New York City. A great heaving monster. A sky-high dream factory. A concrete jungle. No matter how it's described, the superlatives never seem to add up to the experience of entering Manhattan for the first time.
It's also an unequal city, what Mayor de Blasio called "a tale of two cities" when he ran on a campaign to reduce in equalities, back in 2013. You can see this in the city skyline - tall skinny "super tall" buildings for billionaire lairs have sprouted like reedy middle fingers. Throw a rock anywhere along the East River and you’ll hit a new development for the nouveau middle classes, first homes for fledgling tech workers and ad types who aren’t fussy about gentrification because, after all - wouldn't you want this view of the city from Brooklyn? Throw the same rock in formerly red-lined areas of Brooklyn and Queens and you’ll probably hit a NYPD camera, a public housing project, or an under-performing school.
COVID hit hard here, and that disproportionately affected black and brown communities. The homeless population, perennially a thorn in the city's side, has increased. The school system deals with a legacy of segregation, and the main jail, Rikers Island, has seen a horrible spike in dysfunction, deaths, and even anarchy. Meanwhile, housing prices have surged to an all-time high, the number of billionaires has soared, and proposals to tax the wealthy have all failed. The main multipliers of wealth, the stocks and property markets, have soared during the pandemic - and look set to continue far into the future.
Because it exists as the paradigmatic, apex city in the world’s most powerful, richest country, a country which is at the moment of writing (late 2021) approaching levels of economic inequality last seen at the beginning of the 20th century, NYC is worthy of attention. Mayor de Blasio has recently released a new 12-page document outlining his achievements on reducing inequality, hopefully cementing his legacy in a run-up to the governor's race in 2022.
There have been strides towards reducing inequalities that are real, potentially long-lasting, and affordable. Universal "Pre-K and 3-K" (meaning all children who are 3 and 4 years old can now access free schooling) is de Blasio's signature legacy, alleviating the cost of child care, boosting total lifetime earnings, benefitting largely communities of color, and providing a "stronger, richer, fuller life for children" and their parents.
Discount transit cards, a large amount of affordable housing units built, climate change investment, a $15 minimum wage, expanded access to health care and other worker protections and many more programs are being touted as alleviating the city's inequality rates which still persist as some of the highest in the country. (note: many economists encourage multiple metrics to assess levels of inequality, but the Gini coefficient still persists by far as the favorite in a soundbyte-obsessed culture.) Ultimately, achievements such as these, which are really focused on reducing poverty (rather than attacking entrenched wealth, or the financial industry for example) are politically popular.
Technically, raising the bottom of society to exist on "living wages" (really, it should be called "survival wages") is a reduction in inequality by some measures. But it also seems to telegraph a future America with billionaire oligarchs far too powerful and distant to rein in, surrounded by cheerleading upper middle class folk who consistently tout "full employment" as the primary assessment of a healthy society. Meanwhile, a largely indolent and consumerist-focused lower class where any semblance of social churn is frozen in place. Capturing wealth and growing it over generations, the only way to truly meaningfully reduce inequality, has become almost impossible, and the compounding effects of interest continue to grow the gap by an unimaginable amount each day. How much success - measured not in dollar terms but in that elusive concept of "thriving" - can we really expect from $15 an hour?
Yes, you can still “make it” in New York, and if you can do it there, you can “do it anywhere”. Take the F train to Jackson Heights, or the N to Sunset Park, or pretty much anywhere in the Bronx, and you’ll see people hustling - thousands upon thousands of people walking, selling, dancing, laughing, and building up a little nest egg - or more likely, remitting most of their nest egg back home.
