Watch New York City’s middle class (and poor) get pushed around; or: the incredible invisibility of disadvantage in the proximity of privilege

EDIT: Actually, there is something in particular I’d like to get out of this. It’s similar to the point I made with the Brooklyn map: namely, that the invisibility of the poor and nonwhite when they aren’t interacting with more privileged people is just astounding. Look at Manhattan; look at the Bronx. Look, for that matter, at Brooklyn again. Whose stories do we hear?

That would be a stupid rhetorical question – duh, Daniel, we hear rich people’s stories – if it weren’t for the fact that even I, a person who has made this exact point multiple times before, was shocked at the extent to which very low-income neighborhoods persist in New York. Why was I so surprised? Because all people talk about is how New York has become a gated city of the ultra-rich. Because of the social bias that I just suggested was blindingly obvious. And which nevertheless, in this case, I fell for.

And if I fell for it in this case, then surely I’m still falling for it in dozens of others. Andrew Sullivan’s blog, for as long as I’ve read it, has carried on its masthead an Orwell quote: “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” That’s true in a very general way, of course, but it’s also worth remembering that it’s true in some pretty specific ways: for whatever reason, the struggle is particularly difficult when it’s poor or nonwhite people in front of your nose. That’s a lesson for anyone who cares about cities – or, you know, humans, since an interest in cities is at bottom an interest in humans and their habitats – whether you’re part of the media, or an urban planner, or a neighborhood activist, or just one of those humans in their habitat.


I’ve been holding onto this for a while, not quite sure what to do with it, but now I’m releasing it into the wild. It comes from the same data set and researchers (Sean Reardon and Kendra Bischoff) as the Chicago map, with the same disclaimer that any mistakes in the translation of spreadsheet to map are entirely of my own doing.

Anyway, I know much less about New York’s social geography than I do Chicago’s, so I won’t say too much, but several things obviously stick out here. One is that though Manhattan has almost entirely eliminated middle-class or economically balanced neighborhoods, the rest of the city has a good deal more of them than Chicago. To some extent, I suspect this has something to do with New York’s much more ambitious (and, sometimes, progressive) housing policy: fewer than half of tenants there live in pure market-rate housing. Although New York, like most of the rest of the country, would do well to allow more housing where there’s capacity, demand is high enough that lots of subsidies are likely called for.

The other thing is just how much of New York, currently a global symbol of gated-city affluence, is actually poor. Look, for example, at the Bronx: it’s a sea of red. A decent amount of Brooklyn, too. Another reminder of how the obsession with gentrification obscures the larger issue of income segregation.

Also: man, Harlem is gentrifying. That sort of dark-red-to-green is something you didn’t see too much in the Chicago map.

Finally, this map really ought to have a scale capable of showing the extremes of wealth in parts of Manhattan that just don’t exist in Chicago. Twice the metro median family income really doesn’t cut it.

* These are not polished maps: I just don’t have time to polish them, but I wanted to get them out, and the broad trends are pretty apparent. You’ll see that some tracts in Staten Island are missing until 1990-2000; I figure people don’t care that much about Staten Island. (Sorry, Staten Island.) Also there are some weird things that happen with tracts that include parks, where small populations are included where they weren’t before. Apologies.



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27 thoughts on “Watch New York City’s middle class (and poor) get pushed around; or: the incredible invisibility of disadvantage in the proximity of privilege

  1. It’s interesting – in both the Chicago and New York maps, there are very few dark red census tracts in 1970 and a lot of dark red census tracts in 1980. Is this the result of deindustrialization and the loss of manufacturing jobs? Or is it because the 1970s are when middle class flight from black/Latino neighborhoods really took off?

    Also, an interesting difference is that New York, unlike Chicago, had a lot of dark green at the core in 1970s. Maybe this explains why a greater portion of Manhattan is extremely wealthy today?

    • In the 1970s, New York had a large drop in middle-class resident population, which depopulation was concentrated in the Bronx and the poorer parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Since census tracts are being compared with the metro area median, the drop in the city’s median income relative to the metro area median pushed more tracts into the red.

    • I would guess both? Whet Moser had a thing he posted a while ago about a study that suggested one reason was that the 1970s, in addition to being the beginning of serious deindustrialization, was the period when the Great Migration ended, and black neighborhoods from which people had been moving for years suddenly lost their source of new migrants, leading to a cycle of population loss and economic disinvestment.

