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A Fascinating Geography of New York's 'Two Cities'

A Fascinating Geography of New York's 'Two Cities'
Reuters

New York mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio became the unexpected front-runner a couple of months back by articulating a "tale of two cities" critique of the boom-boom Bloomberg era. That vision appears to have resonated with New Yorkers who are worried that Gotham is turning into a playground for billionaires at the expense of everybody else.

But what are the boundaries between those two cities? There are a lot of different ways to slice that pie. Independent data analyst Chris Walker, a "data geek" who, until recently, lived and worked in Lower Manhattan, created a map looking at how property values in the five boroughs have changed between 2008 and 2012.

It highlights one aspect of the bifurcation that de Blasio is talking about. While people are always buzzing about "soaring" New York real estate prices, those prices are only on the rise in certain parts of town. With a few exceptions, it's Manhattan and adjacent sections of Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx that have seen assessments go up in the data from the New York Department of Finance that Walker mapped, which encompasses 958,000 properties. In many of the working-class neighborhoods of the outer boroughs, the value of real estate has actually fallen.

"I know New Yorkers almost love to complain about the seemingly relentless increase in prices," says Walker from his current home in Mumbai. "But I wanted to question that. There are many different New Yorks in New York City, and the people in my circles who enjoy complaining are young professionals – you might call them yuppies."


Click here for the full interactive map.

What Walker's map shows is that New Yorkers you would probably not call yuppies – those living in some of the cities traditionally immigrant neighborhoods, such as Corona, or the largely African-American areas of south Brooklyn and eastern Queens – are dealing not with rising property values, but with falling ones. As Walker points out on his blog, Vizynary, many of the zip codes marked in dark red are part of what the New York Times has called "the foreclosure belt," which "stretches across the heart of black homeownership in this city."

Creating affordable housing, a crucial issue in many of the nation's cities, is going to be at the top of the next New York mayor's to-do list. But Walker's map opens up a series of complicated questions. Skyrocketing prices are forcing poor and working-class people out of rentals in wealthier neighborhoods close to the city’s core where real-estate speculation has become a profitable financial game. At the same time, falling property values and underwater mortgages mean the loss of security and equity for working people who bought houses for their families. Not only that, block after block of foreclosures destabilizes neighborhoods.

Walker's map tells a tale not just of two cities, but of two opposite challenges for one city. It's a picture that's only getting more complicated.

Top image: Democratic New York City mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio and his wife Chirlane McCray walk to vote in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn in New York. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn. All posts »

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