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Why Are there No Skyscrapers between Midtown and the Financial District?

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Is there a better explanation than the traditional answer of bedrock? Some experts claim the origin of the gap in the skyline actually is more related to demographics and discrimination.

Anyone looking at the New York City skyline, especially from an airplane or from the New Jersey Turnpike, can clearly see that the city’s iconic skyscrapers are concentrated in two hubs: midtown and the financial district of Lower Manhattan.

Why are the city’s tallest buildings not equally distributed throughout the island?

The conventional answer for the gap in the skyline:

Geology. According to a Rutgers University paper on the subject, “bedrock is up to 4 to 5 times deeper below the surface” between Grand Central Station and Wall Street. Since bedrock was needed to support tall buildings, there was a preference to build in midtown and Lower Manhattan where bedrock was easier to access. This has been the reason cited to visitors to New York City who have noticed the dearth of skyscrapers in Chelsea and East Village.

More recently, some experts claim economic discrimination may have played a major role:

In this paper, Barr, Tassier & Trendafilov argue that economic factors may have had a greater influence on determining where the skyscrapers were built. They acknowledge, however, that it can be difficult to separate the latent impact of geographical features in developing said economic conditions in the first place. For example, since bedrock closer to the surface can help areas drain better, the area between midtown and the southern tip of the island may have been swampier and thus a less desirable place for middle-class or wealthier New Yorkers. The authors, nevertheless, argue that “manufacturing patters” and “public transportation hubs” had more to do with where builders decided to construct skyscrapers. Bedrock distribution, in their view, was marginal as a cause of the skyline gap.

There was also a social and slightly discriminatory factor going-on. The authors argue that those building these skyscrapers sought to construct them as far away as possible from poorer neighborhoods where manufacturing took place and those workers lived. The residents and companies that would inhabit the skyscrapers wanted them built apart from the congestion, pollution, and squalor that often surrounded the manufacturing neighborhoods.

The writers of the Rutgers paper conclude by claiming: “Demographic factors—agglomeration and transportation effects as well as population densities—far outweigh the effect of bedrock depths on the location of skyscrapers.”

The conventional wisdom about the role of bedrock ought not be disregarded entirely. But the next time you hear the explanation being only about geology, remember that there also may be a more subtle explanation behind the distribution of the iconic skyline.


Erich J. Prince is the editor-in-chief at Merion West. With a background in journalism and media criticism, he has contributed to newspapers such as The Philadelphia Inquirer and The News & Observer, as well as online outlets including Quillette and The Hill. Erich has also spoken at conferences and events on issues related to gangs, crime, and policing. He studied political science at Yale University.

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