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Sardine Life

What a century and a half of piled-up housing reveals about us.

New York didn’t invent the apartment. Shopkeepers in ancient Rome lived above the store, Chinese clans crowded into multistory circular tulou, and sixteenth-century Yemenites lived in the mud-brick skyscrapers of Shibam. But New York re-invented the apartment many times over, developing the airborne slice of real estate into a symbol of exquisite urbanity. Sure, we still have our brownstones and our townhouses, but in the popular imagination today’s New Yorker occupies a glassed-in aerie, a shared walk-up, a rambling prewar with walls thickened by layers of paint, or a pristine white loft.

The story of the New York apartment is a tale of need alchemized into virtue. Over and over, the desire for better, cheaper housing has become an instrument of urban destiny. When we were running out of land, developers built up. When we couldn’t climb any more stairs, inventors refined the elevator. When we needed much more room, planners raised herds of towers. And when tall buildings obscured our views, engineers took us higher still.

This architectural evolution has roughly tracked the city’s financial fortunes and economic priorities. The turn-of-the-century Park Avenue duplex represented the apotheosis of the plutocrat; massive postwar projects like Stuyvesant Town embodied the national mid-century drive to consolidate the middle class; and the thin-air penthouses of Trump World Tower capture the millennial resurgence of buccaneering capitalism. You can almost chart income inequality over the years by measuring the height of New York’s ceilings.

The apartment was not always the basic unit of Manhattan life. To the refined nineteenth-century New Yorker, the idea of being confined to a single floor, with strangers stomping above and lurking below, was an intolerable horror, fit for greenhorns and laborers. Even circa 1900, Edith Wharton’s socially sensitive anti-heroine Lily Bart in The House of Mirth has strong opinions about what sort of female belongs in a flat, instead of a proper house: “Oh, governesses—or widows. But not girls!”

It took decades to cajole respectable New Yorkers out of their single-family homes. In 1857, Calvert Vaux, who later became Frederick Law Olmsted’s partner in the design of Central Park, proposed a four-story, wide-windowed, thoughtfully designed set of “Parisian Buildings.” His drawing included an elegantly dressed couple entering the lobby, but that was wishful thinking. While the city’s population surged after the Civil War, and newcomers jammed into dank and rickety brick tenements, the affluent clung to increasingly exorbitant houses, even as they could hardly afford to build more of them. “Nothing denotes more greatly a nation’s advancement in civilization than the ornate and improved style of its architecture and the erection of private palatial residences,” the Times noted wistfully in 1869. With real-estate values spinning out of control, the editorial concluded that the only realistic way to beautify the city was to erect more mansions for sharing: “the house built on the French apartment plan.” If such a dubiously Continental innovation could be made to seem palatable, even splendid, to the upper crust, the bourgeoisie would surely follow.

The first building to overcome these sensitivities was Richard Morris Hunt’s Stuyvesant Apartments at 142 East 18th Street, a luxurious behemoth by 1870 standards. This structure defeated doubters with a two-pronged argument of aesthetics and pragmatism. The architecture oozed dignity: Five stories high and four lots wide, it had an imposing mass, an overweening mansard roof with yawning dormers, wrought-iron balconies, and ornamental columns. Even more persuasively, compared with the cost of building, furnishing, cleaning, and repairing a private home, all this respectability came as a bargain. Within a few years, the Times announced that a “domiciliary revolution” had taken place: a happy epidemic of flats had beaten back a plague of sinister boardinghouses. Young couples could now afford a bright new place in town; families no longer needed to fan out to the villages that lay miles from Union Square. The change represented the triumph of pragmatism over prejudice. “Anglo Saxons,” the Times reported, “are instinctively opposed to living under the same roof with other people, and it is doubtful if [that resistance] would have been overcome had not the earliest flats been of an elegant kind, in the best quarters of the town, and therefore, expensive and fashionable.” The rich made the apartment safe for the middle class.

Respectability was a crucial issue in a society as fluid as New York’s, where those who had achieved preeminence kept it only by erecting rigid social distinctions. In The House of Mirth, Wharton charts Lily’s decline by plotting her narrowing real-estate choices: She moves from a relative’s house to a spare, lonely apartment and then, after a brief stint as a social climber’s paid companion in a decadently luxurious hotel, she drifts even further downward to a shared one-room flat. She finally winds up in a boardinghouse, one step from the gutter.

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