Friday, June 23, 2017

Walking the Avenue

Reflecting in Central Park. 4:00 PM. Photo: JH.
Friday, June 23, 2017. A very warm Summer day in New York with temperatures in the mid-80s, cooling off to the mid-70s by late evening with some humidity and some rain forecast.

I was home at my desk all day because I had a deadline for my New York Social Diary column in Quest for the July issue, which is about Newport. I wrote about a first hand account of the society life there during the so-called Gilded Age. The history of Newport is remarkably modern beginning from the time the British settlers moved in and pushed the native population out (and even turned some of them into slaves). Newport was crucial in the slave trade in the late 17th and 18th century. 

Newport Mercury, June 20th 1763
It was also prominent in the pirate trade of the same time (sailing ships). Piracy wasn’t about Treasure Island. It was about a bunch of marauders stealing and plundering for profit, backed by some countries and fought with by others. Then there was the religion era. Rhode Island was founded by people who were regarded as religious dissidents in their own neighborhoods. The state was founded on the ground of freedom of religion. Which of course a lot of so-called religious people don’t believe in. The Touro Synagogue, which was founded in the 17th century, is the oldest standing synagogue in America today.  And then there is the Gilded Age when the millionaires built their multimillion dollar cottages which they used maybe six weeks a year in summer. Visions of Louis Quatorze or the Medicis were dancing in their architects’ heads and J.P. Morgan was in the counting house counting all the money.

Newport was then a party town ... for only the very very rich. Alva and Willie K. Vanderbilt built Marble House designed by Richard Morris Hunt. It took four years (1888 – 1892) and $11 million.
That doesn’t sound like much (if you’re in the real estate business these days) but back then the Dollar was worth 100 cents. Today that dollar is worth between 2 and 3 cents in comparable buying power.  Do the math. Servants (live in) were earning $3 and $4 a week. Mrs. Vanderbilt’s second husband Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont had a staff of thirty for his vast and massive “cottage” – which is what they called their humble mega-abodes. Belmont’s weekly expense for the entire staff of 30 was $100 a week. Everything was a lot cheaper – except the marble, the gold, the silver and the Renaissance paintings – if you were rich. If you were one of Mr. Belmont’s staff pulling down three bucks a week, well, cheap doesn’t go very far, and it didn’t then.
Alva Vanderbilt at the 1906 Vanderbilt Cup Race (founded by Willie K.)
It was an interesting assignment I gave myself because we are now living in similar (not identical) circumstances in the world today, including this country. The difference is even if you’re now earning 100 times what Belmont’s maids earned, it ain’t enough to feed a family of four or keep a roof securely over your head.

The Gilded Age ended with the First World War. Then everything changed. Some for the better, some not at all.

Which speaking of ...

Here in New York we are experiencing a de-accessioning of retail space for retail businesses. We are seeing more store vacancies than I can ever recall in the last six decades. The City is a changing system socioeconomically. Neighborhoods come and go. In the past twenty years there has been a trend for restoration and revitalizing the communities. You can see it in all the boroughs, especially when it comes to housing. Brooklyn and Queens and Upper Manhattan, including Harlem are good examples of this progress. Although it has got more, much more expensive for the average working person, just to provide a roof over one’s head. In the 1960s when I came here out of college the rule of thumb for rental expense was one week’s salary a month. I know people today who are paying more than 50% of their monthly for shelter.
57th/58th and Madison.
What is staring at us now are commercial vacancies. It looks like failure. Failure to succeed with one’s business. Madison Avenue, the  Crown Jewel in American retailing for many decades (it was originally an upscale neighborhood of townhouses a century ago),  is now looking like the guy you run into on the street panhandling who is missing a lot of teeth.

Many people are talking about it, but only in passing (“did you notice ...?). Others say it’s because everyone shops on Amazon. And doesn’t go to the store anymore. I recall riding home in a taxi one night more than ten years ago, with Vera Wang and a couple others. We were riding up Madison Avenue heading into the Seventies when one of passengers remarked to Vera that she must be making a fortune in her shop in the Hotel Carlyle building on Madison and 77th Street. Vera said then that nobody with a shop on Madison Avenue made any money because the rents were so high. They justified the rent for the prestige it brought their (expensive) product.
Vera Wang on 77th and Madison.
This current vacancy trend is unusual and it’s going on all over the city and here in Manhattan from south to north from east to west. Last week we asked Pierre Crosby, a new photographer, if he’d photograph all the vacancies on Madison Avenue from 57th Street to 92nd Street, just to get an idea of the magnitude of the problem. Pierre covered the avenue this past Sunday afternoon when the city was quieter, from 57th to the low 90s. We told him to photograph all the empty storefronts as well as some of the businesses that are still operating. Vera Wang, coincidentally vacated her space (where she was located for decades) last week. In the 33 blocks (a mile and a half), Pierre found 50 vacancies.

What does it all mean? There are some sensible, practical guesses and then there is the unknown. That great palatial mansion that the Vanderbilts built in the last decades of the 19th century for what would be hundreds of millions in today’s dollars, was sold by Mrs. Vanderbilt Belmont forty years later in 1932, for $20,000. That doesn’t seem like a comparable situation to ours on Madison Avenue but it does serve to remind that value varies, even with wild volatility at times. Are we there yet?
57th/58th and Madison.
58th and Madison.
59th and Madison.
60th/61st and Madison.
61st/62nd and Madison.
Hermes on 62nd and Madison.
62nd/63rd and Madison.
Nello on 62nd/63rd and Madison.
63rd/64th and Madison.
Work in progress at Bottega Veneta on 64th and Madison.
Work in progress on 64th/65th and Madison.
65/66th and Madison.
Alice and Olivia on 65/66th and Madison.
Corner of 66th and Madison.
66th and Madison.
Orogold Cosmetics on 66th and Madison.
66th/67th and Madison.
67th and Madison.
67th/68th and Madison.
Bonpoint, La Perla, Frette, and Tory Burch on 67th/68th and Madison.
67th/68th and Madison.
67th/68th and Madison.
68th and Madison.
68th/69th and Madison.
69th and Madison.
Dolce & Gabbana on 69th and Madison.
Lanvin on 70th/71st and Madison.
Ralph Lauren on 72nd and Madison.
72nd/73rd and Madison.
Christian Science Reading Room on 73rd/74th and Madison.
Nespresso coming to 74th and Madison.
74th/75th and Madison.
74th/75th and Madison.
75th/76th and Madison.
75th/76th and Madison.
76th/77th and Madison.
76th/77th and Madison.
76th/77th and Madison.
Nectar Cafe on 79th and Madison.
Citibank on 79th/80th and Madison.
80th/81st and Madison.
80th/81st and Madison.
81st/82nd and Madison.
82nd/83rd and Madison.
82nd/83rd and Madison.
83rd/84th and Madison.
84th and Madison.
Williams- Sonoma on 86th and Madison.
86th/87th and Madison.
86th/87th and Madison.
87th/88th and Madison.
88th/89th and Madison.
88th/89th and Madison.
89th and Madison.
89th/90th and Madison.
90th/91st and Madison.
90th/91st and Madison.
90th/91st and Madison.

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