Inequality in New York City, 1960-2010

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Note: The concept for this post comes from Daniel Kay Hertz, who produced several maps showing the decline of the middle-class in Chicago from 1970 to 2012. I really loved how the maps dramatized the rise of inequality in Chicago, and realized it would be interesting to basically copy that concept for other cities, such as New York. To create these maps, I used census tract data from the National Historical Geographic Information System. 

Skyrocketing inequality has become one of the defining political issues of our time. Presidential candidacies have been built on highlighting how skewed the distribution of income and wealth are in this country. But it can still be hard to understand inequality on a personal level. After all, it’s one thing to hear that the top 0.1% of Americans own as much wealth as the bottom 90%. It’s another thing to understand how that inequality has actually affected your hometown, or even your own neighborhood.

These maps illustrate the rise of economic segregation in New York City. The concept of “economic segregation” is related to income inequality, but it is not the exact same thing. Theoretically, income inequality could be rising but people could still choose to live in economically diverse neighborhoods. However, Pew Research and other researchers have found that the opposite is occurring, and that people are actually economically segregating themselves at an even faster rate than income inequality is growing. Economic segregation hasn’t gotten the same attention as growing wealth and income inequality, but in many ways it is a more personal and local phenomenon. With these maps, I hope that people can trace the evolution of their own neighborhoods, and see how areas that were once middle-class have transformed into areas that are almost exclusively populated by the very rich or the very poor.

To create these maps the median income of each census tract (which is roughly equivalent to a neighborhood) is compared to the median income of the New York area as a whole. Census tracts that are significantly poorer than the rest of the city are colored in red, those that are significantly richer are colored in green. Tracts with a median income right in the middle are colored light grey (dark grey is used for those tracts which reported no income data, usually parks or industrial areas). Thus light grey areas on the map roughly correspond to “middle-class” neighborhoods.


If you look at the animated GIF above, you can see that whereas most of New York City was colored light grey in 1960, indicating middle-class areas, by 2010 the vast majority of these areas had disappeared. In their place today are stark economic divides between neighborhoods.

Manhattan is the poster child for this change. That isn’t to say that in 1960 the island did not have any sort of economic segregation. The island had low-income neighborhoods such as Harlem, Hell’s Kitchen, and the Lower East Side, and high-income neighborhoods like the Upper West Side and Midtown. Despite the presence of these areas, around half of the census tracts in Manhattan were still middle-class. But by 2010 these middle-class areas had all but disappeared from the city, with only a few pockets remaining. Manhattan today is sharply divided between extremely rich areas where residents frequently make over 200% of the New York average, and extremely poor areas where people are often making less than 45% of the city average. Those areas that do appear as middle-class on the map are mainly located in rapidly gentrifying areas such as Hell’s Kitchen, which suggests that soon they will join the sea of green, upper-income neighborhoods.

The Bronx has also seen a huge increase in economic segregation. Whereas Manhattan today is fairly evenly divided between low-income and high-income areas, the Bronx is mostly made up of low-income areas. But it was not always this way, as in 1960 the Bronx was overwhelmingly middle-class. During the 1970s, the Bronx lost over 300,000 residents, with Howard Coswell famously remarking that “The Bronx is burning”, during the 1977 World Series.  The transition occurred quickly, with a large and very low-income area appearing in the South Bronx by 1980. However, some middle-class and upper-class neighborhoods do remain in the Bronx, especially in the northwest and northeast portions of the borough.

Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island have also seen most of their middle-class areas disappear over the past 50 years. I’m not a New York native; I’ve never been to Staten Island and I’ve only been to Queens a few times. Each of these boroughs and their neighborhoods have a unique story of growing economic segregation and inequality, driven by issues like white flight, urban decay, and gentrification. I don’t know enough about these stories to detail them in this post, but I hope others can examine the maps who have more local knowledge than me. This applies to the suburban areas outside New York City as well. I don’t know much about cities like Passaic, Paterson, and Newark, but you can see the growing inequality in these areas as well. New York City is not unique.

I would love for people to use these maps to examine the story of inequality in their own neighborhood. Most of these stories are pretty depressing, as the vast majority of neighborhoods have become more economically segregated, with only a few that became middle-class in the past half century. But these maps also give some reasons for hope. 1960 was less than 60 years ago, and in that map we can see a different vision of New York City. Obviously there were other huge issues back then, but the vast majority of people lived in middle-class and economically mixed areas. If that ideal existed once, it can exist again.

Below are large image versions of each map for you to peruse. 







Note on data: This data was taken from the NHGIS. They did not have median income data for 1960 and 1970 by census tract, so I estimated the median income based on income brackets they did include. I assumed that there was a uniform distribution of incomes within each bracket, which is obviously an oversimplification, so the data from 1960 and 1970 should be taken with a grain of salt. However, even if this method did underestimate inequality in 1960/70, there is still a large enough difference to make the growth of economic segregation clear. 

Data Source:

Minnesota Population Center. National Historical Geographic Information System: Version 2.0. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota 2011.



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