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The search for the ultimate college town, and more!

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2/3/2023 Andrew Van Dam

Deep within the vaults of the Department of Data, your quantitative queries are piling up like unprocessed tax returns in an IRS cafeteria. We can’t reply to all of them, but we read (and often reread) every one, stopping to daydream about how we might track down the perfect data set to solve the problem you pose.

Every now and then — eureka! — we turn up a profusion of answers. That compels us to don our green eyeshade, put nib to paper, break out the official Department of Data rubber stamp and rush to process as many data queries as we can. Without further delay, here’s the latest Data Dive!

Ranking college towns

College towns feel different. But how do you quantify a feeling?

We’d argue it’s a matter of geography, not just a matter of student population. The classic college town is built around the school at its heart. It respires with the rhythm of the students, inhaling nervously in the fall and exhaling as summer begins.

College towns aren’t suburbs or cities. They’re provincial, they’re probably a bit isolated, and if the college closes down, they have no plan B. Remove a university or two from a college-heavy suburb of Boston and you still have a ton of prime real estate along the Charles River. Yank Miami University out of Oxford, Ohio, (62 percent students) or Slippery Rock University out of Slippery Rock, Pa., (67 percent students) and you have nothing but a smoking crater.

So for this analysis, we chose to look at urban areas, the blobs our friends at the Census Bureau have drawn around unique population centers. Urban areas follow population-density patterns instead of typical town borders. (City limits aren’t particularly useful here anyway, since some colleges are independent administrative entities.)

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And the collegiest town in America is (envelope, please): Alfred, N.Y., where students make up an astonishing 85 percent of the town’s population of 4,500 (depending, obviously, on huge seasonal fluctuations).

Wedged into a hilly expanse of western New York, far enough from any city or landmark that its precise location is tough to describe, Alfred is defined by public Alfred State College and private Alfred University, which face off across its main street. If you go left at the town’s only stop light, you’re on one campus. Turn right, you’re on the other. Now that’s a college town.

The No. 2 overall college town is also America’s No. 1 Black college town: Prairie View, Tex. Midway between Houston and College Station, it’s home to Prairie View A&M University, one of the nation’s largest four-year HBCUs. The Prairie View student body makes up a lively 78 percent of the town’s population of about 6,200, a not insignificant share of whom march in the school’s 300-member band, the Marching Storm.

By this definition, New York and Ohio are pockmarked by college towns, while states with vast urban linkages can look like college deserts (sorry, New Jersey!).

To correct for this, we looked for the collegiest towns in every state — because who are we to deny Dover, Del., or Providence, R.I., their place in the college-town spotlight? It’s not their fault that students only make up 9 and 8 percent of their populations, respectively.

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The most common animal place names

We’re not sure if it’s enshrined in the Constitution (yet), but Americans have definitely exercised their right to bear names.

The continent’s largest predator clearly made an impression on the men, other men and occasional women who named Bad Bear Creek in Idaho, Curly Bear Mountain in Montana and thousands more of the 2.3 million officially designated streams, reservoirs, summits, lakes, churches, cities and cemeteries in the United States.

A grizzly bear and her cub in Alaska. © Roger de la Harpe/Universal Images Group via Getty Images A grizzly bear and her cub in Alaska.

When we dug through more than 10,000 common terms appearing in the wonderful Geographic Names Information System in search of animals, we found everything from Skunk Camp Wash, Ariz., to Bug Tussle, Okla. But “bear” easily topped the list, beating out the many beavers, horses, eagles and deer to be found there.

Indeed, bears topped the rankings in 23 states. Beavers took the lead in nine states in the Northeast and Midwest. Horses bagged seven mostly Western states. And Mississippi’s top animal is the almighty catfish — though if we didn’t count dams named for private catfish ponds, beavers would reign there as well.

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Bears are so ubiquitous, they almost seem like a national animal (with apologies to the eagle) when it comes to place names. To more fully illuminate regional differences, you have to eliminate the bears — and believe us, the early White settlers tried. That reveals a remarkable divide between mostly Northern beaver states and mostly Western horse states. Eagles, fish, foxes and turkeys also clamber up the rankings. The catfish stays put.

