Cosh and carry: Part 2, Money for the Einsteinian political economy

April 10, 2014 | Banking, Bitcoin, cash, Crime, Economics, informality, Markets, Regulation, robbery, Taxation | No comments 359 views

[Continued from yesterday's Part 1.]

By: David A. Smith

Yesterday’s post, using as source material two articles, one from the Economist (April 5, 2014), the other from the Wall Street Journal (March 27, 2014; green font), both commenting on a new paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, established that the rise of electronic money (credit cards and electronic transfers) corresponded with, and likely contributed significantly to, a drop in interpersonal violent crime (burglary, assault, and larceny).


Not much point if his walleyt has no cash in it

Neither the paper’s authors nor the journalists, themselves all citizens of the highly electronic and connected formal world, flagged any of the downsides of electronic money or the upside of cash – and that’s understandable given their perspective, as the drawbacks of cash become significant only when cash is used in transactions between people who do not know each other and who are unlikely ever to see each other again. 

Slums are different, because though they are economically rational, they are not the formal world.  In slums, everybody knows everybody, people’s physical mobility is limited (everybody goes home at night to the slum), and there will be a form of alternate power hierarchy (even if criminal and extortive) and a means of conflict resolution and subsequent recourse. 

Mafia neighborhoods in Boston like the North End were reputed to be very safe for tourists because the mob didn’t want any street crime to attract police presence to the area.

A few decades back, when I was doing investor asset management for the affordable housing properties our company has syndicated, the elderly living on pensions had to go to the bank to deposit their social security or pension checks; and their way home was fraught with peril the closer they got to their apartments, because the teenage sons of other resources could plot their path and then lie in wait (often in stairwells adjacent to the elevators). 


Nobody is going to rob us, going down the mountain

We don’t have any money, going down the mountain

When we start going up the mountain, then you can sweat

For that matter, in the 1800s traders in Tennessee, walking home from New Orleans after having sold goods they floated down the Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers, were always at risk of being waylaid on the Natchez Trace, because they were known to have cash and known to follow a fixed route.


Worn down by thousands upon thousands of walkers

“Cash is critical in stimulating street crime because of its liquidity and anonymity.”

’Street crime’ is a negative externality of the informal economy (what I called the set of Anonymous Activities referenced above).

“This role in street crimes has long been speculated — but the puzzle has not been solved,” Erdal Tekin, an economist at Georgia State University and one of the paper’s authors, said in an interview.


Not Tekin for a fool: the puzzle has not been solved”

At this point, let’s stipulate to the authors’ conclusion – emergence of electronic money as a principal medium of exchange reduces interpersonal violent crime, especially in formal societies with good governance where its efficacy is high and the external costs of compliance and use are low.

Thus the NBER study is like Newtonian classical mechanics – applicable in the common case familiar to economist, namely the formal world (and a world, it should be noted, where government is benevolent, efficient, and obviously of value to citizens).  Within that Newtonian economic universe, the NBER study’s findings are compelling. 


The wider world, with informal economies and imperfect governments, is like Einsteinian mechanics that apply more broadly, with Newtonian mechanics a subcase when a certain element – in this case, the net economic benefit of informality – is set to zero.


Make sure you know who’s who

In slums, however, the government is present only as an external force, often one that applies regulations and taxes, both of which are costs imposed on economic activity, and gives the slum dwellers far less in municipal benefits than they receive in those taxes and regulatory impositions. 

How does electronic money compare with physical cash from the perspective of market participants?

Upside of electronic money

1. No larceny (breaking and entering homes, say)

2. No robbery (theft via violence)

3. Automatic receipts and proof of payment

4. Intermediary stop-loss protection (credit cards, banks)

5. Globally accessible

6. Instantly transferable

These upside features are incredibly powerful, and have facilitated a revolution in global commerce.  At AHI, for instance, we work with clients around the world, from Abu Dhabi to Haiti to Mongolia, and we work with individual consultants who need to be paid in all those places.  From my desk, I can wire them money with certainty it will get to them, and they can collect it without risk.  That is simply extraordinary and a convenience so great I cannot imagine how we would have done business without it.

While the removal of cash may benefit poorer neighborhoods, which are disproportionately affected by street crime, replacing cash with debit cards and other electronic forms of money might bring in another set of complications.


