Tuesday, January 20, 2009
When the act Moves On
THIS week, the eyes of the world will be on Washington as perhaps two million people descend to bask in the Obama glow. City officials expect more than 10,000 tour buses to roll into the area. Hotels 150 miles away have been booked for months. Even campsites are booked.
Washington suddenly has the stars — Halle Berry, Steven Spielberg, Jamie Foxx — who are coming to rub elbows with the biggest star of all.
But it also has control of the money: cowed and battle-scarred Wall Streeters are now at the mercy of the federal government, whose cash infusions are keeping their storied institutions afloat. The new administration in Washington has lured some of New York’s best and brightest, including Hillary Rodham Clinton, formerly the state’s biggest political star; and Timothy Geithner, once of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, who is on the verge of being assigned to save the entire economy.
The sudden downturn has affected the very industries that give New York its identity — finance, media, advertising, real estate, even tourism — with extreme prejudice.
The result is that some New Yorkers feel that the city is losing, along with many jobs, its swagger and its sense of pre-eminence, which is no small matter in a town where many feel like it takes an outsize swagger to survive.
Dan Geiger, a journalist for a real estate trade publication, said he left a meeting on Sixth Avenue and 55th Street at 10 a.m., on a recent Tuesday and was alarmed to find the customary Midtown bustle absent. “The place was deserted, I mean dead,” he recalled. “I’ve never seen Sixth like that at that time of day before. It had a strange feeling to it, like a holiday almost.”
The swift reversal of fortune feels even more painful for having come on the heels of one of the most colorful epochs in the city’s history, marked by a skyrocketing economy and an expanding global profile, by championship sports teams and hit television shows that sold the world a vision of life in New York as the Emerald City.
Meanwhile, some other cities around the country — cities that never made any claim to being the capital of the world — can find at least some cause for solace in the current climate. Los Angeles keeps spinning out hits (“Gran Torino,” “Bride Wars”), proving that some kinds of entertainment really do seem recession-proof. In New York, meanwhile, nine Broadway shows closed on a single day this month.
While the New York region’s unemployment has climbed to 5.6 percent as of October, from 4.8 percent the previous year, the metropolitan areas of Seattle, Houston, Washington and Dallas actually saw net gains in employment over the last year.
No less a New Yorker than Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg conceded a loss of verve last week when he said the city was “shaken” (but “not broken”) as he put forward an ambitious jobs-creation plan.
Even Portland, Ore., seems to have borrowed New York’s smugness. Recently, one civic group’s television spot was picked up and circulated as a YouTube video portraying blissful bicyclists pedaling past tree-lined streets and frame houses behind a graphic reading, “Is Portland the most European city, or is Europe the most Portlandian continent?”
Isn’t that supposed to be New York’s line?
“It feels as if a layer has been peeled back on New York,” Haley M. Rubin, 23, an advertising assistant account executive in Manhattan, said in an e-mail message. “When I’m out in bars and restaurants, there is a sheen that is missing. Not to say New York isn’t still exciting and fun, but it feels a little grittier; there is a sense that the thrill of paying $20 for a cocktail is over. I find that my friends are still going out and want to have fun but their tolerance for the ‘price of exclusivity’ has waned.”
One possible reason it feels like a mood has been lost is something called “emotional contagion.”
A few years back, when everyone seemed flush, even those who never received a seven-figure bonus enjoyed the ride because success is infectious, said Michael R. Cunningham, a psychologist and a professor at the University of Louisville. That’s what psychologists call “emotional contagion” — someone else’s optimism becomes yours, if they stand close enough.
“People are influenced by the mood of the time in which they live,” Dr. Cunningham said. The problem is, emotional contagion also works the other way.
In other words, a friend of yours gets laid off and you bask in his ambient bummer.
