Curtain Raiser

New York’s New Buccaneers, Colltalers

As headlines top even the goriest fiction, slapping us with the most blood-soaked, brutality-infused news, it’d be an outrage to speak about first world problems, or as it goes, New York real estate for that matter. But that’s exactly what we’re about to do.
Talk about the city is fitting, though: it became New York 351 years ago today, when the British retook it from its founders, the Dutch. Even before that, it’d never lost its international vocation, and appeal to foreigners, from the poorest to the wealthiest of them all.
But unlike the traders, the religious refugees, pirates and adventurers, and the successive waves of immigrants who’ve built it into the colossus that it is today, there’s a fairly distinct class of spoilers taking over New York this time around: global mega-billionaire crooks.
Needing to laundry their ill-earned money, they’re gobbling the city’s skyline by the blockfull, since it’s cheaper to pay its wealth-friendly property taxes, and earn archaic taxpayer incentives to build, than to withstand trial and risk losing it all in their own countries.
There’s a point in walking this rotten-tomato fire line, of discussing wealth and the spending habits of the fabulously criminal, while so many are being driven to frozen parks and street corners, or to the few unsanitary and unsafe city shelters, just to survive the night.
New York has a way of being hit first, and lately, what bad has happened to it, has spread out quickly to the rest of the country.
In fact, one of the unsung unfairness of Sept. 11 is that it hurt the one U.S. city that’s always been the most open and welcoming to ideological diversity, since Giovanni da Verrazzano and Henry Hudson landed on its shores in the 1600s. Again, it sounds flippant to accuse mass murderer Osama Bin Laden of having the discourtesy of not reading first the memo about the city before attacking it.
And it’s really besides the point that the nouveau riche taking over the city’s landmark buildings, and constructing some pretty ugly ones of their own too, also display complete disregard about the libertarian, labor and human rights traditions espoused by New York.
Apart from that, there’s always the old moaning cliche about ‘salvage capitalism’ killing its cultural idiosyncrasies and originality. For centuries, New York has been in a permanent construction lot, neighborhood-altering state, and that won’t probably change.
Speaking of culture, the city may have already lost its supposed leadership role to others, but even that concept is questionable. There was once a billionaire mayor who thought that to boost the city’s cultural and artistic prominence in the world all that needed to be done was to support its museums and established cultural institutions, traditional theaters and even some well known vanguard groups.
It doesn’t work, of course. Whereas cities such as Addis Abeba or Dubai can invest billions in top notch cultural houses, and galleries, and
world class schools, none can be compared with New York’s unmatched street life, the vitality that inhabits its subways, and immigrant and ethnic corners, which is behind it’s inspiring unpredictability. That can’t be recreated, no matter how much money one throws at it.
So, in that way, yes, an unscrupulous luxury real estate market, catering to Russian oligarchs, and relatives of China’s ruling elite, and corrupt Greek industrialists, and the current assortment of powerful mega-baddies from Malaysia to Mexico, from Colombia to Kazakhstan, does have the potential to kill what spontaneity is left, what sense of wonder can still be found in the city by the Hudson river.
This small parcel of the world’s top 0.1%, by the way, is not being selectively chosen for their nationality, as their gumption brings none of their cultural upbringing and heritage, and a lot of what’s long well known to Americans of a certain income bracket: an undying love for the dollar and its ability to melt moral compasses across the political and economic spectrum, including many a New York bureaucrat too.
Curiously, recent stories on the inflow of foreign capital dominating the city’s real estate, from investors that hide their identity under shell corporations – which is no wonder, since most of them are suspected to belong to organized crime or made a killing wrecking impoverished nations – have carefully avoided the term ‘laundry money.’ But since there’s no other way to put it, we don’t have to.
To add insult to injury, the city’s real estate laws may be tough for the unwashed low-income crowd, but exceedingly generous to the ultra-rich. Thus, one of them, ‘a mysterious buyer,’ was able to receive a full 95% tax cut to buy the $100 million penthouse at the city’s now tallest building, an ugly glass and concrete tower in midtown, an expense that will be naturally footed by stiff taxpayers.
While these ghastly condos continue to rise up, long time residents and peculiar, unique storefronts, that used to distinguish the city, along with fire escape ladders of tenement buildings and water tanks atop Lower Manhattan, are being evicted at record rates. Things change all the time, but in the past decade, an unusual high number of watering holes, some opened since the great war, have gone out of business.
For those at the top, the disappearance of drunken spots, of bohemian groups and guerrilla art organizations, of non-sponsored buskers and graffiti artists, doesn’t register. In fact, a vanishing free-thinking culture of Greenwich Village, or the demise of the Nuyorican movement, the gentrification of Loisaida and Alphabet City, or the increasingly irrelevance of a countercultural attitude, may be to their liking.
But while they hire and co-opt movie or pop stars to entertain their privileged kids’ birthday parties, we mourn a place that used to champion the right to be unusual, offensively smelly, and still democratic, open ended and ahead of its time. A place where conservatism never took hold, unlike every single exotic and outrageous idea about humankind to infuse and inspire the world in the past few centuries.
But just as the Dutch soon realized that they couldn’t control it, and the British were unable to turn it into another Boston, tidy and respectful, and many Americas are still weary of its unruly reputation, perhaps there’s still some of the wild, unrestrained spirit left, after all this time.
Thus, even these arrogant, obscenely wealthy buccaneers may be out of depth in New York. In the end, those unwashed and smelly crowds will save the day. From atop our fish crate, we salute this great city, the only place we’d ever choose to be reborn. Have a peaceful week. WC


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