You pays your money and you takes your choice

Electronic money has its downsides too:

Downside of electronic money

1. Requires reliable access to high-speed broadband

Neither the authors nor the journalists remarked on this presumption, because to them, living deep in the formal world, ubiquitous reliable instantaneous internet connectivity is a given.  If you’re poor, not on the Web, lack a laptop (or even a reliable cell phone), or have no credit cards and possibly no bank account, these are significant barriers to entering the system.  And each of those physical goods that you need to enter the electronic information network are themselves subject to theft, larceny, and robbery.  Cash has none of those entry barriers.

2. Regulatory requirements

3. Inescapability of taxation

4. Post-closing warranty/ liability risk

5. Theft by hacking

Electronic payments are already falling prey to sophisticated types of crime, carried out on an unprecedented scale. Just a few months ago, a data hack at Target Corp. captured headlines after millions of debit and credit cards were compromised.

6. Intermediaries part of the tax or legal liability chain (FIRPTA, FCPA, AML)

This last point bears mentioning.  Electronic money flowing through a bank, for example, exposes the bank to money laundering charges, and the settlements have run into the billions.  It has led to the rise of global accountability among formal banking institutions – which is a good thing – and as a result, the adverse selection of corrupt or criminal activities into anonymous forms of electronic transfer.

Indeed, there are now virtual ways to make transactions without a paper trail.


Fears of the downside of electronic money explain the rise of Bitcoins, a form of high-tech hawala about which I have not posted (though instinctively I profoundly distrust the mechanism, as it relies on both the encryption and the honesty of the encryptors). 


A network that uses people and cash

Before there was electronic technology (before the invention of global banks and interbank wires, basically 1950 or later), as an alternative to cash merchants and bankers invented non-cash forms of international credit: bills of exchange in the seafaring nations, hawala in Muslim countries.  But cash persisted as the principal medium of exchange, and in the emerging world it still is, because it’s the ideal medium of exchange for a purely informal economy.


And what if Bitcoin equals the value of crime?

When it comes to crime risk, Bitcoin eliminates the interpersonal violent forms but magnifies the non-violent ones (fraud, embezzlement, defalcation) – and it does so at the price of forfeiting any of the formal world’s regulatory and enforcement mechanisms, leading to unfathomable messes like this:

Hackers Hit Mt. Gox Exchange’s CEO, Claim To Publish Evidence Of Fraud

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The Bitcoin community has been angrily pressing for details on what the Bitcoin exchange Mt. Gox has described as a massive hacker attack that stole hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of its users’ bitcoins and left the company bankrupt. Mt. Gox’s staff isn’t talking. So another group of hackers say they’ve broken into the company’s servers to provide answers of their own.

On Sunday, hackers took over the Reddit account and personal blog of Mark Karpeles, Mt. Gox’s CEO, to post an angry screed alleging that the exchange he ran had actually kept at least some of the bitcoins that the company had said were stolen from users. The hackers also posted a 716 megabyte file to Karpeles’ personal website that they said comprised stolen data from Mt. Gox’s servers. A screenshot posted by Mt. Gox’s hackers, seeming to show administrative access to the company’s database of trades.

Update: Users on Reddit are warning that the hackers’ files may contain malware designed to steal bitcoins. Other Reddit users have confirmed that they found their own account history in the data, indicating that it’s not fake. But for security reasons, I don’t recommend anyone download the collection of hacked files.

We have come full circle: from an entirely physical form of symbolic anonymous money (cash) to an entirely metaphysical (pure information, so pure it’s encrypted) form of symbolic anonymous money. 


Yes, but where is ‘here’?

Thus Bitcoin is a whistling teakettle against an overly intrusive, tax-predatory, corrupt state, and I predict it will wax and wane as an ongoing litmus test of people’s confidence (or lack thereof) in their governments (or lack thereof). It won’t be a post-national medium of exchange because international enforcement will never formalize without permanently accountable nation-states.  In the meantime, it’s an ongoing referendum on trust in formal mechanisms of government … just like cash.

