Stephen zeigler/Wikimedia Commons

Just as they've started to revitalize—attracting industry, investment and people—our cities are threatened by new and more vexing divides.

As America has grown more unequal and divided, its cities and metro areas have become even more so. New York’s level of inequality is comparable to Swaziland's, L.A.’s to the Dominican Republic's, Chicago's to El Salvador's, and Seattle's to Nigeria's.

Our cities and metro areas also face deep class divides, according to a report by me and my Martin Prosperity Institute (MPI) colleagues, released today at the second annual CityLab Conference in Los Angeles. (The conference brings together mayors and city leaders from around the world). The report, “The Divided City”, coauthored by Zara Matheson, Patrick Adler and Taylor Brydges, extends and synthesizes my class-divided series. The study tracks the location of the three major socioeconomic classes: the creative class, made up of knowledge and professional workers; the growing service class, which toils in low-skill, low-wage jobs; and the shrinking blue-collar working class. Our research charts these three classes at the neighborhood level in 12 of America’s largest cities and their surrounding metro areas: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Miami, Dallas, Houston, Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco, and Detroit. Together, these metros account for almost 30 percent of the total U.S. population—and 37 percent of the country’s economic output.


Maps developed from our data by the geospatial firm ESRI expands this analysis further, charting these class divides across all of America’s 70,000-plus Census tracts. They enable readers to track and compare the dominant locations of the three major classes, median income levels, and the location of the highly educated (those with a college degree or more) across many U.S. metros. ESRI’s full-scale, interactive maps can be found here.  


The map below shows greater L.A. In these maps, the darker and more concentrated colors indicate clusters of households—purple for the creative class, orange for a higher education level, and green for higher incomes. In Los Angeles, knowledge workers, college graduates, and higher-income populations are clearly concentrated along the waterfront and up through West L.A. and Beverly Hills. Also notice the large area in the center, where the service and working class are located and where incomes are significantly lower.


The next map zooms into these divides at the city level. Here, we’ll look at Washington, D.C. The creative class, college grads, and higher-income households clearly cluster in the northwest section of the city, and then partially in the southeast. Across the Anacostia River, however, the number of creative-class workers and high-wage earners plummets.


The final map, below, shows how you can zoom in to the neighborhood level. Here, we're focusing in on the class divides in Brooklyn, NYC. The close zoom allows you to see the clustering by class, education, and income at an even finer scale. Notice the creative-class, college grads, and higher-income households are concentrated along the waterfront, in neighborhoods like Brooklyn Heights, Williamsburg, and DUMBO. Meanwhile, service-class and lower-income households are concentrated in the central and northeastern sections of the borough.



Our analysis identifies three basic patterns of class division across America’s cities and metro areas. In the charts below, which represent the basic outlines of the concentration patterns we observed, purple reflects dominant locations of the creative class; pink, the service class; and, and blue, the working class.

(Florida, Matheson, Adler, and Brydges)

Back to the Core: This is the most common or dominant pattern. Each city and metro area in our analysis has pronounced clusters of the creative class in and around the urban core. It is most pronounced in post-industrial metros like San Francisco, Boston, Washing­ton, D.C., and New York. But it is also evident in some form in every metro, including older industrial metros like Detroit, sprawling Sunbelt metros like Atlanta, Houston, and Dallas, and service-driven economies like Miami.

(Florida, Matheson, Adler, and Brydges)

Geographic Blocs:  In some metros, the creative class occupies large wedges or geographic blocs that extend across substantial parts of the city. This pattern is clearest in Washington D.C., Dallas, and Atlanta, but can found in more limited form in western Los Angeles, the north part of Chicago, northern San Francisco, and the southern areas of greater Miami.

(Florida, Matheson, Adler, and Brydges)

Fractal: In other cities and metros, the class divide is more fractal, taking the form of archipelagos or even tessellations. Los Angeles and Miami exemplify this, as the knowledge, workers, professionals and the creative class stretch out across the waterfront. This pattern can also be seen in core-oriented metros like Philadelphia, Boston, and even parts of greater New York outside Manhattan.


Despite these different patterns and structures, we identified four key location factors that structure these new class divides across various cities and metros. Each of them is driven by the location choices and imperatives of the advantaged creative class, which occupies the most economically functional and desirable areas.

