Michael Bloomberg’s first term actually ended on February 8, 2004, on the occasion of Sex and the City’s antepenultimate episode, not long after Samantha pretended to be British to sneak into Soho House, the then-new private club with the kitchen-sponge-size rooftop pool. This was the episode in which gauche, chain-smoking “Page Six” staple “Lexi Featherston” did some coke at a geriatric party, yelled, “This used to be the most exciting city in the world, and now it’s nothing but smoking near a fuckin’ open window,” and then took a header out said window. The “girls” went to her funeral at St. Mark’s Church on the Bowery, once known as the site of the first performance by Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye and then suddenly an HBO backdrop. Manhattan had become a stage set of itself. Carrie Bradshaw was the Bernie Goetz of the Bloomberg era, shooting at the walls of heartache, bang-bang.
The hook was baited perfectly, and now, for the first time since the O’Dwyer administration—look it up!—more people are coming here than are leaving. But if New York City is better than ever—and we think it is—then why does it suck so bad?
The money, yes. And the cupcakes, and the ATMs, and all these apartments that somehow are in clock towers, which are all also just money. Among the young set, it’s newcomers’ parents paying up at our phantom tollbooth. There is now a class of New Yorkers with the luxury of not just money but also plenty of time. Once you got a crappy coffee at the deli or you didn’t get coffee. Now the city is a wonderland of delicious pour-over. Every day is choose-your-own-adventure when you’re not dying over the rent. Now there’s a substantial population who thinks New York’s a lark, or college 2.0, or an indie-lectual Rumspringa, a lazy not so Grand Tour before packing it in to get married in Dallas. Not to pick on the millennials: The olds aren’t suffering either. Now a vast number of them pretend to live in the city while gardening at their second homes, in the sweet spread from Germantown to Ghent to Kinderhook. The result: New York has fewer who’d bleed for her. Once the city was for people who craved it with the stridency of a young Madonna. The result was entertainment, friction, mayhem, disaster, creation, magic.
This might speak more to my tendency toward bad choices, but at the time, nothing about it seemed unusual. A few years after the first World Trade Center bombing, I was broke again, and my downstairs neighbor, a piano teacher, said that he could cut me in on a deal for some extra cash. All I had to do was put on a toga and a hockey mask and listen to this old naked guy talk about his arcane Vietnam War sex fantasy while my neighbor shoved a bottle up his ass. It paid like $200. Worth every penny. Now it’s funny; now it’s emblematic. Also, please don’t do this! You can show your devotion to the big city without penetration and/or role-play.
Once there were people fishing for dinner on the broken piers of Williamsburg, then there were stalled high-rises and dust, then blossomed a bouquet of condos, ferries threading through their mirror glare. In Manhattan, a city of thoughtful analysands became a city of home-schooled cognitive behavioralists, quick to self-prescribe and quicker to diagnose one another.
Years ago, I went for a job interview with Arthur Carter, the then-owner of the New York Observer. His maid let me into his East 67th Street apartment; there was a package marked lauder in the elevator. Carter’s big interview question was “What does your father do?” Part of the excitement of the city then was that you could feel like you’d infiltrated and helped to overthrow these archaic systems, the remnants of Edith Wharton’s city, even if you had to take the gross loaner jacket at the Metropolitan Club. No one asks what your father does now. They either already know or it doesn’t matter. That, thank Emma Goldman, is done.
We installed the ethos that pedigree was over and all money was now equally valuable. The mythology of Silicon Alley was forced to coalesce for good, with City Hall’s fervor behind it. The start-up culture wars—a fresh beef with the West Coast, except boring!—intentionally pitted us against the weirdo jerks of Palo Alto. The scrunchy-face foxy Foursquare co-founders appeared in Gap ads, clad in mediocre jeans but form-fitting venture capital. You were a good person if you were an entrepreneur. You were creating jobs, until you weren’t. The big floor-through lofts of Broadway between Houston and Spring filled up with inexpensive furniture and even less expensive young people, each with a bitter mouthful of Adderall, each office bright and identical. So far, we’ve disrupted a few things, mostly coffee-related.
A city’s culture is what you see when you walk from a cab to your door. Now it’s all plastic prefab, much of it involving banks, the red glow of Bank of America, the men atop their two-wheeled blue Citibank ads, riding by one of the city’s 500 Dunkin’ Donuts locations. When I moved to New York City, the East Village’s ATM was on Broadway by 9th Street. You had to get there before it ran out of money or closed for the night, or, on Fridays, the afternoon, because it used to be that all the banks closed shortly after lunch on Fridays. (It sucked.)
Maybe New York is so warm, so cozy now that it gives people nothing more to want. Stars went from actually famous to local fameball to the current age of fame-for-all, the whole city a town-shaped step-and-repeat backdrop. The marketplace of hearts and favorites squeezes out just enough adulation to go around. Brooke Astor, the last of the Old Guard, died as Alex Rodriguez signed his $275 million contract (and each mayor gets the star ballplayer he deserves). Anderson Cooper became really famous, but then he came out and became less famous. Andy Cohen was never in and yet became more and more famous. I always wonder what they talk about on Barry Diller’s boat.
