Gilded Googlers Dump Money Into Idiosyncratic Community Development

Adventures in uber-wealth.

What would Mr. Twain say? (Photo: Penguin)

This cannot go unremarked upon: This week brings not one but two lengthy newspaper stories about the Gilded Age goings on among those in the bosom of Google. This week they’re not building enormous mansions or buying islands. Rather, they’re taking in a hand in the development of their local communities. And that hand is full of money.

The first is Sergey Brin. Yesterday the Wall Street Journal dished on Passerelle Investment Co, a Los Altos real estate firm largely backed by Mr. Brin. But this is no mere cash grab. The firm often helps keep independent businesses in business, sometimes settling for below-market rate. The company’s website boasts “a socioeconomic perspective” and claims that it “weighs financial returns as well as social and environmental benefit.”

The mayor, on the other hand, somewhat ambivalently calls it “the 500-pound gorilla downtown.”

Here’s what that giant primate looks like, according to the Journal:

Passerelle, which is a French word for “footbridge,” has paid tens of millions of dollars to snap up at least a half-dozen commercial buildings in the past three years, according to public records and local real-estate agents. So far, the firm has brought in businesses that cater to families, such as a children’s bookstore, a children’s “playspace” and a cafe called Bumble that has a supervised children’s play area and sandbox.

Translation: Sergey Brin is pulling a Carnegie and dumping money into his own, very personal philanthropic vision. Kids’ stores for Los Altos are the new libraries for Middle America. Wonder what the Larry-Ellison-in-Lanai equivalent is. A sailboat-themed nightclub, perhaps?

The second example is clear on the other side of the country–an arrangement that’s been the source of much chatter. The New York Times has a lengthy profile of Wendy Schmidt, wife of Eric Schmidt, who lives in Nantucket and apparently devotes a substantial portion of her time to helping “preserve the island’s culture.” Sometimes that involves bankrolling local businesses, for example. A friend of Ms. Schmidt who “summers” locally told the Times: “On Nantucket, if something is broken it is Wendy to the rescue.”

But, once again, it sounds like Ms. Schmidt is working off a somewhat idiosyncratic vision:

Ms. Schmidt was also altering the town to reflect her tastes. Marianne Stanton, editor and publisher of The Inquirer and Mirror, an island newspaper, recalled Ms. Schmidt telling her after the opening of Petticoat Row, “If I want to walk to town and get a baguette, I can go.”

Too bad Mark Twain didn’t have the option of being cryogenically frozen, because we’d give a whole basketful of baguettes to hear what the man who coined the term “the Gilded Age” would have to say about this. Gilded Googlers Dump Money Into Idiosyncratic Community Development