      Yeah, the wealth that always existed in Manhattan really is a major difference. I don’t know what to say about it – anyone who can offer some ideas or direct me to readings/watchings/whatever would be thanked profusely.

      • 1940s New York gives some hints. Map shows by household rent, but rent roughly tracks income. The well off parts of Manhattan were much more limited than 1970, mainly limited to most of the Upper West Side, Central Park facing part of Upper East Side. Perhaps a transition to more of a white collar economy as well as an improvement in the old immigrant neighborhoods.

        I know the 1970s were a bad time economically for NYC and the metro as a whole. The suburbs had a slight decrease in population as well. It was hit hard by de-industrialization. It was also the “Bronx is burning decade”, and your maps shows that the after the 70s, the South Bronx stands out as a poverty zone*. Looks like both of the black and hispanic population barely grew in the 1970s for NYC:

        The postwar change in hispanic population was roughly the same as the change in black population. All the growth in the black population post-1970 was immigration driven

        *It has improved! See:

        Probably more from NYC being big that an area with 3/4 million people is uniformly poor. You could find a spot containing 1/10 of a city in say, Chicago or Los Angeles that’s just as poor but it wouldn’t be big enough for a congressional district.

  2. I love the data visualization of the green to gray red, but I’m struggling with figuring out what it means.
    Does green mean that people within that census tract make 150% of the median household income?
    And people in red make 0 – 45% of the median family income?
    Is that right?
    And what’s the median family income amount being used here?

    And more philosophically, what color is the good color? Everyone can’t be green. If you wanted to move to New York, would it make sense to seek out the gray areas on the map as affordable places to live?


    • The yardstick by which all this is measured is the median family income for the New York metropolitan area as a whole, in whatever year is being shown. So if the median family income in the metro area is $80,000, a neighborhood where the median family income is $40,000 is logged as 50%.

      No, green is (speaking from a social cohesion point of view) not great. Grey would be best, since it suggests that you have a middle-income or mixed-income area.

    • I take that since it’s family income, single person households are excluded? And you chose that on purpose so as to remove any difference from different places having more or less one person (and therefore single earner) households? What is the median family income of the NYC metro area? Chicago? I got a median family income of $57k/year for New York City and $112k/year for Nassau County to the east of Queens. A map of just Long Island would be a sea of light and medium green with pockets of dark green. A map with all or mostly green would appear to be a Garrison Keillor “where everyone is above average”, but of course it’s possible since it’s comparing to the entire metro. Technically, the gray doesn’t mean mixed-income, just that its median income is at about the regional median. It could homogeneous or very mixed. A green tract in NYC and especially Manhattan would usually be more mixed than the same colored suburban (definitely for Long Island) tract.

      If it’s not too much work, it’d be really interesting in seeing the same maps you made but with the suburbs included. Maybe it’s only a local interest, but cities, especially during the period of suburban flight don’t exist in isolation, you could see how much the city really held the region’s poor and rich, as well as whether the decline was mostly a city-only trend. It’d best to skip the outermost part of the metro, as it holds few people but takes up lots of area so the city would be tiny in that map. Perhaps excluding anything not in the urban area could work, or just focusing on a 30 or 35 mile radius from Manhattan.

      • Well, I didn’t choose this metric, exactly; it was chosen by the researchers, Reardon and Bischoff. But yes, I would assume that was the thinking behind it.

        And right, grey definitely doesn’t mean mixed. It would be great to see some sort of metric that directly measures the mixedness of each tract; that would be tough to get right, though. Maybe I’ll try at some point.

        And eventually I’d really like to do this for the Chicago and NYC metro areas. I believe the researchers are working on producing more maps for the other cities they have data for, so I’m also really looking forward to that.

  3. Also, great map btw. I would assume the missing Staten Island tracts are missing because their population was too small then to do an income survey. A lot of the income decline in recent decades is from new, unskilled immigrants replacing more affluent natives, particularly in southern Brooklyn and parts of Queens. That enlargement of the bright red spot to the southwest of Park Slope is from the growth of the Asian population, it’s now Brooklyn’s Chinatown. Immigration numbers are much higher than the numbers involved in gentrification, and they’ve been arriving for longer.

