Wednesday, May 10, 2006


I don't have to tell anyone who has lived in New York City that it is a great place to spend a day or a life. As a boy growing up in this city in the forties and early fifties under the shadow of the elevated train on Third Avenue, I was fascinated by its diversity - not just the people - the mix of races and classes - but the old brownstone buildings, the shops; Rappaport's Toys, Greenburg's bakery, Madam Bonte's patisserie, the Hungarian hardware stores that sold the best paprika and porcelaine bread boxes, the Odyssey Bookstore, the shop on Lex that sold little painted lead Hessian soldiers, the German shops in Yorkville that sold marzipan delights at Christmas, and beyond that the O'Henry like millions - dare I use his famous description "Baghdad on the Hudson"? - when Baghdad meant Arabian Nights romance, not Bushworld misadventures. There was a rich mix of people, each with their own extraordinary tale to tell of immigration and integration, their struggle, their triumphs, and their failures. New York was a city of small villages, each with its discreet neighborhood and local vendors who knew most of their customers well. You were not alone in that city. Enough with the nostalgia.

Something has happened to my city lately that is changing all of that. And not for the good. Trust me this isn't Uncle Sherman's fuddy duddy talk. It's every New Yorker's reality. Banks - Saving Banks - Commercial Banks - Private Banks - are swallowing the city I love. There is hardly a block that has not one or two new banks on it, just open for business, promising us the best CD rate (*check the asterisk for the truth) and offering free coffee, magazines, and a gift umbrella when you open a checking account. Their blank, plate glass facades are a visual blight and a social disaster. Who can enjoy a stroll in one's neighborhood checking out CD rates? In the last years it was Starbucks that had sprung up mushroom like over the city. Before that it was the egregiously signed Duane Reade Drugstores. But the banks have been the worst offenders. Why has this invasion of finance taken place recently? It is, I suppose, because money matters more than ever in America.

In this Bush world, the merchant banker, the hedge-fund manager, and the mortgage peddler are king, and these banks are the temples in which we are all invited to worship. The banks speak to our current obsession with earning money by making nothing but money. It is the result of outsourcing, the decline of manufacture, and the loss of decent middle class wage earning jobs. And the banks by their willingness to pay exhorbitant rentals have driven out the toyshops, the newsstands, the small bookstores, the independent clothing stores, the antique shops, the artists and artisans, all of which give a city color, charm, variety, balance, and visual delight. I spoke with a banker recently, and he assured me that half of these banks will consolodate and some branches will close in a year or so - there is simply not enough money - even in New York City to support so much financial real estate. But in the meantime, they are troubling to both the visual senses and to our common sense. They don't offer me the security that my old classic Manufacturer's trust gave me. As a boy I went into that hushed greek temple and added a buck from my allowance into my passbook account until Christmas when I spent it all on gifts for my parents and my sister. The bankers knew me then and carefully stamped the new balance in my book. As a young adult I found that there was a connection between the bank tellers and the customers. That connection is long gone - except in the case of "preferred customers." I'm not asking for George Bailey to return from "It's A Wonderful Life" to some fantasy world of kindly village bankers. I just want to see fewer banks, and those I do see should have the courtesy to dress up like a proper bank in marble columns - not do their porno peep show down the avenue wearing nothing but plate glass that exposes their ugly innards. The ghost of Enron hovers over these banks - the sense that nothing of value is being sold to anybody - that there is a great trick behind it all that will soon be discovered. We will all soon learn that the Wizard in our Oz is the fake patent medicine salesman. The banks seem to have one positive social use, however. The glassed in ATM areas serve as shelters for the homeless. From tax shelters to homeless shelters in the course of a day. We have lived from George Bailey to George Bush - and the change has not been pretty.

When the late Jane Jacobs wrote her classic book to save the small buildings and human scale of the city from the mega-developers, it was not just about saving the old brownstones and other architectural treasures as buildings. She was not advocating a museum city for charming old edifices. It was about the people who lived in those buildings, the mix of humanity necessary to have a real city life.

So it is necessary to speak about the change in the people of my neighborhood. It was once (in the sixties and seventies) a place where schoolteachers, lawyers, shopkeepers, writers, artists, clerks, psychologists and city employees lived and raised their families. Now, the merchant bankers have bought the old apartments and brownstones, the soaring price of real estate has driven out the middle class, and only a few stubborn hangers on like me and my wife - unwilling to sell out for a profit and settle in a place where we have no roots - remain from that original mix of humanity. My own grown children can't afford to live in this city, and I know few young people who can - unless they pile in with roomates - using their apartments as crash pads as they make their way up the economic ladder. And what young couple, other than your hedge fund manager, can afford to raise a family in this city?

Much of this reflects upon George Bush's agenda. His America is a place where a growing economy means the rising profits and luxurious lifestyles of the very rich - and where mostly everyone else shares real fears about their ecomonic future. I suspect that what has happened to New York on a grand scale has happened all over America. We are now a nation of winners and losers, and most of us are losers by the standards of Bush & Co. America is now a vast gambling casino. Place your bet on the right school, the right job, the right life - and you win. A wrong toss of the dice and you lose. What few recognize is that Bush and Co. declared economic warfare on the middle class of America when they came to power. Their weapons were tax cuts for the rich, the erosion of the inheritance taxes, outsourcing manufacturing, all of which has placed a grievous burden on the middle class. Most of all they were able to play with the hopes of the middle class that they too could share in the great rewards that the super rich enjoyed - just by making the right moves. The appeal to greed is often a winner, and Bush has used it well. Bush's great success has been his revocation of the New Deal, his erosion of the social safety net, his breaking of the social contract between our government and its people, not only destroying the progress made under FDR but under Teddy Roosevelt - the trust buster. Bush's America is the mirror image of Soviet Communism, with its attempt to revoke the rights of the individual. Instead of giving all wealth to the state as in Communism, the transfer of wealth has gone to a few CEO's with their mega salaries, stock options, and luxury perks in this strange new capitalism that fails to reward hard work among the many and prefers to make its banks the symbol of the new America, an American that is a playground of the few.

So I find my walks down the Upper East Side of New York an unsettling reminder of what has happened to my city and to this country in the last five years. It will take a great deal of work to restore the balance in the economy in this country. It can be done. And it must be done. It's not just immoral. It's downright ugly. Just look at those blankety banks.