Life in a bubble 2: Upper West Side

map oasisnyc uws

After living in a bubble in The Hague for eight months, I moved to one of the wealthiest urban areas of the U.S. – of the world perhaps. For nearly four months I was lucky enough to have a place to live in the Upper West Side in Manhattan. Now that the time has come to move on – to Brooklyn – it’s time to look back. You might expect that in a Manhattan enclave for the well-to-do, the bubble was like a bunker, in which life is not only confined to a limited space but views to the ‘outside’ world are near impossible. However, my experience has been different.

#33

According to Stephen Higley, who has a website that investigates ‘racial integration in America’s wealthiest neighborhoods and suburbs’, the Upper West Side ranks 33rd in a list of richest urban neighbourhoods in the U.S. (based on 2010 data). According to the website where Higley gets his information from, the median household income in my zip code (part of the UWS) was a little over 110,000 dollar, while the median house price was around 1 million dollar (in 2010). My zip code ranked #91 in the list of wealthiest zip codes in New York State.

Compared to 2000, Higley writes, there was a ‘remarkable jump’ in the number of high-income blocks in Manhattan, among which blocks in ‘already well-to-do’ blocks in the Upper West Side. It looks like gentrification has been completed. Having that said, there is still public housing for low- and moderate-income households. As the map above indicates, within a square kilometer there are about ten properties of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) – the pink areas in a sea of dark green that indicates wealth. (The maps – above and below – can be found at oasisnyc.net – made by the Center for Urban Research at CUNY, where I’m currently visiting.)

 uws map color income ling (oasisnyc)

Day versus night

Although the UWS is a wealthy and white bubble relative to other parts of NYC (not in the least the area that I am moving to now), it was not a bubble relative to my experience in a wealthy neighbourhood in the Hague where I lived prior to moving to NYC. There may be several reasons for this. With nearly a 100,000 households living in the UWS, a small quarter of ‘non-White’ residents is noticeable. But there are other dynamics that determine a neighbourhood’s diversity.

First of all, the ‘daytime’ population looks very different from the ‘nighttime’ population: during normal business hours, people of other areas flow in to do their jobs in stores, construction, transport, and restaurants and bars, while a proportion of the residents flow out to do their jobs elsewhere, outside the neighbourhood. It is likely that many people who work in the UWS, especially those in cleaning, sales and caring jobs, do not live in the UWS and that those who commute to the UWS are not as wealthy as those who do live in the UWS and commute to elsewhere.

The result is that the daytime population is much more diverse in terms of income and race/ethnicity than the residential population. As a side note: daytime and nighttime are not really accurate terms for NYC, and the UWS is no exception: many stores in the UWS are open 24/7 and many bars don’t close until 4 AM. So the actual nighttime population is also more diverse than one would expect looking just at residents.

Visible poverty

Second, seeing people who are homeless or visibly poor is still quite rare in the Netherlands, even in its big cities (‘big’ is relative here). But it is not in the UWS. Walking through the neighbourhood in the morning or late at night, I always see people curled up against the buildings. It’s almost impossible to walk a few blocks and not encounter someone asking for money, food or help.

In a coffee bar that I visited regularly, I saw a woman coming in asking for money more than once – the same woman, and every time personnel would tell her ‘she couldn’t do that’ before escorting her to the door. I have seen people queuing for food that was handed out in front of the church next to my block. So also in that sense, living in the UWS is not as much a bubble as one might expect from living in one of the wealthiest urban areas.

Guilt

In the post Life in a bubble 1, I referred to research that shows that wealthy Americans think that the U.S. is more wealthy than it actually is, and that those who think that are more likely to oppose income redistribution. It’s possible that their distorted perception is the result of living in segregated high-income areas where they never encounter people who are poor, except perhaps on TV (which offers another distorted view of people living in poverty). In other words, they live in a bubble.

I thought about this and to what extent this would hold for wealthy residents in the UWS, when I read an article in The Guardian about what NYC’s richest residents tell their therapists. Apparently, it’s ‘tough at the top’. It’s easy to ridicule their sorrow – not in the least because there’s an easy solution to the problem of being rich. (As a side note: I found the Guardian article through this article; someone in the comments refers to my blog post Life in a bubble, as an example that even the rich (me?) admit they live in a bubble.)

But I read the article in relation to the question whether it matters that wealthy people live in a bubble, or bunker – or, rather, regularly encounter people living in poverty: does it matter for how they estimate inequality in society and for the extent to which they support redistribution? According to the therapist, there’s guilt over being rich. And I wondered whether such guilt was at least in part the result of being confronted daily with inequalities and with people living in poverty and without homes. It may be a powerful argument for maintaining, creating and facilitating socioeconomic diversity in urban neighbourhoods. Although the question remains what results from guilt: sharing one’s wealth, or rather building a bunker to avoid those uneasy confrontations.

Maps are from oasisnyc.net, a website made by the CUNY Center for Urban Research

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