STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The Muslim population is a sign of America's increasing diversity, and before long we'll get a more precise idea of that diversity. Census workers are already on the streets preparing for next year's head count, which happens once in a decade. Sounds easy enough. Confirm addresses so the Census Bureau knows where to mail forms. And then next year, they knock on the doors of anybody who doesn't send back a questionnaire. This is not easy, though, in New York City. And NPR's Jennifer Ludden looks at why.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: To get a sense of the challenge, we'll start with a walking tour.

Mr. TONY FARTHING (Regional director, Census Bureau): Well, my name is Tony Farthing, and I'm the regional director for the U.S. Census Bureau.

LUDDEN: Farthing's met me in Bushwood, Brooklyn, a working class neighborhood where elevated trains can stop conversation cold.

(Soundbite of train)

LUDDEN: So we head down a side street.

Mr. FARTHING: New York City's the undisputed king of the multi-unit structure. We just have so many different varieties.

LUDDEN: Farthing stops in front of a building with a business on the first floor and housing above.

Mr. FARTHING: These are the ones I love. You got a house here, there's a gate on it. You look up, it could be one or two apartments, You don't know. There is an address, so that's nice.

LUDDEN: But there's no doorbell, and the gate's locked. Farthing says census workers are reduced to hoping there's an open window and shouting up. A really good thing to see? Gates on the windows. That means children.

Mr. FARTHING: So right around the time when school lets out, you cross your fingers, maybe some children are coming home.

LUDDEN: Then there are the places where people don't want you to find them: New York's ever-popular illegal sublets, and the extra living spaces that have been carved out or added on.

Mr. FARTHING: They're not supposed to, in some cases, do it and rent it out to someone, and they haven't registered it with the city, and then they don't want you to know. There are all kinds of things that we're fighting against.

LUDDEN: In addition to its difficult housing landscape, New York City also has just about every group that's statistically least likely to mail back a census questionnaire: young singles, African-American men, hundreds of thousands of public-housing residents, and an evolving mix of immigrants.

Ms. STACEY CUMBERBATCH (Census Coordinator, New York City): Three million foreign-born people, 600,000 of whom have come since 2000.

LUDDEN: That's Stacey Cumberbatch, New York City's census coordinator who says that three million is more than a third of the city's population, people who may not speak English and who may never have heard of a census. Since the last count, New York's demographers have been trying to track the constant migration of various ethnic groups in, out and around the city.

Ms. CUMBERBATCH: They can track births to foreign-born mothers. So, for example, recently they found some information about Sudanese that had settled, you know, significant enough population had settled in an area of Brooklyn.

LUDDEN: That will be helpful information for census counters next year. The city's also mapped the response rates from the 2000 census, and that's revealed some surprises. The heaviest concentration of Spanish speakers had a higher-than-average response rate. Cumberbatch credits good organizing. The lowest response rates were in heavily African, Caribbean and African-American neighborhoods, including back in central Brooklyn.

(Soundbite of engine)

Mr. MCCOY: The United State Census? What is it? The lack of respect or the discourtesy in all other stuff, has turned me against it.

LUDDEN: A 62-year-old African-American man who will give only his last name, McCoy, leans on his cane and says blacks just don't trust the U.S. government. The census, he says, has been going on since the Emancipation Proclamation. And for what?

Mr. MCCOY: The country is the same as it was in the 1800s. The rich are rich, and the poor are poor, and never the twain shall meet.

LUDDEN: Still, McCoy says he'll probably fill out the form if someone comes to his door. Census director Tony Farthing says research shows that's exactly what a lot of black residents were waiting for in 2000. This time, he says, the bureau will explicitly tell people to mail the form back. Officials are also promoting the census early with mailings, a press conference by Mayor Bloomberg and targeted messages for Spanish language media. That's how Andy Santos(ph) learned about the census.

Ms. ANDY SANTOS: (Spanish spoken)

LUDDEN: I know it's important to be counted, she says, to see how many people are in the country and other things.

Ms. SANTOS: (Spanish spoken)

LUDDEN: It's a message New York officials hope everyone has heard by census day next April.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

INSKEEP: So the census has hardly begun, but plenty of information is available from recent years. And you can explore interactive maps of New York's ethnic neighborhoods and of the changing demographics across America at npr.org.

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