March 5, 2003

There Go the Neighborhoods: Rich and Poor, Side by Side


In Brooklyn, the Gowanus Houses tower over a block of row houses on Warren Street in Boerum Hill. The city has dozens of census tracts in which the gap between the richest and the poorest is among the widest in the country.

The intricate geography of income difference in New York City is something Chastity Davis absorbed early, growing up in the 1980's in a tenement apartment in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, on a block of mostly brick row houses flanked by public housing projects at either end.

At the neighborhood elementary school, Ms. Davis's friends were from the projects. But her mother bused her to Bay Ridge for junior high, hoping she might run with a better crowd. As for the children of the homeowners on the block, they did not go to public school at all.

"I knew they were there, but I never felt I had any reason to want to play with them," Ms. Davis, 28, recalled recently. "Even as a young child, there's a sense that you sort of stay with the people that you're most comfortable with — people in the same income bracket or gender or ethnicity or class."

A defining characteristic of New York City is its economic diversity, the juxtaposition of people of disparate circumstances in limited space. The gap between top and bottom is greater in New York than in most cities in the country, and people at the extremes often live closer together.

In the 1990's the disparity in many neighborhoods became more pronounced, census data show. As the economy boomed, income inequality grew. And as the population swelled and real estate prices soared and crime waned, the affluent pushed deeper into neighborhoods they had once shunned.

Now the city has dozens of census tracts — clusters of just a few thousand people — in which the average household income in the top fifth of the income spectrum is at least 24 times the average in the bottom fifth, according to an analysis of census data done for The New York Times. In 15 of those tracts, the average at the top is at least 40 times that at the bottom.

The analysis, by Andrew A. Beveridge, a professor of sociology at Queens College, identified the top 30 tracts with the biggest income disparity. Seventeen are in Brooklyn, seven are in Manhattan and four are in Queens. The Bronx and Staten Island have one each.

They range from Ms. Davis's neighborhood, where two public housing projects bookend a gentrifying corridor of brownstones and row houses, to an area along the beach in Brooklyn where West End Avenue appears to be a stark line of demarcation between the serene old-immigrant opulence of Manhattan Beach and the teeming new-immigrant enclave of Brighton Beach.

They also include tracts in Jamaica and St. Albans in Queens, in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, in East Harlem and in Chelsea, where one tract encompasses everything from new luxury apartment houses and full-floor condominium lofts to small, decaying apartment buildings.

The city is etched with boundaries and borderlands that appear on no maps, areas where income groups intersect, overlap, collide, coexist — along lines drawn and redrawn by quirks of history, differences in housing stock, patterns of immigration and the economy's perpetual rise and fall.

For some, the juxtapositions are a virtue, one of the city's fascinations; for others, they are a source of resentment and guilt. And despite New York's economic diversity, many say that meaningful contact across income lines in their neighborhoods is the exception, not the rule.

"The only contact that takes place for me and my wife is in the school," said Pablo Aviles, 39, a payroll worker for the Department of Education who lives in a public housing complex in Boerum Hill. "We've made friends with people who are on the other end of the income bracket; we've been to their homes and attended parties. There are PTA meetings. That's pretty much it."

William Kornblum, a professor of sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, said: "It's always an empirical question, to what extent propinquity matters to people. Because one of the outstanding features of life in a densely populated city such as ours is that you can live for a long time next to people and not necessarily have anything to do with them."

There are many reasons that income difference is more visible in New York City than elsewhere. Manhattan has the third-most-extreme income disparity of all counties in the United States, while the Bronx, Brooklyn and Staten Island are all in the top 50. (The two counties that top Manhattan are Kalawao County, Hawaii, where the census counted just 132 households, and San Francisco County.)

Density dictates proximity: if sprawl is the suburban response to inequality, it is not an option in New York, where many lower income people have been protected from displacement. The city's housing market has stronger controls than many, including rent laws, and more than 10 percent of all rental units are in the hands of the city's Housing Authority.

The affluent have their own protection. David J. Halle, a sociologist at the University of California at Los Angeles who lives in New York City, says the rich never abandoned New York the way they did other cities. He credits Wall Street, public transportation, the city's cultural institutions and the laws governing the co-op apartment system, which he calls "more gated than a gated community."

"What you have in New York City is a critical mass of well-to-do people," he said. "You don't have that in Los Angeles. It doesn't make sense for someone rich in Los Angeles to plonk themselves down in the middle. They definitely wouldn't feel comfortable with it. I think in many parts of the country they wouldn't. New York's a bit unusual."

