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The Dynamics of Shifting Population and Wealth

Reflections on a Year in New York City and the Dynamics of Shifting Population and Wealth

In just a few weeks, I will have lived in New York City for a year.  It's hard to believe that it has already been a full year, but at the same time, with all that has happened, it's hard to believe that it hasn't been longer.  In reflecting on that, I realize that I'm writing from my third New York City apartment.  But it isn't just my third apartment, because with each one has come a new neighborhood, a new zip code, a new grocery store, a new laundromat, a new commute, and even a new borough.  Cancel that, sorry Queens, only two boroughs so far.  But, it becomes readily apparent, in considering this, that I am a part of the constantly shifting population of New York's recent additions, and that that makes me a part of the much larger dynamics of the City as a whole.

When I first moved to the City last year, I had the great fortune to be able to sublet a room from a friend in Hell's Kitchen for two months.  No, I don't mean that I had a great fortune that allowed me to afford this opportunity; I mean that timing worked out perfectly.  I got lucky.  According to a map (see below) recently published by WNYC’s Data News Team, though, I wasn't the only one.  In fact, Hell's Kitchen is one of the more popular places for newcomers to make their first stop.  Presumably, this is due to the neighborhood’s proximity to Midtown and relative affordability compared to much of Manhattan.  At the same time, an even higher percentage of Midtown's residents are recent arrivals.  A great number of these new residents probably moved here for a job there and were likely less familiar with the rest of the City.

Upon further examination, I noticed that the subsequent two neighborhoods that I have lived in since leaving Manhattan for Brooklyn, Prospect Lefferts Gardens and Bedford-Stuyvesant/Bushwick, rank extremely low in this respect.  Apparently, no one moves to these less popular neighborhoods from out of town.  But this may misrepresent the major changes occurring across these other parts of the City.  Although not popular destinations for newcomers, neighborhoods such as these are seeing a significant growth in wealth, while the more popular ones are seeing a decrease.  According to another map (see below) published by WNYC, it is neighborhoods such as the Lower East Side, Chinatown, Harlem, Williamsburg, Bushwick, and Bedford-Stuyvesant that are seeing the greatest increase in median household income.  In a city where the population is as dynamic as it is in New York, it is safe to assume that these shifts are not being entirely accounted for by stagnant populations; much of these changes are due to wealth moving into these neighborhoods, and not from out of town, but from within the City itself.

At the same time, though, there is still a great discrepancy in the distribution of wealth across the City.   Many of the neighborhoods experiencing the greatest increase in wealth are still among the neighborhoods with the lowest median household incomes.  In a third map (see below) published by WNYC’s Data News Team, this can be seen.

As a young designer concerned with issues of urbanism and as a relatively new resident of, well, a major urban center, I often feel conflicted about what these changes mean and what role I play in them.  If you read almost any source of news concerned with these issues, you’re probably used to seeing terms like gentrification thrown around on the regular.  And if so, you’re probably also accustomed to the negative connotations that many commonly associate with related population and wealth shifts.  But, as Justin Davidson poses in his recent article, “Is Gentrification All Bad?,”:

Gentrification doesn’t need to be something that one group inflicts on another; often it’s the result of aspirations everybody shares. All over the city, a small army of the earnest toils away, patiently trying to sluice some of the elitist taint off neighborhoods as they grow richer. When you’re trying to make a poor neighborhood into a nicer place to live, the prospect of turning it into a racially and economically mixed area with thriving stores is not a threat but a fantasy. As the cost of basic city life keeps rising, it’s more important than ever to reclaim a form of urban improvement from its malignant offshoots. A nice neighborhood should be not a luxury but an urban right.