Clustering in and Around the Urban Core:  The urban core has become a key axis, if not the key axis, of the class divides of the modern city and metropolis.  We find consistent clustering of the creative class in and around the urban core. This is particularly evident in large, dense, congested metros like New York and Chicago and post-industrial ones like Boston, San Francisco, and Washington D.C., where class formations extend like wedges across the city and into the surrounding suburbs. The transformation of the core as a locational center for the affluent is a striking reversal from its former role as a center for industry, commerce, and shopping—in many cities, forming the so-called “hole in the donut” pattern that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. Our report documents how the creative class incursion into the urban core evolved in part after spaces were opened up following the de-industrialization of former urban industrial centers.

Proximity to Transit:  Access to transit and class clustering around transit hubs forms the second key point of cleavage in the divided city and metropolis. This is especially true in denser metros with better transit systems, like New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. This is a shift from the past, when transit in many cities served less-advantaged groups and classes. Now, those groups are being pushed further way from transit lines.

Knowledge Institutions: Knowledge institutions are the third factor in the location of affluent knowledge, creative, and professional workers. Research universities, colleges, and other knowledge institutions form significant creative-class hubs in in all of the cities and metros we examined. This is something of a shift from the past, as we point out in the report, when “universities functioned as more transitory stopping points for students to gain knowledge and degrees en route to their professional lives and careers.” And it is occurring both in and around suburban university campuses and in downtown locations, including the gentrification of university and college neighborhoods that were once home to and surrounded by less advantaged groups.  

Natural Amenities: Natural amenities and especially waterfronts act as the fourth axis of class cleavage, as advantaged knowledge workers increasingly choose to locate along them.  This is most clearly seen in Los Angeles and San Diego along the Pacific coast, Miami along the Atlantic coastline and Biscayne Bay, and Chicago along the shores of Lake Michigan. Again, we see this occurring both in suburban areas and in and around the urban core, as waterfronts are reclaimed from former industrial uses and evolve into creative-class hubs.


Indeed, our research documents the close connection between class, education, and income across all 70,000-plus Census tracts. Two things stand out. On one hand, we find significant negative correlations between the creative class and both the service class (-.62) and working class (-.77) across all tracts, suggesting clear pattern of class division and segregation across the entire United States. On the other hand, these class divisions are closely associated with both income and education levels. The creative class is positively associated with both average incomes (.75) and even more so with highly educated residents (.90), measured as the share of adults who graduated from college. The opposite pattern holds for the working and service classes. Both are negatively correlated with income (-.56 working class, -.49 service class) and college grads (-.78 working class, -.45 service class). While correlation does not equal causation, the associations between the variables is substantial and suggestive of both the extent of America’s geographic class divide and the way that clusters based on class, education and income align in a troubling pattern of overlapping socio-economic divides.

Our study documents the troubling new geography of the class divided city and metropolis. Across all the cities and metros we examined, advantaged knowledge, professional, and creative workers occupy the most economically functional, most accessible, and most desirable locations. The locations of the other two less-advantaged classes are structured and shaped by the locational prerogatives of this more-advantaged and economically powerful class. As a result, the large service class is pushed into the least accessible and most disadvantaged areas of the central city and increasingly into the far-off peripheries of economically distressed and disconnected suburbs. Strikingly, there are few working class concentrations left in America’s major cities and metros, even in places like Boston, Chicago or Detroit that were once bastions of the working class.

Today’s divided city and metropolis is different—and more complex—than the prevailing models we use to understand how cities and suburban communities grow and develop. Indeed, the new urban divides do not conform to either the old model of affluent suburbs surrounding poor cities, or the more recent notion of a “great inversion," where the rich come back to the city and the poor are pushed out the suburbs. The reality of today’s class divide is a patchwork of concentrated advantage and concentrated disad­vantage that cuts across center city and suburb alike.

Much as we may not like to admit, class remains the determining factor in American life. It shapes the jobs and opportunities we have, the kinds of education we receive, how we vote and how healthy and fit we are. And each and every one of these things is structured by the deep class divides where we live. This is a pivotal moment: Just when our cities and urban areas have started to revive and re-urbanize, they are faced with growing class divisions that threaten their development in new and even more vexing ways.

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