A Stubborn Racial Disparity in Who Calls the Upper East Side Home

Elizabeth A. Harris, New York Times, August 6, 2012

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The proportion of non-Hispanic black residents on the Upper East Side has remained exceedingly low for decades, rising from 2.1 percent of the area’s population in 1990 to just 2.7 percent about 20 years later, according to an analysis of census data by Susan Weber-Stoger of the Queens College department of sociology, which defined the Upper East Side as the area between Fifth Avenue and the East River, from 59th to 96th Streets.

The proportion of white residents, meanwhile, has also held fairly stable, dipping to 81 percent from 88.6 percent.

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One might not expect it, given the diversity of New York City’s population and the cultural mishmash of its subways, but this metropolitan area is actually one of the most segregated in the country in terms of where people live. A study of the country’s 100 largest metro areas, released last year by the Brookings Institution, found that the New York area was the second most segregated for black people (Milwaukee was No. 1) and the third most segregated for Hispanic and Asian residents.

William H. Frey, the author of the study and a senior fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings, said this unenviable distinction was due in part to the city’s age. Older metropolises, he explained, tend to be more residentially segregated than cities that have seen whole new communities spring up since the Fair Housing laws of the 1960s outlawed discrimination.

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The median wealth for white households is 20 times that of black households, according to a survey released last year by the Pew Research Center. That difference becomes crucial on the Upper East Side, where, according to the appraisal firm Miller Samuel, the average price for condominiums and co-ops last quarter was $1.94 million.

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Nonetheless, there are plenty of black New Yorkers who can afford to live in whichever part of the city they please, including the brownstone streets of Brooklyn Heights and sparkling Fifth Avenue penthouses. And many of them do decide to live on the Upper East Side, where they stay happily put for decades.

That choice, however, does not appear to be the default. According to recent census data, there were about 450 black households on the Upper East Side with an income of $100,000 or more, and more than 4,600 in Harlem.

Academics say that there can be pressure on well-to-do African-Americans to live in historically black neighborhoods, to “lift as we climb,” as the mantra goes. For others, the decision hinges more on a reluctance to live where they are such an extreme minority.

“You can have a co-op on Park Avenue and 88th Street, but everywhere you go people are going to look at you like, ‘What are you doing here?’ ” said Mark Naison, a professor of African-American studies and history at Fordham University. {snip}

Carla Shedd, an assistant professor of sociology and African-American studies at Columbia University, agreed that some black people were wary of living with that day-to-day experience. “If I can really exercise a choice,” Dr. Shedd said, “maybe I want to live in Harlem rather than, perhaps, people thinking I’m a domestic worker when I live in the building.”

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