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America's Gilded Capital

Joseph Hines

Graphic artist Nickolay Lamm's remapping of Manhattan's skyline based on net wealth.

It’s a tired trope at this point, but there remains something remarkable about New York City’s richest resident serving as its most powerful mayor in recent history. New York serves as a microcosm for the country's intensifying political and economic power in the hands of a small group of elites. Much like wealthy Americans across the country, Bloomberg's economic dominance translated into political success, often at the cost of policies to help those less fortunate.

As the Bloomberg retrospectives hum along, it’s worth noting the remarkable changes in income distribution the largest city in the country has undergone.

The 1980s are widely considered in popular imagining a period of epic inequality in New York, with rampant crime and an unshackled financial sector. That’s a misconception. An excellent op-ed in the New York Times contextualizes that public understanding: Michael Bloomberg’s era puts the 1980s to shame. From the piece:

The top 1 percent of earners in New York make nearly 40 percent of the total income of city residents, nearly twice the national figure. This number has grown. At the beginning of Mr. Bloomberg’s tenure in 2002, the top 1 percent of earners in New York made 27 percent of the income.


It is worth considering these numbers in the context of the previous gilded age, the era of Oliver Stone’s first “Wall Street,” in 1985, when the wealthiest 1 percent of New Yorkers made 15 percent of the city’s income, virtually in line with the national figure at the time.

New York City is now the most unequal metropolitan area in the country. Yet still, Bloomberg fought tooth and nail to stop measures to lift up those left behind by his economy. For example, he fought against enacting paid sick leave from being passed for five years before eventually being overridden by a veto-proof majority in the City Council, even as 80 percent agree it’s a basic worker’s right. The difficulty in enacting paid sick leave illustrates how difficult it’s been to pass any measures to rectify the city’s staggering inequality.

The end of Bloomberg’s term presents new opportunities. A new mayor can refocus on policies to bolster the lower and middle-classes. Of the many policies to consider: Raising the city’s minimum wage and passing strong legislation to prevent wage-theft from low-wage workers (which 21 percent of low-wage workers in New York report) and banning employment credit checks that keep qualified workers out of a job. 

As the Democratic primary in the race to succeed Bloomberg becomes focused more and more on inequality and class, and as fast-food and retail strikes grow, the country’s most unequal city could buck the national trend and finally provide a progressive way forward.