Washington Post illustration, iStock

Every place in America is weird for some reason. But some places are a lot weirder than others.

Lyman Stone, a cotton economist who also blogs about migration, has spent a lot of time thinking about this lately. Stone created an impressive data project in May that calculated the most normal and weirdest cities in America, based on 20 different variables drawn from U.S. Census data – including the proportion of the population that is foreign born, married, working, in the armed forces, that own a car, and so on.

According to Stone’s calculations, the weird city in America is San Jose, Calif. – the home of Silicon Valley. The most normal? Oklahoma City, Okla.

Here is Stone’s list of the weirdest cities in America. (They aren’t in order; the weirdest cities have the highest “weirdness index” number on the right.)


Lyman Stone

Stone says San Jose tops his list of the weirdest cities in America because “Silicon Valley makes San Jose very weird.” A very high proportion of the city’s population is foreign born, and the city is disproportionately white collar and educated, and worker salaries are high. An unusually low proportion of its population is white or rural.

New York ranks second in weirdness, due partly to its foreign-born share. But most of what makes New York so weird is its urban density. New York’s car ownership is nine standard deviations below the national average, says Stone. It also has incredibly high housing costs, and a high proportion of renters.

But it’s not just the big cities that are weird. The other weird cities on Stone’s list include Jacksonville, North Carolina (the site of a U.S. military base), as well as Laredo, Tex. and Honolulu, Hawaii. “Mining towns, military bases, farming communities, self-employed meccas, immigrant cities and poor areas are all “weird” in different ways,” says Stone.

According to Stone’s calculations, the city that ranks the lowest on his “weirdness index” is Oklahoma City, Okla., which is almost exactly at the national mean for its poverty rate and educational attainment. Tulsa, Okla. Also ranks fairly low.

Here is Stone’s list of the most normal places in America – those that score the lowest on his “weirdness index.” Jacksonville, Fla., Spokane, Wash., Phoenix, San Antonio, Kalamazoo and Lansing, Mich., and Louisville, Ky. also rank as very normal.


Lyman Stone

Stone’s project was a response to a similar ranking by Jed Kolko, an economist and senior fellow at the University of California, Berkeley. Kolko wrote an article for FiveThirtyEight in April in which he calculated how demographically similar U.S. metros are to the U.S. overall, in terms of age, education, and race and ethnicity.

Kolko’s calculations pointed to New Haven, Conn., as the metro area that looks most like the U.S. His list also included Tampa, Fla., Hartford, Conn., Oklahoma City, Okla., Springfield, Mass., Milwaukee, Wis., Chicago, Wichita, Kan., Philadelphia and Kansas City.

Kolko’s list of the metros least similar to the U.S. overall also included El Paso, Tex., which he says is younger, less educated and more Latino than the U.S. overall, and Honolulu, which is majority Asian-American and Pacific Islander.

But Stone argues wanted to do a broader analysis than Kolko’s, which uses three variables as a proxy for normalcy – race, education and age.

So Stone expanded his project to 20 variables. He also decided to compare metro areas to the mean of other metro areas in the U.S., rather than the national average overall, since “it’s possible that all metro areas are a bit weird compare to non-metro areas,” he says. Stone says that Kolko’s method ends up making expensive, dense urban areas look more normal – but they aren’t.

Stone and Kolko do agree in some respects. Both agree that Tampa, Fla., Oklahoma City, Okla., Wichita, Kan., and Kansas City are all fairly normal.

But Stone argues that some of Kolko’s “normal” cities – like New Haven, Conn., Chicago and Philadelphia – are actually weird. Philadelphia has much lower car ownership than most parts of America, for example; Chicago has a lot of people who are foreign born, higher earnings, higher housing costs and lower car ownership. New Haven, Conn., the city that Kolko deemed the most normal city in the U.S., has higher than average earnings, high housing costs, a high married share, and more.

As Stone points out, weird can be a really good thing. America’s weird cities are the site of the army bases that help defend our country, and the farms that produce our food. They are its innovation hubs, its arts centers, and its immigrant melting pots.

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