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Class Struggle on Park Avenue


Perhaps it wouldn't be so galling if everybody else around you didn't seem to be doing quite so well. "I feel like I've put her in a world where we don't fit, and yet I don't know where else to put her," laments Ann, referring to her seventh-grader. "One kid wears a $3,000 watch to gym and gives kids $200 birthday presents. The wealthy parents have followed suit. Even though I grew up in this world, I no longer belong here."

With the stock market rocketing toward Mars and the real-estate market panting to keep up ("It doesn't matter whether it's a $7 million or $700,000 apartment. Everybody feels poor in this market," says Kirk Henckels, a broker with Stribling & Associates. "One reason to feel really poor is to be the broker who sees these financials"), the middle class has been cleansed from large parts of Manhattan, the well-to-do are feeling insecure, and those with "real money" -- $100 million seems to be the generally accepted cut-off -- rule with what people in Ann's unfortunate situation consider a telling lack of taste.

"When I went to school, I would have rather died before I showed up in a limo," she says, stressing that she made her chauffeur wait around the corner, when she let him pick her up at all. "Now it's the opposite."

She's referring to the armada of chauffeur-driven Town Cars -- the obligatory accessory of the rich trying to juggle the competing demands of parenthood and wealth management -- that roll up to her daughters' school each morning, dispensing sneakered heiresses at the front door without any hint of mortification.

A well-meaning speech Ann's daughters' head of school gave a couple of years ago still stings. "She said, 'It's important you not let your household help pick up after your kids all the time,' " the psychologist remembers. "The assumption was that everybody there had household help -- and they did. The irony was that she could talk to an entire parent body without a trace of irony in this matter."

The growing chasm between the really rich and everyone else may be felt most keenly not by the truly poor but by the well-to-do, particularly those who grew up here and who cling to the childish notion that the city should remain theirs.

"I might not be able to continue to live in my home town," says a 40-year-old book publisher who lives with his wife and small daughter among fellow indigent liberal-arts majors -- artists, writers, musicians, opera singers -- in a stolid prewar apartment with limited light near Columbia University.

"I don't have any more right than anybody else, but it's my own home," he continues, sounding contrite. "If you grew up in Manhattan, it's just like growing up any other place. Home is a very primal thing."

Perhaps most damaging of all to the self-esteem of people of his provenance is the realization that new money -- who in former days relished the opportunity to mingle with impoverished old money -- no longer seems to attach much importance to pedigree or refinement. To paraphrase one embittered English major: Since these people don't have a single book in the house, why should they respect those who are well-read?

"You look to your left and you look to your right, and everybody is richer than you are," observes a newspaper columnist who used to think she was doing well. "You say, 'We have a larger apartment,' and then you realize they have an estate in Bedford where they go on weekends.

"They're probably spending the same amount as you on telephone and electricity. The difference is in discretionary income. If someone has $100,000 more than you, that buys a lot of trips to Europe. But they don't have $100,000 more than you; they have $100 million more than you.

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