New York’s growing segregation by income; what does this mean?

In a recent article , Richard Florida, an author whose writing and thinking I greatly admire, tackled the issue of the increasing stratification of the population of NYC by income. Florida uses income in this article as a proxy for classes: “creatives”, blue-collar and service-class people. What he finds is that rather than the notion of the urban city as one in which all sorts of people rub shoulders against each other on a regular basis, NYC has become a place whereby there are distinct areas where the so-called “creatives” live, and others for the service-sector folks. There are precious few blue-collar enclaves, and few where there is a broad distribution of incomes.

Thus one finds the area in which I grew up, Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, to be 89% service-class, at least in terms of their incomes. Other areas, especially in Manhattan or the parts of Brooklyn close to Manhattan, are almost exclusively home to higher income residents.

It’s relatively easy to understand how this happens. Property in Manhattan is quite valuable due to well, being in Manhattan. It would make sense as well that some neighborhoods in Brooklyn, located quite close to Manhattan and an easy commute, and often graced with lovely old brownstones, would tend to absorb the overflow from Manhattan, and in turn become gentrified. So what appears to be happening is the formation of two New Yorks; wealthier better educated enclaves of professionals and creatives, and the working stiffs who have lower paid jobs and reside in further out parts of the boroughs.

So what does this imply for anything from city services such as street cleaning, snow removal, police protection or to the availability of taxis (ever try to find a Yellow Cab outside of Manhattan?). And more, if one of the “bennies” of urban living is supposed to be the transference of ideas and energies between people as they interact with each other on a daily basis, what does this increased stratification imply? What does it mean if “the creatives” interact mostly with their own kind, and the service-class with theirs? If on a regular basis one who resides and works in Manhattan absorbs the often dynamic and vibrant street scene, has interesting conversations in the cafes with others, can pop into intriguing stores, visit museums and engage in all manner of stimulating activity available to them right where they live and work? And the service-class folks, living in areas where retail often consists of purveyors of fried chicken, cell phones and car service companies? How likely are they to have chance encounters with members of the creative classes and absorb ideas from vibrant streets around them?

I doubt that what Florida has found in NYC is unique. I think this very well is true in other parts of the country. It’s likely that in NYC the lines are more sharply drawn and the inequalities more distinct. But I doubt that this is only happening here. What I am wondering is what this implies for the notion of the urban city as this place where the teeming masses interact and gain from this? Is there anything lost if the creative classes find themselves only interacting with those who think like them? And so forth for the service-class?

Where are all the jobs and why does it matter?

Recently I read Enrico Moretti’s new book “The New Geography of Jobs”. Talk about some “aha” moments! His basic tenet, for those who have yet to read this book, is that areas of the U.S. are fast becoming vastly unequal in terms of wealth, education and good jobs. Some cities are becoming the “haves” while others are the “have-nots”. The “haves” are then, much like a black sweater to white cat hair, continuing to attract educated creative class types and the jobs that they then fill. Meanwhile, some places are dwindling, their economies tanking, numbers of residents with a college degree ever lower and no end in sight to their ever diminishing prospects.

So why is this and what does it mean? It’s not totally clear why some areas thrive and others decline. But it is apparent that once it starts, it snowballs rapidly. Companies choose to locate in places where they will find others like them plus a place that is “thick” with potential employees. Well educated “creative sorts” gravitate to places that are thick in the jobs they finds attractive plus others “like them” to hang out with. And yes, cafes, entertainment, cool urbanscapes, attractive retail, mass transit, walkable downtowns, good restaurants; all of this adds to the desirability of a place.

What does this imply? It well explains why despite the often high cost of living in a place such as NYC, Boston, Seattle or San Francisco, there seems to be no end to the numbers of educated Milennials flocking to live there. As well, one only has to peruse job boards to notice that these cities are heavy on interesting jobs, often high-tech ones. Meanwhile, the job offerings in Toledo,OH Watertown,NY or Detroit,MI tend to be predominantly lower level service oriented positions, and even then in short supply. So we have set in motion a sort of domino effect whereby like attracts like and it grows ever onward from there.

I’ve been thinking about this a great deal recently, and in particular, in reference to where I live at present, in Vermont. Over the time I’ve lived here, since the mid-90’s, I’ve watched as Chittenden County, home of Burlington, VT, has become ever prosperous and growing in numbers of residents and businesses. In fact, one could say that there are now two Vermonts; the Chittenden County area(including the surrounding counties), and “the rest” of Vermont. Employment opportunities in these two areas are vastly different as are unemployment rates. Educational opportunities differ as well. Housing prices are markedly different. I’ve watched as events that used to take place elsewhere in the state from the Quilt Festival to the NOFA Conference to the Farm Show have all moved up to new homes in Chittenden County.

And all of this has meant that newer, often younger residents mostly want to live in Chittenden County as that is where “it” all appears to be happening. Of course housing prices there often preclude that so we have ever growing numbers of people taking on long commutes to get to their jobs in the Burlington area.

Now to me this doesn’t seem to be either sustainable or ideal. It would appear to me that we would be better served by having several areas within Vermont that would be centers of jobs, education and population. Why either force huge numbers to engage in long and costly commutes or else resign themselves to working at the low-level jobs available at the local convenience store? Why can’t we choose to have several such “centers of prosperity” distributed across the state?

But if we agree that it makes sense to distribute these successful areas, the question remains as to how to accomplish this? How do we essentially duplicate the successes of Burlington, replicating it to some degree in other areas of the state? This question doesn’t of course just apply to Vermont. One could look at how to encourage the creation of centers of jobs and creativity in other parts of states where they are lacking. Why should NYC have all the spoils? Why not see Troy or Albany become a center of jobs, education and a place that creatives flock to? Or Milwaukee,WI, Springfield MA or Cleveland, OH?

But how do we do this? Is the creation of these areas of highly educated types and the jobs they can fill something that we can actually figure out how to replicate? Is there any interest in trying to do this? I’m not talking about the steps some places have taken whereby they build a sports stadium or install fancy streetlights and then sit back and wait for the jobs to come pouring in. I don’t think anyone has ever showed this to be effective. I’m talking here about really analyzing what seems to be necessary for a location to become a magnet for the activities and types of residents that are desired and then making a concerted effort to set this in motion.