Color engraving of a staircase behind trees and playful geometric structures

Plate from Lorenz Stoer, Geometria et Perspectiva (1567).

In the 1950s, two physicists investigated why the elevators in their building rarely seemed to move in the right direction. One worked toward the top of the building and observed, to his chagrin, that about five times out of six, the elevators stopping at his floor were going up instead of his desired down. The other worked toward the bottom of the building and found the very opposite: about five times out of six, the elevators on his floor were going down instead of his desired up. This phenomenon, a consequence of where one is in relation to where the elevators are most likely to be traveling when called, is known as the elevator paradox.

A different kind of elevator paradox exists within the collection of Greenwich Village buildings known as The New School. At the same time our academics embrace the cutting edge, some of our infrastructure remains stuck in the past. In other words, The New School is getting old. Take, as a case study, the elevators at The New School for Social Research building on 6 East 16th Street. At first glance, they look modern enough. An array of unadorned metallic double doors suggests a brisk, if not dazzling ride. But try to hail one, and you’ll soon feel as though you were waiting for your grandparent to inch their motorized chairlift to you.

My first encounter with these tragicomic elevators happened during New School Admitted Students Day last spring. My tour guide, after running out of ways to fill the air while our group dawdled on the ground floor, reluctantly admitted to their “reputation.” I have since become an enrolled student and can say with confidence that this reputation is well-earned. Long wait times and cramped quarters mean you will more often than not see a cluster of lost souls milling around the lobby, praying an elevator car will deign to descend. If you’re on a floor where the call buttons don’t light up when pushed, it’s anyone’s guess whether an elevator has been summoned at all. Equally uncertain is where you’ll end up, given the arcane system of floor stops and skips. Almost invariably, one or more stragglers will enter a class after it has already begun, sighing, “The elevators … ” That straggler may be you.

Photograph of students queuing for New School elevators at 6 East 16th Street.
Students queue for New School elevators at 6 East 16th Street.

The first week of my graduate career, I found myself sighing among the latest band of New School stragglers, staring at the elevator indicator lights sitting stubbornly at floor 12. After exchanging some awkward glances with my comrades in waiting, I decided to chart my own path. Curving around the stanchions, I made my way through the connecting doorway into the anteroom. There, at the end of the hall, alit with a fluorescent glare as if a no-frills gift from above, I spotted a stairwell. But when I stepped over to begin my climb, I was shooed away by a security guard, who informed me that students were no longer allowed to use the stairs. Access denied!

For the intrepid, introverted, claustrophobic, or simply late among us, an urban hike to the upper floors offers a much-needed alternative to the dumbwaiters. So why has this option been taken from us?

According to building superintendent John Pisani, it hasn’t. At least not completely. The stairs are in an ambiguous state of being locked from the outside yet technically accessible. A little background helps explain, if not justify, this limbo. The New School does not own the building in question. Instead, it leases floors 5 through 12, 16, and 17 from a real estate company imaginatively named “79 Fifth Avenue LLC.” The edifice, known as the Knickerbocker Building, was commissioned as a garment factory by Jacob Rothschild Jr. and completed in 1906. A sprawling corner structure, it spans half a block on Fifth Avenue and an equal length on 16th Street, housing both residential tenants and commercial clients including Hulu, the streaming service, and Capgemini, a multinational IT firm.

Photograph of the cage-like door of the (somewhat) forbidden stairwell.
The cage-like door of the (somewhat) forbidden stairwell.

As proprietor, 79 Fifth Avenue LLC sets the rules for the building, including the stairs. The shadowy head of the company, whose name Pisani refused to divulge, reportedly blocked ingress access to the stairs last winter as a preventative security measure. But there is goodish news for those of us who want to brave the steps. Pisani assured me that if you ask the company’s security guard du jour to unlock the unwelcoming grilled metal door for you, they will. In theory, a guard will be camped out under the stairs in an office chair monitoring CCTVs from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. In practice, it seems anything goes. In my subsequent experiments, I’ve variously: had the door unlocked for me, been told it was already unlocked, transgressed the door in the absence of a security guard, and discovered the door unattended and—thwarting that day’s cardio (and education)—locked. In the latter case, one friendly neighborhood watchman named Wilfred recommended peeking into the nook adjacent to the stairwell to find a guard on duty who will let you through. The door is always unlocked from the inside, allowing you to descend the stairs to exit at your leisure.

Getting back to the elevators, it is, confusingly, not 79 Fifth Avenue LLC that programs them but New School facilities. And as slow as they are now, they apparently used to be even slower. “Stopping at all the floors wasn’t working,” Paul Gottlieb, Fire and Safety Director for The New School, told me. After trying “a lot of different systems,” facilities landed on the current one, which limits floor access within the designated class rush hours of 8:30 to 9 a.m., 11:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m., 3:15 to 4 p.m., 5:30 to 6 p.m., and 6:30 to 7:15 p.m. During these times, elevator 1 is the most accommodating, stopping at floors 6 through 12 and 16. Elevator 2, which typically acts as an inaccessible freight elevator, is limited to floors 6, 9, and 12. Elevator 3 becomes an express elevator, stopping only at floor 9. And elevator 4 is always express, stopping exclusively at floor 9, regardless of the time.

These logistical innovations can do only so much to compensate for the elevators’ structural shortcomings. Gottlieb explained to me that the building’s aging elevators are slower than the newer models enjoyed by a lucky few New School buildings. More importantly, the elevators don’t have enough capacity to handle student traffic, an issue tied to the building’s narrow shaft widths. Expanding these shafts to accommodate larger cars would require heavy-duty, expensive renovations that the school is unlikely to make anytime soon. The upshot? The elevator paradox at The New School for Social Research is unlikely to improve within our New School tenures—or, probably, our lifetimes. But you can always take the stairs … I think.

Austin Tannenbaum is a MA candidate in Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism at The New School for Social Research.

All photographs are courtesy of the author.