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How the Stock Market Swallowed New York


It was a warm September morning, but Kate Aurthur suddenly awoke chilly and anxious in her Cobble Hill apartment. "I'd had a full-on dream about one of the CNBC reporters!" Aurthur says, sounding rattled all over again. "I don't know why, but in the dream, I was on the CNBC set, and Susan Lisovicz slipped me a note saying that Abby Joseph Cohen actually thought the market was unsustainable, but we don't want to cause a panic by admitting it."

She pauses, exhales, laughs nervously at the memory. Aurthur, 29, splits her time between freelance writing and investing. "So now I was burdened by this knowledge -- I was one of only three people in the world who knew this, that Abby Joseph Cohen thought the market couldn't hold at 7,500!" she says. "I woke up really scared."

In 1987, when the stock market melted down, Aurthur didn't care: "I was still into Kill the capitalists! at that point." Now even the wild fluctuations of the past two months can't spook her out of the Dow Jones. "This is no trendy thing," Aurthur says. "I can't imagine ever not being involved in stocks." Especially since she's still haunted by October 1997, when she sold most of her AOL stock as the market plunged, only to watch helplessly as the price later tripled. "I won't," Aurthur says, sounding as steely as a Morgan Stanley lifer, "make that mistake again."

Since August 31, when the Dow Jones Industrial Average shed 6 percent in one frenzied day, the nonstop, unavoidable New York conversation has been about the stock market, exposing just how obsessed and market-savvy this city has become. Pizza bakers in Carroll Gardens argue about the valuation of On the steps of St. Patrick's, a man in expensive pinstripes shouts into his cell phone, "Qualcomm is down 6!" A friend of mine describes his fiancée as having "tremendous upside potential." The boom, besides enriching hundreds of thousands of people and revivifying the city, has permanently altered the New York mind-set. We have become a city of traders.

Way back in 1987, a true crash did far more economic damage than August's tumble, but the immediate suffering was confined to a red-suspendered financial-industry elite. Reams of business-section stories have documented how Main Street has been directly connected to Wall Street since 1987, through the explosive growth in 401(k) plans, mutual funds, and online investing. In many ways, the revolution in personal finance has been hopeful and democratizing. But the deep emotional investment of New Yorkers in the stock market, the way in which Dow consciousness has pervaded the collective unconscious, doesn't fit neatly into charts and graphs.

Suddenly, everyone in New York thinks like a businessman: Clinton's testimony is coming out Monday. I know the market's going to move -- but which way? It's also a Jewish holiday, and Alcatel, the French phone company, is going to buy back some of its stock. When I turned on CNBC this morning, Europe was finishing a sharp overnight sell-off. How do I position myself?

The strange genius of this moment in the city's life is that instead of letting the complex flood of world events wash over us, we're seizing all this data and acting on it. With Bloomberg real-time stock quotes on our office computers and the Motley Fool guide on our bookshelves, we're brokering our own future. In a period of record-setting volatility -- twelve of the past twenty trading sessions (as of last Thursday) have seen triple-digit swings -- any public anxiety has been offset by the thrill of being in the game. And in that sense, the boom has finally given the information age a purpose; everything, now, is news you can use.

Suzie Vasillov opened Keesal & Mathews, an Upper East Side store selling fine housewares, in October 1988. "One year after the crash, and just as the city was really heading into recession," she says now, with wry sarcasm. "That shows you how much attention I was paying to the stock market, and what a financial genius I am."

One recent night, Vasillov walked over to her favorite neighborhood Italian restaurant. Enjoying her pasta, she suddenly noticed she was surrounded by empty tables. Vasillov's first thought wasn't that Mondays are slow in the restaurant business. "No," Vasillov says, "I thought, The Dow went down 500 points today. Are people cutting back already?"

Perhaps she thought that way because her store has thrived and she's got more at stake these days; maybe it's because she's more sophisticated. Or maybe it's because this city has grown so acutely attuned to the stock market that Dow awareness alters everyone's reflexes.

For thousands of New Yorkers, the nineties boom has been a transformative experience, not for the change in their income and consumption but for the shift in their sensibility. "Being involved with the stock market has absolutely changed the way I think and the way I look at the world," Vasillov, 38, says. "Besides giving me a feeling of control over my life I've never had before, once you're intimate with an investment portfolio you realize how everything is interconnected, from ball bearings to Dell computers. And you realize that all businesses are exactly the same -- everyone's making a product and trying to sell it. And whether you're a mommy or the owner of a tony housewares shop, we're all businesspeople. I think it's a great thing that's happened to this country."

The triumph of stock-market culture is visible everywhere you look in the city. A decade ago, Wall Street was represented in the visual imagination by a TV shot of the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, crowded with harried, faceless guys in ill-fitting coats who appeared for a few seconds. Now the market is a ubiquitous, streaming electronic presence all over town, a rush of price quotes flickering through the windows of Fidelity branches.

A decade ago, Times Square was an anarchic neon jumble of small businesses peddling sex and novelties. Walking through Times Square now feels like stepping inside a spreadsheet: The famous news zipper at 1 Times Square is sponsored by Dow Jones. NASDAQ will soon have its own mammoth stock-quote screen directly across the street, rising three stories high on the face of the Condé Nast building; there will also be a gallery, à la the Today show, that's part TV backdrop and part tourist attraction, featuring live traders. Five blocks north, on Morgan Stanley's headquarters, huge glowing orange stock fractions and corporate symbols move so fast they're unreadable.

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