Crash Virgins

“I have zero investments, for better or for worse,” said 26-year-old Ben Zoltowski, a senior print project manager at the advertising agency McCann Erickson. “I feel like New York is already difficult enough to live in financially! I’m used to living paycheck to paycheck and living frugally, because we sort of have to. Most of us have to!”

Mr. Zoltowski, who lives in Williamsburg, went to Ithaca College and graduated in 2003; he moved to New York in July 2006. Like most of his peers, he seems to think that things can’t really get any worse, because he’s already living hand-to-mouth! But it probably hasn’t dawned on him that he might not even be able to afford last call at Greenpoint Tavern when all this shakes out.

Mr. Zoltowski is a Crash Virgin, experiencing his first real New York economic downturn. “To be perfectly honest, it all feels pretty distant to me, Wall Street and all that,” he said. “It feels like a different city to me. One thing I did think about is, I work in advertising, and businesses hire us to represent their products. So if Wall Street is crashing and the economy is going down the drain, who has the money to buy these products? Therefore, what client has money to hire an agency, and therefore, what agency has money to pay me?”

Those aren’t horrible questions to be asking. In the last downturn, which started in March 2000, when the Dow plunged nearly 375 points in one day and the Nasdaq—where most overvalued Internet companies were listed—began a free fall, workers in industries far from Wall Street, particularly technology and media, found themselves scrambling for jobs.

Many people will point to 9/11 as the kickoff of New York’s last recession, but really, by the time the planes hit the twin towers, the city’s economy was already limping; the events of 9/11 just accelerated a decline that had been set in motion months prior. Hiring in the creative industries came to a standstill; when the poor saps who graduated college in 2002—the first class since 9/11—made their expected migration to New York that June, they were greeted with the ugly reality that there were few desirable jobs to be had. One member of the class of 2002, who today lives in New York, moved home to Massachusetts and worked for a year as a teacher’s aide at an elementary school; another took a job making sandwiches at a gourmet shop in Brooklyn. Others bartended or took unpaid internships, intent on waiting out the downturn. The economic trough, combined with finding one’s footing in a city literally covered in ashes, ended up branding those who lived in New York from 2000 to, say, 2003 with the distinction of having endured something momentous and come out the other end intact. It was in fact startling to see, when the sky finally brightened a bit and you took a look around, how many of your peers had hung on and stayed, and made it.  Now, over the past week, some of today’s Crash Virgins are becoming mindful of living through An Official Historical Event.

“I did feel like something important was happening, and it happens so seldom where an event will break through the shouting headlines and the 30-second clips,” said John Fischer, a 26-year-old strategist at “predictive marketing” firm Infinia Foresight. (Note to Mr. Fischer: Predictive marketing firms are usually bad at predicting economic collapse.) “It was exciting—but not in a good way.”

“I was on the subway the other day, and there was a guy reading the Financial Times, and people sort of struck up a conversation about how they’re worried about not knowing exactly what’s going on,” said a 25-year-old who works in the art world. “It was two guys in suits who both looked like they worked in finance. One was reading the Financial Times and the other just sort of leaned over and said, ‘If you’re reading that, you’re probably keeping up with the news, and I don’t know if you know, but 10 minutes ago …’ And then he said some news about A.I.G. that I don’t remember. They were sitting next to me, so I just sort of overheard, but it’s something that’s pretty uncommon on the New York City subway.”

Lizzy Goodman was one of the fortunate ones of the class of 2002; upon graduating from Penn, she had a job lined up as an assistant teacher at Buckley, the all-boys school on the Upper East Side. Six years later, she’s an editor at large at Blender. Like some of her peers, she seems hopeful that, instead of being a harbinger of utter doom, this crash will instead level the playing field just a little bit.

“I don’t think anyone is hoping for American financial collapse just so that the Bowery can be seedy again,” said Ms. Goodman, who lives in the West Village. “But on the other hand, if in the wake of this collective shuttering and fearing comes a return to old school ’80s boho New York, I would certainly be in favor of that.”

The disconnect between the New York of legend and the reality of living here has perhaps never been starker. “I know a lot of people who moved to New York for something that isn’t in New York right now,” said Mr. Fischer, the marketing strategist. “There is a sense that things are in transition. I think there’s a big question of how this will change the social and cultural landscape of New York in the next two or three years. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s excitement—but it’s apprehension that something is definitely happening.”

Of course, that’s a story that’s been years in the making; the disappearance of Lehman Brothers and the conversion of Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley into bank holding companies—as recently as last year thought to be a sacrilege—isn’t going to make $4,000 a month one-bedrooms on the Lower East Side any cheaper. (Or if it does, they’ll go to $3,500 a month, not $1,500.) The days when a photographer could buy an abandoned bank building on the Bowery for $102,000—as the photographer Jay Maisel did in 1966—are over; they are not coming back. (See also: the Playpen, smoking in bars, liquid lunches, Passerby, subway tokens, the Barnes & Noble on Sixth Avenue and 21st St., et cetera, not to mention the Algonquin Round Table, the Automat, Spy magazine, Warhol’s Factory, and the Palladium. Also: typewriters.) Some Wall Street types may flee; a few Wharton grads might move to Boston or San Francisco. But it seems highly unlikely that the crash will herald in some utopian new era of “creativity” or allow artists to colonize Soho, or even the East Village, again. It’s over! You missed it! Even Rent has closed! Besides, the Russians are here now.

Crash Virgins