The apartment we see in Stephen Karam's play The Humans is unremarkable. Barely moved into and utterly undecorated, with an occasional cockroach, stuttering lightbulbs, and squeaking floors, its best qualities are its single “big window,” ample square footage, and presumably affordable rent. Yet despite its outwardly pedestrian qualities, the apartment tells a highly specific story about New York. The city’s everyday quirks (the incessant noise, the peacefully coexistent vermin, the relentlessly competitive real estate market) and history both recent and past are inextricable from the fabric of the play. With each floor creak and washingmachine rumble, the city asserts itself, a kind of seventh character present at this bizarre Thanksgiving dinner. Below, a character breakdown of New York, as seen in The Humans.
Setting: A turn-of-the-century ground floor/basement duplex tenement apartment in New York City’s Chinatown…The apartment’s pre-war features have been coated in layers of faded off-white paint, rendering the space curiously monotone.
Ground floor/basement duplex spaces like Brigid and Rich’s are legal as long as all bedrooms are on the above ground floor (though a room must have a window to be considered a legal bedroom in NYC; unless Brigid and Rich are planning to sleep in the living room, their landlord is in sketchy territory). Basement-duplex units have been growing in popularity thanks to their relative affordability; cellar space is 30-50% cheaper per square foot than above-ground floors. On the upper end of the real estate market, cellars can be a commodity space, the perfect location for swimming pools, bars and screening rooms.
Brigid and Rich’s lower level represents a contested space in the city’s real estate market. Cellar apartments, aka “Accessory Dwelling Units” (so called if more than 50% of the space is below ground), are illegal in New York, though over 100,000 ADUs are currently occupied across the five boroughs. Historically, these basement spaces have been attractive to new immigrants short on money, but the affordability can come at a price (including poor ventilation, no windows, no emergency exits, and unsanitary conditions). Unfortunately, residents living in unsafe, unregulated
spaces have little recourse, as reporting a safety violation is most likely to result in eviction. Though renovated basement dwellings could offer valuable units to the city’s housing crisis, converting a cellar to a legal apartment is a lengthy and expensive process. In order for more ADUs to be converted to livable spaces, the city will need to decrease red tape and increase tax incentives.
“…my Grandma almost lost her life in a fire ‘cause her bosses locked the doors to her factory to keep ‘em from takin’ breaks, coupla blocks from here…”
On March 25, 1911, 145 of the young female workers (most of them immigrants) in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory were killed in a fire. Their deaths were largely preventable, but a lack of basic safety features (only one operational elevator, a tiny fire escape, only one unlocked exit door, and no sprinkler system or working hose) created the worst possible conditions for the fire. Many of the workers burned or were asphyxiated inside; others died when they attempted to jump down the elevator shaft or out of the windows to escape the flames.
The factory’s name has stuck as one of the most notorious sweatshops in American history, and the fire had a galvanizing effect on labor reform in the city.
“The whole building groans at times…we have two sets of ear plugs.”
The world of The Humans is filled with mysterious and irritating noises: a clomping upstairs neighbor, creakingly thin floors, a rumbling trash compacter, clanking pipes, roiling laundry. Noise
pollution is a major problem in New York. Despite many ordinances to keep noise under control (even ice cream trucks can be fined if their jingles play for more than ten seconds every ten
minutes within a city block), noise is still the number one reason for calls on the city’s 311 line, the hotline for questions and complaints within the five boroughs. Noise complaints have topped the call list every year since 311’s inception in 2003, with more than 3.4 million noise related calls to date.
“…I hate that you’re moving a few blocks from where two towers got blown-up and in a major flood zone…”
The September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center play a significant role in the history of the Blake family. 2,753 people were killed at the World Trade Center site in the attacks, in which two hijacked passenger jets were steered into the Twin Towers. The planes crashed into the Towers within a twenty-minute period, and in less than two hours, both towers had collapsed, leaving thousands trapped inside. Hundreds of first responders died throughout the rescue efforts; in the years following, thousands more have died or become ill from health-related aftereffects. Two other jetliners were also part of the attacks: one crashed into the Pentagon, and the other, diverted from its target by the passengers onboard, crashed into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. A terrorist group known as al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the attack, sparking the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom.
Brigid’s apartment lies in a Zone A Flood Zone, meaning that her apartment is in a low-elevation area and would be among the first areas evacuated in the event of a storm. Erik and Deirdre’s unease is directly tied to Hurricane Sandy, the October 2012 storm that ravaged the northeastern seaboard and flooded large sections of lower Manhattan. The storm’s flooding damage wasn’t due to rainfall but to “storm surge,” the abnormal tidal increase caused by a hurricane.
During 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, a 9.41 foot storm surge was compounded by a full-moon high tide, leading to a storm tide over 14 feet at its highest point. Approximately 305,000 New York homes were destroyed by the storm, and the city’s total damage was estimated at $19 billion. As sea levels continue to rise, flooding has become a concern for many coastal residents, including those in lower Manhattan.
The Humans is extended through January 3 at the Laura Pels Theatre. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.
2015-2016 Season, The Humans