The elevator

For most city-dwellers, the elevator is an unremarkable machine that inspires none of the passion or interest that Americans afford trains, jets, and even bicycles. Wilk is a member of a small group of elevator experts who consider this a travesty. Without the elevator, they point out, there could be no downtown skyscrapers or residential high-rises, and city life as we know it would be impossible. In that sense, they argue, the elevator’s role in American history has been no less profound or transformative than that of the automobile. 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.

As the world's populations grows and congregates towards cities, we have to build upward towards the skies, so perhaps it's high time we give the elevator its due.

I liked this bit about how the elevator turned the top floor of buildings from the least to the most desirable level.

The arrival of the elevator upended more than urban planning: It changed the hierarchy of buildings on the inside as well. Higher floors had once been distant, scrubby spaces occupied by maids and the kind of low-rent tenants who could be expected to climb six flights of stairs. The more important people climbed at most one or two flights, which gave brownstone-style homes, for instance, their high-ceilinged parlor floors. While the arrival of elevators didn’t change this right away—the top floor of Henry Hyde’s building was occupied by the in-house janitor—the upper reaches of buildings eventually became desirable. The elevator ushered in the end of the garret and the beginning of the penthouse, as lawyers and businessmen came to appreciate the advantages of having beautiful, bird’s-eye views and respite from the loud noises of the street. Hotel owners, meanwhile, started turning their top floor rooms into their nicest ones. They could even rent out their roofs for garden parties where guests could survey the glittering new city, all without doing a bit of work to get there.

And I wasn't expecting a discussion of serendipity and elevator systems.

For elevator fans like Bernard, Wilk, Gray, and Carrajat, this mixing of worlds is one of the main things that makes elevators so important. And the more opportunities modern life gives us to separate ourselves from others—by getting into our cars and escaping into our suburban homes, by hiding in our cubicles and burying our heads in our social networks—the more the elevator matters as a place that squeezes us together for a moment and forces us to grapple with one another’s existence.

Sadly, there is cause to worry about the future of these moments. The next big leap in elevator technology, already active in large new office towers, is something called “destination dispatch,” which groups people who are going to similar floors together in order to get them where they’re going more quickly. Such a system, Wilk points out, is more efficient in terms of both time and energy, but it also makes it so that people who work on far-flung floors are less likely ever to run into each other. More specifically, it may reduce the chance that someone high up in a company’s hierarchy would share an elevator ride with someone who works down below. Serendipity, in this scenario, begins to recede.