A City Crammed With People Turns Uncivil

By Sydney H. Schanberg
New York Newsday, September 29, 1987

In a city as crowded as this one is, it’s worth toying with the question of how much space a human needs to feel human. Another way to ask the question is: How far can you reduce the space allotted to an individual before he or she begins to feel abraded, growly, even bestial? 

The evidence that the abrasion level has reached a volatile height in this jammed city — it’s been at that height for a long time — is never very far away.

A few evenings ago, on Central Park West in a neighborhood usually described as civilized, two drivers with frayed ganglions emerged from their vehicles with baseball bats to do battle over who had cut off whom a block or two earlier. They flailed and they cursed and in the end inflicted most of the damage on windshields and fenders. The bat wielders themselves were still undamaged enough, when the police came, to be arrested and taken away standing up. It was madness, but it was also the kind of grand spectacle that’s almost worth your taxes on that given day. You don’t often get treated to Demolition Derby on Central Park West.

Circuses aside, however, one does get the sensation, though it could be partly anecdotal or impressionistic, that the abrasion level here has grown worse and is now a constant in New York City life — certainly in the life of the power center that is Manhattan.

Patience seems diminished, civility slipping. People lower their eyes and push on to elevators before the disembarking passengers can get off. Bumps and grunts and elbows mix in a hash of dyspepsia. On subways, this would be old hat, nothing out of the ordinary. But in office and residential elevators, it feels recent — and unwelcome.

There are times when some members of our new population — young and youngish people — seem the most impatient of all. Gotta get it all in a hurry before it disappears. I do understand their nervousness in the neutron age about the longevity of their future but, however understandable, it only adds to the climbing abrasion meter.

Many of the people whom the new population has replaced — working-class people who simply can no longer afford the cost of housing, at least not in Manhattan or in the neighborhoods that have been nouvelle in the outer boroughs — have taken with them, as they joined the refugee trail, the energizing flavors and surprises of the ethnic neighborhoods they once formed.

Almost as soon as they leave, what seems to pour in on their heels and pave over their neighborhoods is a culture that suggests sameness, homogenized jeans, animal appliqués on shirts. And when you practice Coca-Cola-ization, you also introduce the disease of anonymity. 

In a village or neighborhood where virtually every resident is known, anonymity and non-accountability cannot be practice. Add anonymity to the jammed city/high abrasion equation and you have formula for absence of civility.

There are likely no more people in this city, even if you include illegal aliens, than there were in 1950 — but mix and balance are all but gone. And the gap between rich and poor is now so dramatic and so fixed as to suggest a depressed Third World city. Calcutta and Jakarta come early to mind because they too are cities where vast numbers of residents live on sidewalks.

I have a theory, admittedly unsupported by anything but my own observations and sensations, that there came a moment in New York City’s history when the population reached a saturation point — and still kept climbing. This breaking point can be defined as the maximum number of people who can fit into the city’s 304 square miles and still maintain an observance of the social contract, as in: Respect thy neighbor’s space and rights.

After this point is breached, the social contract begins being replaced by the animal kingdom.

I have no idea which year it was when New York became overfilled with people, but I do believe it happened. It was probably some time in the first half of this century — somewhere between 1900, when the city’s population was but 3.4 million, and 1950, when it reach 7.9 million.

Certainly we know that when our population is over 7 million, which is where it is now, and when that population is governed and guided and legislated into a particular pecking order, as it is now, we will have a nasty abrasion level.

And we will also have anonymity and lack of grace.

Over the weekend, in Macy’s Cellar, where kitchenware is sold, a well-dressed young man and woman in their 20s were looking at stainless-steel place settings. Sample settings were pasted along one wall with Velcro strips. The young couple took down a knife here, a teaspoon there, to heft it for its feel and shape.

They seemed to like on particular design — I believe it was called “Lake Forest” — but couldn’t quite make up their minds to buy. Instead, the young man took from the setting a soup spoon and a fork — and pocketed them.

Maybe they just wanted to see how the pieces looked at home before deciding. Maybe they thought they weren’t really stealing. I hope they return the spoon and fork. It might return a little civility to the city.

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