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November 26, 2014updated 26 Apr 2022 9:50am

Mapping New York City's slums

By City Monitor Staff

The curators of “Uneven Growth”, a new exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, are seeking to expose inequality across six major metropolises (Istanbul, Lagos, Rio de Janeiro, Hong Kong, Mumbai and New York). Rio’s favelas are featured as the main image on the exhibition’s website, and the density and informality of homes are immediately obvious. In New York, on the other hand, informal housing may not be so visible.

But, it turns out, that doesn’t mean it’s not there. Architecture firm SITU was one of the organisations chosen to investigate the city’s inequality for the exhibition. In order to measure the extent of informal slum dwellings in the city, the group mapped reports of illegal housing made to the Department of Buildings to create the map above.

Most of these dwellings aren’t favela-style informal constructions, but housing subdivided and illegally rented out by landlords: so slums exist within an informal market, as opposed to informal buildings. As you can see, the complaint calls are focused in Queens, the Bronx and Brooklyn.  

Of course, this method only maps those illegal dwellings that have been reported, so it’s safe to assume that the map is a substantial underestimation of the problem. 

The studio also visited and photographed some of these homes for the project, and created diagrams like this one to demonstrate what these close quarters really look like:


Image: SITU studio.

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In 2013, New York’s average rent climbed above $3,000 per month, which may explain why illegal subletting and subdivisions are the only option for the city’s poorest residents. Half the city’s population spends more than half their income on housing costs. 

Basar Girit, a partner at SITU Studio, told Fast Company magazine that the group wanted to draw attention to the dramatic juxtaposition of high-end and slum living in the city: “As opposed to, ‘It’s a luxury city,’ how are people at a low income level actually making their lives in a city like that?” With difficulty, it seems. 

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