You pays your money and you takes your choice.  – Huckleberry Finn


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Cosh and carry: Part 1, Money in the Newtonian political economy

April 10, 2014 | Banking, Bitcoin, cash, Crime, Economics, informality, Markets, Regulation, robbery, Taxation | No comments 295 views

By: David A. Smith

If you’re like most readers of this blog, in your wallet you carry both cash and credit cards – and over the years, your use of cash has dropped as your use of credit cards has risen, because they’re quicker and easier (swipe and go), self-replenishing (no more searching for an ATM), and offer fringe benefits via awards programs.  While doing so, you may well have been fighting violent crime, at least according to the statistics in a new paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research and reported in the Economist (April 5, 2014), andWall Street Journal (March 27, 2014; green font):

Less coin to purloin

A cashless economy leads to a safer society


Professions going out of favor?  Bank tellers and bank robbers

While the authors’ statistics and their interpretation are compelling, they were looking through the lens of a developed nation, and the Economist and Wall Street Journal stories overlook the other side of cash – its importance in the informal economy.

Criminals’ need for cash motivates much predatory street crime. A new paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research asks whether this might work in reverse: if cash motivates crime, could the absence of cash reduce crime?

The definition implicitly used by paper’s authors is ‘interpersonal violent crime’ – and as we’ll see, this is an understandable but enormously significant lacuna in their analysis and its applicability.

“Cash”, wrote Marcus Felson, an eminent American criminologist, “is the mother’s milk of crime.”

As we’ll see in just a moment, this is an economist’s oversimplification based on the ’clean room’ case of a formal economy, largely valid in the US and other developed nations, but of declining relevance as one moves into the wider world of tolerated and encouraged informality.


I routinely commit crimes that I think I can get away with … don’t you?

Evidently Professor Felson originated the ‘routine activity theory’ of crime, and I must say that it makes sense:


A likely offender, a suitable target, and the absence of a capable guardian

The paper looks at county-level crime data in Missouri from 1990 to 2011, a period when crime dropped markedly all over the rich world.

Already we have a key point of significance – for some reason, over the last twenty years [interpersonal violent] crime has declined all over the rich world, so it’s logical to ask what those countries have in common. 


What’s the cause?

The sharp decline in crime since the 1990s has led to a rash of theories to explain it: ageing populations, higher incarceration and immigration rates, less exposure to lead paint, better police tactics as well as vastly improved security of both products (such as improved circuitry in cars that impedes hot-wiring) and places (security cameras and bulletproof partitions once protected only banks, but today they are standard in American corner liquor stores).

Out of these possibilities, the authors chose to study one possible change lever:

During this time Missouri, like the rest of America, changed the way it delivered its welfare and food-stamp benefits. Instead of paper cheques states now use a debit-card system known as Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT).


Alcohol is food too, isn’t it?

EBT is subject to potential massive fraud in its own right, including likely expatriation of welfare benefits via remittances to relatives in emerging countries – but that’s definitely another story, for another time.

Missouri introduced EBT cards in eight phases over 12 months. This gradual shift allowed the authors to analyze not just differences in crime rates before and after the introduction of EBT, but also how those differences compared with changes during the same period in counties that had not implemented it.

Indeed, this is a tailor-made set of comparables for testing the hypothesis.

They found that electronic payments led to a drop of 9.8% in the overall crime rate and caused the rates of burglary, assault and larceny to fall by 7.9%, 12.5% and 9.6%, respectively. [Note: Interpersonal violent crimes – Ed.]

The researchers also sought to eliminate other causes as possibilities:


The researchers ran a number of tests to rule out other explanations for the decline. To make sure aggressive law-enforcement strategies weren’t behind the drop, they examined arrest rates and found fewer arrests in counties that were using debit cards (as would be expected if crime levels decreased). They also found that the program didn’t cause spillover effects in neighboring counties, meaning offenders didn’t just pick up and move to where the cash was.

The science looks good to me: control for overall crime levels (no change), control for change in policing (no change in implied rate of arrests relative to crimes), isolate the dependent variable (interpersonal violent crime), test for statistical variance.

The findings suggest, according to Volkan Topalli, one of the authors, that “for people in densely populated urban neighborhoods, the less cash they have and the more their transactions are digitized, the less attractive criminal targets they make.”

Volkan Topalli

Topalli concludes that people without cash are less likely robbery targets

Though it may seem common sense that people who are not carrying cash will be robbed less, confirmation in statistics is a much better form of evidence.