To gain a foothold of prosperity in New York without a degree, English language skills, property, or even a car, is still viable, but barely. Rent is insane. Workers sleep in basement apartments so bleak, so crowded, and so inaccessible that they literally drown when it rains hard. Wages are inconsistent, pay structure can be opaque. But “making it” in 2021 is a far cry from building generational wealth. “Making it” in an unequal society means surviving, not thriving. Societal protections and guarantees that you will pass along some sort of benefit to your future generations - wealth in the form of housing, an inheritance, stocks, etc - are unlikely. “Making it in New York” rings more and more some like sort of rote liturgy to the idea of American Exceptionalism, dreamed up not too far away in Madison Avenue - more akin to pageant than practicalities.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t individuals succeeding in finance, advertising, tech, and the arts, who came from very little and worked very hard. Those people exist, and their stories are valid. But they are also vanishingly rare, as a proportion of the total population. The top 5% of Americans own 2/3 of the country’s wealth - and the billionaires have it best of all. Their wealth, already anomalous, grew more than 50% from 2019 to 2021. The first dollar trillionaire will almost certainly exist within our lifetime. And these gains aren’t coming from nowhere - they come at the expense of middle and lower income earners - in the form of lower wages, tax incentives (subsidies), natural resource extraction, and more. But we fetishize wealth, and we fetishize the struggle to become wealthy.
There’s even a fancy psychology term for it - The Fundamental Attribution Error. Talking to even liberal Americans will give you an idea of how this error works in practice - that we are loathe to admit that class distinctions exist, that money begets money, and that white men succeed at the expense of all other demographics. We’re just too damn busy dreaming up how to spend our millions on My Lottery Dream Home, and that if we just work ourselves more efficiently, perhaps with keto diets, microdoses of psilocybin, and invest in the correct cryptocurrencies (spoiler alert: I’m also fascinated with these practices albeit in a less starry-eyed way) we too might one day benefit by leaving the top marginal tax rate at a measly 37%. Besides, isn’t it un-American, and, dare I say, a little bit socialist to want to bring down the rich?
Lest I’m accused of being too negative, New York has achieved several amazing goals under Mayor de Blasio, including universal Pre-K for ages 3 and up, paid leave, new housing, expanded bike lanes, etc. The city is livable without a car (by far, the only US city of this size that you can say that), even thrive-able. Surfing in clean water and hiking atop pristine mountain forests are both accessible by subway and train, footsteps from many New Yorker’s doors. People experiencing homelessness, while a problem, is managed much better than in most US west coast cities, and free local clinics for COVID testing and vaccines were all over the city in 2021. Green space, bike lanes, public pools, beaches, are accessible and free, and museums, libraries, and music halls are ubiquitous and often accessible with language and payment options, and non-discriminatory clauses.
Many of these institutions, it should be noted, were built in that narrow slice of history where recreation was both considered a public good and something to be managed by the state, so the more recent additions to the city parkscape (Tiny Island, riverfront parks in Long Island City, the Oculus) veer a little too closely towards corporate sustainability projects for my liking - but they are nominally open to all. Plus there’s that indefinable rush of stepping out of the 34th St subway onto 8th Avenue and breathing in the hustle, the noise, the Empire State building, and the vertiginous assault of advertising that makes you feel like you're starring in your own personal movie, and allows for some degree of je ne sais quoi that I guess is best summed up by that poster of Biggie with a crown on his head.
The magic of photography is not in data or the written nuance; and these images of New York reflect the color, the balance, and the form of the city from a particular point and a particular frame. I wanted to explore all five boroughs: Manhattan, Brooklyn, The Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island. There are no tin shacks in New York; no mansions next to shantytowns, no slums or open sewers next to golf courses.
What I found was a city diverse in landscape, architecture, and people, so multifarious and utilitarian, that it was almost like every shot was a new thought waiting to be expressed visually, yet familiar and timeless all at once. More than just a dense tangle of concrete, the city is also wild and real; beach holiday homes, urban forests, and pristine wetlands exist. But I mainly found myself drawn to the architecture, to the canals and the buildings and the roads which fascinate me as the veins, carbuncles, and capillaries of all major metropolises. I hope you enjoy them in the spirit of a healthier, fairer, and more truthful society, one in which care and justice take precedence.