New York City Is Quite Alive

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Harper’s Magazine ran a cover story in July on the “The Death of a Great American City.” Which American city? Well, the cover photo was of midtown Manhattan — with the “cigarette building,” the super-skinny new skyscraper for the super-rich at 432 Park Avenue, at its center — so that was easy enough to figure out.

The article, by veteran New York writer and Harper’s contributing editor Kevin Baker, is an extended gripe about “the systematic, wholesale transformation of New York into a reserve of the obscenely wealthy and the barely here.” I agreed with a few of the arguments, but the relentlessly dour overall tone nagged at me, and as I was checking out the New York City employment data for July released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics last week, I realized that I ought to respond in the way I know best — with charts!

To start, here’s New York City’s employment picture, going back to the 1950s for payroll data and the 1970s for statistics based on surveys of city households:

New York City Is Quite Alive

I have a personal stake in this chart because I moved to New York City and started a job here in April 1996 — just as the city’s economic takeoff was really getting going. Since then, city employers have added 1.14 million jobs (a 33.9 percent increase), and 1.01 million more city residents have jobs (a 33.2 percent increase). The city’s population is up by about 1.3 million (a 17.1 percent increase). These are not exactly indications of a city in its death throes. They also mean that more than a million people have been given opportunities to work and live in New York that didn’t exist two decades ago.

Meanwhile, fewer New Yorkers have been dying untimely deaths. You probably know about the precipitous decline in homicides:

New York City Is Quite Alive

So that’s about 40,000 people who would have gotten killed if murders had continued at their 1990 pace but instead got to live on to see another day. Overall life expectancy in New York City has also increased sharply. It has risen faster in New York than any other state since 1980, according to a New York State Health Foundation report based on data from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, with several city boroughs leading the way.

New York City Is Quite Alive

In 1980 only one borough, Queens, had a life expectancy equal to that of the U.S. as a whole. Now four of the five have longer life expectancies, with the Bronx on track to pass the national average soon. I don’t have a great answer for why life expectancy has gone up so much in New York City, but I do know that life expectancy is a commonly used metric of human development and quality of life. And as New York University sociologist Patrick Sharkey has documented in multiple studies and describes in his book “Uneasy Peace,” declining crime has also constituted a huge quality-of-life improvement, with “the greatest benefits ... experienced by the most disadvantaged segments of the urban population.”

Baker does grudgingly acknowledge in his essay that, “New York today—in the aggregate—is probably a wealthier, healthier, cleaner, safer, less corrupt, and better-run city than it has ever been.” The clear implication, though, is that things don’t look nearly as good once disaggregated. Baker attempts to show this by noting that 19.5 percent of New Yorkers lived below the poverty line in 2016. “By comparison,” he continues, “the city’s poverty rate in 1970—in the wake of Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty—was just 11.5 percent. By 1975, during the supposed collapse of New York, it had increased to 15 percent, a figure lower than it has ever been since then.”

Harper’s has fact-checkers, so I’m sure there is an official document somewhere that says the city’s poverty rate in 1970 was 11.5 percent. But in a 2008 review of poverty statistics for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Mark Levitan and Susan Wieler reported that the city’s poverty rate was 14.5 percent in 1969, rose to more than 25 percent in the early 1980s, declined during the the mid-to-late 1980s, then rose again and peaked in 1993-1994 at 26.6 percent. By 2016 it was down to 17.6 percent by what appears to be the equivalent metric, but was 19.5 percent according to the city’s own poverty rate definition, devised by Levitan when he was director of poverty research in the mayor’s office. Levitan also came up with a measure of “near poverty” that 43.5 percent of New Yorkers fell under in 2016. In sum, New York City’s poverty rate has dropped a lot since the early 1990s, but it’s still inordinately high (the U.S. poverty rate in 2016 was 12.7 percent).

Why is it so high? One reason is growing income inequality. This isn’t just a New York City phenomenon, of course, but the city’s job market seems to be especially sharply divided between super-high-end white-collar work and low-end service jobs. Combine this bifurcation with that million-plus growth in population since 1996, high construction costs, other barriers to development and the rise in a few parts of the city of luxury condominiums left empty for most of the year by wealthy foreign owners, and you also get a severe housing crunch for the non-affluent that exacerbates the city’s poverty. According to the 2017 New York City Housing and Vacancy Survey, 32.4 percent of New York City renters spend more than half their income on rent.

If you want to read a disturbing and extensively documented account of this “housing emergency” in New York City, I recommend Michael Greenberg’s August 2017 article in the New York Review of Books. For a short version, here’s a chart that I cobbled together from the 2017 Housing and Vacancy survey and its predecessors going back to 1991 for a column that ran in February:

New York City Is Quite Alive

The overall number of housing units has risen by 500,000 since the mid-1990s. This would be enough, given the city’s average household size of 2.65 people, to accommodate the 1.3 million increase in population since then. But the growing number of vacant units — some the property of the aforementioned wealthy foreigners, some rented out short-term to travelers on Airbnb, the largest number awaiting or undergoing renovation — has combined with a shift in the housing mix from rentals to owner-occupied units and a shift in the rental mix toward more expensive units to produce a pronounced shortage of apartments that households at the New York City median income ($57,500 in 2016) or below can afford.

In this case the data actually is somewhat consonant with Baker’s story, but he provides no such charts. He does cite Greenberg’s article a couple of times, and offers a few moderately constructive suggestions on how to address the housing crunch. But I think it’s fair to describe his essay as chiefly a complaint against change. Virtually every new building is an abomination, especially if it’s designed by an internationally famous architect and has lots of glass. The robber barons of the late 19th and early 20th centuries garner praise for endowing philanthropies and hiring “the most renowned architects to erect gigantic advertisements for their transformative, world-conquering enterprises,” but business leaders who do the same today are either ignored or painted as city-defacing Philistines. Clearly positive developments like the spectacular improvements to the city’s parks since the 1980s are dismissed out of hand because some private money is involved and the zoos in a couple of the parks have gotten more expensive. Every closing of a neighborhood business is a tragedy — especially, it seems, if it’s an auto-repair shop.

Now I too am something of a nostalgist, and as the author of an acclaimed trilogy of historical novels set in New York City, Baker does come by his fixation on the city’s past honestly. Nostalgia is a problematic lens, though, through which to view the challenges faced by a city that is by almost every reasonable measure a bigger, busier, healthier, safer, better place than it was two or three decades ago. Sometimes you need a few charts too.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”

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