These Apocalyptic Maps Show The Holes Income Inequality Has Left In Cities

Tall buildings represent the wealthy; short ones represent the poor. What’s missing? The middle class.

In one part of Chicago’s Near West Side, the median household income is $104,000. In another–about a mile away–it’s about $20,000.


A recent data visualization maps out the city’s stark income inequality in diagrams that look like a skyline: The taller the “building,” the higher the income on that block.

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“It was really important to me to create the image of a city, and create this kind of post-apocalyptic ambiance,” says Austrian designer Herwig Scherabon, who mapped income in Chicago, L.A., and New York City as part of a larger Atlas of Gentrification. “When you look at it, you start to explore. The street grid is still visible in the visualizations.”

Using height to illustrate differences, instead of a standard heat map, makes the problem even more obvious. Chicago wasn’t always so starkly divided: In the 1970s, nearly half of the households in the city were middle class. Over the next four decades, Chicago added almost four times as many wealthy census tracts, while extreme poverty also grew. By 2010, middle-income tracts made up only 16% of the city.

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The income gap has grown similarly in other large cities. In Los Angeles, where the middle class is also shrinking, and the top 1% earn 30 times more than the bottom 99%, income inequality is even greater than in Chicago. New York is more unequal than L.A.

A few other cities–Miami, Atlanta, and New Orleans–currently top a Bloomberg list as most unequal in the United States. Scherabon focused on Chicago, New York, and L.A. after spending time in each city, and because he was struck by the spatial patterns of inequality in each.

“Chicago is not just divided by income inequality,” he says. “There’s also a huge problem with racial segregation. There are parts of South Chicago that are 99% black, and other parts that are almost completely white, and the same footprint correlates with income inequality. These are the discussions I’m interested in, when people start to think what else is related to this kind of pattern.”


About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."