgraced rebel Robert E. Lee and Pulaski than of Benjamin Franklin, John F. Kennedy, Thomas Jefferson and Ulysses S. Grant. Noted non-Americans Joan of Arc, Martin Luther, William Shakespeare and Kosciuszko all make the top 25.
A closer examination of the two noble Poles helps explain what’s going on. As brigadiers, Pulaski and Kosciuszko were outranked by more than 20 major generals in the Continental Army and its allies, yet they’ve outflanked pretty much every Revolutionary commander other than George Washington in the statuary sweepstakes. (The Frenchman Marquis de Lafayette has more statues than Kosciuszko but fewer than Pulaski).
The audit includes a data point that might explain this: It lists the groups that sponsored certain monuments. Among the sponsors for Pulaski? The Polish American Citizens of Northampton, Mass. And for Kosciuszko? The Polish National Alliance of America.
As it happens, a substantial share of the nation’s statues were erected during the age of mass migration, when waves of Polish people arrived in search of life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness — and some connection to their new country.
Ewa Barczyk, author of the forthcoming “Footsteps of Polonia: Polish Historical Sites Across North America,” said the Polish immigrants of that era, who often faced substantial discrimination, were eager to erect concrete symbols of the contributions they had made to their community.
“Earlier generations of Poles — the workers who came here, worked hard and were successful — built these huge, beautiful churches and erected many statues,” Barczyk said. “They wanted to have visible signs to show their faith. The statues were manifestations of pride for their fellow Poles who fought valiantly for freedom and symbolized the connection between Poland and America.”
That pattern of people repurposing figures of the past to meet the political needs of the present is noticeable throughout the database. The most common sponsor of all? The United Daughters of the Confederacy.
Like the Roman and Inca roads before them, interstate highways seem destined to shape the global economy long after the American empire has faded. They represent infrastructure at a scale that transforms entire regions and industries.
Together, interstates add more to the U.S. economy than all but six of the states they were built to link. According to a new analysis, the interstate system generates about $742 billion in trade-related activity every year — about as much as the state of Ohio.
The single most valuable interstate, I-80, bisects the continent with an almost 3,000-mile-long ribbon of pavement, linking the economic powerhouses of San Francisco and Teaneck, N.J. (Toledo, Des Moines, Omaha, Salt Lake City and Reno, Nev., lie in between.)
I-80 is the most valuable highway in part because it’s one of the longest. On a mile-for-mile basis, the most valuable major highway is I-75, which runs from Sault Ste. Marie in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula all the way down to the southern reaches of America’s Lower Peninsula, also known as the state of Florida.
These highways are economically important not just because they’re vital trade routes linking east with west and north with south, but also because few other viable alternatives exist along much of their length, according to a recent working paper from economists Taylor Jaworski and Sergey Nigai of the University of Colorado at Boulder and Carl Kitchens of Florida State University.
For their analysis, the economists built an elaborate economic model linking every county in the United States to the domestic and global markets. Their model accounts for myriad details, including the flow of goods between industries and countries, alternative water and rail routes, and the traffic congestion the interstates relieve — and create.
When all those factors are counted, interstates are worth several times more than previous estimates have shown, Jaworski said. But while all states bore the cost of the highways, the benefits weren’t spread equally, which suggests that future infrastructure packages could explore ways to make the direct beneficiaries foot more of the bill.
“We probably need to have some innovative thinking about how we have a 21st-century infrastructure and how we finance that,” Jaworski said.
The analysis doesn’t measure the ways interstates have destroyed value, such as displacing minority communities or causing air pollution that leads to early death, lower test scores and lower fertility. But Jaworski said we don’t yet know whether those drawbacks cancel out highways’ transformative contributions.
“The car and highways reshaped American life, and we can trace many of the benefits of these changes,” Jaworski said. “We know something about the costs, but less precisely.”
At the Department of Data, fun facts are serious business. See anything here we should investigate further? Or maybe there’s something else you want us to measure? Are you interested in the highest-income Hispanic communities, the neighborhoods with the least expensive homes, or why so many home buyers feel buyer’s remorse right now? Just ask!
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