A book about the profound yet overlooked ways dense communal living has shaped human affairs from our moods to our businesses to design
Be it sitting on a plane near a screaming baby, or brainstorming ways to organize your office cubicle, crowding touches most everyone’s life, because density is one of modernity’s defining issues. Even if you’ve never tried to articulate it, spatial requirements – of room, of silence, privacy and calm – form part of our definition of “the good life.” How far apart do you need to be from other people to find peace? How far apart do your living room walls need to be to feel comfortable? Even when we’re unaware of its influence, roominess is a condition, and the degree to which we have it determines livability.
Combining literary nonfiction, participatory journalism and scientific exposition, my book will argue that we need to treat overcrowding with the same gravity as other social and ecological issues, and take steps to manage it in a humane way that minimizes crowds’ dangers while capitalizing on their benefits. In the process, Crowded will test the counterintuitive principle that the smaller our home, the happier our life.
My Funding Objective
My goal is to fund two reporting trips necessary to complete my book proposal.
1) The first to Tokyo to spend a week sleeping inside a six-foot long, five-foot wide fiberglass cubicle in a Tokyo capsule hotel. This will allow me to write a crucial chapter section about marketing and human adaptability in the face of extreme spatial limitations.
2) The second to New York City to report on the city’s first micro-apartment building, currently in development, and a related exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, which runs until September.
I aim to complete the book proposal by the end of the summer, and to have the book ready for a 2015 release.To clarify, this Kickstarter will fund the research phase of the book, and the book itself will not be directly funded by this Kickstarter. It will allow me to write the book proposal, which my agent and I will shop to publishers, and then I can finish the book! Your help is essential to the process. The fruit of your generosity will just appear on a delay.
Who Am I?
I’m a thirty-seven year old journalist and essayist, the child of a New Yorker and a biscuits-and-gravy-loving Okie from south of Tulsa. I used to work at Powell’s Books and now work at a tea shop here in Portland, Oregon. During my free waking hours, I write. You can find some of my nonfiction in The New York Times, Paris Review, Oxford American, Gastronomica, AGNI, Tin House, Chicago Tribune, Portland Mercury, The Threepenny Review and Virginia Quarterly Review.
Unlike many people in my book, I grew up not in crowds but in open space. Born in the very suburban city of Phoenix, Arizona, I spent my first twenty-five years playing and hiking in vast stretches of undeveloped desert. After college in 2000, I moved to Portland to enjoy what seemed like a more interesting, active lifestyle in a denser city than my own. Portland actually had a downtown where people shopped and walked! The idea blew my mind. I ditched my car, walked and bussed everywhere, lived in a wooded neighborhood filled with cafés, shops and historic apartment buildings. Far from Phoenix’s cul-de-sac blockages, which urban planners call “The Street Hierarchy,” I learned two things: first, that dense communal living has more pros than cons; and second, that crowds have shaped human history in unexpected ways.
Like many of my essays and articles, the idea for this book sprang from life. I was eating lunch inside a café across the street from work. The place was packed but thankfully not as noisy as it can be. I was reading the Susan Orlean chapter of Robert Boynton’s The New New Journalism: Conversations with America’s Best Nonfiction Writers on Their Craft, and when a young man sat down next to me, a few lines came to mind: how much elbow room do you need to get by in life? To thrive or just keep your sanity? I scribbled them down on one of the stained wrinkled pages in the back of the book, then I had to race back to work since my thirty minutes were over.
The next day, I typed the scribbles and kept exploring the basic idea, expanding the range of my gaze and deconstructing the topic, and I kept looking more closely at my life. The subject was all there, all around me. Now I have a stack of library books about sociology, psychology, evolutionary biology, ancient England and China, and photocopies of all sorts of music and historic material, and a thick manuscript. It’s an invigorating challenge, and it all started with a stray thought at a crowded café following a bowl of soup. Reporting from New York and Tokyo’s capsule hotels will put the final touches on what is becoming a rich, multilayered book proposal. I hope that you can play a part in its development.
