As the fair spring winds blow around Mediolana’s home city of London, England, our article publication velocity shifts into a different and very timely gear with a trenchant analysis of the school board election scandal in Edison, a New Jersey municipality within the New York City metropolitan area. Teachable Moment: How Asian-Americans Can Combat Rising Racism is now live at Mediolana.com. See you after the click!
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?
One of the largely-unheralded casualties of the most recent property bubble in both the United Kingdom and the United States is a group whose relative lack of access to the corridors of power often sees it ignored by policymakers: young adults. With prices for housing – whether rented or purchased – long in parodic territory in metropolises such as London and New York, the lack of posited solutions for such an obvious problem is one of the genuine intellectual disappointments of the twenty-first century. Well-intended proposals such as microflats – tiny apartments that seem designed for large rodents rather than anything approaching a humanoid – have only served to highlight the lack of imagination evident in addressing this crisis; many young professionals have turned to internal or external migration as the only viable exit.
It was with this in mind that our CSO was struck by a novel form of housing being formulated at the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (‘MIT Media Lab’). The CityHome is an 840ft² property the main room of which – via the use of robotic walls, appliances and furniture – can transform into any number of large rooms at the flick of a switch. One minute it can be a large dining room with space for up to fourteen people; the next, a home gym; the next, a large kitchen. While the project is still very much under development and its limitations for anything other than one-person occupancy are clear, the massive corporate underwriting of the MIT Media Lab means that should the construction industry find this idea a winner, CityHomes could soon be making their way into a newly-constructed apartment block near you.
As brilliant an idea as it is, however, the CityHome does not address the ultimate question of its own perceived necessity. Would there be any need for such electronic ingenuity in the event of a simple rise in interest rates which would end subsidised money and rebalance the housing market? As red ink soaks the balance sheets of financial institutions in both the great financial centres of the last century, it seems almost churlish to ask.