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But local naming trends don’t truly emerge until we start mapping how individual animal names have spread. Then we see sheep, antelope, coyote and rattlesnake are Western names, while Northerners prefer elk, trout and otter, and Southerners are unusually inspired by the turkey, panther, bee and buzzard.

Our analysis relies on a remarkable registry ruled since 1890 by the federal Board on Geographic Names. It’s now the purview of the Domestic Names Committee, a crack squad of officials from around the government who carefully deliberate over proposed name changes.

The data comes with a big caveat, though: The version of the database we relied on, the most current available for large-scale analysis, has yet to be updated to reflect a recent overhaul aimed at eliminating the word “squaw,” which “has historically been used as an offensive ethnic, racial and sexist slur, particularly for Indigenous women,” according to the Interior Department.

That change affected more than 600 places. And in many cases — from Water Dog Springs, Ariz., to Bumblebee Pond, Fla. — the changes serve to further bolster America’s animal-name roster. (Recent updates also removed more than a million man-made places from the registry, which will now focus on towns and natural features, but until they’re removed from the public database, we’ll continue to use them in our analyses.)

America’s founding beverages

While searching thousands upon thousands of U.S. place names for fauna, we noticed a different trend: Americans love to name landmarks after libations.

So, we dipped back into the Geographic Names Information System to make another map!

One trend emerged to drown out all others: The naming of the American West was fueled by whiskey, and/or whisky. (We counted both spellings.)

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Meanwhile, much of the country’s early heartland, including most of the original 13 colonies and the early Midwestern states, emerged as a clear brandy belt. That analysis combines places named for both brandy and brandywine, the latter being more popular in the mid-Atlantic.

But something about our map felt off. Was the American South really so fond of gin, that juniper-laced spirit that helped fuel the British Empire? Or was there perhaps another reason the gentry of cotton country might use the word “gin” in place names?

To sidestep this problem, we made another version of the map, dropping the gin and adding an all-American alcohol-adjacent accoutrement, the still. (This required us to filter out a few terms such as “Still Pond” which, while placid, didn’t fit the spirit of this exercise.)

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The result is the definitive portrait of America’s alcoholic heritage. With a vague knowledge of history and some heroic assumptions, you can piece together what our forebears probably were drinking when they stabbed an unsteady finger at the map and declared that a place shall henceforth be known as “Schnappsville!”

The best question we can’t answer

Which states eat the most or least desserts? I recently heard that Utah has more sweet shops per person than any other state — interesting but understandable given how many there eschew alcohol, caffeine and tobacco. What state eats the most sugar? The least?

Barbara Bean in Harrisonburg, Va.

We’re deeply frustrated by our inability to find better data for Barbara on the state of desserts in the state of Deseret. For now, we can merely provide a quick update on retail bakery employment.

Puerto Rico, Hawaii and Rhode Island employed the most bakery workers in 2021, relative to the size of their workforces, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages, a hall-of-fame data source that uses employment-insurance records to create ultra-detailed job and pay data for states and counties.

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Several states and territories aren’t listed in the 2021 count, but pre-pandemic data suggests the Virgin Islands would rank super high. That leads to an obvious follow-up question: What is it with islands and bakeries?!

After the islands, the list is dominated by the Cannoli Belt — Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Utah and its Western neighbors come in around the national average, and perhaps a bit lower.

But we can’t be sure that bakery employment correlates perfectly with confectionary cravings, and would welcome your thoughts on how to obtain more precise data on state or local sugar consumption!

Howdy! The Department of Data loves your quantifiable queries! What are you curious about: What city has the least-used municipal parks? What share of litters have runts, and how do they fare? Who bets the most on sports? Just ask!

If your question inspires a column, we’ll send an official Department of Data button and ID card. This week, buttons go to Barbara and to Jeremy Singer-Vine, a veteran data journalist who recently launched the Data Liberation Project and whose peerless newsletter first made us aware of the federal place name database.


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