Mr Topalli’s paper suggests that the shift from cash to cards—since 1990 debit-card transactions have risen 27-fold, whereas cash volume has grown by just 4% a year—may also have contributed to the decline in crime. It’s hard to rip and run, after all, without something to rip.

Later in this post I will stand the theory on its head, using its own typology and applying it beyond the NBER study’s boundaries, to the informal economy, and then back to the formal but imperfectly governed economy. 

As electronic forms of payment have gained popularity, the proportion of financial transactions involving cash has declined — a trend that has coincidentally overlapped with what is known as the great American crime decline. Furthermore, criminologists and economists have long linked cash with certain kinds of street crimes, noting that dollar bills are easy to hide and reuse.

Consider the upside and downside of cash as a medium of exchange:

Upside of using cash

1. Value can be realized independent of banks

2. Anonymous—two strangers can transact in cash (and often do, especially in the Anonymous Activities)

3. Has no economic fingerprints – therefore suitable for ‘laundering money’

4. No taxes collected or collectible on the transaction


Whole families of activity encompassed in a single concept


Yes, we take cash



Yes, that’s cash changing hands

Downside of cash

1. Can be counterfeited

2. Risk of robbery in transit

3. No recourse post-transaction (if the vendor gets away, you have nothing)


Welcome to New York! 1857

These features of cash are inherent in its being a physical medium of exchange – the same features apply to gold or diamonds. 

Its appeal to criminals is clear.  [Not just criminals – Ed.] Unlike cars or paintings, cash can be concealed immediately after being pinched. It has no security features to prevent its being easily and anonymously spent on legal or illegal goods. Unlike nearly any other object that can be stolen, it needs no fence.

Thus the NBER study is like Newtonian classical mechanics – applicable in the common case familiar to economist, namely the formal world (and a world, it should be noted, where government is benevolent, efficient, and obviously of value to citizens).  Within that Newtonian economic universe, the NBER study’s findings are compelling. 


The products of a cash economy: cash, drugs, guns … and arrests

In slums, however, the pros and cons are differently balanced.

[Continued tomorrow in  Part 2]

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Elevators, the vertical utility: Part 7, Impact on the future city

April 9, 2014 | Apartments, buildings, Cities, Development, elevators, Employment, Housing, Infrastructure, Land use, mores, Transportation, Urbanization, Zoning | No comments 323 views

[Concluded from yesterday's  Part 6 and the preceding Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.]

By:David A. Smith

People recognize me, but they don’t know where from. Today I was in the elevator and somebody asked me if I worked for his company. – Michael Ian Black

After six previous parts, we’ve reached the penthouse, the top floor of this elevator ride through the past, and how we’ve reached the future.


Part 7, coming up

Sources for this post

Boston Globe (March 2, 2014), essay by Leon Neyfakh

New York Post (February 8, 2014; blue font)

A new book, Lifted, by Andreas Bernard


Roll out the elevator?

10. The elevator’s impact on the future city

Today, as the world’s urban population explodes, and cities become denser, taller, and more crowded –

As the previous posts in this series have demonstrated, density, height, and crowding are all made possible by elevators. 

– America’s arsenal [Why the weaponry metaphor? – Ed.] of elevators – 900,000 at last count, according to Elevator World magazine’s 2012 Vertical Transportation Industry Profile– are a force that’s becoming more important than ever.


In this century of cities, elevators, already indispensable, may become the dominant form of conveyance in the increasingly complicated and technologically managed building constellations that will make up modern cities.

Posts in the Ultimate Future City series

November, 2007: The Caves of Steel, by Isaac Asimov

November, 2007: The Naked Sun, by Isaac Asimov

December, 2007: The World Inside, by Robert Silverberg

March, 2008: Diaspar, The City and the Stars, by Arthur C. Clarke

August, 2008: Cities in Flight, Part 1 and Part 2

September, 2009: 1984, the poverty of slums, Part 1 and Part 2

December, 2009: Trantor

February, 2011: Inventing the future city

November, 2011: How to create a livable urban future, Part 1 and Part 2

April 29, 2013: The world is the building, the building is the world

Their combination of speed, proximity, and anonymity makes them a distinctive space posing distinctive challenges for urban society:

[When elevators were first introduced], public health advocates warned that the shared conveyances would spread disease among neighbors and co-workers.



Can zombies get in elevators?

