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Posted October 14, 2007
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The Measures of Wealth

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Illustration by Hart



New Yorkers often have trouble explaining, to themselves and others, why they submit to the extortionate demands of their hometown. When they visit one of those normally priced “quality of life” capitals — say, Portland, whether the one in Maine or in Oregon — they’re moved to wonder why they’re paying as much for their 1,000-square-foot apartment as their friend pays for his 4,000-square-foot house with a backyard big enough for flag football. In fact, slightly less than half of New Yorkers, according to a poll commissioned by the New York Times Magazine, believe that the city is not “worth what it costs.” They wouldn’t actually move, of course; that’s unthinkable. But living here in the center of the universe exacts a terrible tribute, not only in dollars but in anxiety and envy — not so much of our suburban or country cousins as of the lucky few who glide above us on the sweet breezes of wealth.

How can we not feel ambivalent about the rich — envious, but grateful as well? Whatever it is that keeps us from moving to one of the Portlands, or even really wanting to, has been made possible by the tidal wave of lucre rolling through New York. Thanks in no small part to the tax dollars and private beneficences of all those underage barons of Wall Street, New York is cleaner and safer, more pleasing to the eye and the nose, busier and more fun, than it was in its doldrums 30 years ago. (New Yorkers prefer today’s city to that of the 1970s by 57 to 31 percent.) After a generation of schmoes in bad suits, we even elected just about the richest guy in town as our mayor, and we think he’s done a great job. (Fifty-one percent say it’s “a good thing,” and only 22 percent “a bad thing,” that New York has a billionaire mayor.)

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The way New Yorkers feel about the rich, and the impact of wealth on city life, obviously has a good deal to do with whether they feel like winners or losers in the city’s Darwinian competition. Black residents do not think New York life is worth what it costs, do not prefer today’s city to that of a generation ago and about 40 percent of them believe that the city would be a better place “if there were fewer wealthy people living here,” while less than 30 percent think it would be a worse place. Whites generally disagree. The well-to-do of all races are the most satisfied of all: Among those earning more than $200,000, only 18 percent would like to see fewer rich people around. But attitudes also have a great deal to do with proximity. Very wealthy New Yorkers are concentrated in just a few ZIP codes of Manhattan (and one or two of Brooklyn). Fully a third of respondents in the outer boroughs, where the masters of the universe are as remote a species as Iowans, believe that you can be rich on $200,000 a year or less. In Manhattan, by contrast, 40 percent of respondents chose a category north of $500,000, which is more like what the rich themselves would say.

As a general rule, New Yorkers, like most Americans, do not resent the rich, but rather aspire to their station; only 6 percent said that “seeing other people with money” makes them feel poor. That answer was most popular (still only 10 percent, to be sure) among a counterintuitive category — people who earn $200,000 or more. But this is again a matter of proximity: To earn $200,000 in New York’s most rarefied precincts is to be made aware on a daily basis how modest is your place on the city’s socioeconomic ladder.

This raises what I believe to be a new phenomenon in New York, and no doubt elsewhere: the merely well-to-do’s envy of the rich. Why should this be so? First of all, the rich have become richer than they used to be, rocketing off into their own stratosphere of private jets and private islands. At the same time, the classic prerequisites of upper-middle-class New York life — two-bedroom apartment, private school, nanny — are vastly more expensive, both in relative and absolute terms, than a generation or two ago. Of course, almost all New Yorkers (save the rich) feel overwhelmed by the cost of housing, which is why 65 percent say they pay too much for it. And working-class New Yorkers, who spend a higher fraction of their income on housing than do well-off ones, will not have much sympathy for college professors or journalists who can not afford the life once accessible to their parents (though, oddly, 27 percent of respondents said that private schools were the most overpriced commodity after housing — perhaps a sign of sympathy for the small fraction that opts out of the public schools).

Until quite recently, very rich people had their money as of right, by virtue of their birth into a self-enclosed and self-regarding class. The wall between classes was almost impermeable: You could not get into the WASPs’ clubs, nor live in their Park Avenue buildings. Now, by contrast, the superrich rise from among the ranks of the well-to-do. It’s the dad in your kid’s class who “does deals.” But it’s the new culture of display that ultimately gets the well-to-do goat. The old rich may have lived in 21-room apartments, but they drove dinged-up cars, dressed modestly, ate indifferently. When Deal-Maker Dad has the class parents over for a party, his private chef makes exquisite timbales. And his kid tells your kid that they have box seats for all the Yankees’ playoff games.

America is full of places where the earthbound need not grind their teeth in envy. I’m guessing that in Portland — either one — they don’t hire Rod Stewart to sing at birthday parties. Even the rich people may fly commercial. And yet they still have a progressive arts scene, excellent ethnic restaurants, a lively downtown, good schools. My family would be able to afford there what we could never afford here. But we’re not going anywhere. We stand with the 51 percent who think New York is worth what it costs; I’m just not sure why.

James Traub is a contributing writer for the magazine.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times Magazine of Sunday, October 14, 2007.

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