Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Once Upon A Time American Elites Understood The Importance Of Culture And Conviviality

Curbed |   Dense cities like New York offer many residents a deal: Live in tight, possibly semi-squalid conditions in exchange for a cornucopia of communal experiences. In recent years, developers even turned that exchange into a selling point, offering dorm-like digs and shared amenities like dog spas and in-house breweries. But the bargain goes back far enough to have been woven into the city’s character and architecture. In the early 20th century, the wealthy and powerful understood that if the poor and powerless were going to participate in the city’s civic life, they needed to do it somewhere that wasn’t a tenement or a factory floor. New York filled the city with limestone libraries, airy train stations, religious institutions, parks, and grand public buildings. The Depression (and Robert Moses) brought playgrounds and swimming pools. Fortunes and years were spent shoring up the promise of urban life: that even the most deprived New Yorkers were welcome to join the throngs and partake in the city’s grandeur.

We’re still living off that largesse, just as we continue to rely on the foresight of the past every time we ride the subway or cross a bridge. These days, though, all those third-place locations sit dark, while we stay home and draw on different kinds of reserves: money, memory, and social capital. Isolation makes it hard to make friends, start romances, or have new experiences. Instead, we shut out the whine of wind and sirens and roll the recollections of old trips and meals around in our minds, while a freer future remains an abstraction.

The indoor season will tempt us to cheat — to negotiate with disease in ever more legalistic ways. A few weeks ago, a neighbor stepped onto an already full elevator in my building, ignoring the posted maximum of three passengers at a time. The other elevator was broken, she explained. She’d been waiting a long time. We were all wearing masks. The virus, I pointed out, doesn’t care.