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Room to Live

The map below depicts the striking decline in Manhattan’s population density between 1910 and 2010, capturing the desperate overcrowdedness of the tenement-era Lower East Side (where the Other Half lived) alongside the more even distribution of residents throughout today’s New York. Created by an NYU researcher and posted by Matt Yglesias on Vox, the data visualization raises the obvious question of why New York’s population thinned so dramatically over the past century. The replies to Brandon Fuller’s original tweet reflect a variety of theories, while the Vox post attributes the shift to modern-day city dwellers taking up more space than their 1910 equivalents, who lived closer together at every socioeconomic tier.


Source: Brandon Fuller

Yglesias posits that New York’s residential square footage must continuously increase to maintain the city’s population density, but his diagnosis of the situation, while not wrong, misses a more fundamental dynamic: New York is a global city, and the primary purpose of global cities is not residential. Yes, these cities have (and need) huge populations, but their main role is an economic one. Manhattan is a market, a production hub, and a control center for the world economy above all else; the population that lives on the island must increasingly support those functions and their side effects, such as tourism, or move elsewhere. In short, space needs to be made for capital to flow through New York freely, in all its forms, and the opportunity cost of allocating that space to anyone who doesn’t somehow contribute to that free flow is far greater in 2010 than it was in 1970 or 1930. Thus, while New York’s current population takes up more square feet per capita than their predecessors, they also pay a much higher price for those square feet.

In the United States, a loss of central city population density has historically indicated economic decline, as it did for decaying Rust Belt cities in past decades. In present-day New York, lower densities indicate the opposite, although Manhattan also went through its own period of hollowing out in the 1960s and 1970s. Again, Yglesias is not wrong. People do take up more square feet in New York than they used to. Suburbanization, housing reform, and automobile ownership all put upward pressure on the amount of living space people expect and the minimum amount of space that is legal in US cities. These forces have reduced population density but they are part of the global city’s broader narrative: It’s no longer necessary to cram as many people as possible into urban centers, as it was during the industrial age, and while there’s still plenty of labor needed to keep the world spinning, the heart of the global city is the least optimal site for most of that labor. In post-industrial cities, the function of housing has changed accordingly (see this NY Times article describing a Lower East Side apartment’s layout in 1910 and today), and its ideal tenant is one who plays some part, directly or indirectly, in the commanding heights of the global economy—a mode of life that usually requires more breathing room.

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