The Most Diverse Zip Code?

Despite its reputation, a renowned Seattle neighborhood isn't tops in diversity.

The 98118 zip code has earned a reputation as a delightfully diverse zip code. And it’s easy to see why: a stroll down the streets of a neighborhood like Columbia City or Othello reveals a mosaic of cultures, ethnicities, nationalities, and languages. It’s a zip code where you might find a southern barbecue joint, an Asian grocery, and an east African restaurant, all cheek to jowl on the same commercial strip.

A few years back, though, someone started circulating the idea that 98118 wasn’t merely somewhat diverse, but actually ranked as the most diverse zip code in the entire US. The press lapped it up. KOMO TV covered it as established fact; so did AOL News. Even today, an internet search for “most diverse zip code” points straight to 98118. Most of the stories emphasize not only the zip code’s diversity but also its friendliness, verve, and general awesomeness—suggesting that the area in South Seattle might serve as something of a model for a steadily diversifying nation.

Yet while 98118 is undoubtedly a cultural kaleidoscope, it struck me as a bit surprising that it ranked as the most diverse place in the country, ahead of melting pot neighborhoods in one of the many US cities—New York, L.A., Miami, Houston—that are far less homogeneous than Seattle.

And it turns out that there’s good reason for doubt. Observing diversity is one thing; measuring it is another. And the people who really know how to measure diversity find that the story about 98118 is just an urban legend; there are plenty of US zip codes more diverse than 98118.

Historylink has the scoop, with numbers from a thoughtful analysis by demographer Diana Canzoneri:

98118…is the third most diverse in Washington state, after 98178 (covering the Bryn Mawr and Skyway neighborhoods) and 98188 (SeaTac and Tukwila). Out of 17,000 [zip codes] for metropolitan areas nationwide, it’s number 64. [Links added.]

Hey, #64 in the country ain’t bad!!  But it’s not #1. (Just sayin’.)

More recently, real estate firm Trulia looked at another measure of diversity, and also concluded that 98178 beats 98118 in the diversity sweepstakes. In fact, 98178 (which, to be fair, is just to the south of 98118) is pretty hard to beat nationwide: Trulia ranks it as the 7th most diverse zip code in the US, trailing only a few neighborhoods in Dallas, New York, San Francisco, Houston, and Honolulu.

So the Seattle area really is home to one of the nation’s most diverse zip codes. It’s just not the one that everyone thinks.

Of course, these analyses raise an interesting question: how in the heck do you measure diversity, anyway?  As it turns out, there are a bunch of diversity metrics, many of them pioneered by ecologists hoping to quantify the diversity of an ecosystem. Trulia’s method picks out places with the smallest plurality: that is, a place ranks as diverse if its most numerous racial or ethnic group is still a pretty small share of the population. In 98178, for example, the largest census-defined racial group represents just 28.7 percent of the population—meaning that the most numerous group includes only about one resident in four. The diversity measure highlighted in the Historylink article is a bit more sophisticated: it’s called the “Gini-Simpson Index,” and rather than bore you with the details I’ll just point you over to Wikipedia, with the warning that you’ll probably need some patience to figure it all out.

Regardless, there are two lessons here. First, the Seattle metro area really does have some genuinely diverse places that are also great places to live, work, and spend time.  But second…before you trust stories that sound like they might be urban legends, it always pays to do the math.

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  1. VI says:

    So do we actually have Gini-Simpson values for any of these neighborhoods? More importantly, what types of diversity are being measured? If I were truly measuring diversity, I would include religious affiliation, age, and educational achievement, not just race/ethnicity. I don’t know the numbers on these sorts of things, but I do know that the largest plurality is a grossly unelucidating measure of the complexity inherent to understanding diversity.

    • Clark Williams-Derry says:

      You’d probably have to contact Diana Canzoneri for the actual Gini-Simpson values. And you’re right — diversity means more than race. But it may be hard to get at those other elements of diversity through census full-count data. You might be able to get it with the American Community Survey, but that’s just a sample — so there’s enough statistical variability in the numbers that you can’t rely on them for an accurate ranking of diversity.

  2. Chris says:

    Pardon me for trying to quell your attempts at squelching our most worthy claim to fame, but I’d like to raise a few issues:

    1- I believe there’s a placard in SE Seattle (at one of the light rail stations?) stating that the Rainier Valley is the most diverse neighborhood in the country, citing the US Census Bureau for that fact. Granted, as you point out, there are different metrics and definitions of “diverse”, but if the US Census Bureau says so, who are we to argue?

    2- Among the many stories on this topic when it broke a few years back, one that struck profoundly was that unlike other diverse parts of the country, 98118 is thoroughly mixed as well. Ethnic groups are spread relatively evenly around, not clumped together in their own enclaves (like in Brooklyn, for example).

    3- It may have been mentioned in that same story, or maybe I’m making this up and looking for verification: not only is 98118 ethnically mixed, it’s economically mixed as well. Do those zip codes in Hawaii, Miami, and San Francisco have teachers and day laborers living next to 40 year old millionaire retirees? Do they have million dollar houses on the same block as Section 8 apartments? (In the case of SF, I wouldn’t be surprised).

    • Clark Williams-Derry says:

      on 1 – my understanding is that this is part of the myth. The Census never actually said it was the most diverse zip code!

      2 – Very good point! I don’t know if anyone has looked at the micro-structure of diversity — at least, not in enough detail to be able to quantify the whole country.

      3 – Another excellent point! Again, I don’t know, though this definitely touches on the point that VI makes above – that there are different kinds of diversity that might be hard to measure using census data.

  3. Essie says:

    Another point: I bet the enormous community of Sephardic Jews — one of the largest in the nation — in 98118 was simply classified as “white.” And what about all the people of mixed race? Were they simply aggregated to one category or another, or simply “mixed race”? I submit that many people of many racial mixtures shows a special kind of diversity….

  4. Charles says:

    I think the nature of 98118’s diversity is not quantifiable from government statistics which of course calls into question the claim. But, heuristically, one can observe a richness of diversity as well as unity in diversity that is not matched in most places. There are identifiable communities of tribal, clan, religious, racial, economic, level of educational attainment, and finally the tremendous almagamation of the mixing of these cultures.

    In any other metro area in this country at least you’d be hard pressed to find the level if inter cultural and racial mixing that you see here. For example, an Irish, Chinese & Persian man and his Alaska native, Asian, & Russian wife adopt a child from Ethiopia.

  5. RH says:

    I completely bought the urban myth and touted the claim as fact. Nice work sleuthing it to a more plausible context. This ensuing discussion is verging on becoming a “Portlandia” episode. Incidentally, isn’t dietary restriction a form of diversity? 😉

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