Manhattan’s population density is changing – and not in the way you’d expect

Residents in a Bayard Street tenement around 1890. Image: Jacob Riis at Wikimedia Commons.

Below are two population density maps of Manhattan. One is from 1910; the other 2010. The latter shows a city that’s absorbed the explosion in high-rise living and the growing desperation of pretty much everyone in the world to live on an island that isn’t getting any bigger (well, not much bigger, anyway). 

The twist is, the diagram that best mirrors the skyscraper-littered shape of modern Manhattan actually shows the city at the beginning of the last century. Here are the same diagrams again:

Image: Schlomo Angel, Planet of Cities.

Over the past century, Manhattan’s population has actually fallen by a little under 25 per cent. To put it even more plainly:

This shrinkage tells a story of improved transport links and living conditions. In the early 20th century, many factory workers lived in packed tenement blocks, often with large families. These tenements clustered on the Lower East Side, where population density has now dropped from at least 1,200 people per hectare to 600 or fewer. The rich, meanwhile, employed fleets of servants, making the average household far larger than it is today. 

Subway expansions, price rises and the razing of the city’s slums all helped push residents to other boroughs over the past century. As a result, far more people now work in Manhattan than live there. These density maps show the island’s current population densities by day and night:

Image: Joe Lertola, via Time Magazine.

As you can see, those red blocks don’t magically reappear in the visible portions of New Jersey or Brooklyn at the end of the working day – these city workers come from even further afield.

This ability to commute to the packed island, rather than attempting to live there, was massively boosted by the introduction of a subway system whose fares are part-publically subsidised. The first underground line opened in 1904. The network now covers pretty much the whole of New York City:


The island’s population recently began to rise again, so it remains to be seen which way the trend line will go. If flying cars take off, of course, no one will need to live on overpriced Manhattan real estate at all – it’ll just be a network of office blocks and landing strips. 

 
 
 
 

The smartphone app placing virtual statues of women on the map

A virtual Edith Wharton in Central Park, New York City. Image: The Whole Story Project.

If you’re a woman, then in order for you to be immortalised in stone, bronze or whatever once you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, you should either have royal blood or be willing to be sculpted naked. That is the rule of thumb.

A statue that actually celebrates a woman’s achievements is a rare sight. Writing in the New Statesman last year, equality campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez found that out of 925 statues in Britain, as listed by the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, only 158 are of solo women. Of these, 46 are of royalty, including 29 of Queen Victoria. Fourteen depict the Virgin Mary.

There are signs of change, albeit slow. The suffragist Millicent Fawcett is set to be honoured with a statue in Parliament Square, where currently all 11 of the statues are of men. (They include Nelson Mandela and a nine-foot Gandhi.) The monument is to be unveiled next year to celebrate the centenary of British women receiving the right to vote.

Elsewhere, the late comedian Victoria Wood is being honoured with a statue that’ll be erected in Bury, Greater Manchester. In the Moss Side area of the city, a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst will be unveiled in 2019. Unlike the Fawcett one, neither of these is expected to receive public money, relying on crowdfunding and other sources instead.

So how many more statues of women, regardless of how they’re funded, would we need to build in order to reduce the gender gap? Well, according to Jonathan Jones, art critic at the Guardian, the magic number is: zero.

Jones’s argument, back in March, was that building statues doesn’t advance feminism, but simply traps us in the past. He wrote:

Statues don’t hold public memory. They politely bury it. These well-meaning images melt into the background scenery of our lives.

Whether this is empirically true is questionable, but it’s true that we tend not to erect them as often as we used to anyway. This is partly because there is less space available for such monuments – a noticeable disadvantage cities of the present have compared to those of the past. In order to reduce the imbalance, statues of men would probably have to be removed; many would no doubt be okay with that, but it would mean erasing history.

One partial answer to the problem is augmented reality. It can’t close the gender gap, but it could shine a spotlight on it.

To that end, an advertising agency in New York launched an app at the beginning of May. The Whole Story allows users to place virtual statues of women on a map; other uses can then view and find out more about the individuals depicted at their real-world locations, using their smartphone cameras.


Currently, users have to upload their own virtual statues using 3D-modelling software. But going forward, the project aims for an open collaboration between designers, developers and organisations, which it hopes will lead to more people getting involved.

Contributions submitted so far include a few dozen in New York, several in Washington and one of Jane Austen in Hyde Park. There are others in Italy and the Czech Republic.

Okay, it’s an app created by a marketing firm, but there are legitimate arguments for it. First, the agency’s chief creative office has herself said that it’s important to address the gender imbalance in a visual way in order to inspire current and future generations: you can’t be what you can’t see, as the saying going.

Second, if the physical presence of statues really is diminishing and they don’t hold public memory, as Jones argues, then smartphones could bridge the gap. We live our lives through our devices, capturing, snapping and storing moments, only to forget about them but then return to and share them at a later date. These memories may melt away, but they’ll always be there, backed up to the cloud even. If smartphones can be used to capture and share the message that a gender imbalance exists then that’s arguably a positive thing.  

Third, with the success of Pokemon Go, augmented reality has shown that it can encourage us to explore public spaces and heighten our appreciation for architectural landmarks. It can also prove useful as a tool for learning about historical monuments.

Of course no app will replace statues altogether. But at the very least it could highlight the fact that women’s achievements are more than just sitting on a throne or giving birth to the son of God.

Rich McEachran tweets as @richmceachran.

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