Actually, they do – and like airplanes, which spread disease globally, the rapid interconnectedness of people increases the epidemiological systemic risk of our society.  Pre-technological cities never reached the scale or concentration to face the systemic risks modern ones do: infrastructure breakdown (blackouts), terrorism (a phenomenon that arose only in the 1850s, with the railroad-based city), and now epidemic.  So we now have hand sanitizers in almost every office, lobby, and washroom.



Speed and convenience = increased risk of contagion


As a kid who grew up in the suburbs, moved to the city for an education, and never left, I have for more than four decades been fascinated by cities, and as a retired science fiction writer, I devoted a whole project – the Future Boston shared-world mosaic novel, which I conceived and whose stories were written by the many members of the Cambridge Science Fiction Writers’ Workshop.



Left to right: Alex Jablokov, David Smith, Jon Burrowes, Sarah Smith, Steve Popkes

The city we envisioned for our future Boston was an arcology, a giant interconnected building spanning half a square mile and rising fifty to 150 stories in the air. 

Future Boston could not have existed without movers (named horizators by their inventor, almost instantly renamed colloquially by all who used them), which operated as the ultimate future elevator: going up, down, and laterally speedily, quietly, cleanly and safely.  Nor can the cities of the future.

For that matter, some decades or more hence, it’s within the realm of physical possibility that we might one day take elevators into orbit



Ride the elevator into space … as long as the cable is strong and light enough


Previous AHI blog posts referencing or emphasizing elevators

March 14, 2006: The earliest apartments, Roman insulae

April 28, 2006: The credit of apartment living: New York City

August 13, 2007:Cities and scale (3 parts)

November 15, 2007: The ultimate future city: The Caves of Steel (2 parts)

December 26, 2007: The ultimate future city: The World Inside

February 19, 2009: Cities and privacy, the case of Rear Window (2 parts)

December 2, 2009: The ultimate future city: Trantor

April 20, 2011: The high-rise’s mahout

July 20, 2013:The new urbanism of Tiny Tower

And remember this:

Never run for an elevator.  It looks needy.  Timothy Hurley

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Elevators, the vertical utility: Part 6, Impact on mores

April 8, 2014 | Apartments, buildings, Cities, Development, elevators, Employment, Housing, Infrastructure, Land use, mores, Transportation, Urbanization, Zoning | No comments 290 views


[Continued from yesterday's Part 5 and the preceding Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and  Part 4.]


By:David A. Smith


When I was little, my grandfather used to make me stand in a closet for five minutes without moving. He said it was elevator practice. – Stephen Wright


As the preceding five (count ‘em!) parts of this post have shown, without elevators the urban life familiar to us would be simply impossible – and yet, this urban life has so remade our society over the last 50-75 years that few people living today can remember a pre-elevator city, and how it changes our mores.


Sources for this post


Boston Globe (March 2, 2014), essay by Leon Neyfakh

New York Post (February 8, 2014; blue font)

A new book, Lifted, by Andreas Bernard



Arriving at Part 6: hold on


9. The elevator’s impact on mores


In its small way, a modern elevator is a mini-prison. 


As Bernard points out in his book, the concept of claustrophobia emerged in the psychiatric literature at the same time as the elevator, and the experience of being inside one was listed from the start as a primary instigator of symptoms.


Claustrophobia is the rational response to imprisonment.  It’s a featureless box.  It has no windows.  It has minimal creature comforts.  The doors close of their own volition, and open only if they choose to.  We can be observed from above, but we cannot see our observers.  We can be trapped in it.



How long will I be kept here?


And if hell is other people, then an elevator ride can be a temporary hell.



Don’t sit down, you’re not staying: Jean-Paul Sartre


But of it we must make a society:


By bringing together people who often only kind of knew each other, elevators created vague expectations of interaction—a smile, a nod, even a bit of small talk to acknowledge that everyone on board lived or worked in the same building.


This intrusion on personal space is inherent in the built environment, and I wonder if all those Athens Charter architects, and for that matter the existential philosophers, weren’t simply thrashing to comprehend how technology – including the elevator – was remaking the sylvan past they nostalgically misremembered, a past in which we philosopher kings could commune with each other, not having to interact with ‘those people’ in <shudder> public transportation.


As New York moved away from individual houses to shared apartment buildings, there was angst among the wealthy. How could they be expected to interact with the rabble?


