[T]he comforts of the [Manhattan’s] rich still depend on the abundance of its poor, the municipal wealth and well-being as unevenly distributed as in the good old days of the Gilded Age. When seen at a height or a distance, from across the Hudson River or from the roof of Rockefeller Center, Manhattan meets the definitions of the sublime. At ground level Manhattan is a stockyard, the narrow streets littered with debris and laid out in the manner of cattle chutes, the tenements and storefronts uniformly fitted to fit the framework of a factory or a warehouse.
— Lewis Lapham, “City Light”, Lapham’s Quarterly, 7 October 2010
It’s so easy to project the past onto the present. Is Lapham really describing Manhattan today? Or did he just stop noticing change a decade or two ago?
Lapham’s image of the Manhattan street as stockyard is something I could recognize from visits there as recently as 1985, when the scouring rush of traffic on the wide avenues could indeed recall thundering herds of cattle racing down narrowing channels toward their doom. You’ll certainly find this street-level dystopia in many great New York novels of the 19th and 20th centuries. But is this really the Manhattan of 2010 where major streets and elevated freeways are turning into cycleways and parks?
And if the dystopian 20th Century Manhattan is gone, or going, what will social theorists do without it? The vertical city as a metaphor for wealth differential — rich above, poor below — is so easy that it’s hardly a metaphor at all. What happens as the rich-poor divide grows more horizontal again — as the poor are priced of even the humblest Manhattan apartments? Will we have to let go of the altitude=power equation? Or is “altitude=power” so ingrained in our nature that commentators of Lapham’s ilk will always stamp it upon Manhattan, so that when they see a well-dressed woman chatting with friends over coffee in the middle of the parkland called Broadway, they’ll still see some kind of stockyard in her soul?