About the Book
The book is narrative nonfiction, with the story driven by characters, scenes, action and dialogue, and rooted in solid reporting. Some of my favorite books of this type are Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, David Grann’s The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs, Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia, Krakauer’s Into the Wild, and nearly anything by Joan Didion, Joseph Mitchell and Mary Roach. When asked for a summary, I like to call my book one urbanite’s vision of human history through the story of the crowd.
Why New York and Tokyo?
As the world becomes more urban, the size of many urban residences shrinks. Some are tight but serviceable, like the hundred square foot units in Hong Kong’s oldest public housing building. Some are inhumane, like the forty square foot subdivided rooms that an estimated 100,000 Hong Kong workers inhabit, spaces so small that The Atlantic says “they can only be photographed from above.” Other newer units in cities like Paris, Tokyo and San Francisco are elegant and self-contained. These are the increasingly popular “micro-apartments.” Next to Michael Wolf’s photos of China’s residential high rises (see title image above), micro-apartments’ compact interiors, which range from one hundred and fifty to four hundred square feet, provide one of the iconic images of our time, the embodiment of human resilience in the face of stifling limitations.
Chic efficiencies already exist or are under construction in Seattle, Hong Kong, Vancouver, San Diego, Chicago, Australia and Montreal. At the end of 2013, construction will begin on New York City’s first micro-apartment building, My Micro NY, on East 27th. With a move-in date of 2015,the pilot project is part of Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC campaign, a sweeping push to equip the City for its changing economy, aging infrastructure, lack of affordable one- and two-person housing, and the million additional residents expected to arrive by 2030. Up to a third of them will be single. The architectural experiment could revolutionize real estate, demographics and urban planning in the City and set nationwide precedents. The world will be watching.
Many urban planners recognize these units as an expression of a cultural and economic shift. “There is clearly a changing demographic,” UCLA Associate Professor Vinit Mukhija told NBC in 2012, “a need for a different kind of housing model.” That model is currently on display at the Museum of the City of New York. Inspired by Bloomberg’s efforts, the “Making Room: New Models for Housing New Yorkers” exhibit runs from January until September 2013. The show includes LaunchPad, a furnished, three hundred and twenty-five foot mockup that functions as a bedroom, living room and dining room, a glimpse of what’s to come.
This is one of the places I hope to report from in New York this summer. If funded, I will also interview the people involved with the My Micro NY project, and capture details from the construction site in order to write scenes that will document the building's creation. These are part of the larger story of crowding.
The Story of Urban Crowding
Long before Bloomberg’s welcome initiative, New York contained innumerable tiny residences, some legal, some illegal. There’s a one hundred seventy-five square foot, 14.9-foot-long and 10-foot-wide “micro-studio” in Morningside Heights. In Hells Kitchen, there’s a seventy-eight square foot room that the Apartment Therapy website describes as a “glorified hallway with no kitchen.” And there’s a two hundred and forty-two square foot Chelsea studio that a publicist named Sherry Smith has lived in since 1993. I plan to profile these and other residents in the book.
Life in Manhattan’s Lilliputian habitations embodies much of what is troubling and reassuring about modern life on our crowded planet, and that story, like the City, would provide readers a dramatic, sensory experience of the crowded future that awaits us—a vision of an urban world both superlative and abysmal, energizing and terrifying.
The same goes for Tokyo.
In both cities – even my favorite Portland, Oregon coffee shops – we glimpse possible dystopias, scenarios where elbow room has become a type of caviar: not only expensive, but an endangered luxury. In New York and Tokyo, this scenario is acute, and in the story of crowding, both cities function as a microcosm of the larger urbanized world: flawed but operational, enchanting yet inadequate, and constantly working toward improvement.
In a way, both cities are laboratories and barometers. They’re where we see human beings adapting to large scale problems such as traffic congestion, pollution, gentrification, shifts in traditional industry, bicyclists trying to coexist with motorists and pedestrians, climate change and outdated infrastructure. It’s where we see human beings confronting our physical and psychological limitations and testing innovative solutions, as well as failing to act as quickly and wisely as we should.
