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The Death of (the Idea of) the Upper East Side

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In the midst of my divorce, when I realized that the Upper East Side chapter of my life was over, I trooped down with a Realtor friend who had a very inflated notion of my net worth; I just wanted to see the place even if I couldn’t afford it. In the office, I shook Meier’s hand and complimented him on the beauty of the shimmering silver-blue architectural model, although I might just as well have complimented him on his own iconic, monumental appearance with that mane of silver-blue hair, since this was probably the first Manhattan building project in decades that was being sold on the basis of the star power of the architect. We then climbed back in the Realtor’s Town Car and drove to the site at Perry Street, where we viewed the fourth-floor unit in the northern tower. I was standing in a rough concrete-and-glass box with exposed wiring and, admittedly, a great river view. “Buyers get to finish the interiors themselves,” my friend informed me cheerfully. “Calvin’s going to take the penthouse. He went up in a helicopter with Richard to inspect the views.”

Nan Kempner’s death last year marked the end of a sparkling era. The chain-smoking, quick-witted socialite was the Platonic ideal of a socialite, the kind of Big Girl who made all the others feel good about being in the tribe.

The Meier project put downtown officially on the map for the uptown crowd. Many more fancy downtown buildings have been built or are in the works, bearing names like Calatrava, Gehry, Gwathmey, and Rogers, and creating a new luxury aesthetic that makes ol’ Park Avenue seem almost spartan. Despite their sometimes jarring new forms, many of the new buildings already seem to have settled quite comfortably into old neighborhoods—as any good host or D.J. knows, it’s all about the mix.

These new downtowners won’t have to travel far to visit the Whitney if the museum follows through with its plan to move its new building south. After more than a decade of trying to get approval for plans to expand on Madison Avenue, the Whitney seems to have thrown in the towel. Like some hopeful young suitor bringing one bride after another home to stuffy parents, the Whitney paraded a succession of architects past the neighbors, including Michael Graves, Rem Koolhaas, and Renzo Piano. Now, even as the Piano addition appeared to be on the verge of approval, the board of the Whitney has pulled the equivalent of saying, “To hell with Mom and Dad, we’re going to elope with a cocktail waitress.” Whatever the details of the decision, the impression seems to be that the old folks want to pull up the drawbridge and keep out anything that doesn’t look like it belongs in the 8th Arrondissement. The howls of protest that have greeted the proposal for developer Aby Rosen’s 22-story Norman Foster tower atop the Parke-Bernet building reinforce the impression that the Upper East Side wishes to be left out of 21st-century Manhattan. The community board slammed the proposal immediately, while the hearing in front of the Landmarks commission drew an overflow crowd of bejeweled and bespoke-suited protesters. William Kahn, a resident of the Carlyle House near the proposed site, compared Lord Foster’s proposal to the British occupation of New York during the Revolutionary War.

My shrink, a former student of Hannah Arendt’s, lives deep in the Lower East Side, at Houston and Avenue A, in a five-story building that has a stark, army-green, unattended, disinfectant-scented lobby. By the by, she expresses her concern and amazement about the fact that her building has been infiltrated by uptowners—a Wall Street couple and a recent college grad whose Wall Street daddy is setting her up with a nest. She is not entirely convinced that these three are good for the neighborhood that invented the slogans “Eat the rich” and “Die, yuppie scum,” which still occasionally appear on brick walls and sidewalks, but obviously they think the neighborhood is good for them. Which raises the question, when everyone and his parents move downtown, in what sense will it still be downtown? Will King Charles spaniels start to replace French bulldogs on Bleecker Street? And speaking of Bleecker, it was one thing for Marc Jacobs to set up shop there, but Ralph Lauren? Now that hedge-fund managers and trust-funders have taken over Tribeca, the former province of painters and sculptors, it may be that Manhattan geography is no longer destiny, that neighborhoods have lost their tribal signification. Or rather, the Upper East Side may be the last neighborhood to preserve its signification and its identity, if only as a kind of prewar retirement community, replete with museums and hospitals, encased in amber.

Designer Robert Couturier, a favorite of the crowd that summers in Southampton and winters in Palm Beach, has noticed a migration even among the rarefied group of his clients. “A number of older people whose children have moved away from home are going downtown. Art dealers—and, of course, the younger generation. As for the really old guard, they are staying entrenched in their Park Avenue and Fifth Avenue buildings. But what is helping kill the Upper East Side is the fact that most of the apartments are occupied by absentee owners; they are in town so seldom that the buildings look depressingly unoccupied. Whether somebody is rich in Lima, Caracas, Paris, London or Rome, Moscow or Shanghai, they all want an apartment in New York that they visit only a couple of months a year. Hence the depressing feeling that the Upper East Side is empty and on any weekend is a desert. The only thing holding many people back is the school factor.”


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