In my apartment building people of various income levels are stacked on top of each other. The architect and the teacher occupy one-bedroom apartments on the floor above me. They are considered middle-class and, for that matter, so am I. An affluent, well-traveled couple lives in a two-bedroom apartment on the top floor. A poor Chinese immigrant family of five is crammed into the converted storage room where half a dozen bicycles were once kept, their children often turning the foyer into a makeshift playground strewn with plastic toys.
This is typical of the way we live in urban areas around the world: people of various classes live right next to, if not on top of, one another. We share the same address, practically, but occupy a very different sense of space. And just like those in the middle of my building, the middle class everywhere is feeling the pinch.
For the first time in human history there are more people living in urban areas than rural, and cities have grown like amoeba into megacities–so crowded that they have become virtual countries with complex ecosystems unto themselves. Tokyo leads the pack with 31 million residents. Seoul has 23 million, followed by New York and Bombay.
Living space, unless one belongs to that tiny percentage called the upper class, is shrinking as the human population continues to grow. While the rural poor leave open sky and rolling plains to flock to the edge of the metropolis–they crowd into ramshackle slums in the third world, or one-room units in the first–the middle class is clinging to its precious status by contending with far smaller living spaces than those of previous generations.
I remember when a middle-class family could own a Victorian home in San Francisco. Now such a home would be divided into three or four units, each remodeled and sold to an upper middle-class couple.
Case in point: I went with some friends to look at a two-bedroom house the other day. It’s a bungalow that was once the home of a working-class family in the 50s. Now, with skyrocketing prices and a prime location, it’s out of reach for my friend, who is a single lawyer. The little house was going for a little over $1.3 million dollars. “My American dream,” she said with a sigh, “has just been seriously downsized.”
Of course, the further you go from the city, the more space you can afford. But there’s a catch: if you want more space you’ll likely have to exchange it for your time. The price tag for a front yard and back garden can be a four-hour commute every day.