Los Angeles has 58 billionaires and 58,000 homeless people. In a city where destitution coexists with opulence, vast gaps in opportunity exist between neighborhoods. Let's use physical terrain as a metaphor to visualize income inequality across LA.
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Sea level= $59,000
Playa del Rey
Using 2017 census data, we displace each geographic unit vertically based on median annual household income. Low-income neighborhoods sink into canyons ↓, while rich areas soar far above the city as high plateaus. ↑
Sea level is set equal to the median US income of $59,000 per year as a visual reference. Along the coast, affluent neighborhoods with incomes well above the US average form coastal mountain ranges which tower over less prosperous areas further inland.
This visualization technique almost certainly underestimates the gap between rich and poor. The massive plateaus of the Beverly Hills area are likely even higher, as census income estimates at this scale are capped and designated $250,000+.
Precipitous terrain reveals dystopian levels of inequity within the city. In many places, wealthy neighborhoods with incomes exceeding $250,000 lie immediately adjacent to others with income well below the poverty line. Massive cliffs serve as an apt metaphor for severe local socioeconomic gaps given the long odds of upward social mobility.
This landscape is abstract but far from imaginary. Rather, it is achingly familiar to those living in its shadows, whose daily struggle is made torturous by their proximity to a lavish and unobtainable lifestyle. For profound echoes of their frustration and pain, look no further than the sounds of L.A.'s prolific hip-hop music scene.
From Compton, epicenter of West Coast rap, the view towards Beverly Hills helps us understand the futility expressed in lines such as these:
"Would I survive to make it up out this hole in time?
...Compton made you believe success wasn't real
...I was rehearsing in repetition the phrase
Only one in a million will ever see better days
...I was terrified they'll be the last black boys to fly
Out of Compton"
-Kendrick Lamar, "Black Boy Fly" Photo: Wikimedia commons Lamar's narrative masterpiece and second studio album "Good kid, M.A.A.D. City" paints a vivid picture of his coming-of-age in a Compton troubled by economic and racial inequality. A homogenous definition of income inequality is insufficient: extreme and racialized inequity continue to haunt not just LA, but our entire nation.
Extreme income inequality raises troubling questions about the health of our society and our capacity for empathy. Politicians are quick to trumpet figures such as gross GDP and unemployment rates as evidence for a thriving economy. Rarely do they paint the true picture, of a nation at once bloated and starving, marked by historic, persistent, and racialized economic inequality.
“...when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society...then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair.”
-Martin Luther King, 1963 "Letter From Birmingham Jail"
Data: US Census Bureau, LA Times' Neighborhoods
Tools: QGIS, Blender, GSAP, D3.js