As a part of my New York withdrawal treatment, I have been regularly consuming media about the city to quell the pangs of nostalgia that is starting to set in. Among my favorites so far is Rem Koolhaas’ 1978 architectural chronicle Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan. The book attempts to weave a cohesive basis for the origins of the city’s unique character.
One passage I came across a while back resonated intensely with the current milieu. Since the 1853 World’s Fair (the first of two to take place in the Empire City), technological innovation has been an inseparable part of the city’s developmental ethos. Here Rem describes the first exhibition of the modern elevator, displayed by its inventor Elisha Otis:
Among the exhibits in the sphere is one invention that above all others will change the face of Manhattan (and, to a lesser degree, of the world): the elevator.
It is presented to the public as a theatrical spectacle
Elisha Otis, the inventor, mounts a platform that ascends – the major part, it seems, of the demonstration. But when it has reached its highest level, an assistant presents Otis with a dagger on a velvet cushion.
The inventor takes the knife, seemingly to attack the crucial element of his own invention: the cable that has hoisted the platform upward and that now prevents its fall. Otis cuts the cable; it snaps.
Nothing happens, to the platform or the inventor.
Invisible safety catches – the essence of Otis’ brilliance – prevent the platform from rejoining the surface of the earth.
Thus Otis introduces an invention into urban theatricality: the anticlimax as denouement, the non-event as triumph.
Like the elevator, each technological invention is pregnant with a double image: contained in its success is the specter of its possible failure. The means of averting that phantom disaster are almost as important as the original invention itself.
Otis has introduced a theme that will be a leitmotiv of the island’s future development: Manhattan is an accumulation of possible disasters that never happen.
My brief sojourn in Soho convinced me that this mentality extends far beyond technology, perhaps being the most central dogma of the residents. On a social front, Manhattanites are constantly pushing their lives to extremes, taking on a schedule that teeters on the brink of misfortune. The most quintessential characters I met during my tenure were those that took on more than they could chew, and while keeping a calm and collected perspective, always managed to make everything click at the last minute. You meet this type elsewhere in the world, and you whisper to yourself, “that person was so meant to live in Manhattan.”
In the wake of last September, many people are asking themselves whether or not New York City, and the country at large, will return to “normal.” Without a doubt, Manhattan has found stasis, but I doubt that things will ever be the same. This is a city that derived its impulse from standing on the edge, now forced to take a step away and reconsider its options; this from a population that has not needed to look back in 150 years.
If “normal” refers to the mentality of a year ago today, a great deal of ignorance would be necessary to return there. For the first time in its history, New York City has been forced away from a suspension of disbelief, as if the failsafe on Otis’ elevator had never existed. This is obviously the most major turning point in the history of the city, but the new Manhattanism (in the words of Mr. Koolhaas), remains to be seen. What force will propel the city into its next stage of development?