Embracing the Recession!

There they were, laid-off New York dot-commies and young media types, huddling on a cold, late January night in the Cutting Room, a Chelsea bar, for an “anti-pink-slip” party, nursing microbrews, waxing about their abandoned cubicles and vanished stock options.

They were celebrating.

“I wanted to be unemployed,” said Dave Yatorno, laid off from an online newsletter, who had recently found work again. “I wanted to be laid off for, like, four months , collecting unemployment.”

“It was a relief, ” said Darby Saxbe, the former chief executive of a now-deceased online recruiting company, Catalyst. “We no longer felt like we had to work really hard and not make any money.”

Or, as Jason Anthony, 31, author of Debt-Free By 30: Practical Advice for the Young, Broke and Upwardly Mobile , later said, describing many of his friends’ attitudes toward the recession: ” Bring it on! “

Among the young and impervious in New York, there is a kind of recession comfort level building among those with no memory of the 70’s or early 90’s. They are perched and panting, eyes wide, like roller-coaster daredevils at the top hump of the Cyclone, actually quite pleased– thrilled , really–that the city appears headed into a slowdown.

Sick of 80-hour work weeks, $2,200 studios and $22 lamb chops, these innocents think that a slough is a badly needed antidote to eight straight years of money-soaked New York excess.

They are, amazingly, embracing the recession.

“What have they ever done?” cried Newsday columnist Jimmy Breslin. “They’re like lazy fireflies dancing in the night!”

“Stupid kids!” barked former Mayor Ed Koch, whose efforts in the late 70’s and early 80’s were largely devoted to hauling New York out of its recessionary stupor. “If they knew what it was to live in a depression, or a recession, they wouldn’t say what they’re saying.”

Is it Schadenfreude ? Sure. But this recession-refreshing feeling is more than just the adrenaline rush one feels when they find out that a friend’s dot-com options are the beefsteak-mine shares of the 21st century. Misguided or not–and New Yorkers are almost always suckers for change–it’s about seeing the economic downturn as spiritual cleanser, moralizing agent, restorer of right–an equalizer that will level the city’s economic and social playing field after years of outrageous growth, bad manners, arrogance, inflated prices and carefree spending.

“We all feel bad if we’re not making any money,” said Michael Friedman, a 25-year-old composer who lives on the Lower East Side. “It will be better to know that nobody’s making any money.”

“I actually feel that it would be sort of liberating,” said Ben Polk, a 23-year-old who works at the Columbia University library.

“I think that people have definitely been humbled, and that can’t be bad,” said Maria Bartiromo, CNBC’s “Money Honey,” the trading floor starlet who became one of the New Economy’s biggest media sensations. “The fact that things don’t come so easy is probably good–maybe things just did get a little out of whack and out of reality.”

And there is, no question, some kind of slowdown at hand. Each day, it seems, brings news of cutbacks–2,400 jobs at AOL Time Warner, 1,300 at Amazon.com, 26,000 at Daimler Chrysler, reportedly 50,000 coming at General Electric. Alan Greenspan’s interest-rate cuts look like the desperate hand-wavings of a wizard with a sputtering wand.

It took longer for the cold, insidious waves to wash up in New York. At first, The New York Times reported that New York, an economic island, was unaffected by the national numbers. But the signs of an impending recession have started to blow in. City Comptroller Alan Hevesi recently released a report showing that the city’s economy “showed considerable weakening” in 2000. And on Jan. 16, The Times kicked in with a front-page story stating that there was a softening in the upper echelons of the residential real estate market. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s office reports that the number of new jobs created in the city this year will drop almost two thirds, from 71,300 to 23,400.

“I live in Williamsburg; I see all these young, kind of pseudo-hip consumers wandering around,” said Marisa Bowe, the former editor in chief of the pioneering but now defunct Web magazine Word.com. “I wonder how many of them have lost their jobs in the past three months.”

But some people in this city are choosing to embrace their pink slips, feeling they need a break. They see a recession as … refreshing. To them, it’s an opportunity to kick back, guilt free, without panicking that others are staying up late, working weekends and getting ahead.

“I’m meeting a lot of people who were just totally burned out on the Web,” said Laurel Touby, the chief executive of Mediabistro.com, the media-jobs site that hosted the January “anti-pink-slip” party in Chelsea. “They were working so hard.”

A phrase that has shown up after years of abuse is “graduate school,” a holding-pattern career concept recently viewed as slothful during the competitive, dot-com-millionaire 1990’s.

But now exhaustion has set in.

“I would really be happy to get fired,” said one 23-year-old professional who lives on the Upper East Side, and who asked that his name not be used. “Except for the no-pay [part].”

This blithe attitude may seem twisted at first, but when you consider the stress of eight consecutive years of economic expansion–not to mention the need to rationalize if you weren’t a part of it–you begin to understand why some New Yorkers don’t mind if the Titanic sinks and all those people go down. “When I heard about those power blackouts in the Silicon Valley area, I was just so glad,” said Wendy Lee, a 25-year-old reporter who lives in Park Slope. “I was so glad that people had to stop working. I thought it was a great thing that productivity had to stop. Our society is so warped, the way it emphasizes productivity and spending.”

What are these kids thinking? Anyone who’s been trapped inside a recession–and you only have to be 30 to fall into that category–may take a dimmer view of an economic downturn. Recessions can be grim stuff. People do lose jobs. Companies do go under. Many New Yorkers in their mid-20’s have no recollection of the city during the last recession, when Madison Avenue was flush with empty storefronts, not stadium-sized designer showrooms.

