Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

The Ties That Bind Us

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New York is a divided city, or so said mayor de Blasio during his campaign. His opponent, Joe Lhota, stated otherwise, decrying de Blasio’s campaign as mere “class warfare:” unwarranted grumblings by the underclasses. As it turns out, de Blasio’s view may have been vindicated by the nonpartisan Brookings Institution on Thursday. The DC think tank published a study tracking broad income inequality by city, and New York does indeed have a wide gap.

According to the study, New York’s 95th percentile by household income is 13.2 times that of the 20th percentile, putting it broadly on par with Washington DC at the sixth on the charts. Topping the charts at 18.8 and 16.6, respectively, are Atlanta and San Francisco. San Fran is easy to explain: The transplanted techies who live in the city and commute to the San Jose corridor by company bus are skewing the numbers in what is a relatively small burg. I find Atlanta a mite more disconcerting. Its Fortune 500 corporate headquarters certainly concentrate wealth, but its poor are considerably more poor than elsewhere. Miami, number three on the list at 15.7, has some of the poorest people in any major city in America.

New York’s household income at the 95th percentile seems frightfully low at $226,675, which could be a facet of wealth being concentrated in a financial sector where there are alternative forms of compensation. The Brookings Institute also qualifies its findings by saying that the poor may be undercounted due to having been priced out of the cities altogether.

 Like San Francisco, Seattle may have less poverty not only because people there earn more, but also because the region’s poor increasingly live in suburbia.

Indeed a lot of the New York’s middle classes have moved further afield thanks to the high cost of living, but this city is so large that to do so is hardly an option for the working classes: Already above-average transit costs and commute times balloon once the city line is crossed and, well, no suburban county is as poor as the Bronx.

The study seems to draw the conclusion that rich cities breed rich people – indeed, the least unequal cities are also the least rich – but clearly points out that a rising tide simply does not lift all boats. The income gap is wide and it has widened in the last decade.

There is another way that New York is divided, and this time it has no equal: Race. The Manhattan Institute published a study in 2011 that put New York City squarely at the top of the heap when it came to racially divided neighborhoods, and the University of Virginia published a racial map of major cities in 2013 using 2010 Census data.

The findings are weird in the sense that the nation’s (and the earth’s) most diverse city is also the country’s most divided, and despite a general trend of integration nation-wide, the (ostensibly) most liberal of liberal cities is pulling a rear-guard action.


(Click for larger image)

In both cases, divisions in both class and race (which rather tend to overlap a little too well) appear to dominate New York society. That would certainly make de Blasio – a “class warrior” who hobnobs with the moneyed set – and his family an outlier in every sense, yet he was voted in by a landslide, carrying New Yorkers’ image of themselves with him. After all, New Yorkers are rather proud of their heterogeneity and their relative sense of classlessness when it comes to public discourse, and while San Francisco’s protesters have gotten violent in their antagonism of Google employees, even Occupy Wall Streeters were notably restrained in their dealings with the Wall Streeters around them. The numbers say one thing, but the culture says something else altogether. What gives?

I posit that such rifts are less culturally evident than in other cities because of one unifying institution: The subway.

Each artery and vein in the city’s network runs under a patchwork of different income brackets and native languages, and people on both ends of the spectrum rely on it to get to where they need to go. Most everywhere else in America eschews public transit on class and racial lines, and as such citizens don’t really have to interact with greater society in their daily ministrations. By the numbers, it’s amazing New Yorkers haven’t killed one another, but we don’t because we see one another every day. In point of fact, we’re one of the safest big cities in America. By contrast, Atlanta, Miami and the San Francisco metro area are some of the worst places in America for violent crime. If the Brookings Institute has debunked the adage that a rising tide lifts all boats, then so too has the Manhattan Institute debunked the adage that familiarity breeds contempt.

The upper crusters expressed concern following de Blasio’s inauguration that the city would become an ungovernable morass fomented by the unwashed a la mayor Lindsay, but on the contrary we appear to be quite self-governing. I am drawn to ask, ‘how, then, are these divisions maintained if New Yorkers, by dint of their morning commute, are so tolerant?’ but that is the wrong question. The divisions are maintained without bloodshed precisely because New Yorkers are so tolerant.

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