[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?
Yes! No, it is not like stockyards. Things in Manhattan have changed a LOT since the ’80s. And, Jarrett, love your last sentence there.
He’s still on the money. Not to read too much into the metaphor, but the streets are still more dirty than I’d prefer and there are still steady streams of traffic going down the streets and avenues. Where are they all driving to? Who knows??
New York streets are pretty filthy but that has more to do with the lack of alleys and the garbage collection practices (leaving it all out in large piles of plastic bags on the sidewalk every morning) than with issues of class.
I think what Latham is getting at colorfully is the image of NYC as a production house. Commerce = that pitiable business of the herd. I think he is being partly satirical. He’s aware that there’s a strain in American intellectual writing that always views the city with suspicion.
Should we lament that commerce depends on bringing those unequally yoked rivals together, meshing the divide between the wealthy and the “aspiring” classes? What else is it that makes the city energetic? Should one consider this an unideal situation? Is it a dystopian utopia? If urbanism became an ideal, a bourgeois fantasy, as the auto-detesting Situationists of the 60’s suddenly surmised, then the city is no longer interesting… urbanism no longer worth intellectual athleticism. Irrelevant. NYC 2010… unity in a fragmented age. The car is the losing bastard. Constant and Guy Dubord would have peed their pants to see this day. Is this a new situation? There in the gentrification? One wonders if dystopia and utopia are buddies. Grime and catwalks. A city of lights in the age of handheld media. What of those new catwalks!
“The city is as what one wishes to see it…” Indeed.
if social theorists want to hold on to the rich above/poor below theory, they can always shift their gaze west to los angeles, where that is still very much true. it’s no secret that in general, the further up you go in elevation, the nicer the homes are and the richer the inhabitants. for example, i currently live in mt washington in northeast los angeles, less than half a mile up the hill from the rather poor neighborhoods of cypress park and highland park, and it’s a completely different world up here. it’s a trend you can see across the city.