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New Mapping Tool Helps Illustrate Just How Segregated Houston's Income Remains

A convenient arrow, pointing directly to Houston's lower-income tracts.
A convenient arrow, pointing directly to Houston's lower-income tracts.

Houston's supposed to be one of the most haphazard, heterogeneous cities in America. That dearth of zoning tosses neighborhoods, incomes and races into a wonderful stew of strangeness and desegregation. The lack of framework -- the lack of regulations, the lack of ordinance -- has painted Houston as one of the most unique urban areas in the West, at turns aimless and beautiful and diverse.

And so it sells itself. But a new spate of data visualization -- a new map, courtesy of a 23-year-old man named Christopher Persaud -- challenges a few of these basic assumptions. While you can still drive within the Loop and find any kind of cuisine and costume you'd so desire, Houston may not yet be quite the pot its reputation carries.

In creating his newest map, found at RichBlocksPoorBlocks.com, Persaud didn't mean to burst any reputations or challenge any wisdom, conventional or otherwise. He simply wanted to take the fiscal data already available and turn it to something a wider audience could digest.

The New York Times had tried something similar a few months back, publishing their Mapping America project to measure the nation's breadth of financial, racial and educational diversity. However, while the NYT's project received much worthwhile acclaim, there was one drawback to such a product.

"[The NYT] used the 2005-09 American Community Survey data to map median household income, but in their version it's one scale for whole nation," Persaud, a recent graduate from Florida Atlantic University, said. "And this was nice, but what if I wanted a scale for each state?"

And so, Persaud, currently a reporter with BankRates.com, set about crafting his own look at a less federalized, more relativist America. Proficient in JavaScript, Persaud managed to collate the updated data used by the NYT. He discovered the proper Google Map schema for his project. He spliced the nation into 50 states, and 50 income averages. He then cobbled the data for individual census tracts, and created an attendant color scheme, and plastered a national map with his findings

One week after the idea first cropped into his head, he was done.

"I wanted to see more detail in the division of income in each state and city," Persaud, who lives in West Palm Beach, Florida, said. "There have been similar things done, but not in the way I've been doing it, so I thought it could be unique in that way."

And, indeed, it is different, and far more illustrative of urban geography in America. After all, $40,000 can go much further in Houston than, say, the Upper West Side. Where the NYT's project allowed folks in Seattle and Santa Fe and San Antonio to compare their livelihoods to the national average, Persaud's Rich Blocks, Poor Blocks allows them to see their lives relative to those of their direct neighbors.

The feedback has been, naturally, positive.   "There have been three main groups that have responded," Persaud said. "One is the data visualization people, who like how the data's presented, how the color scheme looks. The second is the real estate-type people. And the third are these left-wing types, these social justice people -- they use those words -- who like looking at it because they look at income segregation and income inequality."

Which is where, unfortunately, Houston comes into play. Because whereas Houston can still claim one of the most diverse ethnic pots in the nation, the city's income distribution is made that much starker through Persaud's visualization.

"Someone posted on a news aggregator site that, hey, look at Houston -- the west side is rich, and the rest is poor," Persaud noted. "It's interesting to see how income is segregated. ... It just looks like an arrow pointing straight to the central business district."

And Persaud's right, based on his map. A large arrow, stretching just south of Addicks horizontally through Piney Point, through River Oaks, culminating in the crosspoint of I-10 and 59. A jut north, and a jut south, and voila: a green arrow, housing Houston's wealthiest. The rest -- the red -- remains poor, relative to the rest of Texas.

Persaud said he'd soon be adding further metrics over the next few months to his mapping: ethnicity, education levels, median rent data. If the NYT's rubric is the base to follow, it looks as if this arrow will soon be sketched in with white, well-educated renters. But that remains to be seen. For now, based on this new visualization of Houston's income distribution, it's clear that the town isn't quite the farrago some may make it out to be. Houston's Arrow, housing the city's wealth, points to the poverty, and segregation, remaining.

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