Remember, like likes living with like, and dislikes living with unlike.  Elevators, sidewalks, subways, and cities


When the first apartment house was built in 1869, Bernard notes, it was already equipped with a rear service stairway to keep the plebeians away.


It wasn’t only the rich who were worried, however.  Bernard highlights a 1907 article, “The Radical Evil of Life in Apartment-Houses” from American Architect and Building News.  [Editor's note: the article, available on Google books, appears totally fascinating – Ed.]


By mixing classes, the magazine warned, the less wealthy will try too hard to keep up with the Joneses. “Disliking to be outshone, [they] will also try to make a splurge and will sacrifice its children’s rights to a ‘plush rocker,’ a piano, or a too expensive dress.”


Though the Post’s author suggested that worries extended beyond the rich, the American Architect article cited drips with noblesse oblige. 



We are the upper class, you know


The end result? “That means debt, sooner or later, and debt too often means drink.”


As I’ve posted long ago (September 26, 2008), homeownership was associated with upright citizenship, whereas renting was seen as both lower class and lower morality.



Home owning breeds real men


As a form of transportation, elevators even more than trains or subways bring ‘those people’ into contact with us, further increase the Duke of Wellington’s lament that they will enable “the common people to move about needlessly”, and – heaven forfend – to run elbows and breathe the same air as we grandees.


Its uniqueness as an environment also has allowed social scientists to use it as a fruitful laboratory for experiments on behavior.


In an elevator, everyone is equal, and everyone is anonymous – so we are thrown out of our societal uniforms, and because they do not know we are superior, we are obligated to engage other people as equals.  (Hence the endlessly repeated aggrieved lament of the famous person at airport security, “Don’t you know who I am?“)



I am an American citizen!


One study tested the effect of smiling on people’s willingness to stand near strangers.



Come on in, we’re very friendly!


Smiling solves the problem of introduction.  Smiling defuses the fight-or-flight reflex.  Smiling is personal.  Smiling also decreases the minimum nole me tangere distance we expect to maintain from each other, which solves the problem of squeezing in one more person:


Another looked at how men and women choose to situate themselves in relation to each other upon boarding.


Actually, people stand in distance-optimizing configurations that mirror the pips on dominos or dice.



Elevator occupants, seen from above


As the elevator fills, however, we lack the time to introduce ourselves properly to all the newcomers (and the number of combinations rises as a factorial), so we retreat from each other’s gaze.  The explosive growth of headphones, earbuds, and mobile phones makes it possible for us to put up socially acceptable ‘not at home’ barriers for the short duration of our enforced familiarity with these strangers.


When there is a sudden shift in our expected duration – a plane delay, a stalled elevator, a subway ‘standing by for a schedule adjustment’ – we immediately shift our social modalities, and open social converse with those around us.  The muttered complaints and cell-phone “I’m delayed” calls lead to rueful looks among us and the murmur of we’re-in-those-together introductions that ease our stress because we have a ready-made commiserater next to us. 


[Concluded tomorrow in  Part 7.]



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Elevators, the vertical utility: Part 5, Impact on cities, infrastructure, and systemic vulnerability

April 7, 2014 | Apartments, buildings, Cities, Development, elevators, Employment, Housing, Infrastructure, Land use, mores, Transportation, Urbanization, Zoning | No comments 513 views

[Continued from yesterday's Part 4 and the preceding Part 1,  Part 2, and Part 3.]


By:David A. Smith


The inventory goes down the elevator every night. –Fairfax Cone




Sources for this post


Boston Globe (March 2, 2014), essay by Leon Neyfakh

New York Post (February 8, 2014; blue font)

A new book, Lifted, by Andreas Bernard


As we saw yesterday, elevators allowed people to live in the sky, and paradoxically that enables them to live much closer to their work than if we were ground-bound.  With more and more people living and working in a small geographic area, cities with elevators are a nearly complete reinvention of what earlier generations would have recognized as urban living.


