New York Isn't for Families Anymore

More and more housing developments are being targeted toward wealthy travelers instead of people who wish to put down roots.



There's an intriguing paragraph or two in an otherwise innocent New York Times Real Estate piece on Central Park high rises:

Nobody bothered with the idea of building penthouses until the early 1920s, preferring to leave tar-topped roofs. In the mid-1980s, [the appraiser Jonathan J.] Miller recalled, most new condominium buildings had little-used health clubs and pools on the roofs.

"Now the configurations tend to be weighted toward larger units at the top because of the premiums for larger square footage," he said. "You get a double premium -- for the size and for the view. Developers are marketing for the global citizen as opposed to the family that wants to move into the city."

And penthouses are literally the tip of the iceberg. Last year The Times reported that high-class nomads have been transforming swaths of Manhattan into "ghost towns." We're all aware of the Russian oligarchs' imprint on London. Their jurisdiction shopping has enlivened British courts. In England's happier days it was their own aristocracy, the envy of their Continental peers, who at least in popular lore used Paris as an adult amusement park. Most of that ended with the First World War and modern inheritance and income taxes. And the passing of the centenarian copper heireiss Huguette Clark is a reminder of the pre-war days when some of the most spectacular wealth could move in from Montana.

Despite these precedents, no other city has been a greater magnet to so many different kinds of old and new money as New York today. There are the mainland Chinese, for whom a New York home may be a bargain insurance policy. There are the Latin Americans, always a discreet presence, but now more visible -- especially Brazilians. Russians are still active at the ultra-high end. And not even the controversy over the Islamic Center and New York Police Department tactics has completely discouraged Arab investors.

All this is good for the economy and the dollar. But recall Mr. Miller's words. New development is pitched to the global citizen as opposed to the family that wants to move into the city. Under the very noses of protests against the rich, another and quieter kind of occupation of New York, London, and other cities is taking place. 

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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