Todd Rosenberg, an animator who lives in Brooklyn, said that he finds himself sharing in the psychic pain of the city when neighborhood businesses go into their death throes. In recent months, he recalled, one local bar attempted desperately to transform itself from velvet-upholstered Asian cocktail lounge to a rugged, taxidermy-filled hunting lodge to a gay bar, all to no avail. It closed soon after. A local bakery that seemed to specialize in stale pastries met a similar fate, he said. As of yet, no one has moved into either space.
“Now they’re just sitting there empty, so I’m actually missing the stale baked goods,” said Mr. Rosenberg, 39.
The overall result, he added, is a city that feels like it is “definitely shedding whatever New York was a few years ago.”
Also being shed are some of those colorful and slightly absurd microindustries — de-cluttering consultants, aroma therapy for pets — that sprouted in recent years by catering to the well-heeled, said Caitlin Zaloom, an assistant professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University who studied the culture of the Wall Street boom.
All those high-end services are a sign of financial froth,” Dr. Zaloom said, and are also the first thing to go when times get tough. The city, she added, loses a degree of its boomtown air of specialness, its grandiosity.
Massive development projects like Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards, with its planned Frank Gehry-designed sports arena and 60-story skyscraper, appear stalled. There’s no sign the New Jersey Nets will be moving to the borough any time soon.
“I think the city that never sleeps definitely needs a nap,” Michael J. Petruzzello, a prominent Washington public relations consultant, said in an e-mail message. “Washington, not Wall Street, is where all the action is right now. We have the money, power and the celebrities. We own all of the banks and financial giants. The Obamas are the hottest power couple on the planet.”
Can a city be considered “over,” like Pete Doherty? Unless the city in question is Ephesus, the Ionian metropolis that was sacked by Goths in third century A.D.; or La Corona, the lost Mayan city in what is now Guatemala; or possibly Detroit, cities don’t stop being cities. Even Pompeii, buried for centuries under ash and pumice, still attracts its hordes (albeit, to pick through the bones).
Ray Cha, 35, a trend consultant who lives in Manhattan, said, “New Yorkers love to complain,” and one of the things they “most love to complain about is that the city isn’t as good as it used to be. When the city is flush with Wall Street cash or dot-com I.P.O.’s, people complain about $20 cocktails or $300 bottle service.”
In fact, some New Yorkers feared their city was past its peak in the early ’90s recession. And in the bankrupt ’70s. And as long ago as the late 19th century, when New York felt compelled to annex Brooklyn in part to keep pace with its booming rival, Chicago, which at the time was enjoying the attention of the world as the site of the 1893 World’s Fair, said Mike Wallace, an author of “Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898.”
Indeed, in a city with a considerable taste for overstatement, residents have perennially declared it past its prime. “New York is over — O-V-E-R,” sneered Lexi Featherston, the party-girl character from “Sex and the City,” in an episode from Season 6, simply because some health-conscious partygoers forced her to aim her cigarette smoke out an open window (which she later fell from). The episode was broadcast in February 2004, a year when Manhattan residential real estate values gained 14 percent and Wall Street paid nearly $15.9 billion in bonuses.
Also that year, Thomas Keller opened Per Se, with its $270, nine-course tasting menu (with wine pairings), in the towering new Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle — where one apartment had sold for a then-record $45 million.
A phone call to Per Se for a reservation earlier this week revealed an opening for two that same night, and another one the next night.
To some, New York’s cyclical sense of having lost its swagger even serves as muse. Joan Didion famously declared New York, at least her New York, over in the essay “Goodbye to All That,” which was published when she was 32.
“The last time I was in New York was in a cold January, and everyone was ill and tired,” she wrote. “Many of the people I used to know there had moved to Dallas or had gone on Antabuse or had bought a farm in New Hampshire. We stayed 10 days, and then we took an afternoon flight back to Los Angeles.”
That was 1967. She didn’t stay in Los Angeles. At press time, Ms. Didion was still living in a red-brick prewar building on East 71st Street.