Mediocre Map Monday: Census Data, Sanborn Maps, and Modern Grand Forks

This weekend, I started to play around with the 1920 census data from Grand Forks. My project started with a pretty simply question.

Where did the immigrants live in our city one hundred years ago? This question was prompted by David Pettegrew’s and Kostis Kourelis’s work on the Greek communities of Harrisburg and Lancaster respectively. I got curious about the 16 or so Greeks in Grand Forks in the early 20th century and this led me down the rabbit hole of the 1920s census.

The first step was to assemble the transcribed census data for Grand Forks into a spread sheet, which turned out to be not very hard (via, but a bit tedious. The census was conducted according to the 7 wards of the city each of which had particular geographic boundaries. 

The fun began when I started to try to associate the census data with particular addresses. Fortunately the Library of Congress has digitized Sanborn Maps for the city of Grand Forks from 1916. These are close enough to the city plan of 1920 to be very useful. I also have the contemporary address and parcel data from the city of Grand Forks to use as a kind of base map. This approach produced three exciting challenges.

First, in 1921, Grand Forks shifted its street addresses to better align with a change in street names that occurred in the early 20th century. As a result, contemporary addresses do not correspond to the addresses from the 1920 census. For the nearly 13,000 census records, I have around 2800 addresses. 

Second, the names of streets have changed since 1920. The renaming of Grand Forks streets was an ongoing project and some street names from 1920 no longer appear in 2020 maps. This is further compounded by the sloppy handwriting of the census takers which made it difficult to determine the street name recorded on the form. There were also some small shifts in addresses between the 1916 Sanborn Maps and the 1920 census which required a certain amount of “best fit” fiddling.

Finally, as residents of Grand Forks know, several neighborhoods and parts of downtown close to the Red River were lost in the 1997 flood. As a result, these no longer exist on the 2020 parcel maps. Less well known is that another neighborhood between 4th Avenue and the railroad tracks that was apparently removed in the 1970s in the name of urban renewal. This neighborhood was home to a large community of Jewish immigrants from Russia who lived around the Congregation of the Children of Israel Synagogue at 2nd and Girard and the Hebrew School on the next block to the west. 

Going through the data in this way has prompted a series of research questions that, if I were more motivated and better trained in US history I’d turn into a series of public blog posts or newspaper columns. 

First, from the perspective of heritage management, mapping the 1920s residential addresses against existing addresses allows us to get a sense for the state of preservation of residential districts in the city over the last 100 years. The 1920 census indicated not only whether the individuals were renters or owners, foreign or US born, but also their occupations. Combined this gives us a sense of the economic status of these individuals and allows us to consider what parts of the city are preserved and how this speaks to contemporary views toward preservation and heritage.

It’s hardly a stretch to hypothesize that neighborhood with more renters, more foreign born residents, and more wage laborers (as opposed to salaried employees) worked are less well preserved. This shapes how current residents of Grand Forks imagine their past and their present. 

Second, by mapping Grand Forks neighborhoods we can more easily visualize the  dynamic and diverse character of the city in 1920. More than 20% of the city was either aliens or naturalized citizens and while the group consisted of the predictable number of “Scandewegian” immigrants, it also featured Jews from Russia, Greeks, various British folks (Irish, Scots, Welsh), Japanese, Austrians, Belgians, Canadians, Hungarians, Poles, and even a few Luxemburgians!  For some perspective, in 2015 about 3.5% of Grand Forks were immigrants, but I’m not entirely sure how many of them are aliens versus naturalized citizens.

Third, the 1920 census listed individuals by profession allowing us to map the influence of various economic drivers in the community. Identifying, for example, where individuals associated with the railroad, the university, or other major occupations lived in town will give us a sense for the social landscape of the community. Of course, the census data is messy with the fields of “Industry” and “Occupation” not being rigorously separated. As a result, the over 3000 combinations of the two must be condensed into more rational categories, but this is a doable kind of sorting that would ideally produce some interesting results.

Finally, the fiddling that I’ll likely do with the census data and the 1916 Sanborn Maps is just a start. Once I get some basic “data cleaning” done, I’ll make the datasets available for anyone. It’s easy enough to output georeferenced maps to Google Earth files to allow anyone to check out how Grand Forks of the 1920s differed from Grand Forks of today.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s