Oh, to live in a teeming tenement!
That’s not a sentiment you hear a lot these days. In fact, it’s doubtful that the great wave of Jews immigrating to New York at the turn of the last century would have uttered it, either. But to the tenements they came, and New York has never been the same. This may be why the city’s current mayor, Michael Bloomberg, wants developers to do it again: Teem away!
In June he announced a contest to plan a building crammed with 80 apartments of 275 to 300 square feet each. Thirty-three developers submitted plans by the deadline in late September and the winning concept will be built in the Kips Bay neighborhood on Manhattan’s East Side.
Such an apartment building would normally be illegal, since city zoning law prohibits overly dense buildings. The Mayor is throwing space requirements down the airshaft, not because he believes in human misery but because he believes in human capital. Right now, a lot of humans can’t afford to move to the city, or at least not to Manhattan, where the average rent is $3,418, according to brokerage firm Citi Habits. These new apartments, smaller than some ATM vestibules but bigger than a New York prison cell, will rent for about $2,000 a month. And while that’s not pigeon feed, it just may be affordable enough to lure a lot of young folk who can start contributing their enthusiasm and smarts.
Bloomberg isn’t the only one thinking this way. In San Francisco, there are reports of developers hoping to rent out apartments half as big — 150 square feet. The reasoning is the same: more and more people are living alone or as couples. Not only does a smaller space appeal to budding yuppies, but it is also a safe alternative to the illegally carved up spaces to which many poverty-stricken urbanites resort. As such, the small apartment initiative doesn’t seem to have many opponents. What it does have is a bit of a backstory: a faint echo of what happened 100 years ago, when the immigrants flooded in from Eastern Europe.
“Nostalgia is no friend to history!” chided historian Peter Golden when I floated the idea of a new tenement golden age. He was quick to remind me that the poverty on the Lower East Side was so grinding, his own grandmother spent the rest of her life embarrassed to talk about it.
“I heard stories about my great-uncle and another great-uncle sharing shoes to go to school,” Golden said. They’d take turns wearing the shoes every other day. To think of the Lower East Side “as a place where nobody ever died too young, or dreamed a dream that didn’t come true,” is as misguided as the immigrants who believed that the streets would be paved with gold. “People starved to death,” Golden said. “There was polio.”
That being said — as it has to be — all I meant by the comparison is that it seems like a lot of good things can happen when you mash people together in a metropolis. “Give us your huddled masses” is not just kind-hearted; it’s also good urban policy. While Jews fleeing pogroms and living in squalor is not exactly the same thing as grad students fleeing Ohio and living in cool, new micro-homes (while they work on their social media start-up), in both cases what you get is a city filled with newcomers eager to make good, and just as eager to step out of their cramped living quarters.