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In New York City space equals money. Let me offer two examples that surprised this Midwestern transplant. I am a frequent coffee shop attender. In Michigan if you go to a coffee shop and you sit at a table with four chairs and you only occupy one chair, that table is culturally considered yours. No one would sit next to you unless it was your friend coming to say hi. In New York City if you go to a coffee shop and sit at a table with four chairs by yourself, you can almost guarantee that the other three chairs will be occupied by strangers. You will sit at the table and you will learn that you are not entitled to the entire space. I once had dinner with my spouse where we were literally sharing a date with another couple at an outdoor cafe. Each occupied seat represents money because in New York City, space equals money.
“Air rights” are another example of space equaling money. Air rights are about who owns the space above a building. When there is a real estate development they don’t simply consider the square footage of the space they are constructing but also the air above the space. People can sell their air rights if another business wants to develop. The idea of air rights comes from the Latin phrase cuius est solum, eius est usque ad caelum ed ad inferos which means “Anyone who owns the soil, it is theirs up to Heaven and down to Hell.” Air equals money because in New York City, space equals money.
When you move to New York City you have some choices to make. Do you want to live closer downtown? If yes, and you are on a pastor’s salary, then be prepared to live in a tiny box. There was one apartment my spouse and I looked at where the one window view was of a brick wall and the first thing you walked into when you entered was the small kitchenette. It was a cute apartment by New York standards but it was seriously lacking on the space. We decided to go Uptown, or as we jokingly call it Upstate Manhattan. By moving Uptown we found more affordable apartments that offered more space inside. The space away from downtown brings down the price for an apartment which also allowed us to look for an apartment with more space inside.
I’m fascinated with this idea that space equals money. It plays with your mind when you live in New York. It can feed into the idea of scarcity, the frenzied mentality that you never have enough, not even enough space. When space equals money it’s tempting to let the capitalistic exchange dominate your thinking. But I don’t view this capitalist exchange as Gospel. I once saw a poster on the subway that was advertising storage space. It said “‘In my Father’s house there are many rooms.’ – Jesus. Jesus must not have been a New Yorker.” I think about this poster when I am serving our homeless population. Though they are not renting space, the topic of space even comes up in my conversations with them. I asked one gentleman where he called home in the city. He said Riverside Park and that he has “found a space that is safe and that people don’t know of.” I’m glad he feels safe but I couldn’t help but think of John 14 and the space that Jesus offers and what that possibly means for the church in NYC.
I live in a city where space equals money. We have exploited the land and we greedily build more to ensure we use every inch of space. I often contemplate what my responsibility is when it comes to the ethics of space in the city. What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus in the ways I cultivate a space or be hospitable in a space that I have responsibility in? I’m not sure I have a lot of response to my question. I do notice that the more removed from the land I get in the Concrete Jungle the more I find ways to play in the soil and nurture that space. In moving Uptown my spouse and I found a one bedroom apartment that has a balcony that overlooks the Hudson River. It’s glorious. Why? Because of how much space it provides for us both inside and our outside view. Sometimes it’s tempting to think we are gods over the space in New York City. But when I see the view that I saw last night on my balcony it is a needed wake up call that the earth is the Lord’s, even when we contort it with our concrete art.