Early in our conversation, Barnett’s cell phone rings. He pulls out what looks like a flip phone circa 1997. He’s not wielding a BlackBerry—standard-issue for a businessman of his station—nor, I notice, are there any computers or electronic devices in his office, apart from the Bose Wave radio sitting on a shelf behind his desk. “I’m a dinosaur,” Barnett says when I ask him why he doesn’t use a computer. “My secretary gives me my e-mails. I have financial people who do spreadsheets. I understand the concepts of how all these things work, I just don’t know how to use them. I’m getting along fine just like this.” Barnett says he doesn’t trust technology. “I think the e-mail is very dangerous. I see people write things they’d never dream of saying.”
What Barnett lacks in technological literacy he compensates for with raw intelligence. “He does the numbers in his head,” says Sue Ault, who’s worked with Barnett. “That’s what’s scary. You go in and show him this big spreadsheet, he’ll look at it and instantly pick out something that’s wrong with it.”
Barnett started his journey in an altogether different part of Manhattan from where he’s making his mark now. Born Gershon Swiatycki, he was raised in the cloistered Orthodox Jewish community on the Lower East Side. His father, Chaim Swiatycki, a respected rabbi and Talmudic scholar, later moved the family of ten children out of the city to the strictly observant Rockland County community of Monsey. Later, at Queens College, Barnett studied math and later got an economics degree at Hunter.
During a vacation in Florida, he met and fell in love with Evelyn Muller, an heiress to a prominent Jewish diamond-trading family from Antwerp, Belgium. Barnett and Muller married, and her father, Shulim, invited him into the family business. For the next ten years, Barnett lived in Belgium, trading diamonds while raising five children with Muller. “He developed the American market for us,” Evelyn’s brother Jean Claude Muller told me. “He saw America at the time was a big market.”
In the early nineties, the Mullers and other Belgian diamond dealers were looking to diversify into real estate, and Barnett offered to explore opportunities back in the States. His first deals were modest. He bought shopping malls and office buildings throughout the Midwest.
In 1994, Barnett made his first major New York purchase when he bought the Belnord, the H. Hobart Weekes–designed Upper West Side apartment tower on 86th Street. “This was like a 100-carat diamond in the rough,” he remembers telling his Belgian investors. “Somewhere in there is a really beautiful diamond.” He paid a scant $18 million. Few other New York developers were willing to touch the rent-controlled building, fearing nasty litigation with longtime inhabitants, which was already under way, but Barnett was undeterred by the legal fight, a fearlessness of which he’s made a habit.
Just as Barnett’s New York business was getting off the ground, his wife was diagnosed with cancer. She died two and a half years later, at 37. Alone with five children, Barnett was devastated. “That was a very, very sad time for him,” says Ault. “You never totally recover, you just move on. That’s what he did. He had no choice. He had the five children to parent. I saw a change, in that he was a much sadder person. Not depressed, but a sad person, for many years.”
It was a dark time, but Barnett’s real-estate business was taking off. He remained close to the Mullers, who continued to invest in his projects. In 1998, he built what would become the W Times Square. It was a flagship project that helped convince Barnett he could play on the biggest stage. As an outsider, he operated without inhibition where others might have proceeded more cautiously. “We didn’t start small,” he says. In 2001, Bruce Ratner and the New York Times were maneuvering to buy a plot of land on Eighth Avenue and 41st Street to develop the Times’ Renzo Piano–designed headquarters. Barnett, who owned a parking lot on the site, tried to organize surrounding landowners. “I said, ‘Let’s all join together and we’ll be in control of the site, and if the New York Times really wants it, they’ll pay us more,’ ” he told me.