Meme Weeding: Rich West, Poor East

There’s a common line in global history – I think it’s popularized through Eric Hobsbawm – that there is a universal east-west divide in temperate latitude cities. The idea is that the west side of those cities is consistently richer than the east side and has been continuously since industrialization, because prevailing winds are westerly and so rich people moved west to be upwind of industrial pollution. I saw this repeated on Twitter just now and would like to push back. Some cities have this pattern, some don’t, some even have the opposite pattern. Among cities the casual urbanist reader is likely to be familiar with, about the only one where this is true is Paris.


London famously has a rich west and poor east. I think this is why the line positing this directional pattern as universal is so common. Unfortunately, the origin of this pattern is too recent to be about prevailing winds.

In an early example of data visualization, Charles Booth made a block by block map of London in 1889, colored by social class, with a narrative description of each neighborhood. The maps indeed show the expected directionality, but with far more nuance. The major streets were middle-class even on the East End: Mile End Road was lined with middle-class homes, hardly what one would expect based on pollution. The poverty was on back alleys. South London exhibited the same pattern: middle-class major throughfares, back alleys with exactly the kind of poverty Victorian England was infamous for. West London was different – most of it was well-off, either middle-class or wealthier than that – but even there one can find the occasional slum.

East London in truth had a lot of working poor because it had a lot of working-class jobs, thanks to its proximity to the docks, which were east of the City because ports have been moving downriver for centuries with the increase in ship size. Those working poor did not always have consistent work and therefore some slipped into non-working poverty. The rich clustered in enclaves away from the poverty and those happened to be in the west, some predating any kind of industrialization. Over time the horizontal segregation intensified, as slums were likelier to be redeveloped (i.e. evicted) in higher-property value areas near wealth, and the pattern diffused to the broader east-west one of today.


Berlin has a rich west and poor east – but this is a Cold War artifact of when West Berlin was richer than East Berlin, and the easternmost neighborhoods of the West were poor because they were near the Wall (thus, half their walk radius was behind the Iron Curtain) and far from City West jobs.

Before WW2, the pattern was different. West of city center, Charlottenburg was pretty well-off – but so was Friedrichshain, to the east. The sharpest division in Berlin was as in London, often within the same apartment building, which would house tens of apartments: well-off people lived facing the street, while the poor lived in apartments facing internal courtyards, with worse lighting and no vegetation in sight.


Tokyo has a similar east-west directionality as London, but with its own set of nuances. This should not be too surprising – it’s at 35 degrees north, too far south for the westerlies of Northern Europe; the winds change and are most commonly southerly there. The directionality in Tokyo is more about the opposition between uphill Yamanote and sea-level Shitamachi (the Yamanote Line is so named because the neighborhoods it passes through – Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, and Shibuya – formed the old core of Yamanote).

What’s more, the old Yamanote-Shitamachi pattern is also layered with a rich-center-poor-outskirts pattern. Chuo, historically in Shitamachi, is one of the wealthiest wards of Tokyo, thanks to its proximity to CBD jobs and the high rents commanded in an area where businesses build office towers.

The American pattern

The most common American pattern is that rich people live in the suburbs and poor people live in the inner city; the very center of an American city tends to be gentrified, creating a poverty donut surrounding near-center gentrification and in turn surrounded by suburban wealth. Bill Rankin of Radical Cartography has some maps, all as of 2000, and yet indicative of longer-term patterns.

New York is perhaps the best example of the poverty donut model: going outside the wealthy core consisting of Manhattan south of Harlem, inner Brooklyn, and a handful of gentrified areas in Jersey City and Hoboken near Manhattan, one always encounters poor areas before eventually emerging into middle-class suburbia. Directionality is weak, and usually localized – for example, the North Shore of Long Island is much wealthier than the South Shore, but both are east of the city.

Many American cities tend to have strong directionality in lieu of or in addition to the poverty donut. In Chicago, the North Side is rich, the West Side is working-class, and the South Side is poor. Many cities have favored quarters, such as the Main Line of Philadelphia, but that’s in addition to a poverty donut: it’s silly to speak of rich people moving west of Center City when West Philadelphia is one of the poorest areas in the region.

Where east-west directionality exists as in the meme, it’s often in cities without westerly winds. Los Angeles is at 34 degrees north and famously has a rich Westside and a poor Eastside – but those cannot possibly emerge from a prevailing wind pattern that isn’t consistent until one travels thousands of kilometers north. Houston is at 30 degrees north. More likely, the pattern in Los Angeles emerges from the fact that beachfront communities have always been recreational and the rich preferred to live nearby, and only the far south near the mouth of the river, in San Pedro and Long Beach, had an active industrial waterfront.

