Upper East Exodus?

Park Avenue; photo by flickr user Ansual

The Upper East Side is dying, at least according to New York magazine, in the latest issue of which Jay McInerney tries to convince us that the bastion of the New York elite is heading towards extinction. If such a proclamation is meant to be anything but hubris, however, it ought at least to come with a few caveats.

The first is that the existence of New York itself is partially driven by the very blonde-wigged, fur-wearing gossip mavens of whom McInerney flags the imminent decline; the article’s appearance is akin to those on the covers of political-science tomes asking if the United States’ power will soon be eclipsed. In other words, it has the effect of precipitating panic, demanding defences, and, above all, marketing magazines which contain within the secret signs of this dangerous denouement.

That said, it is hardly surprising that this purported “death” is really the product a soporifically-composed pseudo-sociology. Its greatest fault is this: its author inhabits a small world, one which is a stronghold of the superficial. In its characteristic enchantment with surface baudles and clubby clans it deludes itself–and McInerney–into envsioning an elusively myopic, narrowminded portrait of the city’s social strata. Wherever the diaspora (or whatever the death rate) of its bold-named mainstays, not only the social characteristics of the Upper East Side but, especially, the idea of the neighborhood are stronger than ever- whether or not either are synonymous with the neighborhood’s physical constraints.

Pass over, momentarily, the storied avenues of the Upper East Side–Fifth, Madison, and Park–to that forgotten two-thirds of the neighborhood, that with its pink-clad condo towers from the Reagan years that replaced the always-awkward tenement rows that somehow managed to interpolate themselves between that final rampart of manorial apartment houses lining Park Avenue and the East River, one finds life-rite rituals not entirely divorced, save perhaps in average age, from those slightly further west- early chapters in a monotonous, monotonical Bildungsroman. Enter Normandie Court, for example, one such predecessorial-palais known throughout Manhattan for the college-lite antics of its brokerage-firm-starter-salary inhabitants. In “Dormandy Court,” as it has become known, keggers in the hallways have helped recreate the fraternal frolics of Alma Mater at the same time they serve as warehouses for the newly-lashed Masters of the Wall Street Universe. This is the proving ground for Tom Wolfe’s vanity bonfires, the mixing-pot of the dialectic between privileged excess and hoch-Weberian industriousness. In the coming years one will tame the other; as their gains mount to the astronomically absurd in the market, it will be their private lives that will take on the rote repetitive ritual of something akin to labour. This is the unconscious fantasy of the haute-bougeoisie, beyond the ascent from communitarian college life to the cult of domesticity. For the sort who dwell in the stacked virtual Versailles of regal roccoco Park Avenue pillboxes, this fantasy is to turn the residence into a place of business, or at best, of rule; in other words, to hold court.

Nevermind that the Ivy League-graduate investment bank set is merely biding their time before lapping up every scrap of Park Avenue real estate, hovering around its periphery like a hungry pack of vultures waiting to descend. Don’t bother either with the always-uncomfortable social fact that the seemingly entrenched “good families” of the city are prone to shift with each passing boom-and-bust. McInerney is evidently conscious of the fact that the Vanderbilts went the way of the Schermerhorns who sneered at their parvenu status when they dared to move into the same quartier of the growing city; it is curious he should not sense this new overclass of Wall Streeters waiting in the wings to themselves occupy this role. The inherent problem is that, locked up in his limited milieu, he is incapable of seeing a future for the Upper East Side itself; what matters is where his people move, what they occupy themselves with, and how they impact the future of other regions of the city. Viewed from such a limited lens, the Upper East Side does not rejeuvanate, regenerate, rebound or even, as one should expect, continue as it always has, albeit with different characters perhaps not patrilinearily descended from its current cast(e).


The other Upper East Side: Trash, trauma, and chain stores on Second Avenue

Nor could he, then, expect that the scores of expatriates who use the neighborhood as their New York launching pad, replete with plentitudes of piedes-a-terre, would ever stay in the city for more than a week before jet-setting up and away to Barcelona or Buenos Aires. Clearly such people are not among the crowds thronging Central Park or MoMA; their various Continental accents hardly reverberate and intermingle along Madison Avenue into that revealingly provincial yet still exceedingly pretentious Esperanto of “Nous einkaufen w Nueva Jork!” save during their short jaunts in-country. Who, one wishes to ask McInerney, do the Prada and Hermes stay open for? Why does Santiago Calatrava reside on Park Avenue when, we are told, real architecture is only permitted south of 14th Street? Why did Adam Gopnik, who has been adopted as a sort of ur-New Yorker, choose to settle near Fifth, by the Park upon his return from Paris? Could it be that mythos Upper East Side is so pervasive upon the Continent that it seemed unnatural to land anywhere else, even to the almost indistinguishably similar, comfortable confines of Prospect Park West, the mass migration to (Park Slope that is, which is definitionally expanded by the day) is one gone unseen by McInerney, whose tunnel-vision is capable of perceiving a drain from the Upper East Side but hardly that ever-more-well-chronicled one from Manhattan itself to Brooklyn? We are to concern ourselves with the social class so narrow that they (among the few taking real flight) consider only the tepid timidity of the West Village and Tribeca declassé enough to flock toward?

In the end all the pathetically delineated social distinctions, all the crazily “tribal” affiliations to which wealthy New Yorkers cling have become behaviourally irrelevant. The Upper East Side has always and continues to set the leitmotif of proper bourgeois behaviour in the city, and even if we take McInerney’s analysis to the limit and conclude that the dolts of Dormandy are not going to take up the honour of debutante ball hostings, Viennese Opera Waltzes at the Waldorf, or Metropolitan Museum memberships, even if we are to believe that its grand dame apartment houses are doomed to some apocalyptic destiny of abandonment or, worse, of arson and runamok cracklordism, of those barbarian invasions of the “they” that have always lurked uneasily directly above the Hadrian’s Wall of 96th Street, those fearing the loss of the legacy of New York’s “American aristocratic” bastion need have no fear. That fusion of leisure and locomotion that made the palatial pads of Park into palaces true, into the neverending place of business for Manhattan’s ruling classes lives on anew in the apex of bourgeois-bohemian intermingling, the atelier. And in the studio, in the gallery, in the loft party to celebrate a book launch or a film screening, those spacious warehouse walls with which to bring the masterpieces of the Met downtown so one does not have to make the tiresome traipse to its blustery beaux-arts behemoth, in, above all, the spectre of networking, one finds this spirit.

The spirit of the socialite is one in which work and play are never distinguishable, whatever the attempts at sprezzatura, which have become so de-rigeur in the highly competitive world of the meritocratic marketplace in any case. The only real sense in which the Upper East Side has declined has been in its inability to any longer distinguish itself from anywhere else; it has been too successful in its evangelisation and colonisation of the rest of the city, and it is only the superficial adaptations necessary for this expansion that are now feeding back on itself.

This entry was written by Christopher Szabla , posted on Saturday November 18 2006at 06:11 pm , filed under Demographics, Society and Culture, United States and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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