As soon as it can get the technical hiccups out of its system, the New York Stock Exchange will commence after-hours trading next year. It is but a matter of time before the stock market will, like Las Vegas, be taking bets around the clock. Then day will be night and night will be day in the city that never sleeps, and the customers, confused, greedy, but always feeling lucky, will play on.
As it is, under trading hours now in force, New York is on its way to becoming a kind of gigantic Indian reservation, a vast casino upon which countless people, who would otherwise have no source of income, depend for their sustenance. Wall Street gaming sets the tone and content for the city’s life just as there is no getting away from the green-felt tables and the slots if you’re in Las Vegas or Atlantic City. As Wall Street has moved from being part of the city economy to being the city’s economy, the importance of everything else has shrunk. Fifty years ago, New York was the largest manufacturing center in the United States with a million factory jobs. There are now barely 300,000 such jobs.
You may chalk up the changes to the service economy or atrophy at the top, but there are services and there are other services. Airlines and fast food are services. But fast money is faster than fast food. Granted, getting money invested in the right places and getting it disinvested from the wrong places is a useful and necessary service, but what’s going on here is closer to the entertainment industry than it is to serious finance. What they’re doing on Wall Street doesn’t resemble investment so much as it does chemin de fer.
The Bay Area has Silicon Valley; New York has Silicon Alley. Alley, valley, valley, alley. From valleys, you can see high prospects; in alleys, you see ashcans. New York has missed out on being the center or even an important secondary center of any of the new industries of the last half-century. Electronics, biotech, medtech, the Internet came to life and greatness elsewhere. Wall Street and its greasy handmaidens, the lawyers, the public relations illusionists and the rest of the sleight-of-hand occupations, have taken up the space vacated by departing enterprises and the enterprises that never came to lodge themselves here. The money game is the only game.
In the end, of course, the only winners are croupiers, who don’t really earn a living as much as they steal one. The city is full of suddenly rich croupiers, people you might once have said have money to burn, but they are too much without joy for that expression. Instead, let’s just say that the city is full of people with money to spend in their dull, though lavish, ways. Their riches are devoted to a pedestrian excess that doesn’t shock the conscience so much as it discourages the better spirits that occasionally touch our species.
The city has the grim atmosphere of the casino-people feeding coins into slots, maxillary joints clamped and bulging. The molecules in our air are tight and hard and jammed together, not like the bubbles of the 1920′s, the happy, splurge decade of the 20th century. We’re richer, so much richer, so incomparably richer now than they were but ours isn’t “the greatest, gaudiest spree in history.” That moment still belongs to Gatsby. The difference is the difference between Jimmy Walker and Rudy Giuliani, between the Tin Pan Alley songwriter made the Jazz Age Mayor (1926-1932) by the Sachems of Tammany Hall and the hard-mouthed prosecutor made Mayor by a metropolis of people looking for a nice little deal or a cute little angle.
New York is a city of 80,000 multimillionaires and 8 million body servants, retainers, personal trainers, personal pilots, personal chefs, personal security guys, personal flatterers, personal shoppers and personal closet organizers. Hello to you, New York, city of busboys, headwaiters, consultants, coat holders, panders and maître d’s. City of doormen, tour guides, pickpockets, corporate yeggs and investment bankers. City of bowers, city of scrapers.
In terms of human ecology, New York today is what pre-Castro Havana must have been like 50 years ago. At the top limo-ing back and forth from their helicopter pads are those 80,000; another 80,000 younger multimillionaires-in-waiting are standing around in their cigar shops and sharing summer rentals in the Hamptons. There being no other way of making a living, the rest of the population provides those 160,000 with body care and comfort. The boys grow up to be waiters and their sisters prostitutes. As it must have been once in old Havana, you can’t tell the business people from the gangsters, the crooked lawyers, the gamblers and the swindlers, which sounds exciting, but New York’s colorful characters have been drained of their polychrome. The place is sick with money, but the condition doesn’t produce anything much. Nothing shocking, nothing millennial, nothing awful, either.
Not that New York is teetering on anything revolutionary as Havana was. Though the standard of living in this city is markedly lower and life markedly less pleasant than elsewhere in the United States, there’s money enough and more to go around. Havana just before it fell to Castro may have been seething. New York isn’t. Nothing is crowding the edges of the stage here waiting to get on.
There wasn’t much of public life in semi-colonial Havana. There is hardly any public life in democratic New York. Public discourse is dominated by the likes of Christine Quinn, whose enemies are accusing the trash-talking lesbian City Council member of being a closet hetero. Who’s a hetero, who’s a homo? That’s New York’s public life-squabbles about the nature of what politicians do with whom; squabbles, it should be added, that few pay attention to in a place where the focus on making and spending money crowds out any larger interests and grander concerns.
In the noon of their prosperity, Athens, Rome, Paris, Madrid, London and Venice put some of the wealth to great public use. Not New York, not now. New York in the 1920′s put some of the money to good purpose. Under the administration of Beau James, as Jimmy Walker was often called, the Sanitation Department was organized, the hospital system reformed, work on the Triborough Bridge, the Queens-Midtown Tunnel, the West Side Highway and the Eighth and Sixth Avenue subway was conceived and begun.
Crotch politics aside, New York has little to show for its prosperity save having crawled back in its crime statistics to the levels of 30 years ago. With a little more luck, we can progress back to 1900. What an odd thing to say of New York of all places, but it is a city without ambition, without a dream.
Follow Nicholas von Hoffman via RSS.