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The Upside of the Downside

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But it’s not just real estate. It’s everything, or near everything, and it’s ratcheted up even more in the last few years. As the value of homes and stocks and salaries has spiked, there’s been a kind of arms race of acquisition that has touched every little facet of our lives. You don’t just go to the store and buy groceries, like a regular person; now you fetishize the meat at Fairway and the fish from Blue Moon and the organic greens and the Greek yogurt and the cheese, always the cheese. The place that became a cigar bar in the late nineties, now it’s a Union Market, where among other preciously presented items there’s a loaf of raisin-walnut bread that isn’t quite as fresh and delicious as the raisin-walnut bread the Lopezes used to bake. But it is three times as expensive.

Wine. Jacques Torres chocolates. Kiehl’s skin creams. Kids’ clothes! Jesus. Why do we dress our kids like Johnny Depp and Kate Moss? We’ve all gotten pulled into this slipstream of wealth. We have some friends who have a friend who chartered a jet to fly 50 or so of his closest friends to a Mexican resort to celebrate his birthday last year. There’s no way they can repay that in kind, obviously, but the pressure’s on a little at the next dinner party he comes to, you know what I mean?

This is all tricky to talk about without seeming laughably self-absorbed, and I want you to know that I know how loaded we are, comparatively speaking, and not just loaded in that abstract compared-with-the-developing-world way; we’re loaded compared with most of the people in this city. But that too is part of the problem. You don’t feel connected to anyone, in a way, not to the people who have so much more than you and not to the people who have so much less. Money has stretched us all apart from one another. I may be overstating it a little but not a lot. It’s messed us up.

What might help, though, is a return to some semblance of the city we lived in before it was flooded with money. This isn’t all a setup for more tired nostalgia for the days when New York was less flush but more artistically and counterculturally compelling. I’ve read Chronicles; I’ve seen Basquiat. It goes without saying that things were more interesting when Bob Dylan was shuffling through the snow with his guitar and harmonica from one coffeehouse to another, or later, in the broke New York of the late seventies and early eighties, when all sorts of musicians and performance artists and just plain weirdos could afford to live out their pansexual lives in the East Village. I think most of us can agree that the existence of CBGB was more vital to the life of the city than a John Varvatos store. But I never knew that New York, except through albums and picture books and Desperately Seeking Susan, and as Dylan himself might say, wishing for those days to return is hophead talk.

What I’m looking forward to is something subtler. It’ll start with the gradual receding of real estate as the focus of so much of our mental energy. New Yorkers will never stop obsessing about real estate entirely, I understand that, but if our homes are all worth a little less, then maybe we won’t feel quite so compelled to talk about them all the time, since we won’t really want to pick at our wounds—and then they can go back to just being homes. And maybe the truly ostentatious buildings, like those awful downtown condo towers that might as well be made out of bullion and babies’ skin, will be embarrassing to be seen in. Maybe, in fact, there will be a bit more of a shame-check on the conspicuous flashing of wealth in general. Having your kids picked up from school in a chauffeur-driven Mercedes SUV will seem unsightly; flying off to Paris for a Louis XV auction might no longer be something to boast about to friends. Let these concerns return to the tiny cult of the inbred dilettantish rich where they belong.

My friend Kim, a former lawyer turned painter, was at our place recently. “I hate Christmas,” she said at one point. “By the time Christmas is over, I feel so sick of it, like I’ve spent all this money I shouldn’t have spent and I have all these things I don’t really need or want, and I feel gross about having indulged so much, and I just want that feeling to come that comes in early January when everyone just reins it in, when we all privately acknowledge that there was something a little dirty about what we just did. You know what I mean? That’s what New York has felt like. It would feel good, like in a good-for-the-soul-of-the-city way, to collectively focus on something else.”

Exactly. Picture a city in which, since spending and acquisition are no longer the only game in town, there’s that much less tolerance for people who cradle their BlackBerrys at every social engagement as if any e-mail that might come through is infinitely more important than the human beings right in front of them. And maybe habitual late nights at the office will return to being the mark of someone who lacks the skills to lead a normal life. How might that change the mood of things? I don’t imagine poetry readings will suddenly flourish or that, rather than directing their talents toward getting rich, thousands of young M.B.A.’s will go into early-childhood education. I just think it’s possible that we all might become a little more aware of all that’s around us, that we’ll take a little more pride in cultural rather than commercial success. And on a personal level, maybe those of us who didn’t go into finance or speculate in real estate won’t have to contend too much more with that nagging feeling that we’re grinding it out to stay above water while all these bozos on Wall Street are filling their bathtubs with oysters and Cristal.

I’ve done plenty of trashing of upstate New York, where I’m from, but mostly I mock because I love. And one thing I love about where I grew up (though it’s a complicated love) is that because no one really had a lot more than anyone else, people’s money woes felt like a shared burden, at least psychologically, rather than a uniquely humiliating one, and everyone kind of dealt with them as best they could and tried not to become too undone. A little bit of that mind-set might be good for New York right now. You don’t own a place yet? You haven’t eaten that $100 truffled foie-gras hamburger yet? You missed that wave of wealth that everyone around you rode to glory? Well, that wave’s receding now, and it’s bringing a lot of people back with it.


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