Back in September, Alexei Barrionuevo wrote in his “Big Deal” column in The New York Times about the superstitions of the wealthy mainland Chinese who have lately been flooding into New York, cash in hand, to buy uber-luxury apartments. Barrionuevo pointed out that belief systems like feng shui can determine if a Chinese person sees a building as lucky or a condo purchase as auspicious. And apparently, One57, the 1,000-foot tall tower under construction across the street from Carnegie Hall on West 57th Street, passed muster.
Few names of prospective owners have emerged from the building’s marketing team. But according to the Times, which has adopted One57 as if it were a cute puppy, many of the contracts supposedly signed for units at the building—where the most expensive full floor-condos are going for more than $90,000,000 (again supposedly, since nothing has gone yet, legally speaking)—bear the signatures of mainland Chinese. So many, in fact, that brokers have taken to calling the place Chinatown.
Back in September, at my apartment house, which is next door to One57, the big quality-of-life issues under discussion were a Halal cart on the corner that sent stinky fumes into our lobby, and the plague of bicycles and pedicabs in our neighborhood, set off by Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s distaste for traffic in midtown Manhattan.
Things have changed.
On Monday, the construction crane that runs up that building collapsed and became the visual symbol of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy. Yesterday, China Daily reported that the collapse of the boom on the crane “may unnerve some Chinese buyers.” It’s not nice to wish ill on others, but I bet they’re consulting lawyers and not feng shui experts right now. Competing condo developer Donald Trump promptly snapped a photo of the crane from his apartment and tweeted it with a cackling comment about the incompetence of the One57 team, which consists of the construction company Lend Lease and the building’s owner/developer, Extell and its president Gary Barnett.
You don’t have to be a fan of the Donald, or an advocate of schadenfreude, to get the message conveyed by that photo. Drooping next to Extell’s huge erection, the crane looks like a bad omen. It’s Gary Barnett’s flaccid, dangling boom of doom.
I was engrossed in writing on Monday when my wife, who was working at home in anticipation of Sandy’s arrival, called to me from our living room. “You better look at this,” she said. The last time she said those words, we were packing for a trip to Egypt as television beamed images of a revolution brewing in Tahrir Square. That time, we wound up at Round Hill in Jamaica. This time we wound up refugees, but that’s getting ahead of the story.
I joined her in front of the TV, which was broadcasting the first images of the boom of doom. And for the rest of the day, I shuttled back and forth between my work screen and the screen that made me want to scream. The surrounding streets were all blocked off and full of firemen and cops, and our doorman said they had blocked our front door. Our 9th floor apartment faces away from One57, so all I could glimpse out a lot-line window of home was a sliver of the support structure that rises to 90 stories, far out of sight. But the TV images were quite enough, thank you.
I have written about One57 before—and not positively. I wrote a column about it that wasn’t as good as the headline my editor put on it: Towering Infernal. My only point was that it was butt ugly, and I referred to it as an upraised middle finger pointed at Manhattan’s otherwise stunning skyline. My wife had stronger feelings. She believes that the unchecked support for building more and taller towers in Manhattan is simply unhinged, and that Bloomberg and his city planners have given away the store to developers and the foreign billionaires they love and live to serve, turning the island I’ve lived on for decades into a paradise for the six-home pied-a-terre set, and destroying its soul, its fabric, its neighborhoods and its vitality in the process.
We have argued this point. I say it’s not New York without ever-taller buildings. She says there’s such a thing as too tall. And now, the Dragon King, the god of the oceans and the weather in Chinese myth, has taken her side.
So, back to our building and the conflicts I have in writing this essay. When we moved in six years ago, our co-op board had just sold our meager air rights to Extell for $2 million, most of which remains in our building’s accounts. The blasting for One57 nearly shook us out of bed, but eventually, it ended. The dust that was a byproduct of its poured-concrete construction was awful, caused illness, and fouled air conditioners, but that eventually ended, too. The construction has made it difficult to sell apartments in the back of our building, which faces the job site, but eventually, we all assumed until now, the presence of a gleaming tower next door, ugly or not, and its wealthy residents, would redound to our economic benefit.
In apology, I presume, for all the inconvenience, Extell bought every resident in our building (a puny 12 stories tall, by the way, and over 100 years old), a membership to the Museum of Modern Art. Like the petty inconveniences, they have long since run out and were not renewed. Tant pis.
At 5:30 PM on Monday, I went out our service door to walk our dog. Before I was chased back inside by a snarling uncommunicative cop, a kindly fireman told me the FDNY was concerned about explosions because pressurized gas and steam lines ran directly beneath the boom of doom. (I already knew that, since a week before, the Bloomberg administration had authorized after-midnight jackhammering to bring those lines into One57. Billionaires watch out for each other, right?) As I came back into the building through the basement, I ran into a fire chief who told me we—and the residents of a number of surrounding buildings—would be forcibly evacuated in about 10 minutes.
Upstairs, we quickly arranged to stay with a friend outside the evacuation zone, packed overnight bags and food for the pooch and fled into the storm, where a kind cab driver picked us up despite his off-duty sign. We’ve been bunking in that friend’s apartment ever since, and we’re now running out of the little bit of work we managed to bring with us as well as clean clothes and dog food.
According to news reports, Barnett has apologized but been otherwise less than forthcoming. I guess he’s too busy to care about mere middle-class mortals: he has a billionaires’ club to run! Lend Lease, which the New York Post quickly revealed to be a serial flouter of construction laws, has apologized, too, but shucked off blame on the city, saying it inspected the crane on Friday and certified that all was well then. Bloomberg, the great friend of developers and billionaires, has not said much, either, though he has informed us that the villain was God, not a lapse in foresight, common sense or safety by the folks who erected the now-flaccid boom of doom. We still have no news of when it will be secured, or when we can get back into our home, and we’re trying not to think about what we’ll find when we get there, or what surprises Extell et al. will have in store for us as they lower the boom, and go back to finishing their infernal tower.
My family’s story and those of our neighbors are far from the worst in this utter nightmare. People have died. Others are cold or lack power or even shelter. There is genuine suffering and it has been met with heroism. The best I can do is wait and try to continue living. What I do is write. So I said yes when asked to write about what happened to me.
I truly don’t want to wish anyone ill as I wait, but I suspect there will be demands to cancel One57 contracts, followed by lawsuits, a slowdown in further sales that will eventually pick up again, and the same when it comes to building tall buildings in midtown Manhattan, because, as the saying goes, it is what it is. In the meantime, I wish Gary Barnett would offer us a hotel room (and maybe some meals, too) so we could get out of our benevolent and lovely friend’s hair. But something tells me that’s not going to happen. And I long for the placid days when all I worried about were jackhammers, Halal carts and clueless tourists on rental bikes.
So here I sit, an old Beach Boys song looping through my head. So hoist up the Barnett boom, see how the crane will set. Call for the Mayor, ahoy, I want to go home. Let me go home. Why won’t you let me go home? I feel so broke up. I want to go home.