Rather than building up, lately we see many cities building smaller and smarter, particularly with micro-apartments. Variously described as “prison cells,” “toilet stalls” and “brood hives,” micros require residents do two revolutionary things: own less stuff, and utilize space more efficiently. Life in cramped quarters is the ideal forum in which to explore the way humanity’s inherent proclivity to group leads to overcrowding. It also offers the ideal forum for showing the resilience and adaptability required to live densely, be it in a chic micro-studio or a short stay in a Tokyo capsule hotel.
Tokyo's Capsule Hotels
Tokyo is the world’s largest urban area, and its capsule hotels provide an incomparable example of innovative urban planning and astounding human adaptability.
Granted, New York and Tokyo aren’t our densest cities. In 1955, Tokyo overtook New York as the world’s largest city by size. It was once the world’s densest, too. Now Mumbai and Surat, India, Dhaka and Chittagong, Bangladesh, and Hong Kong, China all have more people packed in greater densities than Tokyo or New York. But Tokyo is still a study of extremes.
More accurately referred to as The Tokyo Metropolis, Tokyo is so large that it now constitutes its own prefecture, with thirty-seven million residents spread across twenty-six cities, eight villages and five towns, some on outlying islands, some 1149 miles from the city center.
Boarding a crowded train with thousands of fellow commuters in one of the world's busiest train stations. Crossing the street with 10,000 other pedestrians outside the Shibuya Station in Hachiko Square, one of the busiest pedestrian crossings on earth. Life in crowds has made extreme behaviors and conditions not only normal but necessary. This is also why certain Japanese businessmen regularly sleep month to month in tiny fiberglass cubicles with no door in a capsule hotel where neighboring residents’ coughs penetrate the plastic walls. These narrow pods function as a microcosm of shrinking residential conditions worldwide. In order to report on the physical, emotional and psychological dimensions of crowding, I am trying to raise the money to sleep in a Tokyo capsule hotel myself.
Where the Money Goes
Funds raised will cover travel expenses only: plane fare to and from my home in Portland, Oregon, as well as lodging.
In New York: small, efficiency rooms at the Columbus Circle YMCA range from $115 to $129 a night. A six-night stay will total about $774 before taxes. I have my own food account and will be subsisting off of Trader Joe’s items, as I do at home. (I travel light!) Funds raised here aren’t for fancy dinners or jazz shows at The Village Vanguard, just writing and reporting. Economy flights from Portland average around $700 on Delta.
In Tokyo: rooms at the Capsule Hotel Shinjuku 510 run Y4,200 per night, or about $42. Seven nights will total $294. Flights run from $1000 to $1300 during late summer and fall.
A Personal Mission
Although I am an objective journalist, I have a personal connection to the subject of crowded living conditions.
My Grandma Sylvia Greissman was born in 1919 in a tenement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. “Cannon Street,” she used to say. “Ninety-six Cannon Street. I can still picture it in my mind.” The daughter of European Jewish immigrants, her family moved to Brownsville, Brooklyn when she was two or three. By the 1910s, Brownsville had acquired a reputation as a notorious Jewish slum rife with organized crime, yet in her words, “It was as an upgrade.” There, in a tiny apartment in Brownsville, her family brushed their teeth in the kitchen sink, did their homework beside the beds they shared, and my great grandfather labored through all kinds of weather as a door-to-door bill collector in order to afford them a slightly roomier rental. People on my dad’s side of the family were small scale immigrant farmers in Texas and Oklahoma. When I think about my family’s immigrant origins, I think not only of the millions of immigrants who built this country and who still live this way, I think of the millions of people in China, India, South America and Bangladesh who live in even tighter, less sanitary conditions—what were called slums in my grandmother’s time. These are the people who make our inexpensive clothes. The people who pick our tea. The people who assembled the computer I am typing these words on. I want to tell their stories. In the process, I hope their voices and the exposure will improve living conditions for the working urban poor and contribute to the growing dialogue about humane, forward-thinking ways to confront and manage overcrowding in our increasingly congested world.
