In America's Financial Capital, a Staggering Wealth Gap


When it comes to average per capita wealth, New York City has been eclipsed by a handful of other locales, but the city that never sleeps still holds sway in the public imagination as the capital of capital, the center of the financial industry, and a place where a $235,000 salary still only counts as middle class. But, as a couple of recent articles show, New York isn't just a center of American wealth: it's also a center of American wealth inequality, a place where the divide between the very rich and the very poor is sometimes only a matter of a few hundred feet ... as the crow flies.

Even the wealthiest cities still run on an army of lower-income workers. For years, New York has fought with the question of how to house its middle- and lower-class workers in a market that is heavily skewed toward the richest of the rich. The latest solution, mixed-income housing, requires that new buildings have apartments set aside for poorer residents. Apartment buildings that set aside more space for low-income tenants get more attractive financing rates from the city.

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On the surface, this seems like a good deal for all involved. Lower-income workers get affordable places to live, developers get money from the city, and richer tenants get to enjoy some of New York's famed economic and social diversity. In practice, however, the situation can be more problematic: recently, a proposed condominium on New York's expensive Upper West Side revealed plans to segregate its high income and lower-income tenants by installing separate entrances and elevators for both groups. One area newspaper, The West Side Rag, likened the arrangement to "Downton Abbey," "where the servants have to come and go through separate entrances and bow their heads when they see a noble."

Area residents have gotten up in arms about the building's plans, but the newspaper points out that these sorts of arrangements aren't uncommon: "New York real estate is filled with 'poor doors' and 'rich doors.'" For that matter, the city's richest and poorest are often separated by only a few subway stops. In an article that came out earlier this year, The New Yorker compared the relative income of each subway stop, noting that "if the borough of Manhattan were a country, the income gap between the richest twenty per cent and the poorest twenty per cent would be on par with countries like Sierra Leone, Namibia, and Lesotho."

(For my part, the article's interactive tool revealed that the average income around the subway stop I used to get on to ride to work was one sixth the average income of the subway stop where I got off.)

Last week, researcher and artist Nickolay Lamm found a new way to present New York's stunning wealth gap: using information from mapping system ArcGIS, he constructed a block-by-block map of wealth in New York, wherein the richest addresses are represented by towering green bars and the poorest are barely-present blocks. Even for people who aren't familiar with New York real estate, it isn't hard to see what the map of Harlem represents. Featuring a long, low, green space, it shows a place where household incomes barely register. In the distance, a wave of green blocks hide horizon: staggeringly tall, the wall of wealth seems distant and impenetrable.

Bruce Watson is DailyFinance's Savings Editor. You can reach him by e-mail at, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.