Forget Fahrenheit! We Have Our Own Measurement

Heat is hot . Nationally, we fret about global warming, the melting of the North Pole, the Con Ed power grid. The Industrial Age made this country modern, wealthy and powerful. It made us hot, both figuratively and literally. It created the idea of heat as a … good thing.

If anybody knows this, New Yorkers do. We live in a crucible of kineticism, electrical current and human fervor. Our ambitions and desires give off a blue-white glow. Long before the rest of the nation had a clue, we were heat seekers. The density of this metropolis, our inevitable proximity to the flushed cheeks and flop sweat of the human condition, has made us extremely sensitive to heat: the oppressive kind that floods the subway in August; the ethereal stuff that makes a man or woman in this town shine like the Chrysler Building on a crisp October night.

The latter kind of heat represents more than just power. It’s power magnified or diminished by social, political or cultural perception. And those perceptions inevitably change over time. It is possible to be very powerful and very cold–just ask CNN founder and AOL-Time Warner vice chairman Ted Turner. Just a few years ago, Mr. Turner was married to actress Jane Fonda, driving the TV news business with a new product and raising hell in the house that Henry Luce built. As one of the largest shareholders of AOL-Time Warner, Mr. Turner certainly is as powerful as most world leaders–but in terms of heat, he’s Mr. Freeze.

That is how we New Yorkers see the world–as if through night-vision goggles. Noting and predicting thermal changes in the city’s power elite is our spectator sport. We knew that Gwyneth Paltrow was hot before the rest of the world, and we insisted that she had become cold–who knows if she has?–even before she stopped staring out at us from half the magazine covers at the local newsstand. Sometimes it takes events–ask Rick Lazio; sometimes the heat (or the chill) is as mysterious as a warm breeze up the sidewalk grate. And it doesn’t take much to send the mercury down–or back up. All you need is history and the right kind of energy. Don’t ask us for the formula; we just read the meters.

Indeed, it’s a hot moment for thermal reading. The world may seem to have been reduced to a uniformly cold combination of ones and zeroes, but the digital revolution has been one of the catalysts that has irrevocably shifted our perceptions of power. It doesn’t matter that the Internet business is on its butt–in the last few years, we’ve been through a revolution. The city has been gutted and rehabbed and built to its edges in a renaissance that is nothing short of astounding.

In some cases, these changes have left us feeling adrift as we struggle to make ourselves vital and whole in a city and economy that resists interpretation. One minute we were Internet millionaires; now we’re looking at their abruptly vacated Soho office space. Hot now? No.

With this in mind, The Observer sent its staff into the city to chart the thermal highs and lows of New York’s vital subcultures. We took the temperature of its real estate moguls, its media barons, its filmmakers, its artists and gallery owners, its chefs, its neighborhoods and, of course, its politicians. We converted the reporting into thermal maps. As maps, they are as transitory as the reading on the bank thermometer down the block or the number on the bottom of the screen on New York 1. We have taken the city’s temperature, and it’s healthy and hot. Even the cold guys on our map are hot. The trouble is, they’re living in the one place on earth where 98.6 is a failing grade.

The list of who’s hot who’s and who’s not-and a dozen color maps-is available exclusively in the print version of The New York Observer .