Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
A new project from Esri lays bare the geographic split between wealthy and lower-income neighborhoods.
Across the metropolises of the United States, the middle class is shrinking. In 9 out of every 10 cities, the share of adults living in middle-income households has fallen.
It’s an ongoing phenomenon that’s a key factor in dividing the nation between the rich and poor. When you zoom into some of the most populous cities with some of the highest income gaps, as mapping-software company Esri did in a new interactive project, “Wealth Divides,” the geography of where the poor and rich live, and how their neighborhoods are divided, is even more staggering.
Using data from state and federal governments, the team mapped the median household income of each census tract in five cities: New York City, San Francisco, Atlanta, Boston, and Washington, D.C. Census tracts in light blue have a median household income between $100,000 and $150,000, while those in darker blue represent more than $150,000. Those colored in orange represent median household incomes of less than $100,000. The darker the shade, the lower the income.
CityLab looked at three of the mapped cities, all ranked among the top 10 in the U.S. in terms of income inequality.
New York City
Among the U.S. major cities, New York City is perhaps the most notorious for its rich-poor divide. With gentrification and the struggle to maintain affordable housing amid skyrocketing rent, what’s left of the shrinking middle class is getting squeezed out. As economist Joe Cortright wrote last year, the city has a mix of public housing for lower-income residents and market-rate housing that’s affordable only for the affluent, leaving the middle class with few places to live.
Esri’s map shows what has been true for decades: that tracts with high median household incomes are crowded around central and lower Manhattan, with pockets of lower-income tracts on the Lower East Side and upper Manhattan. But more recent trends are also clear, with the wealthy spreading to the outer boroughs as gentrification expands.
Stark disparities can be found in neighborhoods that are within minutes of each other: The median household income for a tract near Central Park exceeds $200,000, while an East Harlem neighborhood just a few blocks away is under $16,000. That divide in close neighborhoods, however, may be a good thing for lower-income residents, as economist Joe Cortright argued. He cited a study by New York University’s Furman Center that found that residents living in public housing within a wealthier neighborhood tend to show “dramatically better economic and quality-of-life outcomes” than those in poor neighborhoods, which furthers the support for mixed-income neighborhoods.
Esri’s map of the D.C. metro region perhaps stands out the most. The blue and orange census tracts appear to split cleanly down the center of a diamond that makes up the nation’s capital and neighboring Arlington County, Virginia. (That’s with the exception of wealthier pockets like Capitol Hill and Chinatown, which have seen a boom of business development and rising rents in recent years.) 16th Street forms the clear dividing line, running from downtown to the district’s northern tip, with wealthy areas to the west and lower-income areas to the east.
Census tracts with median household income less than $35,000, indicated with a dark orange color, cluster around the lower-right portion of the diamond. That reflects a 2015 report from the Urban Institute that finds that nearly a quarter of the city’s 179 neighborhoods are considered “economically challenged,” most of which lie in southeastern area past the Anacostia River. West of the river is a different picture, with luxury condos and commercial businesses increasingly moving into the areas along the waterfront.
A heap of factors help explain why San Francisco is one of the least affordable cities to live in, with a homelessness crisis on its hands. Gentrification has limited affordable homes for much of the city’s middle class families, much less for those on the lower incomes. The tech boom in the area and the lack of new affordable houses being built to meet the high demand of newcomers both share the responsibility.
Esri’s map of where the higher- and lower-income families live reveals a checkered pattern, with many of neighborhoods once considered working class now shaded in blue. The map highlights the Potrero District along the eastern coast. In 1990, it included a mix of lower and middle-income households; now the median household income nears $180,000. Dark shades of orange are hard to find, but a cluster, with incomes near $16,000 can be found around the Tenderloin district nestled among the most bustling parts of the city.
But even that area is gentrifying; a map comparing the most and least affluent households shows higher-income households speckled throughout the lower-income neighborhoods in that district. (Each blue dot below represents two households with mean annual income greater than $200,000, and each orange dot for two households with income less than $25,000.) On top of that, the San Francisco Chronicle reports that a penthouse in the “burgeoning neighborhood” is currently on the market for nearly $4 million.
You can take a closer look in these cities and others in the interactive version of Esri’s project.