Other Ways You Can Help
Even if you’re unable to contribute financially, there are ways you can help. If you can spread the word about my campaign and project, I would hugely appreciate it! Circulating the information through social media is an enormous help no less important than funding the reporting. Thank you for taking the time to read this proposal, and thank to you for any and all assistance!
Risks and challenges Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
Because the book doesn't yet have a publisher, the main challenge is finding one. Funding will allow me to finish the proposal, which will allow me to shop the book around to publishers. After that, the only obstacle to its completion is my own ability to report and write the story.
Have a question? If the info above doesn't help, you can ask the project creator directly.
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FUTURE TENSE BOOKS PACKAGE: Includes all three of the new Scout Books chapbooks (Melody Owen's "Dream Journals," Sommer Browning's "Presidents (And Other Jokes)" and my chapbook) and a copy of a Future Tense Books paperback of your choosing. A sweet deal!Estimated delivery:Add $3 USD to ship outside the US
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EDWARD ABBEY: As an aspiring writer in my early twenties, the desert Southwest's literary provocateur Ed Abbey was my first role model. This contribution earns a signed large-format hardcover of Abbey’s 1971 photo book “Slickrock: Endangered Canyons of the Southwest.” It's one of my few treasured possessions, but I'm happy to offer you it in order to write a book that Abbey's legacy helped inspire. Abbey wrote the text, Philip Hyde took the photos, and The Sierra Club published it. And Cactus Ed's signature graces the front page! (Unfortunately, book is missing its dust jacket, and binding is slightly loose; all pages intact, though.) Includes a thank you in the book's acknowledgments page.Estimated delivery:Add $15 USD to ship outside the US
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LARRY BROWN: Larry Brown is an American fiction writer whose prose and approach to writing inspires me. He was a fireman, husband and father, yet he found the time to teach himself to write by practicing any chance he got, often through the dark of night, alone, in a spare room. This pledge earns you a signed advance reader copy of Larry Brown's 1991 novel "Joe," plus a thank you in my book's acknowledgments page, first glimpse of the cover design, and personal emails from the road, Sure, you could buy the same book for about $175, but the proceeds wouldn't be helping a journalist live his dream of writing his first book. (Book is in very good condition and in a protective plastic sleeve.)Estimated delivery:Add $10 USD to ship outside the US
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FOR WRITERS: Earns you a thank you in the acknowledgements page, and personal help with any short, finished nonfiction manuscript you've written. I can give you feedback, line edits, macro-level suggestions, whatever you're looking for. Or, call me up. Pick my brain about writing nonfiction or pitching articles to magazines, or just to chat for an hour on a sunny day. I love conversation. It'll be fun. Plus, you get email dispatches from wherever I'm writing and reporting.Estimated delivery:Ships within the US only
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Wow, you are generous! This gets your name in the acknowledgements page, first glimpse of the cover, postcards and photos from the road, a copy of my chapbook and signed copy of "Crowded," and... What else would you like as thanks? Editorial feedback on your own short nonfiction manuscript? I'm open to suggestions. It's the least I can do.Estimated delivery:
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For this, I would give you my car, but it's old and that would be punishment. Instead, I'll send you a signed copy of "Crowded" with your name printed in the acknowledgements page, and all of the offerings in the $150 category. Endless thanks to you!Estimated delivery:
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Anyone who donates this kind of money clearly already has a place in some sort of heaven, but if you live anywhere near Portland, Oregon, you're also cordially invited to my book release party when I throw it. Besides your name in the book's acknowledgements page, I'll write your name in icing on the (gluten-free) cake. You deserve the world for this level of generosity. Sorry if a cake party seems a bit weak for the price-tag, but it and all of the offerings of the $150 category are yours.Estimated delivery:
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