Isolation Density, or, How the Other Half Lives (Next Door to Artisanal Coffee Shop)

Unfortunately, I’m gonna have to do this again…. I am a gentrifier. A 21c American success story (got priced out of my hometown Brooklyn, so now I live in Manhattan, go fig) and perhaps to Jane Jacobs, I’m part of a renaissance transforming grit to nostalgia. To my neighbor down the hall — who pays half the rent I/we do, and gets lesser treatment for it — I am the canary of their imploding coal mine, only I’m not, because unlike them, I have wings (i.e. parents and inlaws who support us, or at least are not dependent on us) to move on to the next merry-go-round once we price ourselves out.

The 1890 publication of How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis brought to light the squalid conditions of NYC’s famed tenements and set in motion a number of (somewhat enforced) housing laws. Because of JR, rooms all require a window and apartments have minimum dimensions. At the same time, many of these laws were fashioned after European/Judeo-Christian values that promote the nuclear family. (even today it’s officially illegal for more than three unrelated adults to live together). In other words, apartment dimensions, like milk cartons, are designed with family in mind.

A few years a ago, the Museum of the City of New York showcases a design competition for the new micro-dwelling; to imagine how appartements could be severely downsized. A hundred years after the codes, more people are living alone, and space is tight, so it kinda makes sense. And yet, I couldn’t help feeling depressed by the designs as a starbucks on a Sunday. The dormitory style flats provided a small bathroom for each tenant but tiny kitchens were often shared, with no other common space where one could actually sit facing anything but a macbook. True, NYC millennials don’t spend a ton of time at home, awake and not looking at a screen, but seeing how our environments are being shaped by our tendencies and in turn encouraging them made me think twice.

Neeraj Bhatia’s fascinating article Matthew shared with our Advance Rep class speaks to this enigma of increased density in an increasingly isolating world. The results of the past election can be mapped simply along the spectrum of density, and Bhatia argues (like many others) that living in close proximity to otherness will breed empathy.

And yet.

Here we are, the champions of density. Students in this incredible, gap-bridging institution, and pushing ourselves to the edge of our comfort zone with every damn subway ride.

And yet. Do we know the consequences of our presence? Do I understand the effect of my skin color and dress code on real estate values? Seeing (and once in a blue moon, interacting with) my “diverse” groups of neighbors makes me happy to be living in the anti-Trump States of Mind. But how do my neighbors see me? (perhaps I should ask)

As Bhatia quotes, from The Stranger , two weeks after the election:

Look at the faces of the people sitting with you in the cafe, or bar, or free clinic lobby, or library. Look across the aisle of the bus, or subway, or light rail train you’re riding. Look at the drivers stuck in freeway traffic with you. Look at the young and old of all colors and creeds who share this city with you, some sleeping, not far from you, under tarps and highway overpasses. This is the American city. You are fortunate to be here, inside one of the most powerful machines we have for defeating fascists.

New York City provides us with an opportunity every day, to open our eyes to the resistance that our neighborhood (while it lasts).

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