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.