This week we visited 368 Manhattan Ave, an apartment in Brooklyn which is designed to reflect the living situations of 2012.
The first thing I noticed was that the building itself is very contemporaneous to the time period it portrays. It was built in 2008, just 4 years before our imagined inhabitants lived there. It’s made of brick and steel, with unadorned static surfaces which were just beginning to be designed by computers, but barely portray the array of shapes and reflexivity we expect today. It’s indicative of the time where Williamsburg was just starting to become the wealthy neighborhood that defined it in the late teens and early twenties. By today’s standards it was a modestly sized structure, and originally didn’t have the top 10 stories which make up the bulk of the building we see now.
The tour I took was booked online and we had the option of a 2D or 3D tour. I opted for the 3D tour, which was actually a complete reconstruction, because the original address isn’t equipped to handle transports. There were some obvious anachronisms, like a smart panel (circa 2018), but the effect was pretty much the same. We got to interact with a host of probable inhabitants and ask them about their life, which I thought was especially evocative. The avatars’ AI was abysmal at handling questions about modern tech, and we got a good laugh out of confusing it for a while.
In the early 21st century it was very common for a single person or family to reside in these apartments for years, or even decades on end. Because of this, all of the furniture and appliances were generally owned by the occupants and were often accompanied by personal objects and decorations. It wasn’t until the late 20′s and 30′s that apartments became associated with the roving class and operated as temporary residences.
368 Manhattan is around 550 square feet; pretty roomy for two people. But again, that’s 550 square feet of permanent space where most of the cooking, sleeping, bathing and entertaining was done. So it had to accommodate a range of uses that are now done in restaurants, BNBs, and venues.
In it’s day it was a clean and well maintained residence, but there are many things that we would find lacking. Firstly, there was very little by way of environmental calibration. That wouldn’t have been too bad in 2012, but later inhabitants had to suffer the environment with little more than “air conditioners.” There was also no holodeck. Brooklynites routinely visited their place of work or school physically, which required a daily commute using a car, subway or bike. It’s almost unimaginable that the location of the body was so integrated with communication at the time.
There’s a clear ancestry between our way of life and that of 2012, but it’s also become drastically different. So much of their daily routine was constrained by physical requirements, and perhaps that explains the premium that they clearly placed on spaciousness and mobility. Did they have it any harder then than we have it now? I’d say not. New York was in a time of prosperity and quality-of-life is relative… to your neighbors, not your ancestors.