The rich used to be a lot smarter. In hard economic times they had the sense to build their gorgeous summer palaces far away from the envious eyes of the working class.
It was an awareness that was international. You simply didn’t wear your sparkly diamond necklace while out walking through the mean streets. Instead you stayed out of view, among your own, who had diamonds of their own to worry about.
In New York in the last century that meant the mansions of the well heeled were located out on Long Island, where the fairy tale homes by the sea described in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby were an invitation only affair.
How times have changed. In the last decade the world’s super rich have decided the time is finally right to come out of the closet. And they have picked two of the world’s great cities, London and New York, to live out in the open at last.
Perhaps they were inspired in some way by the advances that gay rights made in the last 20 years. They may have watched agog as an almost universally hated minority stood up for themselves and demanded their rights. We can do that too, they must have thought.
Or maybe they were seduced by all the conspicuous consumption of shows like "Sex and the City," that HBO fairytale of New York that has inspired tens of thousands of impressionable young women to leave their homes and fly to JFK with a carry-on suitcase full of dreams.
Eventually, just like the naïve young women who discover New York isn’t full of dashing suitors waiting to sweep them off their Manolo Blahniks, the bloom will fall off the rose.
But not yet. First we have to have one of the most overheated property markets the city has ever known.
As New York’s now ancient infrastructure totters under the weight of decades of neglect, the super rich have been on a property buying and building spree that is historically unmatched in its vulgarity and scale.
It unfolds like this: first the developers buy a historic building, and then they knock it down and replace it with a glass and steel tower. The windows are a major selling point, because if you live in Manhattan you will want to see that you live in Manhattan apparently.
The higher you climb, figuratively and literally, the more you will pay. And since the majority of the world’s super-rich now live offshore for much of the year, property investment has become one of the best ways to park money.
So expect to hear many different languages at the top of these modern towers of Babel. That’s if there’s anyone actually at home. It turns out that a New York penthouse is often more of an investment than a home.
“New York is a luxury product,” said former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who set about ensuring the city would attract other billionaires like himself. We can see the legacy of the Giuliani and Bloomberg years now in the bland hellhole that is Times Square and along the millionaire’s row that has sprung up along the Hudson River.
In fact call it the Hudson Rivera now, because from 42nd Street to Christopher Street the rich have colonized it.
'So what?' you say, 'the rich are always with us.' Well yes, but not in the numbers and concentration that currently afflicts New York City.
This is not a cycle of gentrification we’re talking about. It’s a well-planned colonial takeover. It astonishes me how few people are willing to admit how the game’s been rigged.
The symbol of our era, had we the eyes to see it, is the increasingly notorious One57 condominium building located in Midtown, which, although it’s still under construction, can already be seen from the Irish strongholds of the Bronx and Queens (and space, presumably).
It’s rising like a middle finger to the egalitarian legacy of this city of hardworking immigrants, that building – and it’s the reason that 57th Street is now being called billionaires' row.
In January, One57 set a new record for the most expensive sale of a New York City apartment ever, at $100.5 million. A Chinese investor recently closed on an 88th-floor unit there for $47.3 million.
If you wonder why more and more hardworking people are being pushed further into the suburbs or away from the city forever, it’s because of white-hot property markets like this one.
Rising tides don’t lift all boats. When the super rich overheat the market the casualties are the ordinary working stiffs, who find themselves squeezed out and priced out.
In London they got wise eventually and placed a 20 percent tax on properties where the owner is not in residence, dampening the market for top tier properties as a place to park cash.
New York, under Mayor Bill de Blasio, will be slow to take a similar much needed action.
Meanwhile, we will have to watch the city skyline despoiled by these symbols of status and greed that make 80s-style excess look modest.