Sunday, September 7, 2014

Money, Celebrity and Real Estate on the Circle Line

Perhaps my memories are wrong, but the spiel of our chatty Circle Line tour guide last week on a picture-perfect tour of the entire shoreline of Manhattan Island more like something out of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” than the story of the city I heard on my cruise a dozen years ago.

A Question of Balance

The sights were great, of course but money, celebrity and real estate took center stage in the guide'scommentary. And—oh yes—I forgot to mention celebrities from both media and the world of sports.  The history of Manhattan was there, but much diminished from the last time. As we glided down the lower West Side toward the tip of the Island, passing glistening new glass, steel and stone apartment complexes it was all: “Helen Mirren has a town house in that tower, and Jon Stewart of the Daily Show over there. Derek Jeter's in that tower over there. And over there is where they filmed Serpico."

Then came the Real Estate: “The apartments in that building go for $2400 per month in the lower third, about $4500 in the middle, from $7000 up nearer the top, and that penthouse just sold for 7 million.”  These bursts of real estate financing, often melded to celebrity location reappeared regularly as a refrain in between the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge, The Revolutionary War and the advent of steam ships. Even Yankee Stadium got the "people pay over $30,000 for one of the special suites" treatment. A references to affordable housing and rent controlled apartments broke the “rich and famous” refrain, once. But the tour climaxed with “come rent or buy in New York” pitch to a boat largely filled with European tourists, most of whom probably couldn't afford such prices. 

The True Face of the City?

On the one hand, I want to rant (and am so doing) about how money seemed to suck the life out of  every other value (celebrity excepted). On the other hand, I fear that what the tour guide was spouting revealed the truer face of New York today, a great world city becoming more and more the domain of the elite of the world marketplace. Our guide, indeed, celebrated how the captains of international finance and corporate life are “buying into” this, as into other great cities. 

Viewed through this lens, the gleaming new residential towers reminded me of the grand palaces and 19th century “Turkish Victorian” mansions along the Bosphorus—homes of the Turkish and world elite, many of whom have flats in London, town houses in Paris, and penthouses New York. The middle class has been hard-pressed for decades to hold their own in this city as it divides between the fabulously rich, the merely wealthy, and the working poor. 

Seen from the water, this city is a great forest of buildings as “natural” in its own way as a beaver’s dam or a bird’s nest. But the multi-layered reality that has made New York awesome is made of so many more stands than money and celebrity, I would have hoped to hear more about its true wealth than our tour guide seemed know, care about, or think we cared about.

But such, increasingly, such is the tone of our uber-monetized culture, where all value boils down to the price of things. 


  1. I agree Bob I think it is emblematic of our times that our worth is in being rich and famous, in t

  2. In that order, we have seem to have lost the value of being part of the story