04.22.09

Madonna, My Neighbor

What happens when the Material Girl moves close enough to borrow eggs from me? All the locals hope she'll turn around our frumpy neighborhood.

I got the news that Madonna was moving to my neighborhood—perhaps Manhattan’s most unapologetically dull, with its nannies pushing Bugaboo strollers, doorman buildings and private schools—from my daughter at college out in Ohio. “Apparently Madonna has just bought a townhouse on 81st and Lex,” she texted me, referring to the cross section between 81st Street and Lexington Avenue.

The house in question is a $40 million, 57-foot wide Georgian style townhouse with 13 bedrooms and nine fireplaces, where Madonna will settle her kids in the wake of her ugly divorce from director Guy Ritchie. Her previous New York home was on Central Park West, so it’s hard to know what to make of this move across town. Is it yet another mutation of the Madonna persona, even a piece of performance among Park Avenue’s matrons in their Chanel suits, Manolos and multiple face lifts? Might her next music video feature Madonna waiting for son Rocco, 9, outside Dalton at afternoon pick-up?

The locals first glimpse of Madonna will probably be through a cloud of cement dust as she spars with her contractors.

Reports have it that Lourdes, 13, has enrolled at the Professional Children’s School on West 60th Street, which eliminates the need for Madonna to hit up buddy Gwyneth Paltrow for a recommendation to the prestigious Spence School, Gwyneth’s alma mater. (Presumably Madonna has forfeited the spot at England’s exclusive Cheltenham Ladies College that she reserved when Lourdes was just two years old.)

The question now is how Madonna’s arrival might disrupt the social ecology of the Upper East Side, where anything east of Lexington Avenue has always been considered the wrong side of the tracks—the IRT subway tracks, that is. As any New Yorker knows, there are actually two Upper East Sides. West of Lex is a magic a kingdom of wealth and privilege, with luxurious pre-war apartments, spit-and-polish doormen and Central Park views. And then there’s the Upper East Side east of Lex—a jumble of soulless apartment towers, tenements and more dry cleaners, Duane Reade drugstores and Citibank branches than the economy could possibly absorb, even in the best of times. Madonna's house falls on the dowdy side of the dividing line.

“Why’s she moving to Lexington and Third?” wondered Kimmy Hutchins, the manager of Annie’s, the Korean grocery across the street from Madonna’s new home, most of whose business comes from the Park Avenue carriage trade. “She’s a high class woman.” Never mind that Madonna’s new home apparently boasts a splendid 60’ garden and an almost-unheard-of-two car garage that should allow her to flummox the paparazzi by driving directly into her basement.

“We’re both just baffled,” said Stacy Scheinberg, who owns a townhouse with her husband Ron one block north of Madonna, also on the same woebegone side of Lexington Avenue. “Hopefully, it’ll be good for the local shops. The paparazzi have to eat.”

To be fair to Madonna and her real estate prowess, the block she picked is quite lovely, especially at this time of year with the ornamental pear trees in full bloom. “What she bought is beautiful and rare,” said Sallie Stern, a real estate broker, who had nothing to do with the sale but who has toured the house. “It’s three townhouses plus the garage. That’s incredibly hard to find.” Sallie was also responsible for selling Woody Allen’s Fifth Avenue penthouse and introduced Bette Midler, twenty years ago, to Carnegie Hill, the upper edge of the Upper East Side that was theretofore terra incognita to celebrity. “She fit right in,” Ms. Stern reported.

Madonna’s new neighbors include Today Show weatherman Al Roker, who also lives between Lexington and Third, one block north, and Tom Brokaw and Marvin Hamlisch, who are within spitting distance though they live west of Lex, on Park Avenue. But they’re all celebrities of a lower order of magnitude. No matter what you might think of Brokaw’s skills as a newsreader, or Hamlish’s inspired score for The Sting, they don’t attract groupies, not to mention paparazzi, like Madonna.

In fact, the crowds are already forming. Amy, the woman who runs the dry cleaning shop a few doors down from Madonna, but who declined to give her last name (who’d have though the diva would be sharing a block with a dry cleaner, the Sudden Beauty nail salon, and Antonucci’s, an Italian restaurant) said that tourist traffic had picked up just in the few days since the news of Madonna’s purchase broke. But Amy has scant hope Madonna will send her conical brassieres to her shop for cleaning and repair. “She has to find a more expensive store,” she explained without irony.

Local dog walkers have also shifted routes in the hope of spotting Madonna, even if some question her business acumen. “It looks a little dingy to me,” sniffed one bearded collie walker as she examined the building’s brown brick facade. “I wouldn’t pay $40 million for that.”

Should the fact that Madonna did bring aid and comfort to the neighbors who have seen the value of their real estate plummet during the current unpleasantness? While one broker estimated that Madonna’s presence added 25 percent to the value of other apartments in Harperley Hall on the Upper West Side when she lived there (it wasn’t among the most distinguished buildings on Central Park West, some of whose boards had rejected Madonna), celebrities are no guarantee of a boost in values. The fact that Woody Allen’s apartment fetched a good price a few years ago has less to do with the director than with the apartment’s spectacular vistas, according to Stern. “It was a picture-perfect penthouse overlooking the boat pond,” she says. “The people who bought it realized it was a rare property.”

Indeed, in the short term, the diva’s arrival might depress values or at least make life on the block more brutish. Paparazzi aside, as any student of New York City’s uberclass knows, it’s a truth universally acknowledged that any residential multi-millionaire dollar purchase is also in want of a gut renovation. If and when the locals are awarded a first glimpse of Madonna it will probably be through a cloud of cement dust as she spars with her contractors.

Roger Rowe, an advertising creative director, who lives on the same block as Al Roker, knows all about that. He’s spent the last two years waking to the sound of jackhammers as his next door neighbor scoops out the inside of his double-width townhouse. “I feel sorry for everybody who lives on that block,” he said.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is freelance writer whose work has appeared in New York magazine, The New York Observer, The New Yorker and other publications.