American Dream, Downsized

American Dream, Downsized

In the world’s increasingly crowded cities, personal space is shrinking–and so are options for personal happiness.


San Francisco

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.

Shrinking along with the American dream of home ownership is the size of the family. Fewer adults are having children. Once a rural necessity, having children in an urban setting is no longer as vital. In megacities like New York, Tokyo, Paris and Hong Kong, the birth rate is on a steep decline. After all, having a child could mean sliding from the middle class to the standard living of the poor, with a crib in the walk-in closet, a garden on the fire escape. Hong Kong, which has the highest human density in the world, also has one of the lowest birth rates: 0.93 per couple last year. A room of one’s own may be all the space one has, if one is lucky.

Today a condo is what most in the middle class can hope for in places like San Francisco or New York. I suspect that in another generation or two, middle-class homes in American cities will look like those of Tokyo today–which is to say, the size of a train compartment.

That Japanese minimalism has become the dominant style in the modern world is no fluke. Bigger was once said to be better, but what’s chic and ultramodern today–what fits–is smaller and streamlined. The laptop takes no space at all, the iPod is the size of a credit card, the stereo system that once occupied a generous portion of a living room is now so flat and ridiculously thin that you can hardly see it behind the rhododendrons, and the TV that once took too much space on top of the sideboard now hangs on the wall like a mirror. “I used to dream of a house with a nice backyard,” a friend of mine quipped, “but now I am just happy with a flat and a flat-screen TV.” It’s no surprise that Ikea, the global furniture store that takes maximization of living space seriously, is doing so splendidly.

Last night, two homeless men had a row near my apartment building. There’s a little space between two columns in front of a boarded-up store that’s protected from the wind, a much-coveted place to sleep. The man who regularly made a bed there found someone else in his digs. “This is my space!” he screamed at the crasher, and several well-dressed young people who walked by snickered.

To young people, “MySpace” as a phrase has a totally different connotation, evoking the virtual neighborhood where real estate is still plentiful and cheap. In 2050, nervous demographers tell us, there will be 9 billion of us. It is probably why so many of us now, feeling the onset of collective claustrophobia, spend an inordinate amount of our time logging in.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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