The City of Light and The Big Apple: A Story of Contrasts

The City of Light and The Big Apple: A Story of Contrasts

“Brooklyn Heights, Opposite the City of New York.” Engraving from Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion (Boston, 1854). National Archives and Records Administration

Paris and New York City are two of the world’s most visited cities. Both elicit a similar mystique, producing countless literary classics and Hollywood films whose storylines unfold in two of the world’s most celebrated city centers. In terms of comparing the urban core to suburbia, however, each city exhibits a strikingly opposite socioeconomic makeup.

The contrasts are evident from the naked eye. Trains leaving Paris pass by desolate housing projects on the city’s periphery before entering the Parisian countryside. Commuters in New York City—after traveling underground through lower Manhattan—are briefly greeted by housing projects before entering an expansive network of middle and upper class suburbs.

Before widespread suburbia took root in the 19th century, the city centers of Paris and New York City were each home to wealthy elites. Upper-class Parisians have since maintained a grip on the urban core, while their counterparts in New York City have largely moved to the suburbs—illuminating the contrasting cultural values and styles of governance in each country that have shaped two distinct paths of suburbanization.

In the mid-19th century, Napoleon III—with the help of Baron Haussmann—famously rebuilt Paris with wide boulevards and luxurious apartments in an attempt to create a magnificent capital with grand appeal. As property values and rents skyrocketed, the poor were forced out of the city. Shantytowns, erected in mass numbers on the periphery, soon sat next to factories deemed too unsavory for the grand capital. Steel and chemical production became synonymous with suburban life as the industrial revolution hit France in subsequent decades. The Parisian suburbs were born.

Poor immigrants who came in waves after both World Wars—first from Europe and then North Africa— made homes in the suburbs and created competition for unskilled labor. By the 1960s, the suburban population of Paris was double that of the city center. Overpopulation, poor infrastructure, and health concerns still plagued working-class Parisians on the periphery. The marginalized suburbs acted as an open-air sewer, with the lack of sanitation and basic infrastructure leading to outbreaks of disease and lower life expectancies. An observer noted that “human beings who reside there present a character of complete physical degeneration – the children are pale, anemic, and the men and women prematurely old.”1

In the latter half of the 20th century, the government—after succumbing to the significant overcrowding and health concerns—constructed public housing along the periphery. Architects and overseers reduced the buildings (called grand ensembles) to the crudest form, stretching funds and minimizing surface areas in individual apartments. The construction and maintenance was uniformly poor. Many developments were planned far from schools, transportation and employment and the substandard living conditions led to a common theme of discontent across the various ethnic groups of suburban Paris.

The Parisian suburbs made national headlines in 2005 as destitute teens from public housing projects created over 200 million Euros in damage during three weeks of riots. Subsequent riots in 2007 saw rioters employ shotguns, gasoline bombs and rocks against police officers—eighty of whom were injured.

Both instances were attributed to social exclusion in the marginalized suburbs of Paris, where unemployment ranges from 20 to 30 percent and areas lack the educational and cultural outlets of more affluent areas.2 To put the disparity in perspective, Parisians in the city center gross an annual income 300 percent higher than their suburban neighbors.3

Much like Paris, the environment in New York City before suburbanization produced surging population densities, placing a greater emphasis on class distinctions. From the tenements in the notorious Five Points, to the creation of subdivided high-class apartments in such buildings as Astor and Franklin Houses, New York City was forced to make room for a growing population.

Isolated suburban outcrops began to appear around New York City, as Hezekiah Pierrepont turned 60 acres of land across the East River in Brooklyn Heights into uniform rectangular lots. This 1820s development is considered the first true suburb in the United States—as isolated examples of peripheral growth continued to occur around New York City throughout the 19th century.

In the early 20th century, Long Island was transformed into country retreats for wealthy elites such as J.P. Morgan and Henry Ford. The rolling hills and abundant forests, available on the North Shore, helped set a precedent for suburban sprawl. More affordable housing soon appeared on Long Island’s South Shore.

The United States Housing Authority, under President Roosevelt, passed the Wagner-Steagall Act in 1937, which included provisions for building urban housing projects for the poor. The rise of lower income public housing only quickened the middle and upper class exodus to suburbia. From 1950 to 1960, New York City suburbs grew by 46 percent, while the urban core grew at a rate of only 10 percent. According to the 1960 U.S. Census, inner city renters in New York City grossed $5,000, while suburban homeowners grossed $8,385. A similar disparity (adjusted for inflation) has remained in every census up to the present day.

Many consider the urban core of New York City, like Paris, to be almost entirely upper class—making the two cities seem similar from a socioeconomic standpoint, simply with different suburbs. To be sure, Manhattan remains one of the most expensive urban areas in the United States—yet New York’s most famous borough consists primarily of businesses, as shown by the day versus night population change. Those who actually spend their days and nights in the lower part of Manhattan (i.e. south of Harlem) are predominately middle to upper class—but most very affluent New Yorkers live elsewhere.

In data taken from the Census Bureau’s American Community Surveys from 2005 to 2009, a majority of census tracts across Brooklyn and the Bronx reported 40 percent or more of households earning under $30,000 annually, while many tracts reported figures between 50 and 80 percent. The borough of Queens fares significantly better, yet the urban core of New York City is far from immune to poverty. The same survey charts households earning over $200,000. As one moves away from the metro area towards suburbia, the proportion of upper class households increase substantially, as do living costs.

Using median real estate prices and other monthly costs—such as property taxes, utilities and commuting—personal finance reporter Tara Bernard, writing for the New York Times, determined expenses for a suburban family in New York City to be $5,668 a month. That same family could reside in the urban center for $3,852 a month (hypothetical chart).

In both cases, living preferences of the middle and upper classes ultimately controlled the tides of change as overcrowding in the 19th century mandated evolving urban forms. One culture preferred close proximity to cafés and theaters while the other sought home ownership and private space. One government used heavy-handed tactics to control urban planning and upscale redevelopment as the other promoted centrally located housing projects—leaving home construction to private developers. These contrasts, while simple generalizations of a complex story, help illustrate the core physical and socioeconomic differences between Paris and New York City.


  1. Norma Evenson, Paris: A Century of Change, 1878-1978 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979), 205.

  2. Riva Kastoryano, “Territories of Identity in France,” Social Science Research Council, http://riotsfrance.ssrc.org/Kastoryano.

  3. Yves Breem, “Housing Conditions of Immigrants in 2006,” Migration News, no. 7 (Jan. 2009) Department of Immigration, Integration, National Identity, and Development, http://www.immigration.gouv.fr.

Tags: new york citybuilt environment

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