I’ve recently begun the infuriating process known as apartment hunting. In addition to the days or maybe weeks of my life I’ll never get back — precious time spent scanning rental listings and futilely calling landlords and agencies — I’m losing time to the predictably shady brokers and agents who don’t even bother to put a fresh coat of whitewash over the truths they stretch about square footage or building conditions.
The wackiest aspect of the first weekend of drudgery was the collection of over-the-top amenities new high-rises seem to think we home-seekers not only want but will actually use. I understand the appeal of a gym and in-unit laundry; I would even be thrilled to have them. I’d probably even hang out in a building’s great wrap-around outdoor space, complete with trees, a garden, and paths looking down over the welter of traffic a few stories below. But as I eyed the gas grills and fire pits, I began to feel myself inching down a slippery slope of absurdity.
These places start with a common room, which we can all probably agree isn’t a bad thing; it’s nice that you and your neighbors can hang out, watch a game together, and share a place for resident meetings. But then that shared space turns into a media room, then wends its way to a full bar which leads to a yoga corner, and eventually to another random souped-up niche with movable screens and sound systems, and finally to a “maker space” with a 3D printer for all those times when you just want to kick back and craft your own plastic key chain.
Finally, I think to myself, the deciding factor in where I’ll live! I’d been so conflicted about it all until the printer made me realize where I really belong.
So far, I haven’t encountered the height of silliness that a friend in Washington, D.C., told me he’d been offered: dogs on site you could rent to take on a walk. I was, however, presented with the option of getting an Alexa that would turn my lights on and off for me. I tried to maintain a straight face while the leasing agent demonstrated this updated version of the Clapper, even biting my tongue during the delay between her voicing a command and it being followed. The thick cylinder sat for a moment in surly silence, apparently deciding whether it felt like obeying or whether it would issue a snarky response as it switched off unseen circuits. The whole process lasted at least twice as long as it would have taken just to reach over and flip switches, but I guess being hypnotized by a vaguely hostile device offers a sense of suspense you don’t usually get with minimal levels of manual labor.
The more luxury fortresses I see, the more I wonder what all these whistles and bells are about. Convenience, certainly — convenience that’s oozing into idiotic levels of laziness. New apparent needs are created by the emergence of new technological developments and the timeless desire to keep up with the Joneses (or, for the truly ambitious, the Kardashians).
When everything you need is within your own walls… there’s no reason to venture out into the unwashed and unpredictable world.
But all these exclusive spaces and alluring gadgets might, in fact, be saying something about how we interact with each other as a community.
Think of all those startups with their free meals, lounges, and game rooms — all the comforts of home, the gym, and more in a single space. The relief at being able to get so much done in one spot might eventually sour into the suspicion that you’ve landed in the Hotel California of the office world, unable to get off the clock. It’s not a great leap to look at these luxury apartments and wonder whether something similar is going on there.
When everything you need is within your own walls or can be brought inside them — witness grocery delivery services and lockers for dry cleaning and package pick-up — there’s no reason to venture out into the unwashed and unpredictable world. With a really well-planned arrangement, you might not even have to talk to or look at another human being at all. Tucked safely behind access codes and keyless entries, these places feel like starter versions of the super-rich’s underground bunkers in Kansas and New Zealand — wherever there’s enough land to set up their doomsday ranches and ignore the rioting poor.
And chances are, if residents do decide to leave their luxury turf, a good portion of them will shun the buses, trains, bikes, and sidewalks all around them and request an Uber. Never mind the fact that this option might take longer, thanks to rising levels of traffic and congestion brought about by ridesharing. You can wait around in the lobby for your driver and not have to deal with another person until you’ve arrived safely at the door of your destination.
It’s hardly news that heavy social media usage and attachment to smartphones often result in users’ isolation. And it wouldn’t be groundbreaking to remark on the fact that we often don’t know who’s living next door, especially in apartment buildings. The providers of these communal amenities might be trying to combat that situation. Humans, after all, do tend to gravitate toward others who are like themselves.
You’d think that making it easier to find friends among your neighbors would be a good thing. At least the rent-a-dog option gets you out on the streets. But the buildings that offer such perks are incredibly price-restrictive. Often, they’re doing nothing to change entrenched patterns of residential segregation — and they may in fact be reinforcing them. Lasting legacies of redlining or the pernicious consequences of gentrification will not be solved with a communal firepit and “maker space.”
If you force people who are unlike yourself out of your world, if you insulate yourself from them, it’s not hard to see why it becomes harder to understand and sympathize with them. We fall back on prejudices and stereotypes, on media representations, on anything other than firsthand interaction with people we don’t encounter in the luxury rooftop deck. As a result, we’re lonelier and more ideologically isolated than ever before.
I know. It’s not as if we can just walk out our doors, strike up meaningful conversations with strangers, and expect to walk into the sunset in newfound harmony. But having so many luxury amenities available in our own homes certainly isn’t helping.
On the apartment tour, my mood plummeted as I was shown another beautiful rooftop garden. From there, I was told, I could look right down on one of the summer’s biggest music festivals, listening in without even having to leave the building. I refrained from saying, “That’s not the point.” Even if a festival is prohibitively expensive and creates its own sort of exclusions, it’s meant to be a grand party of which music is only a part. The point is to be among the joy and mess of humanity, to share the experience with a bunch of strangers. Of all the perks of this apartment, I was being sold on its least attractive one.
My search for a new living space is far from over. The frustrations involved in finding something comfortable, affordable, and well-maintained will be part of my life for a while to come. At least I’m finding out where I don’t want to live. Maybe, in the process, I’ll see some interesting sights, talk to some interesting people, and learn something about a neighborhood and its characters.
Hey, maybe even you and I will wave to each over the fence one day and strike up a conversation. We might even, as we sit out on our porches or pass each other on the sidewalks, wind up becoming friends.