If you have been following the New York Times’ contributions to the Highrise project, you may have already seen our recaps of “Mud” and “Concrete,” the first two videos in their four-part series. Today we look at “Glass”––the rise of the condominium. Watch, and interact, with the video here.First things first: This video’s script, narrated by Cold Specks, is written in verse, and it rhymes. Somehow, the change from prose to poetry works for this piece, fueled as it is by a more politically-charged viewpoint than the first two.
According to “Glass,” the 1990s not only saw the sealing of the public housing coffin, but also the dawn of the Condo Era. With quick and rampant vertical growth, cities and supercities kept popping up all over Asia. Urban slums, once brushed aside as “worthless,” now attracted the eyes of speculators who saw them as viable sites for condominiums. Slum residents were thus pushed to the cities’ periphery––deported to live, interestingly, in the old high-rise buildings.
Such gentrification did not always happen smoothly. One particularly famous clash happened at the birthplace of hip-hop: 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, where Kool Herc wowed party guests in the early 1970s with his then-new methods of manipulating breakbeats. Still, new luxury condos popped up more frequently, becoming taller, lusher, and greener even as downtown housing offered smaller and smaller units. These “micro-apartments” of less than 300 square feet met criticism by those who argued that such housing was an inhumane way of constraining “the young, lonely, and cash-poor.”
Either way, these increasing levels of privatized vertical development meant that our cities shifted from landscapes of concrete and steel to those of glass. Not every city has followed this trend, however. In Singapore, 80 percent of citizens live in some form of public housing. Hong Kong’s government, too, provides “Harmony blocks” of public housing––wherein each of the recently-built structures are 40 stories or taller––for low-income residents, and China is beginning to follow suit.
Specks reminds us (still in verse!) that there is always hope for renewal of public housing as a “modest, affordable, and humane” option for living, depending on our goals as a society.
Don’t miss the conclusion of this series––”Home”––tomorrow.