“There’s a whole generation of people who aren’t familiar with the business cycle,” said Upper West Side comedy writer Mark Katz, who wrote Bill Clinton’s jokes for the past eight years. “They only know the ascent. This will be a good Keynesian lesson for them.”

Indeed, to veterans of the front–anybody who was in New York in 1977 or 1991–New York’s pro-recessionites must sound like the people who hope for a nor’easter to wash ashore, just to see what kind of havoc gets wreaked on the coast. They’re like the people who wanted Ross Perot to win, just to see … what a really crazy, kooky White House would be like.

“That’s an ignorant little dream they have!” Mr. Breslin said of New York’s recessionistas.

But if you weren’t in the game during the boom years, it was pretty horrible to stand on the sidelines. Having a low-paying or even middling job was especially difficult; seeing people your own age accrue millions and get profiled while your relatives asked you why you were still supping on Cheez-Its was like not getting asked to senior prom, times one thousand.

“New York has always had the haves and the have-nots, but in recent years it seemed like everybody was a have,” said John, a 31-year-old film producer who admits trying, panicked, to land a dot-com job during the middle of the boom. “If you were a have-not you were a tadpole , because everybody was getting over.”

“Nobody enjoys making six figures and feeling lower middle class, which is what this city does to you,” said Jason Anthony, the Debt-Free Under 30 author. “I feel like a Joad, you know?”

“It’s almost like you are never going to be able to buy a house because these people have so much money,” said Joe (“Kahuna”) Kernan, the CNBC stock editor who appears on shows like Squawk Box . “So if it cools off a little, it’s almost like a fever breaking …. It was just out of control . I think maybe that’s what people are feeling–it’s a little more reasonable now.”

The New Economy boom warped people’s perspective about money, Mr. Kernan said. He recalled his reaction upon hearing that hotelier Steve Wynn made about $400 million on the sale of his Mirage Resorts to M.G.M. Grand last March, at the height of the dot-com mania. “I remember thinking at the time, ‘That poor guy, all of that work–he was a visionary and all he has to show for it is $400 million ,'” Mr. Kernan recalled. “Now we know how hard it is to make $400 million when it’s money and not paper.”

Now, of course, there’s a feeling of comfort at not having to avoid the fat-headed paper millionaires when you see them on the street–they’re like the rest of us. And a de-steroided economy has made the city’s sudden-wealthers a little bit easier to stomach. Marisa Bowe, who forsook several big dot-com offers to stick with Word.com, recalled recently running into an acquaintance at a party who had once been worth hundreds of millions on paper–but is now worth only a tiny fraction of that.

“It’s amazing how much easier it is to talk to so-and-so now that he is only worth five million,” Ms. Bowe said. “It had nothing to do with him, he was a perfectly nice guy … it was just like, ‘So I didn’t make the most stupid decision of my entire life back in 1995 when I didn’t go into this.'”

Indeed, those who took another path or just stuck it out in their old jobs are feeling redeemed. “When you watch that [explosion] happening and you’re not part of it, you can’t help but feel a little bit left out,” said Joe Kernan. “When it’s finally over, it’s like, well, I’m no better or worse off than I was, but at least all those other people–who you thought were so much better off than you–at least they’re not that far ahead of where you thought they were.”

There are also the culture crabs, who think an economic downturn might reverse the much-criticized sanitization that occurred during the boom. While only true depressives are feeling wistful for street muggings and syringe-laden sidewalks, there are clearly those who feel the city has become too clean ‘n’ pretty, and are tired of the glut of khaki-wearing gents bearing Nokias and messenger bags.

And some New Yorkers are eager for the bottom to fall out entirely, hoping it will bring about a new Manhattan social order. They believe a recession will chill overblown egos and magnificent spending and force a return to pre-boom civility. A recession, the hopeful theory goes, will make New Yorkers stop behaving like a bunch of entitled brats and more like grateful realists. In the ultimate fantastical scenario, it will lead to lower rents, cheaper dates and restaurant bills that cost less than a pair of Kenneth Coles.

“I have this feeling that maybe we’ll all turn into nicer people if there’s no chance of us making any money,” said Mr. Friedman, the composer. He spoke almost mystically of simpler times ahead, when New Yorkers–freed of their disposable income–would care more for each other and less about celebrity-stuffed bistros. “Maybe we’ll get away from foie gras topped with broccoli rabe topped with lamb chop in an Asian fusion sauce.”

“New York got so preppy all of a sudden,” said John, the film producer, who shared a street with a crack den when he first settled in the East Village in 1992. “It was basically Boston South. It was the cigar-bar-ization of what used to be kind of edgy–hopefully, the shakeout might change that a bit.”

At the very least, pro-recessionites will settle for a cut in rent. Fred Siegel, a professor of history at Cooper Union, characterized the pro-recessionites as people who think, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we bohemians could reclaim Manhattan again?”

Ultimately, however, the joke may be on the recessionites. Most of them are working without a financial net. Even if prices dropped, they might not be able to capitalize.

“The rich will find a way to live,” Mr. Koch said. “The poor don’t have the same options.”

“They [the pro-recessionites] are objectively right to think that a decline in rents will objectively benefit them,” said Mr. Siegel. “It’s just that they might not have a job to pay those rents.”

Even the biggest pro-recessionites know that a dramatic economic downturn is never going to produce cheap apartments on Central Park West.

“Selfishly, we’d all love it if the average rent for a one-bedroom was $600,” said Michael Friedman. “I don’t think anybody believes that is ever going to happen.”

But this is New York. People adapt. Mr. Anthony, the author, was asked if there was really a major downside to a recession.

“Nope,” he said. “There will always be movies.”

Reporters Andrew Goldman, Andrew Rice and Ian Blecher contributed to this story. Embracing the Recession!