Getting Back to Normal Shouldn’t Include Old Deals

It’ll never be the same again. The phrase is repeated by people who want to build it back just like it was. The “it” in question is not defined with any precision, and may include everything from rebuilding the two vanished, depressing, oblong sentries that, until September, ominously defined the lower Manhattan skyline, to the restoration of our proud confidence that Americans cannot come in harm’s way, to more of the old richer-than-thou style of living. There have even been laments about a lost innocence, but we hear that kind of wailing every time something very bad happens. How often can innocence be lost?

Never the same again goes the cry of regret. But why? And why should we want it to be the same? I am not, of course, speaking of the lives lost, yet the crime of Sept. 11 does not obviate the truth of the World Trade Center towers: They were a couple of ugly and ill-proportioned buildings of egotistical dimension and heartlessness. They had nothing noteworthy about them but gross altitude. It was by height alone that they drew attention away from the graceful Empire State Building, that old, fine-lined, Art Deco candlestick in the sky. The Empire State is a building worthy to be a symbol of a city, but the W.T.C. towers were two blunt, aluminum-clad hippo teeth stuck up in the air, symbolic of little more than the crassness and philargyry for which New York is known. They were Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s “Fuck you, everybody, I’m more powerful than you are-my balls are bigger and my dick swings a larger arc than yours.”

The towers were designed by Minoru Yamasaki (1912-1986), an architect beloved by the members of the children of might, perhaps because his specialty was massive buildings that diminish the spirit, for the same reasons the Pyramids can make a person shiver. A coincidence, no doubt, but the towers were actually the second Yamasaki development to be demolished; the first was the Pruitt-Igoe public-housing project in St. Louis, put up in the early 1950′s and torn down by the government in 1972 as too awful even for welfare recipients.

The towers owed their existence to the two Rockefeller brothers: David, then the chairman of Chase National Bank, and Nelson, then the governor of the Empire State. They liked to run things, give the orders, lay out the grand plan for the rest of us. David Rockefeller never made a dime in his life. There was little left in the gene pool when it came to ladling out business talent to this grandson of the great John D. Rockefeller. He all but ruined his bank, while spending most of his overpraised business career using the family name and money to promote a series of projects here, there and everywhere, noteworthy more for their Pharoanic pretension than their profitability. David yearned for a forest of new skyscrapers at the bottom of Manhattan to complement his Chase National building-and thanks to his bro, the gov, he got them.

The wisecrack they used to utter about Nelson, a native-born American Pharaoh himself, was that it was his edifice complex which drove him to so many trashy buildings. No private developer would have put up the twin towers; they cost too much. Only the government had the kind of creditworthiness to borrow what was needed to build a development which could not have paid for itself if it had been a private-sector deal. The World Trade Center was expensive because buildings of 30 floors plus are sui generis expensive: The operating costs of such complexes are horrendous, and the vast numbers using the area for only eight hours a day require a gigantic capital investment in utilities, etc., that sit idle two-thirds of the time. Dinosaurs, at first a triumph of evolutionary survival, are thought to have become extinct when they could no longer sustain themselves in a changed environment-as contrasted to megalithic skyscrapers, which are dinosaurs from the moment their foundations are dug. They cost too much; they don’t earn it back.

New York has made a specialty of hiding the true costs of these monster pieces of design by transferring a significant amount of the cost over to municipal government in the form of tax abatements and other gifts. That makes the costs go away for the developers, but it doesn’t make the costs go away. It just changes how the costs are met. They do have to be met, and they play a substantial part in making New York a high-cost city. Gotham’s just like Russia used to be. The Communists, like today’s New Yorkers, couldn’t get it through their doctrinaire heads that uneconomic, high-cost facilities will have to be paid for one way or another. You can fool everybody but the accountant.

The criminals who destroyed the World Trade Center may have chosen it, as we are told, as a symbol of free-market capitalism, and that’s what it may have been, but it was the product of non-free-market capitalism. A free market would not have put the damn thing up in the first place.

The system of subsidies of which the W.T.C. is an exemplar is reflected in the punishment anyone living or doing business in New York suffers in high taxes and fees. The city is famous for stupendous costs. Be it in higher rents or higher taxes, the cost of doing business in New York dictates the nature of the business activities which locate here. It repels all but industries making extortionate profits, and that is, of course, the securities industry and its pilot fish, the law, consulting and accounting industries. This, and not Seattle, is the city of silly, sassy, cocksure, not-yet-dry-behind-the-ears millionaires who’ve made their money by attaching themselves to financial institutions able to extract incommensurate profits for controlling investment flows.

They have driven up the cost of everything else in New York. Glutted with so much money, the brokers and their flumes of gorgeously compensated retainers crowd out other kinds of people and activities. To cancel the consequences, the masters of New York have had to resort to price controls or their own employees would be forced out of the city. Naturlich , the price-control system has been corrupted to work to the benefit of higher-income persons who don’t need it and shouldn’t have it, and whose use of it displaces the impecunious people with little money but many fresh ideas. Thus, many of the city’s most valuable people can’t live in it. Have you noticed, in the obituaries of the firefighters who died on Sept. 11, how many did not live in the city? In their place is a secondary culture of servants, menials, headwaiters, maids, nannies, yes-persons, go-betweens, procurers and fixers.

In the very ventricles of the free market we have, with its subsidies and price-control mechanisms, a command economy in real estate, and if it has not brought forth a Soviet-style miasma, it has all but killed off the capitalist enterprise and entrepreneurial activity the top-echelon jokers at the NYSE make speeches about. New York is almost as inhospitable to new endeavors as Kabul, because you have to be out of your mind to start a new business here, given the costs. With each passing decade, the city moves closer to practicing economic monoculture, depleting the soil by planting only one crop instead of practicing crop rotation, and never allowing the land to lie fallow.

New Yorkers know how the inventive and creative people have moved from low-rent neighborhood to low-rent neighborhood, making silk purses out of sows’ ears, turning slums and moldering industrial districts into the livable, the useful and the delightful-and always the rent refugees are pursued by the stockbrokers, the society trash, the rich refuse of finance and investment. Over the years, creative people have been all but run out of the city, as New York has become not the center of art but merely a world art mart. The Broadway hits of this era are East Coast road productions of Las Vegas casino shows.

Gotham buzz is not the electricity of creation, but the squeaks and shrieks of street hawkers trying to get the customers’ attention. Edge in New York has become the most recent display of excreta applied by a palette knife on a venerated image, or the newest ad for unmentionables or mentionables on the bus kiosks depicting good-looking laddie bucks pretending to do the naughty with their tongues. The city’s buzz is the castrated twitterings of the sterile and impotent.

Some companies displaced by the World Trade Center crime are playing with the idea of leaving New York permanently for New Jersey or other climes. Any meaningful diminution in the concentration of brokers and traders in the city might reconstitute the city economically and culturally-and to do it, little more is needed than to stop subsidizing commercial building and private enterprise. But it will not happen. The wigs-big, little and medium-will make it the same again. If they have anything to say about it-and they have everything to say-they’ll make it the way it was, and they won’t know and can’t ever be convinced that it wasn’t any good before, and it won’t be any good when they do it again.