Vertical living has behaved as promised: It multiplied the value of limited land, streamlined the machinery of leisure, sheltered the masses, and concentrated entrepreneurial energy into a compact urban zone. But the price of height is lightweight construction: glass walls, thin floors, and plasterboard walls. The original barons of the Beresford would have found today’s condo towers pretty flimsy castles in the sky. And yet New York has done such a thorough job of glamorizing the high-rise apartment that a Manhattan pied-en-l’air has become a billionaire’s accessory and an eternal object of desire. Developers have searched for ways to leverage that lust—to reconcile the assembly-line efficiencies of the construction business with the quest for ever-greater heights of pampering. Enter the preposterous amenity. Today, the most extreme buildings compete to provide a Gilded Age menu of extras: swimming pools, gyms, spas, garages, valet parking, concierge service, room service, housekeeping service, wireless service, rooftop dog runs, party rooms, screening rooms, and so on. You can never be too rich or too comfortable.
In theory, the ultrahigh-rise should not be simply an instrument of extravagant living but a path back to the egalitarian policies of the mid–twentieth century. In his recent book Triumph of the City, the Harvard professor Edward Glaeser argues that New York’s vitality depends on people being able to live here, that the only way to make apartments affordable is to erect more of them, and that means rising higher and higher. If he’s right, then perhaps all the contradictory forces of New York’s real-estate history can somehow be intertwined, and the next generation of apartment buildings can somehow combine affordability with vintage grandeur, great height, and the relentless pursuit of ease. That may seem like an implausible quartet of attributes, but it’s precisely what the first middle-class alternatives to the tenement and the boardinghouse offered 150 years ago.
Almost the entire trajectory of the New York apartment remains on the menu today. To choose an apartment here is to select one particular vision of what New York life can be. The crowds who troop around to open houses every Sunday are never just counting bathrooms and closets or calculating mortgage payments. They’re wondering whether they want to join the centennial parade of families who have occupied this particular enclosure, whether a refurbished tenement speaks of hoary miseries or new excitement, whether the view out each window is one they want to see every day, or whether they can see themselves in their prospective neighbors. To hunt for an apartment is to decide which New York you belong in, and what specific droplet of the city’s fickle soul has found its way into your veins.