The historic role of Manhattan, particularly in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, is difficult to quantify. This is a time when – owing to possibly unparalleled developments in communications technologies and international travel – a template of an ideal city was globally propagated on an unprecedented scale. This city would be defined by its tall buildings with opague frontages, and would exude power and capital. It would also be host to some of the most important governmental, business and cultural organisations anywhere in the world – including no less a body than the United Nations, symbolic of the planet in microcosm. This city would be a paradigm to be replicated – in ways both honorific and pathetic – wherever a certain kind of wealth made it possible.
However, in today’s Manhattan, new processes are at work which were not supposed to be in the DNA of the apex of urbanisation. An August 2013 report by the real estate company Reis Incorporated (located on Fifth Avenue, natch) reveals that the average monthly rental cost in New York City is US$3,000.00; between 2002 and 2011, rental values increased sharply while incomes stayed stagnant or went up only in nominal terms. In many new developments, asking prices for outright purchase of an apartment are commonly in seven or even eight figures. Given that a middle-class income in NYC is typically between US$45,000.00 and US$134,000.00 per year, many Manhattanites are fleeing to other parts of the city for no reason other than extraordinary economic circumstances which are beyond their control, constituting a new class of financial refugee.
Can a city where an organisation called the Inclusionary Housing Program mandates separate entrances to a residential building for subsidised and non-subsidised tenants and where most people are toiling like hamsters on a wheel just to stand still really be called a model with a straight face? Will the countless urban settlements which have senselessly copied Manhattan to the extent possible rethink their strategy in the face of patent failure? Or is Manhattanisation the last model of its kind – the only one, because of conditioning and plummeting expectations, that we can ever aspire to?