New York, New York: Living on Wall Street

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New York, New York: Living on Wall Street

Life on Wall Street is probably not how you imagine it. It’s quiet, at times a bit messy, and, by New York standards at least, somewhat dull. The area does not house enough mixologists and artisanal cheesemakers to attract the hipsters and creatives, but also lacks the stately beauty of those other neighborhoods associated with wealth.

As AA says, “Wall Street is like a cat – it’s useless, but you can’t help loving it.”

AA is of course referring to the amorphous center of the financial industry, but Wall Street is also a physical neighborhood – one that for some time now has existed as a kind of in-between area, no longer Manhattan’s commercial hub, but not yet fully residential. It is a place buffeted by history, having lived through numerous attacks, downturns and cataclysmic floods, all while fighting itself over what it wants to be.

The Financial District (of which Wall Street is a part) is a place caught between what it symbolizes and its status as a living neighborhood. But this tension isn’t new – the Wall Street area has always been a place where mansions and hovels alike sat next to the instruments of trade. It is, perhaps of all the New York neighborhoods, the one that best exemplifies the New York City image, a jumble of pure capitalism, civic pride and the wide expanse between the city’s haves and havenots.

The Financial District is the oldest neighborhood in New York City. For centuries, it served as a port, a slave market, a financial center and, for a time, the nation’s capital. Then, in the lean years of the previous century, artists took up residence in the abandoned buildings of the old seaport, presaging the creation of government-subsidized cooperatives for middle-class families and slowly building up a neighborhood from the ashes of industry.

It has been buffeted by history, having lived through numerous attacks, downturns and cataclysmic floods, all while fighting itself over what it wants to be.

EB

Now, like so many other neighborhoods in the city, those who had once transformed the area are feeling the pressure to leave. One by one, the old rent stabilized buildings have switched to market, and prices are rising above what even the upper-middle-class lawyers and professionals can afford – all while more and more cranes appear overhead. In the local government and civic gatherings, there is the constant question – who is all this construction for?

Yet underneath these larger waves, there flows a counter-current of instability. Case in point – when we were apartment hunting the unthinkable happened. We had just seen a studio well above our budget with paper thin walls in a new conversion. As we were leaving, a 20-year old began complaining about the quality of the building. This answered, at least partially, the question of who was paying to lease these shoddy and expensive apartments – Pace University. But even Pace wasn’t renting enough of them. In a city where apartments rent within an hour of listing, the broker was still calling us three weeks after our visit.

Wall Street by River

Wall Street from the River

The building we did eventually choose is a squat little brick number that had once been a warehouse. The backside of the building is a brown stucco material with little bulging boxes for balconies. The bones of the building are strong, a testament to its previous existence, with tall ceilings and absolutely no amenities except for the basics. The entrance faces a new luxury condominium, easily five times the height of our building, and a skinny hotel. There are two little trees outside constantly buffeted by scaffolding and dust, but which have bloomed heartily nevertheless.

Wall Street from the Air

Prior to living in the Financial District, we had squeezed ourselves into a studio in Greenwich Village. This studio had been carved up into two rooms and charged at a one-bedroom rate. AA’s brother called our apartment “the room” and visiting it single-handedly knocked New York off of the list of cities my brother and his girlfriend would be willing to move to.

Having been tamed into minimalist submission by the Village’s real estate, the transition into a building of more standard size unleashed a wave of new diversions – all designed to fill up space. AA became an avid gardener, and turned our living room into a jungle (which unfolded yet another obsession over air-quality). He couldn’t buy enough plants to fill up our living room, so we then built a gym. When that didn’t do the job, we put a four posture bed in the corner thinking we could monetize the space through Airbnb. We were thwarted in this endeavor by The Beast’s high-decibel morning yowls, so we sold the bed and bought a couch. And in this round-about way, we, like many other families before us, made our home in this unlikely, resilient, and contradictory neighborhood.

Erika

Erika

I was raised in a tight-knit Midwestern family with a strong commitment to service. An architect by training, I currently work in affordable housing finance. Prior to moving to NYC, I lived in Nicaragua for two years and have also spent time in West Africa and the Middle East. I started this blog as a way to catalog musings on travel and everyday life around the world.

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