Why Is the East Side Poorer than the West Side?

A new paper suggests that pollution (and prevailing winds) may be part of the answer.


The east side of once-industrialized cities is often poorer than the west side. Why would this be? A new paper in the Journal of Political Economy suggests that air pollution is part of the answer.

In "East-Side Story: Historical Pollution and Persistent Neighborhood Sorting,"
Stephan Heblich, Alex Trew, and Yanos Zylberberg make the case that the difference in economic performance between the east and west sides of formerly industrialized cities is due, at least in part, to the fact that the east side of such cities suffered more air pollution than did the west side because of prevailing winds. This produced a wealth gap—or, as they put it, relative differences in economic deprivation—that persist today, even after the adoption of air pollution controls.

From the paper's introduction:

Cities that were formerly reliant on industry tend today to have eastern suburbs that are notably poorer than their western suburbs. This observation is echoed in media stories about the east side of London, New York, or Paris and in popular culture (such as in the long-running BBC soap opera EastEnders). We show that the east-west gradient is partially a remnant of the distribution of the atmospheric pollution that affected cities during the Industrial Revolution. Pollution from historical factories accounted for about 15% of the variation in neighborhood composition in 1881. There is no evidence of excess deprivation in neighborhoods downwind from industrial chimneys before the rise of industrial coal in 1817. Industrial coal pollution effectively stopped in the 1970s, but the path dependence in neighborhood sorting is still felt today.

And from the conclusion:

This paper presents a plausible explanation for what was, until now, an anecdotal observation that the east sides of formerly industrial cities in the Western Hemisphere tend to be poorer than the west sides. With rising coal use in the heyday of industrialization, pollution became a major environmental disamenity in cities. An unequal distribution of pollution exposure induced a sorting process that left lower classes in polluted neighborhoods. Our empirical analysis relies on precise pollution estimates and identifies neighborhood sorting at a highly local level: the east/west gradient reflects a drift in pollution at the city level, but the relationship between atmospheric pollution and neighborhood composition materializes at a much more local level.

As for the implications of this research, the authors offer some observations:

Our findings hold at least two important implications. First, the success of urban policies to revitalize deprived areas may depend on the initial level of deprivation. As suggested by our findings, very deprived neighborhoods may need a larger push to attract richer residents. This observation leads to a second implication for countries such as China where pollution currently presents a major challenge. Besides the well-documented short-run effects of pollution exposure on health, there are long-run consequences of uneven pollution exposure across space: pollution induces spatial inequalities that far outlive deindustrialization.

Interesting stuff!

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  1. Now I’ll be hearing the Pet Shop Boys all day. “East End boys and West End girls.”

    1. There is an argument that lead levels from gasoline in the 1970’s caused lower IQ and greater criminality. It had no credibility until the lead levels of prisoners were sampled at a higher level.

      That is a requirement for the conclusion of this theory.

      1. The more powerful explanation is the jurisdiction is governed by leftists.

    2. East Side West Side all around the town
      The tots sing Ring Around Rosie, London Bridge is falling down
      Boys and girls together, me and Mamie O’Rourke
      Tripped the light fantastic on the sidewalks of New York

  2. Except that a lot of city residents are opposed to “gentrification,” which is the process of poor neighborhoods getting richer.

    1. They want the rich, or just well off, to pour their money into cities. They don’t want them actually living there.

      1. They just want to also be able to live there when it gets nice rather than getting priced out and having to deal with moving and then still living in a crappy place.

        (Which is a complicated issue without super obvious answers.)

        1. “Getting priced out and having to deal with moving” is only a real problem if you rent.

          1. Or pay property taxes in a jurisdiction where they’re not limited.

          2. Yes, and it turns out that poor people are way more likely to rent than to own.

  3. As soon as I saw the question, I thought of one answer: in the US, most industrialization began on rivers, both for harbors and for water mills. People dumped their waste in rivers, which flow downhill. Therefore people who could wanted to live upstream, which is west on the east coast.


