The above graph provides a dramatic visualization of income inequality over approximately the past 100 years. It maps vast inequality in the early decades of the century (peaking in the late 1920s). The wave crests in the early 1940s and stays flat for the next 3 decades, which coincides with the mass creation of the middle class. By the 1980s the wealth gap starts to widen and the graph begins its second sharp ascent. When Saskia Sassen presented this information in her talk on the Global City, I was struck by a sudden and disturbing thought, which eclipsed the typical, familiar, and intended reaction; that is outrage over the 1%. The decades of sharpest inequality appear to coincide with the most intense flourishing of urban life (think, especially of New York and Shanghai in the 1920s and now). Could it be, then, that income inequality is actually good for cities?
At some level this must be right. The greatest and most lasting achievement of the middle class is the creation of suburbia. “The true center of any bourgeois society, is the middle class house, ” writes the great urban historian Robert Fishman. “If you seek the monuments of the bourgeoisie, go to the suburbs and look around.” Fishman’s book Bourgeois Utopia tells, in fascinating detail, the social, cultural, and political history of how the middle class made the suburbs their home. Part of this story, of course, is the car (the most anti-urban of all technological inventions). The cost of a car, which has its own singular price point that lies between a house and any other appliance or piece of high-tech, is evidence of the fact that the automobile alone is the choice consumer good of the middle class. Once you own a car downtown becomes a place that is best to avoid.
The enormous commercial variety commonly available in a large metropolis seems designed to accentuate the wealth gap. My neighborhood in Shanghai has both ultra-hip fine dining where it is easy to drop hundreds of dollars. These exist alongside an abundance of street snacks available for under a buck. In small town suburbia, on the other hand, this diversity simply doesn’t exist. Lunch or dinner wherever you go costs basically the same. In his famous article on the divisions between red and blue America David Brooks tells of desperately trying, and ultimately failing, to spend more than 20 bucks on a meal in a small middle class town. In megacities during their most dynamic phases -as Shanghai is today – rich and poor live in very close proximity. The best Sci-Fi visions always pay homage to the intensity of this juxtaposition (think Blade Runner’s spectacular skyscrapers jutting up from dark alleys stuffed with noodle stands). The reason, no doubt, is simple — both rich and poor are attracted to the increased prosperity that only the city can offer.
And yet, and I know this contradicts all that is above, head to Ikea in Xujiahui on a Sunday and it seems certain that Shanghai is a city of a growing middle class.