Marianne Schaefer in Building Operations on May 24, 2018
Ever wonder what New York City co-op living will be like 100 years from now? In his new science fiction novel, New York 2140, best-selling author Kim Stanley Robinson offers a two-fold answer: co-op living will be drastically different, yet also shockingly familiar.
At the novel’s center is the Met Life Tower at 23rd Street and Madison, which has been converted from offices into a 700-unit co-op, where, as in many 2018 co-ops, only a saint or a maniac would want to be board president. Most of the novel’s shareholders cannot be bothered with the dealings of the board or its committees. The reserve fund is not what it should be. The board has to decide if a TV celebrity would be a good fit for the co-op, or if her presence will be disruptive. And then there are those eternal familiars: noise complaints, disputes over maintenance, demands for a bigger freight elevator and a bigger boathouse. A boathouse?
In 2140, after two major sea surges that caused billions of deaths worldwide, the sea level has risen by about 50 feet. As envisioned by Robinson, Manhattan south of 40th Street is permanently flooded up to the second or third floor. Buildings that were not anchored to bedrock have collapsed or melted away. North of 40th Street the West Side is dry, the East Side not so much. The rich, then as now, live uptown in nosebleed skyscrapers. Downtown people are usually stuck in traffic in their boats on congested canals, or they walk on sky bridges spanning the flooded streets.
Being superintendent in the fictional Met Life Tower co-op definitely means superintending. Vlade and his 98-member crew are constantly busy waterproofing the building with the latest Dutch equipment. There are farms on neighboring rooftops, aquaculture pens in the canals, full of thrashing fish.
After the second surge, the watery downtown area was deemed ruined and worthless. But this is New York, where real-estate players can turn any calamity into an opportunity. And so it all begins again – regentrification. First artists, squatters and entrepreneurs start moving in, turning the watery wasteland into a destination that is, in the words of one of the novel’s narrators, “fashionably hip, artistic, sexy, a new urban legend.” A century from now, New York has become “SuperVenice.”
The rich, as always, want to buy into the hip and happening parts of town, and so Lower Manhattan has again become an investment opportunity. To make matters worse, there is an offer to buy the Met Life building, and the shareholders must vote if they want to sell and dissolve the co-op, a dance that recently played out at a real-live co-op in Soho. The Met Life board president argues against selling, claiming that a home in a community is something you cannot put a price tag on. Others, eager to cash out and get rich, deride the idealistic board president a “notorious social justice warrior.” Yes, it all sounds shockingly familiar.
And yet Robinson’s dark vision of the future is also surprisingly utopian. “Possibly New York has never been this interesting,” as one character puts it. In the end, the Met Life board president reminds us of a timeless truth: a co-op, even a futuristic one that’s partly underwater, is not something you can blithely buy or sell. It’s something intangible. A community. A sense of home.
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