7 Books About New York City’s Drastic Economic Divide

From Electric Lit:

It’s been said many times already that the coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the dramatic economic inequality in New York City—which of course ties into deeper systemic issues around race. But to pretend those inequalities haven’t been obvious before this time—to pretend they haven’t always been part of the city’s history—is a serious fiction. I grew up as the daughter of a building superintendent on the Upper West Side. In a single morning my father might be asked to prevent a homeless man from stealing the newspapers out of the lobby to re-sell on the street, to manage a group of contractors who were re-tiling someone’s bathroom, and to massage the haunches of the cat in the penthouse while the tenants were away at their summer house. In the course of a very short time period and in a very small space, all sorts of examples of vast inequalities occurred in the building where we lived.

In my novel, The Party Upstairs, I wanted to draw on the setting of a single building on the Upper West Side to explore some of the complicated power dynamics that emerged between residents there. Throughout the course of a day, a building super and his daughter try to navigate between different socioeconomic worlds they must inhabit and perform in. They have to reckon with their own past mistakes, with their wildest hopes, and with the facades they must keep up in day-to-day life in order to survive in the city.

In writing the novel, I was drawn to other books that approached socioeconomic inequality in the city in a way that neither fetishized the wealthy nor seemed to exploit the suffering caused by poverty. I wanted to tackle my characters’ anger at the city’s inequality while also recognizing the many moments of joy and connection the city brings too.

. . . .

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez

In The Friend, a writer in New York inherits a Great Dane from her recently deceased friend and fellow writer. The novel grapples with sitting with grief, but there’s also a real sense of financial strain and risk: In order to keep her rent-controlled apartment in a building that doesn’t allow for pets, the narrator must hope that nobody reports the dog to her landlord. “It’s not like you’ll be put out on the street overnight,” a friend assures her. The super warns the narrator about the threat of eviction, which the narrator understands: It’s his job on the line as well. Nunez’s book demonstrates the way that housing instability in the city and the weight of class don’t need to take center stage in a narrative to make their presence felt on a character in the midst of great loss.

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

PG notes the obvious – large cities in all times and everywhere have featured large economic divides.

Large cities and the buildings in large cities cost a lot of money to build, so whoever builds them over a period of years will, of necessity, have wealth well in excess of that necessary to provide for his/her/their basic needs.

If people have enough collective wealth to build a large city with its related infrastructure, at least some will have enough wealth to build large residences and obtain the services of others in maintaining those residences and providing for the wealthier occupants’ needs.

Ancient Athens, the cradle of democracy, included an average of three or four slaves per household. Ditto for the Roman Empire, where slaves served in households, agriculture, mines, the military, manufacturing workshops, construction and a wide range of services within the city. As many as 1 in 3 of the population in Italy or 1 in 5 across the empire were slaves

The only exception wealth being necessary to build large cities that comes to PG’s admittedly hazy mind is places like the favelas in Brazil, slums/shantytowns located within or on the outskirts of the country’s large cities. According to PG’s quick research, an estimated 12 million people live in Brazil’s favelas.

Of course, despite their size and hazy legal status as an only semi-recognized element of the adjoining cities, favelas are, in fact, part of cities like Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo and, absent those cities, would probably not exist at their present locations.

PG’s comments are not intended to minimize the sufferings of the poor in any age nor are they intended to imply that charitable and other assistance to the poor are not important and necessary, but simply to point out that income inequality is a condition as old as organized towns and cities.

6 thoughts on “7 Books About New York City’s Drastic Economic Divide”

  1. Ancient Athens, the cradle of democracy, included an average of three or four slaves per household. Ditto for the Roman Empire, where slaves served in households, agriculture, mines, the military, manufacturing workshops, construction and a wide range of services within the city. As many as 1 in 3 of the population in Italy or 1 in 5 across the empire were slaves

    White slaves?

    • My understanding is that the Romans made slaves out of any racial or ethnic group they conquered without regard to race or place of origin. Roman battles along the Mediterranean coast yielded slaves who lived there. Ditto for inland Europe, the Balkans, etc. There were lots of Greek slaves.

      Members of opposing armies who surrendered or were captured were controlled by the commanding general of the victorious Roman army. He typically turned them over to auctioneers and received the proceeds from their sale. Sometimes, the general shared the proceeds with others in the army. At other times, he did not. Slave traders followed Roman armies on their campaigns for the express purpose of acquiring slaves to resell.

      • It wasn’t just the Romans in antiquity.
        The Ottomans practiced slavery until WWI, with strong emphasis on female slavery into the 20th. Slaves came from all over including the Balkans and Eastern Europe.


        It should be no surprise that eastern european women constitute a significant part of present day slavery the world over. The biggest practicioners of modern slavery are China, India, and the arab nations around the horn of africa, plus assorted regions in central africa.

        There are probably more slaves being exploited today than in any previous time in history.
        It just isn’t practiced as openly and it’s rarely called slavery but the “peculiar institution” is as prevalent as ever.

        And that isn’t including the modern offshoot called taxation, even when it adds up to over 100% of income.

        • Here’s a good summary:

          Around 10 million people are currently behind bars somewhere in the world. Some have yet to face trial, a few have been wrongly convicted, but most are prisoners for a crime they have committed.

          Meanwhile, four times as many people are being held against their will because of a crime committed against them—they are part of the global slave population estimated to be more than 40 million.

          That number is higher than the entire population of Canada. Many of these victims are literally kept under lock and key, while others are effectively imprisoned by coercion, manipulation and extortion.

          Slavery may long have been officially outlawed, but difficult though it may be to believe, numerically there are more slaves today than at any time in history.

          Source highly recommended, and not just as story fodder.

  2. Economic stratification is unavoidable in any society.
    The only variation is whether it arises naturally over time or enforced by corruption or military power. The soviets had it, the NorKoreans have it, the Chinese have it, even Malawi has it.

    Anybody pretending otherwise is either deluded or willfully lying.

    Even Brasilia has its slums, even though it was designed to make them impossible.

    In part the problem with Brasilia is that in some ways it succeeded too well. Designed for about 500,000 people, the city now holds over 2.5 million. The apartment building complexes that communist-sympathising Niemeyer designed to house the rich and the poor, are now home to the rich and the rich.

    People living in Brasilia appreciate Niemeyer’s work but the city can be tough to live in. “It’s difficult as a pedestrian. It doesn’t always feel like it’s on a scale designed for humans,” says Lucy Jordan a journalist in Brasilia.

    “The poor have been shunted out to satellite cities, which range from proper well-built cities to something more like a shanty town. So the utopian ideal hasn’t exactly worked out with Brasilia.”

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