    Maybe I’m missing what you’re referring to, but I’m not seeing much gentrification of Harlem on the map. On the east side, the Upper East Side – East Harlem line is in about the same place. Maybe a tract or two changed, the mass of housing projects in East Harlem (and to a lesser extent other sections) will ward off gentrifiers. I know some housing stock went directly from abandoned to expensive, there was enough empty housing that previous residents didn’t need to be displaced, landlords would rehab old apartment buildings once demand was high enough. A bit of urban decay p0rn but it shows the extent of abandonment:

      • I’d guess at this point median income and market rate prices are completely disconnected in much of New York City, Harlem for sure. Most Harlem residents lived in either subsidized or rent regulated units, the high price of new market housing isn’t connected to their income, they’re not part of that market. The Furman center lists 60% of housing units are public or subsidized housing and 34% are rent regulated for East Harlem, and 44% and 57% respectively for Central Harlem. I’m not sure if the two categories are completely exclusive, it sounds like they should but the numbers are too high combined.

      • Oh, man. I would love to have data on market-rate housing as a percentage of all housing by tract or community district in NYC. That would be amazing.

      • Market rate housing by community district is here:

        Scroll to the bottom and there’s a link for each community district and borough. Also breaks down non-market into rent-control/rent-stabilized, public housing and other. Note rent stabilized housing outside the priciest neighborhoods are often not much different from market rate housing.

  4. Oh man, I wish they chose different colors for those maps – this is the type of stuff I could geek out on. Do you know of versions with other color schemes? As a colorblind person I cannot distinguish the lowest and highest income brackets. Everything else is a mess to my eyes too.

      • Hmm. I really don’t know what colors would work better – I don’t trust my own description. However, in general maps that have a spectrum of cool to hot colors, or even better light to dark tend to be most distinguishable to my eyes. Let me see if I can find some good resources on graphics for color blind people.

      • I have normal color vision, but as someone who visualizes geophysical data, I agree that this red-green color scheme is a poor choice. You can find a tool for coming up with color maps at The 7-class BrBG scheme is popular and the closest colorblind-safe diverging scheme to what you’re currently using.

  5. Came across this excellent post searching for info on what happened to the people burned out of Bronx and Brooklyn during 70’s fire plague. City lost nearly 10% of its pop. in that decade, particularly want to find out where poor people went – some returned South, but not all surely. Some were incarcerated … but can you or anyone recommend a study on this question. thanks.

    • Thanks! Unfortunately, I have no idea. I would suspect a lot moved to the suburbs, and a lot (especially recently) moved to the South. But I’m afraid that’s beyond my area of expertise.

      • If you’re referring to the 70s specifically, most of the NYC suburbs lost population in that decade. Nassau County lost 7.5%, higher than Queens 4.8%. Probably more from adult children leaving the county, and fewer new children to take their place and little new construction. Some suburbs did grow, but overall it was a loss. So, I don’t think suburbs absorbed most of the population loss unless a large population was leaving NYC suburbs for elsewhere in the country. Looking at your income maps, from 1970 to 1980 the income decline was primarily was focused in the already worst areas of the city. The color of the rest of the city stayed about the same while the light red blocks became bright red. A bit confused since the metro median declined as well. As for “Bronx is burning neighborhoods”, working-class non-poor types probably moved to cheaper but relatively neighborhoods elsewhere in the city if they didn’t leave the city. They would have left earlier, of course. The truly poor who faced the conditions of decaying housing didn’t have the means to leave the city, they probably shuffled from decaying apartment to decaying apartment or some type of subsidized / low income housing.

  6. As for the surprise, as someone from the region, I don’t find it all surprising that NYC is full of poor people — most there are aware that they’re plenty of poor neighborhoods, though maybe not the extent. What strikes me, is that with all the talk of the “city got better since the early 90s” I would have assumed that middle-class flight from the city would have mostly stopped, instead it continued.

    • Yeah – it’s really notable how localized central city revitalization is. For all people talk about how fast it moves, the truth is it’s slower than white flight was, in general, and has covered a relatively small minority even of those cities where it’s most pronounced – with the possible exception, although I don’t really know enough to say definitively, of San Francisco.

      • I’m not that sure about San Francisco, either. But my impression is it never really declined as much as northeastern / midwestern cities, even compared to Boston, let alone Chicago. The biggest white flight areas were in Oakland rather than the city itself. San Francisco still had a large drop in the white middle class that was larger than the center city gentrification. But the newcomers in the outer neighborhoods were Asian rather than black and hispanic, and outside of Chinatown, San Francisco’s Asian population is middle-class.

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