    1. I grew up in Connecticut, where “upstream” was North. The North End of Hartford was the Black ghetto. The White neighborhoods were West and South. East Hartford was industrial, but down river there were a lot of nice towns east of the river.

      Generalizations are generally wrong.

  4. Although the description says “This paper presents a plausible explanation for what was, until now, an anecdotal observation that the east sides of formerly industrial cities in the Western Hemisphere tend to be poorer than the west sides,” this is hardly new. I believe this has been anecdotal since the late 1880’s, and well-enough studied from time to time over the past fifty years. The “wrong side of the tracks” has usually been the east side of the tracks.
    Not to pooh-pooh the study — more solid data over more time and area is probably good. But when I read words like “With rising coal use in the heyday of industrialization, pollution became a major environmental disamenity in cities. An unequal distribution of pollution exposure induced a sorting process that left lower classes in polluted neighborhoods,” that sounds more like mumbo jumbo than new interpretation based on evidence.

    1. In London, it goes back two centuries further.

    2. I agree with cmcc. I thought this was the canonical hypothesis for decades.

  5. Interesting – but likely wrong. If this hypothesis were true, you’d expect to see the opposite pattern in those latitudes where the prevailing winds run the opposite direction. The article is paywalled so I can’t tell if they looked for such an effect but anecdotally, that is not the case in the equatorial cities that I’m aware of.

    More plausibly, cities in the Americas were populated from east to west. That is, east-side parts of the city are notably older than west-side parts of the same city. That’s certainly the case in Rust Belt cities like Cleveland, Detroit and Toledo. (Pittsburgh will be a special case because its development was dominated by the hills and rivers that chop up that city.) Age seems a more likely cause than air currents.

    1. You’ve only punted the question. Why were cities populated east to west? I’ve suggested it’s because of river flows, with the falsifiable part being that downstream is more likely to be polluted and poor than upstream. Ohio River cities should be poorer on the west side, by this hypothesis. I don’t know how to test it, and not much inclination either.

      1. The Cuyahoga River flows south to north (toward Lake Erie) but the older, poorer parts of Cleveland are still to the east. The reason they were populated east-to-west is (my guess, anyway) that those moving in simply settled the east edges first. Why keep walking?

        1. This makes no sense. If you move to a new city, you don’t pick a spot to live and then look for something to do. You look for a job and then live close to that. And by the time that industrial midwestern cities were being populated, if you came in from elsewhere, you came by train or maybe car. So populations would radiate from arrival points.

          At the times people were traveling by wagon, the cities weren’t large enough to worry about traveling to the west side.

        2. The reason they were populated east-to-west is (my guess, anyway) that those moving in simply settled the east edges first. Why keep walking?

          But that would make the older parts the west, not the east. New arrivals come from the east. If they stop as soon as they get to the edge of the town the city will grow eastward, not westward.

    2. As a lifelong resident of the Pittsburgh area what you say is partially true. The grittier industrial areas did tend to follow the rivers, moreso south, down the Monongahela River, and downstream into the Ohio. Not so much to the North and up the Allegheny.

      Today in the post industrial era some of those areas have been redeveloped often into commercial, corporate, an retail areas, at least in Allegheny County.

      In Beaver County, one county over from Pittsburgh down the Ohio, where I live, there has been far less redevelopment. Most of the former steel mill sites are now either abandoned brownfields, or have newer industrial operations. Our riverfronts are not exactly attractive. Travel more than two or three miles away from the river and it is largely rural and agricultural. I am maybe 6 or7 miles from the Ohio and my yard abuts a cornfield and we are all still on a well and septic.

      In addition the old industrial towns along the river still are for the most part poor and decaying. Most of Pittsburgh’s more recent development has been to the North, spilling over into Butler County, and East out into Westmoreland.

