Moving to Higher Ground

5.14.13 | Nob Hill, Beacon Hill, Georgetown all have two things in common: elevation and wealth.

Or as Canadian singer-songwriter”  Geoff Bermer’s song, Higher Ground, puts it:

 The rich are gonna move to the high ground

The rich are gonna move to the high ground

Holy doodle, look at your town

 The rich are gonna move to the high ground

That’s no coincidence, says University of Chicago’s Carlos Villarreal, a research analyst at the Center for Population Economics there.  Villarreal presented his latest research at last Friday’s Urban Network forum, Health in Cities, organized by the Center for Health and Social Sciences at the University of Chicago.

Villarreal’s curiosity was sparked when he missed his subway stop on the Upper East Side of New York and got off in East Harlem, among the poorest neighborhoods in Manhattan since at least the 1880s. What, he wondered, makes this neighborhood poor, while just blocks away, some of the wealthiest households in America reside?

Villarreal decided to find out. He combined census data with some pinpoint geo-coding and started looking for clues. With the real estate mantra “location, location, location” no doubt at the back of his mind, he zeroed in on marshes. Back in the 1880s, the lowest spots on the island–the marshes–were the stinkiest, most unsanitary spots in the city. And that was where the poor lived, not by choice of course, but because it was where the cheap housing was. In fact, Villarreal finds, that between 1830 and 1860, housing prices rose 30% with each mile from the marsh.

Even after the mid-1800s when sanitation was getting under control, the effect endured, and with time got stronger. By 1940, housing prices rose 81% for every mile from the old marshes–even after they were filled in and developed. Even Central Park, ringed by multi-million homes, is not immune. The north end of the park, a marshland, still has low rents.

Villarreal believes this initial geography of a city has a long reach in influencing its long-term settlement and poverty patterns. (Look no farther than New Orleans, where the ninth district was inundated when the levees broke.)

But it’s not always lowlands that dictate where poverty congregates, nor is geography destiny. In Bolivia, for example, the highest points rimming La Paz, the capital, were historically the poorest, according to today’s New York Times. Until recently.

La Paz has long had a clear geography of status. The wealthiest residents live at the bottom of the valley, and the poorer ones live higher up. On top of everything is El Alto, whose name means “the Heights.” For years a slum appendage of La Paz, it became an independent city in 1988.

El Alto, peering down on La Paz,  is coming on strong now, a hotbed of entrepreneurial chutzpa and scrappiness—”a capital of capitalism” as the Times reports. It also has an airport and most of the country’s major roads pass through it, which certainly helps. The poor are still there, but popping up everywhere are McMansions as the city sits poised on a future of growth and wealth.

That doesn’t diminish Villarreal’s work, although one hopes he and other researchers don’t become so enamored with their data that they fail to look around at the other obvious correlations with poverty, like racism and segregation, or the other settlement influence, such as where the winter wind blew, where American Indians settled, where Ellis Island and its immigrants disembarked. New York City centuries before had 55 separate ecosystems. These factors, too, influence settlement patterns.

But it’s a fascinating deep dive into historical records. It reminds me of the work by my mapping buddies at the Center for Urban Research. Steve Romalewski had stumbled on a book of early maps of New York, originally intended for advertisers, which he coupled with the 1940 census data. With color-coded, block-by-block analyses of rents, a now-quaint description of residents, housing stock, and businesses, the book was an different sort of entree into history. The result is “Welcome to 1940s New York“– a rich resource that reveals how much things change in a city and nation, and how much they don’t.

And not to miss, Eric Sanderson’s Ted Talk about the Manahatta project, with fabulous photos of New York City when Henry Hudson in 1609 would have seen when he first came to New York.



Photo credit: Museum of Family History 

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