On the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where the palatial town houses and co-ops of Carnegie Hill bump up against the tenements and public housing projects of East Harlem, there is a census tract just north of East 96th Street where the average income in the top fifth of the spectrum is $561,762, and the average in the bottom fifth is $11,634.

In one tract in Chelsea, the top and bottom averages are $370,713 and $8,844, census data show. In Boerum Hill, Bay Ridge and Bedford-Stuyvesant, the averages are lower but the gap is wide. At the western end of Manhattan Beach near the border of Brighton Beach, the average at the top is $415,388 and at the bottom, $6,868.

"In an odd sort of way, they're both one neighborhood and starkly divided," said Annelise Orleck, who grew up in both communities, is now a historian at Dartmouth and has written about the area. "Manhattan Beach people consider Brighton Beach their neighborhood; they use the boardwalk, they shop there. But there's definitely a sharp divide."

To the east of West End Avenue, large single-family houses line hushed suburban-style streets with Anglophile names like Coleridge, Dover and Exeter where S.U.V.'s and BMW's are parked. To the west, Brighton Beach is packed with modest row houses, apartment buildings, dilapidated bungalows and frame houses, many of them subdivided, with an occasional sign: "Se Renta Cuarto"(Room for Rent).

In some parts of Brighton Beach, as many as three of four residents were born abroad; the bulk of them are from Russia and Ukraine but many are from Mexico, Pakistan and China. In Manhattan Beach, nearly two-thirds of the residents were born in the United States. Professionals predominate; most Manhattan Beach adults have college degrees.

History and housing stock help explain the differences.

Manhattan Beach was developed after 1907, on the heels of the heyday of the Manhattan Beach Hotel, which had attracted an elite clientele, including Henry Ford. In Brighton Beach, an apartment building boom in the 1920's turned the neighborhood into what Professor Orleck calls "the yuppie neighborhood of the moment," but the stock market crash in 1929 cut that short.

Brighton Beach residents, politically active during the Depression, boasted that no one would be turned out of their homes for failing to pay rent, Professor Orleck said. As a result, "whatever the 1920's version of yuppie buildings was became places where you had several generations of families crowding together in apartments."

"I don't think it ever recovered its earlier position from that moment," she said. "Indeed, you have people writing in the 1930's that Brighton went from being this upscale neighborhood to a slum in a few years."

Boerum Hill was a working-class community when Chastity Davis was young. Professionals had begun moving in as early as the late 70's and restoring run-down houses. Young families followed a decade later. Bodegas and thrift stores on Smith Street have given way to bistros. More and more newcomers now send their children to the neighborhood elementary school, P.S. 38.

Some oldtime P.S. 38 parents bristled at the influx at first, Mr. Aviles said. But the school has benefited from the new arrivals' energy and resources, he said. Parents helped land a $300,000 grant for a computer lab and arranged for the transformation of the schoolyard into a playground. They organized "enrichment clubs" specializing in areas like music and art.

Mr. Aviles admits he had been reluctant to invite some of his eldest son's classmates to the family's apartment in the Gowanus Houses, one of the two housing projects in the area. Anticipating their "negative thoughts," he said, "we tried to beat around the bush and get them not to come." But they came. Now he says he no longer worries about what people think.

Mary-Powel Thomas, a former magazine editor who moved from the Upper West Side nine years ago because she and her husband could afford to buy a house in Boerum Hill, said she too sometimes feels "a twinge of embarrassment about living situations."

It was "just luck," she said, that both her and her husband's families could afford to pay for their college education, so they graduated with no debt, and that her grandfather had left her stock that the couple sold to finance the down payment on their house. "I feel like, O.K., yeah, we both had jobs and worked hard and paid our bills, but that was part of the situation we were born into as well," said Ms. Thomas, the president of the PTA at P.S. 38. "There are plenty of people who work just as hard and pay their bills and are just as responsible, yet didn't have the head start we had."

And what does one do with that embarrassment? "Not a lot," she said frankly. "One sends one's children to public schools and does what one can to improve them."

Ms. Davis, who considers herself and her husband "approaching middle income but not there yet," would also like to buy a house in Boerum Hill. But she often doubts that will happen, and she is constantly aware of income differences. For example, she notices that she is treated differently in stores and other places depending on whether she is in jeans or dressed for her job as a recruiting assistant at J. P. Morgan.

"There's no question that there is a sense of resentment," she said. "Everyone is walking around subconsciously thinking the same things. I don't think anybody would disagree with what I'm saying. People who haven't faced that kind of experience would like to say it's not like that. But you always get the sense in the back of your head that things would be different if you looked a certain way or had a certain amount of money."

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company