  6. Not the case for New York, though. East Side is considered the wealthier.

    1. Same in Chicago, but for the obvious reason that lakefront is on the east side of the city. This does not necessarily refute the theory, though, because the breeze off the lake may counteract or mitigate the effect of the prevailing winds.

      1. The breeze off the lake would explain why the north side is nicer than the south side.

    2. I learned that from the Jeffersons. They were movin’ on up to the East side. I assumed that was an improvement.

    3. Well, you have New Jersey to the west. And the east side is that much closer to the Hamptons.

    4. Yes, I often hear East New York being described as the very nicest part.

    5. But not the Lower East Side. The LES was historically the first place penniless immigrants settled, and as soon as they could afford it they moved out, making room for new immigrants. The same was true in London.

  7. In the newer cities of the US, the more affluent areas tend to be in the north and to the east- supposedly based on not wanting to commute into the rising in the morning or into the setting sun on the way home

    1. Interesting. Certainly a factor here in LA, where the morning commute is fine (re the sun), but at certain times of the year, most people simply will NOT head west on the freeways for a 30-minute window in the afternoon/evening, as you really can’t see anything through the sun’s oncoming glare. It can be pretty scary.

    2. Ain’t so in Texas. In Houston, Austin or San Antonio, the West is Best. In Houston there is definitely a factor of winds and odors. The Dallas Fort Worth area is complicated because of spokes off the two downtowns, but on the whole, the northern suburbs of Dallas are better than the northeastern

  8. I only skimmed the paper but it seems to be about England only, and maybe primarily the parts of England with more predictable wind.

  9. East and West? Wrong answer – it has to be racism, only racism, and all racism. No other answer this week.

    1. It was only 20% wind. You can blame the rest on other factors.

  10. This correlates with the concept of the wrong side of the tracks. In the days of steam powered locomotives the down wind side was the wrong side of the tracks because of the dust, soot, and ash. As the towns grew up around the railroad tracks the property values on the up wind side were higher than on the down wind side, so the more affluent people lived there. The industries grew up on the other side where property was cheaper.

  11. Because people emigrated there from the East and settled on the East side of the river when rivers were hard to cross.

    Then when rivers were easier to cross some of the people with enough money for land bought cheaper land on the west side.

    Forward 100 years and the smaller homes that were built on the East side when it was a scrappy settlement get sold to people who can only afford a smaller home while the bigger homes on the west side that were built later get sold to wealthier people. And there’s your East/west divide.

    The cause and effect is the opposite from this article. Wealthy people can afford to pay for a nicer, cleaner environment. The environment doesn’t cause wealth gaps, wealth gaps lead to differences in environment because poor people don’t have time or resources to spend for small marginal improvements to be gained from a better environment.

  12. But I thought the Jeffersons were moving on up to the East Side after finally getting a piece of the pie?

    1. The key word there is “up”. The poor section, because it was where the wind blew all the smells, was the Lower East Side.

  13. Rather orientalist of you to say that, frankly. And I think Shaker Heights wants a quick word.

    Mr. D.

  14. How is this news? I learned this over 20 years ago, but not just because of industrial pollution; as I learned it, it was more about the smells of the city, which explains why it was so even before modern industry. The poor people, and recent immigrants, and the Jews, were on the east side where all the smells blew. When people could afford (and were allowed) to move to a better neighborhood they did. The Judengasse was often just inside the east wall, and the cemeteries were often just outside it.

  15. Consider London, where until the pogroms of the 1190s the Jews lived in Old Jewry, in the center of town, but after they were burned and chased out they resettled in Jewry, all the way on the east, until they were expelled 100 years later. The Spanish-Portuguese Marrano community who came later, settled in Cree Church, again just inside where the east wall had been, replacing the Huguenot refugees who had by then moved up in the world and moved to better areas. The Eastern European Jews who came later settled even farther east, the wall no longer being there. WW2 made them move, and now it’s a Moslem area.

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