Sometimes, the directionality is the opposite of that of the meme. Providence has a rich east and poorer west. This is partly a longstanding pattern: the rivers flow west to east and north to south, and normally you’d expect rich people to prefer to live upriver, but in Providence the rivers are so small that only at their falls was there enough water power for early mills, producing industrial jobs and attracting working-class residents. However, the pattern is also reinforced with recent gentrification, which has built itself out of Brown’s campus on College Hill, spreading from there to historically less-well off East Side neighborhoods like Fox Point; industrial areas have no reason to gentrify in a city the size of Providence, and, due to the generations-long deindustrialization of New England, every reason to decline.


  1. df1982

    Don’t know where you get the idea that Friedrichshain was a wealthy area before WWII. It was an industrial working-class district, much like Prenzlauer Berg, Wedding, Neukölln. The rich area was the south-west, which is full of detached villas, unlike the Blockrandbebauung of the working-class areas. Electoral maps from the early 1930s are illustrative here: poor areas in Berlin voted communist, rich ones voted Nazi, and there is a reasonably clear east-west divide.

    Sydney, by the way, is a major counter-example to the meme, since the east is wealthy and the west is traditionally working-class. This has everything to do being closer to the waterfront, and the downtown also skews significantly to the east. The climate there is also milder due to the sea breeze. In summer the western suburbs can be up to ten degrees hotter and significantly drier than coastal suburbs.

      • df1982

        Everywhere had those little areas for the petty-bourgeoisie. Friedrichshain was not noticeably wealthier than Wedding or Neukölln, and certainly nowhere near as prosperous as Charlottenburg. There is a reason it was considered a “Hochburg der Arbeiterbewegung”.

  2. wiesmann

    In Zürich, the East parts are generally richer than the parts on the west-side: the hills facing south are on the east The industrial districts like Altstetten, Aussersihl, Wiedikon are to the West…

  3. Borners

    Even in prevailing westerlies Britain there are deviation/twists of the “pattern. City centres tend to be in valleys which leads to pea-soupers of pollutance, so rich people tended to be upwind in a Southwesterly direction in some places (Trafford for Manchester, Solihull for Birmingham, Hallamshire for Sheffield, Morningside for Edinburgh). But there are plenty of exceptions e.g North Leeds particularly the northwest. Victorian wealthy in turn build the universities, museums and hospitals that maintain the pattern.

    Bringing in the non-Tokyo megacities for Japan, Northern Osaka which is primarily Hankyu’s kingdom offered greenfield development and offered access to Kobe and Kyoto. Southern Osaka’s pattern as the poor region was set by the ports, Nanba’s termini and Sakai’s historic industrial trades (Sakai knives etc). There are some wealthier pockets along the Semboku line in the Southeast. But they really screwed the southwest by not through-running Nankai and JR West’s lines to the northern city centre till whenever the Naniwa-suji line is completed. And the southeastern lines of Kintetsu.

    Nagoya’s wealthiest bits are the eastern hills which were only made livable with reservoirs built in the mid-20th century and are the main region served by the subway lines. They also overlap as Toyota Middle classes particularly the blue collar Toyota Keiretsu ones live along the road and rail networks where the major factories are. Poor people live in the western and northern suburbs which are run-down sprawl. The current mayor is their guy, but like many right-wing populists seems distinctly uninterested in making their lives better by improving transport (e.g. extend the Kami-iida line).

    In Japan its set by mid-20th century greenfield passenger railway oriented development adjusted for “we don’t want to be near the stinky port industrial areas. Within that pattern there is a tendency for the very richest suburbs to exist between the city core are wealthy areas. E.g. Tokyu suburbs between Tokyo and Yokohama, the aformentioned Hankyu areas (plus much of Hanshin between Kobe and Osaka) and eastern Nagoya suburbs.

    • Alon Levy

      I know it’s off-topic, but, “Toyota Middle classes particularly the blue collar Toyota Keiretsu ones” is a really jarring phrase – I don’t think of blue-collar workers as ever middle-class, and you’re British, in your country they don’t even call teachers, nurses, and non-managerial office workers middle-class.

      • Matthew Hutton

        Teachers are definitely middle class in the UK as are most non managerial office workers. Nurses perhaps not.

        That said I suspect the water in the Thames was more drinkable to the west of London.

        • fjod

          In London (or at least in London before deindustrialisation), all the Thames is salty so none of it is drinkable!

          On the other point yes, I can second that teachers are (almost the archetype of) middle class as are most clerical office workers, under British definitions.

      • Borners

        I’m using “middle-class” in the Japanese sense i.e. workers with long-term contracts who as a result qualify for middle class benefits of mortgages, private pensions, wives etc. Yes it discriminatory on gender, contract, nationality etc but it actually describes something. Aichi industrial workers are actually quite well-off compared to say Tokyo college grads doing freelance animation or something.