Elevator operators, Stratton Building (?) November 29, 1955

Where the mad men went? Elevator operators, 1955


Previous AHI blog posts referencing or emphasizing elevators


March 14, 2006: The earliest apartments, Roman insulae

April 28, 2006: The credit of apartment living: New York City

August 13, 2007:Cities and scale (3 parts)

November 15, 2007: The ultimate future city: The Caves of Steel (2 parts)

December 26, 2007: The ultimate future city: The World Inside

February 19, 2009: Cities and privacy, the case of Rear Window (2 parts)

December 2, 2009: The ultimate future city: Trantor

April 20, 2011: The high-rise’s mahout

July 20, 2013:The new urbanism of Tiny Tower



7. The elevator’s impact on cities today


Earlier in this multi-part post, I suggested that a city is a place where public transportation overtakes private as the dominant mode for most workers. 


Decades ago I read a rule of thumb that a city can be no larger than a one-hour normal daily commute (i.e. a two-hour diameter, one-hour radius).  Elevators contributed to making cities grow larger in people without growing larger in commuting time because that last part of your commute, up in your building, adds a fivefold to tenfold increase in the number of spaces you can reach at the cost of only a handful of minutes.



Different elevators, different floors, different dimensions


In fact, according to Wilk, the automobile and the elevator have been locked in a “secret war” for over a century, with cars making it possible for people to spread horizontally, encouraging sprawl and suburbia, and elevators pushing them toward life in dense clusters of towering vertical columns.


If florid, that is nicely phrased and accurate: a society has only so much capital (public and private) to invest in transportation infrastructure, and it also has only so much urban space that it can devote to that transportation.  Acreage we invest in highway can take buses but not trains; acreage laid in rail cannot handle personal vehicles.



Fighting for the same ribbons of urban space


Elevator shafts are vertical infrastructure, space sacrificed from the building’s productive purpose to provide interconnections. 



Yippee-kay-yay, we’ll have some laughs


And just as the building’s aggregate structure increases as it gets larger, a function of the square-cube law, so does the size and complexity of its core.  Elevators, plumbing systems, HVAC, communications and electrical wiring, emergency staircases, all run together in a braided spine inside the building.  That’s why, if you’re ever searching for the toilets in a strange office building, head for the elevators and keep your hand on the wall.



Something like that, anyway



8. The elevator’s impact on infrastructure and systemic vulnerability


Earlier in this post I mentioned the elevator’s impact on building structures and land use patterns, but the elevator remade cities even more profoundly than that.  With the arrival of these concrete, steel, and glass behemoths, cities became massive consumers of electricity, water, and sewer – and urban infrastructure that was appropriate for in an earlier city was, upon the elevator’s arrival, made instantly overstressed and obsolescent.


Dependency on infrastructure, most particularly electrical power, remade the city’s life and increased the city’s vulnerability, as dramatically illustrated by the November 9, 1965 Northeastern blackout.



Five full states blacked out at once


For those of us who lived through it, the 1965 blackout was among the most terrifying possible nights.  (I can remember my mother asking my father, in a hushed voice that she thought I could not hear, “Do you think it’s Orson Welles?”)





 “A huge, flaming object, believed to be a meteorite, fell on a farm in the neighborhood of Grovers Mill, New Jersey.”



With the power out, telephones did not work; subways did not run.  Radios were intermittent (transistors had limited battery life).  Cities were suddenly thrown back into darkened villages.




 Transistor radio, 1965





Fortunately, it was the night of a full moon



 Despite the terrified anxiety, New Yorkers got through the 1965 blackout in good order:



New York City blackout, 1965




Meanwhile, many treated it like a night spent camping out:





 Sleeping on hotel floors





And the rhythms of life went on



 Most power came back on in six hours, and by seven the next morning, the power was back. 



New York Blackout

New York City blackout, 1965



Yet the thought of what might have happened imprinted itself in American consciousness, and led to a series of trapped-in-a-high-rise movies:




 The Anderson Tapes, 1971




The Towering Inferno, 1974



From this time forward, everyone knew that modern cities needed elevators, and elevators needed power, and without power, a high-rise became a dark prison, and a city became a jumbled of dark cubes:




 Flying in to a blackened, de-elevatored Manhattan



In Escape from New York, Manhattan has minimal power, and no working elevators.  So when Snake Plissken is infiltrated, he uses a glider to land atop the World Trade Center, which is totally abandoned and dark, and has to run down 110 flights of stairs just to reach the street.




 Without power, stay away from tall buildings



 That Manhattan is, of course, a maximum security prison.

[Continued tomorrow in Part 6.]

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