Since the death of Jane Jacobs at the end of April, the story of her epic wrangle with Robert Moses in the sixties—in which the plucky urban activist thwarted the master builder’s dream of erecting a Lower Manhattan Expressway right through the heart of Soho—has been recounted from almost every conceivable angle. As a clash of visions. As a clash of personalities. Even as a clash of genders (Moses once pooh-poohed Jacobs and her followers as “nobody but a bunch of mothers”). But the Moses-Jacobs contretemps can be seen perhaps even more accurately through a rather different lens: as a clash between power and influence.
The distinction between the two concepts, as you might imagine, has been much on our minds around here as we’ve put together this week’s issue. Traditionally, of course, power has been political or financial, rooted in authority or money—the capacity, often by fiat, to make things happen or to keep them from happening. Power is what Moses employed to historic effect for nearly 40 years. Influence, by contrast, is more subtle, more indirect, more de facto than de jure. In the terminology of foreign affairs, influence is soft power—the ability to shift the course of events through ideas or relationships rather than coercion or enticement. Influence is Jacobs, holding no office and possessing no institutional leverage, inciting a bottom-up movement that stopped Moses in his tracks. Now, New York has always been obsessed with power: getting it, wielding it, harnessing it, and, most of all, keeping it. There’s no question that, on a per-square-foot basis, our city contains a higher concentration of puissance than any place on earth. (In Washington, the belief that lawyers, not to mention congressmen, actually have power fosters endless confusion on this topic.) And without doubt, power and influence often intersect. But there’s also no escaping the conclusion that because of the interplay of an array of forces—the rise of the meritocracy, the technology revolution, the democratization of information and access to capital, the transparency of political deliberations—the power elite is, well, less powerful than it was in the old days. There is no Wall Street figure today on a par with Charlie Merrill. There’s no captain of industry akin to Charlie Bluhdorn. And certainly there’s no one in any realm with the clout of Robert Moses.
Instead, we look around and see an increasingly Jacobean city—a place where moguls, machers, pooh-bahs, and potentates are seeing their collective mojo rivaled by a newer class: the influentials.
Though among their ranks are a smattering of CEOs and elected officials, the influentials (we’ve borrowed a term from a well-known marketing book and adapted it for our purposes) are a more eclectic breed. Idea merchants, social entrepreneurs, and conceptual artists. Gatekeepers, opinion-shapers, star-makers, and paradigm-shifters. Some of the influentials (Rupert Murdoch, Michael Bloomberg) have at their disposal no small degree of power. But many more tend to operate on the basis of persuasion, salesmanship, and savvy as opposed to sheer brute force. Some of them are household names, but a greater number aren’t; they fly under the radar, work behind the scenes. What all of them have in common, however, is that they are changing the city, pushing it in new directions, shaping its economy and culture as profoundly as the old high-and-mighty ever did.
Consider Steven Cohen, hedge-fund manager extraordinaire. Back in the eighties, you may recall, the biggest and swingingest dicks on Wall Street—Henry Kravis, Jim Robinson, John Gutfreund—were wildly public figures, greedy for publicity, addicted to the limelight. And the same was true in the nineties (Sandy Weill? Hello?). But now comes Cohen, whose Garboesque reticence has made him a kind of invisible man—and yet his influence over the direction of the market (and his reputed net worth) is greater than that of any of the erstwhile masters of the universe. And more to the point, he represents a genuinely transformational force in the world of finance.
Or consider Sessalee Hensley, lead fiction buyer for Barnes & Noble. On any conventional power list, Hensley would surely be outranked by her boss, Len Riggio. Riggio, after all, is B&N’s chairman, the guy who built the company into the world’s largest bookseller. But while Riggio may deserve credit for the company’s strategy, for its relentless appetite for expansion, it’s Hensley who can make or break a title: She decides which ones get promoted and how they’re advertised. Outside the publishing business, she’s essentially anonymous; inside it, she’s seen as the most important player this side of Oprah.
Or consider John Sexton, the president of NYU, whose combination of forward thinking, educational block-and-tackling (pouring resources into the liberal arts), and marketing juju has turned his institution from an also-ran into the “It” school of the moment. Or Fred Wilson, the high-tech venture capitalist who’s fast turning into this city’s go-to financier of the Web 2.0 generation. Not only has Wilson bankrolled two of the new era’s seminal start-ups (Del.icio.us and FeedBurner), but by blogging about his investments and the theories behind them, he’s helping to demystify the entire VC business.
And the list goes on and on. There’s Dennis Rivera, the service-workers union chief influential not only as a labor boss but as a leader in public health. There’s Louise Sunshine, the former protégée of Donald Trump who more or less invented the notion of branding buildings—a game-changing tactic in real estate that’s now almost de rigueur. There’s D.J. Kay Slay, who pioneered the practice of using mix tapes to break new artists. And there’s Malcolm Gladwell, who owes no small part of his influential status to his writing about the mechanics of influence.
Compared with the big kahunas of the old power game, the influentials make up an orbit that’s wider and more eclectic. Also one more porous, permeable—and, almost certainly, more impermanent. Indeed, there’s every likelihood that if we were to compile such a list in the future, many of the names featured here would be gone, replaced by a newer, younger cadre. (The only sure repeat, assuming he’s still alive, would likely be Murdoch—whose presence on any list of influence or power is as reliable as gravity itself.) A sign that influence is ephemeral? Sure. You could say the same about power. But it’s also a sign of vitality—of a city that’s more and more an open, vibrant network and no longer a closed loop.