        Also my native country’s class nomenclature can die in a fire. All of it. It took me years to deprogram myself to stop saying I was middle class. We actually devolved in the 20th century. Victorians used the plurals “the working classes” and the “middle classes” a much more sophisticated and pluralistic understanding of social stratification. Now we just various theological fetishes inherited from the Labour party and its outriders various brilliant ideas that achieve the opposite of their intent.

  4. Frederick

    In most civilisations, since antiquity, people of high social class live at high altitude (hills) while people of low social class live in low lying areas (often near a river).

    Rivers in cities are often polluted, even in ancient times. Romans built the aqueducts exactly because the Tiber was too polluted to drink. This is the first reason.

    Low-lying areas are more susceptible to flooding. This is the second reason.

    The third reason is military advantage. High ground is more defensible.

    • Alon Levy

      That depends on the city’s location. What you’re saying is true of the Yamanote-Shitamachi distinction and was true in Ancient Rome, but elsewhere things are more complicated:

      1. In Paris, the river has been embanked for a long time and there’s no elite avoidance of the river. Champs-Elysées is fairly close to the river.
      2. In New York, the historically richest areas were inland (Fifth Avenue), but that’s not because of altitude or river avoidance – it emerged out of proximity to Central Park, and then was reinforced when the els were built farther east, bringing poorer people to 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Avenues (which to this day remain middle-class rather than as obscenely wealthy as Fifth and Park).
      3. As I understand it, in La Paz the wealthy live downhill and the poor live uphill, where oxygen concentrations are lower.
      4. Also as I understand it, the favelas in Rio and I think also comparable squats elsewhere in Latin America are uphill; this is because the city was mapped starting with the most buildable areas, and then informal settlements emerged where the formal planning hadn’t bothered to map streets and build infrastructure.

      • adirondacker12800

        Rich people were living on Fifth Ave. before there was a Central Park.

  5. R. W. Rynerson

    The first thing that comes to mind is the location of royal cities Versailles and Potsdam southwest of their capital cities.

    I’ve noticed the east-west generalization through the years, but also can think of many exceptions along ridge lines, shore lines, or around large parks. Denver, for example, has some of its most affluent neighborhoods on the east side, where several large parks are situated.

    Another influence on exceptions was transit service. The Shaker Heights Rapid Transit lines were conceived as part of upscale development east of Cleveland.

    • Krist van Besien

      Other examples of this are Munich, Vienna and Brussels, where in each case the royal residence is to the West.

  6. Phake Nick

    I thought Eastern Tokyo being more poor was a thing even before industrialization and even before the opening of first railway there? It’s a combined factor of there being a floodplain of two rivers and being crowded also make gentrification difficult.

    • Borners

      Yes, in the Edo period the Daimyo lived in Yamanote west and north of Chiyoda castle, they wanted space and drainage. Ordinary people needed access to the river system for transport. Access to labour and waterways meant Adachi, Katsushika, Sumida etc became industrial zones. Tobu’s network is pointedly narrow guage because it was meant to serve as a freight system connecting to the silk industrial regions of Gunma and Tochigi to the ports and factories around what’s now the Skytree hub. Plus the Chiba coast used to be a hub of fishing, konbu farming and salt field.

      Gentrification has happened only since the 1990’s with the maturation of the rail building boom of Chiba in the 1970-2005 and the return to city centre manshon boom. Its quite visible if you go to Kanemachi or Kinshicho. Although Keisei Takasago is still a dump that’s in serious need of some love (i.e. a station makeover that includes an extra pair of tracks for the Hokuso line).

  7. Tom M

    Also doesn’t hold for Sydney and Melbourne. Richest areas for Sydney are to the east of the CBD. Similiar for Melbourne.

  8. Chaz

    True to some extent for Detroit, and much more apparent when you get to the suburbs. Oakland County in the west is more affluent and white collar than Macomb County in the east, plus it contains the region’s favored quarter along Woodward Avenue.

  9. david vartanoff

    Directionality in Chicago was vastly different before the effects of the ‘Great Migration’. When my great-grandfather owned a furnace manufacturing business on Goose Island (now yuppie paradise) he had a home built in Kenwood. (South Side near the lake) Until the late 50s the busiest segment of the Illinois Central (now Metra) Electric was the branch serving South Shore and South Chicago. South Shore was a mix of working class apartment dwellers, managers and professionals in SFDs with very frequent and speedy rush hour service from the neighborhood to the CBD. Your characterization of the South Side as poor ignores the constantly metastasizing University of Chicago. It will be interesting to see what the future holds.

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