Blackman’s friend Heather Willens agrees with that assessment. “He’d be nothing in New York,” she says, without cruelty. Her tone says she could be talking about herself, me, or any other expat. “It’s just so hard in New York. There are a million smart, interesting, wealthy people. Whereas here, it’s easy to be the most sophisticated person in the room because, like, you’ve gone to Thailand.”
Willens herself didn’t move to become a big fish; her goal is to be able to live “half fucking around” without skating too close to the economic edge. In New York, she had a fashionable job at Daniel Johnnes Wines that offered her plenty of free meals but a salary under $60,000 a year. She couldn’t save any money, and she could never splurge. “I never realized how much I was treading water,” she says.
Since moving to Buenos Aires in December 2004, the 34-year-old wine broker can afford to work a more relaxed schedule—her commission on one recent sale was more than the average annual salary in Argentina—and indulge hobbies that were out of her reach in New York. Her $500-a-month two-floor apartment is decorated with paintings from Recoleta galleries that, at prices below $600, allow her to be a collector of sorts. And she pays about $55 a month for her membership in the swank Buenos Aires Lawn Tennis Club, which is akin to a $20,000-a-year Westchester country club.
There are opportunities to be found in Buenos Aires’s bargain-basement pricing—especially when it comes to real estate. B.A. offers New Yorkers the chance to turn back the clock on the boom. Property values have gone up 14 percent here in the last year, but nice two-bedrooms still go for under $100,000. Mark Morgan-Perez, a 34-year-old Wall Streeter turned nonprofit real-estate developer, moved to Buenos Aires after clearing more than $400,000 on the sale of his 16 Park Avenue one-bedroom. Now he’s looking to transform his tidy profit into Trump-style moguldom. “A one-bedroom apartment in New York can become two buildings, three buildings here,” he says. He’s in the process of buying a four-bedroom house with a terrace and garage for $170,000. He plans to turn it into a bed-and-breakfast or boutique hotel.
But it wasn’t just the economic opportunities that attracted Morgan-Perez to Buenos Aires; it was the lifestyle. For one thing, he was drawn to the city’s gay life, which he describes as more “mixed” than New York’s, not defined by the “Chelsea gym-bunny scene and the East Village snobby scene.” (In fact, B.A. is a very progressive city—the first in Latin America to approve a civil-union law.) But he was also looking for the work-life balance that had eluded him in New York. “I want to sit around and play piano and collect rent and read. Life in New York had become too much of a grind. Everybody’s time is so precious. People are so wrapped up in careers,” he says. “Here, I can invest and do projects and make money and not have it dominate my life.”
And like all the New York expats I spoke with, he has no desire to go back. As Dominic LoTempio puts it, “Doing what I’ve done is an interesting study in happiness. Psychologists will tell you changing your station in life doesn’t change your level of happiness. But am I happier now than I was getting up at a quarter after six every morning? The answer is yes.”