Everyone’s been styled for their Instagram shoot-a-thon for a while now. Bloomberg’s first term was trucker hats; the second term was men buying women’s jeans. The third term was Uniqlo slimly smothering everyone, except for the waiters and the beer-gut junior-dad brigade all in their suspenders and stupid hats—the hot-immigrant-wharfie look. Retrograde masculinity retrograded back. And bedbugs replaced muggings. Bedbugs are a private experience, something that happens just between you and your bloodstained sheets. Muggings require human interaction, in public.
Barely into Mike Bloomberg’s third term, which was the term when we entrenched a permanent underclass in the city, Duane Reade hit 257 stores in the city and then was promptly sold by Oak Hill Capital Partners and purchased by Walgreens. Oak Hill Capital Partners is headquartered at 65 East 55th Street. Oak Hill is Robert Bass, who is the brother of Sid Bass, who was the husband of Mercedes Bass, who were all once famous, none of whom now regularly ranks among the top-twenty richest New Yorkers, but only because everyone else has gotten richer, or because the financial reporters have gotten less good at counting. Probably they have to blog too much now.
The Core Club, at 66 East 55th Street, opened in the final year of Bloomberg’s first term. Membership has a onetime fee of $50,000 and dues of $15,000. It’s proper to imagine that New York City rotates around 55th Street and Fifth Avenue, like a terrible spin painting always being made, recording our time in thick, sludgy overlays. Here was the moment when the shops of Madison Avenue panicked, selling velvety midnight-blue suits at pennies on the dollar. Here was the moment when the Chelsea galleries almost all failed at once, then rebounded grandly, and then, devastatingly, flooded. There too was the moment they turned off the power in public housing and somehow couldn’t turn it on again for weeks. Here were the five minutes that everyone was just so worried that people would be ashamed to work on Wall Street!
That was the surprise reveal of the Bloomberg era. What we know now is that the people with the money and the buildings don’t actually have the slightest idea how an economy—or even a business!—works.
Minimum estimates now put the number of New York City millionaires at around 400,000; there could be as many as 650,000. New York City wasn’t the inventor or progenitor of wealth inequality, the great national trend of the last dozen years, but we do it best. It’s a bedrock pillar of nickels and dimes all the way down, a billion fees a second, a burn rate, a waste, a dick joke, a $40,000 storefront in Brooklyn, one more year of fat bonus before you say you’ll finally quit, one more “space” disrupted, a Balthazar breakfast, a billion uniques, a whale, a Citation X, an acquisition, a bomb, a deposition, a bust.
I couldn’t help but wonder, like an aging Carrie Bradshaw: Does everyone else daydream about the New York That Got Away? An afternoon in an art dealer’s enormous apartment, when he carelessly shuffled Warhol Polaroids, and they were all a grand. The apartment in the West Thirties was $380,000, but there were hookers. Now New York seems like every little thing in it is beyond priceless, and nothing will ever be yours. That’s absolutely true, and you never will have the things that you helplessly crave—but also it has always been like that.
Tomorrow’s yesteryears will be hazily golden, too. Now what we have left is an unwritten chronology of names of neighborhoods that white people have at various times actually said out loud that they feel “safe” living in. These days the squeegee men are back. They are working the cars on Atlantic Avenue, by Bedford, at the Armory. The squeegee men are “Prospect Heights adjacent.” The squeegee men are working “ProCro.” The squeegee men are “okay just maybe across the border into Crown Heights.” The squeegee men “can see Prospect Park” if they just look in the right direction.
Mostly, New York’s heroes got smaller. Now our heroes include the black-haired girl with the anchor tattoo who plays accordion most nights on the Brooklyn-bound platform of the Second Avenue F station. When she plays “Killing Me Softly,” everyone—tired or coupled or Candy-Crushing—applauds. Her name is Melissa Elledge, and she’s not a rogue, because who is anymore? Melissa is an official MTA “Music Under New York” artist. Her accordion case overflows with bills, not coins. Around her, people discuss whether or not Lena Dunham is racist, but mostly they stare at their phones.
Liz Smith is 90. Rex Reed is 74. Annette de la Renta is 73. Martha Stewart is 72. Salman Rushdie and David Letterman are 66. Charles Barron is 62. Also, they fired Michael Musto. None has an heir apparent.
The third and allegedly final Bloomberg term ended not in early 2012, when Ron Burkle acquired a majority share of Soho House for $383 million, but in July 2013, when Nicholas Brooks—the son of “You Light Up My Life” composer Joseph Brooks, who committed suicide in 2011 after being indicted on a charge of sexually assaulting almost a dozen women—was convicted of murdering his girlfriend, swimsuit designer Sylvie Cachay. She was found dead in an overflowing bathtub in Soho House with bruises on her throat. There was nearly not a verdict. One juror, an associate at Sullivan & Cromwell who had first studied to be a musician instead of a lawyer, wasn’t initially in favor of conviction. “I’m so done with this,” the millennial told a tabloid reporter afterward, stomping off. Who knows! It was all too much for him.
This summer I heard a rumor about a Bushwick-living recent liberal-arts-school graduate I know. People said he’d quit his day job and was now working for a high-end drug-delivery service, performing services in that sweet spot ranging from courier to gigolo. I hope it’s true so much that I can’t even ask him.