The Urban Crisis of Affluence

Skyscrapers
Photo by Tim Clayton / Corbis via Getty Images

After three decades living in and around New York City, I, too, am leaving to make way for the only people the city is still welcoming: billionaires who don’t live here.

In Harper’s Magazine, Kevin Baker writes at length in “The Death of a Once Great City” about how the few who can afford to build and buy in New York don’t want to live here, either. In one affluent twenty-block corridor, “almost one apartment in three sits empty for at least ten months a year.” A couple of neighborhoods south, developers at an eighty-three-unit luxury condo were recently offering “to throw in two studio apartments and two parking spots for any buyer willing to shell out $48 million for the building’s 7,000-square foot penthouse.” That’s five empty things for the price of one empty thing, in case you’d like to park dozens of millions of dollars in an investment property that’s big enough to fit dozens of homeless families.

Drawing from Michael Greenberg’s incisive piece on the city’s housing emergency last summer in The New York Review of Books, Baker connects the dots between empty penthouses and empty storefronts, decrying how “all that our urban leaders, in New York and elsewhere, Democratic as well as Republican, have been able to come up with is one scheme after another to invite the rich in.”

As New York enters the third decade of the twenty-first century, it is in imminent danger of becoming something it has never been before: unremarkable. It is approaching a state where it is no longer a significant cultural entity but the world’s largest gated community, with a few cupcake shops here and there.

The new rich infesting the city are barely here. They keep a low profile, often for good reason, and rarely stick around. They manufacture nothing and run nothing, for the most part, but live off fortunes either made by or purloined from other people—sometimes from entire nations. The New Yorker noted in 2016 that there is now a huge swath of Midtown Manhattan, from Fifth Avenue to Park Avenue, from 49th Street to 70th Street, where almost one apartment in three sits empty for at least ten months a year. New York today is not at home. Instead, it has joined London and Hong Kong as one of the most desirable cities in the world for “land banking,” where wealthy individuals from all over the planet scoop up prime real estate to hold as an investment, a pied-à-terre, a bolt-hole, a strongbox.

A triplex at the forthcoming 220 Central Park South will reportedly be sold for $200 million, and a four-story apartment at the same address is priced to move at $250 million. These would be the largest home sales ever recorded anywhere in the United States.

Who spends this sort of money for an apartment? The buyers are listed as hedge fund managers, foreign and domestic; Russian oligarchs; Chinese apparel and airline magnates. And increasingly, to use a repeated Times term, a “mystery buyer,” often shielded by a limited liability company.

This is not the benevolent “gentrification” that Michael Bloomberg seemed to have had in mind but something more in the tradition of the king’s hunting preserves, from which local peasants were banned even if they were starving and the king was far away.

There are now so many of the supertalls gathered so closely together that they threaten to leave the lower sections of Central Park, the only true architectural marvel to be seen here, in shadow for much of the year. One simulation found that the shadows of the highest towers may knife a mile into the park on the winter solstice.

When the journalist Warren St. John protested against these towers that block the sun and literally leave children shivering in the park, he pointed out that the highest supertall apartments—when they are occupied at all—house maybe a few hundred people, as opposed to the 40 million individuals who use Central Park every year. But this seems to be the calculation on which New York now operates.

Even for those who can afford the new New York, it is unclear how much they actually like it or maintain any ability to shape it to their tastes. What is the point, after all, of paying a fortune to live in a city that is more and more like everywhere else?

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