It can be difficult to visualize inequality but here is an innovative way of doing so: imagining wealth as buildings in New York City.
In his most recent visualization project, the Pittsburgh-based artist and researcher re-imagines what the city’s skyline would look like if building height were a direct reflection of a neighborhood’s net household wealth. “I was inspired to create this project after standing atop Mt. Washington in my hometown of Pittsburgh and looking at the Pittsburgh skyline,” he explains. “I thought to myself, ‘What if you could actually see inequality?’ This relatively even landscape would look much different.”
Lamm, who is responsible for other viral visualizations like Normal Barbie, translated Esri’s map of median household net worth in New York City (based on 2010 Census data) into the bright green 3-D bars you’re looking at. Every $100,000 of net worth in a section on Esri’s map equals one centimeter in height on Lamm’s visualization. So if one section (which appears to consist of multiple blocks) had a net worth of $500,000, Lamm’s rendering would measure 5 cm high. Similarly, if another section had a net worth of $80,000, the green would appear at a much flatter 0.8 cm.
Of the maps/visualizations available here, the best one is probably the first one that shows much of Manhattan from the northwest looking southeast.
Choosing to visualize wealth rather than income is a strategic choice. Much talk about inequality involves income but this may be the wrong metric. Income is more about short-term access to money but wealth may be more important for longer-term outcomes (purchasing a house, etc.) and the wealth differences between groups are quite a big larger. For example, the differences in wealth between the top 5% and the rest of America are astounding as are the differences between whites and blacks as well as Latinos.
Additionally, singling out New York, particularly Manhattan, is an interesting choice. The differences here are indeed stark. Manhattan is the seat of the financial sector. But, few places in the United States would have this much wealth inequality.