The View From One PercentLand

View of the Upper East Side, New York, from 96...
The Upper East Side of Manhattan. Image via Wikipedia

On the Upper East Side of Manhattan — an enclave of almost unimaginable wealth — it’s One Percent Central. The streets are clean, swept, silent, the wrought-iron-covered apartment doors — owned, not rented — always guarded by wary, watchful doormen.

Elegant townhouses with silk balloon shades, Met-worthy art and exterior security cameras sell at the price of some small nations’ GDP — this one is offered at $23 million — often in  all-cash deals.

Local hotels include the Carlyle, The Plaza Athenee and the Mark; room rates start about $700 a night. (New York State’s highest unemployment benefit, taxable of course, is $405 a week.)

Discreet private art galleries dot the side streets, $50,000 drawings locked behind elegant double doors. Shoppers, if they carry any bags, tote those marked Chanel, Ferragamo, Prada. They sleep on monogrammed linens from Leron, Frette and Pratesi.

Gleaming, spotless black Escalades, chauffeurs at the wheel, glide through the streets. Thin blond women skitter by in Louboutins. Private school boys, shouting, run down Fifth Avenue, their ties flying.

One building even has its own book, 740 Park Avenue, home to some of the world’s wealthiest people. One of its residents, a journalist married to a billionaire, allows peeks into her gilded world from time to time. But many One Percenters only appear in print on the Forbes or Fortune lists of the world’s wealthiest — or Bill Cunningham’s weekly round-up of society parties in The New York Times.

Summer and winter are verbs to this set — summer in the Hamptons, Nantucket, Maine, Newport, Martha’s Vineyard, winter in Aspen, Vail or St. Bart’s.

To the people inhabiting this world, the rest of us are barely a blip on the radar.

They are all privately educated from infancy, as are their parents, grand-parents, husbands and wives, their children prepped by SAT tutors costing thousands a month beyond the $35,000+ a year it costs to educate each child.

Their world is cocooned by nannies — likely three, one for each eight hour shift — au pairs, staff, multiple homes, private jets.

This divide is perhaps more obvious when you live in a major city split neatly by zip code by race, class and wealth: New York, London, Paris, Sao Paulo, Mexico City. Living in New York, all you have to do is exchange one subway line for another to visit a wholly different world, from one filled with the exhausted working class traveling home to Queens or Brooklyn, to another snuggled deeply in triple-ply cashmere, oblivious to mundane worries like finding or keeping a job, educating one’s children or even paying the rent or mortgage.


I know something of this world. My first husband was a physician, who, with his second wife, earns a combined income of $500,000. Even with a few kids to support, that’s pocket change to the real One PerCenters — if an impossible fortune to most of us.

Some of my mother’s family were also members of it.

Unless you’ve been exposed to the people living in this charming snow-globe, and their ferocious determination to acquire their fifth home or the 20th Birkin handbag or the Monet coming up at Sotheby’s, it’s a reassuring fantasy to think they care about the rest of us. They’re too busy out-ranking one another to even notice people whose annual income barely covers their shoe budget.

Don’t ever underestimate their determination to retain their privileges and the sources of their economic and political power.

The mayor, a billionaire, lives in the nabe, in two townhouses (only a few of his residences), on East 79th. Street. His long-time live-in partner, Diana Taylor, sits on the board of Zuccotti Park, the privately-owned Manhattan park where the Occupy Wall Street crowd has pitched its tents.

Meanwhile, reports Bloomberg BusinessWeek, median household income in the U.S. has fallen to $49,445, the lowest in more than a decade, while poverty has jumped to 15. 1 percent, a 17-year high.

Read this  smart column by Times’ writer David Brooks on how the media, much of it [guilty!] based in Manhattan is still over-focusing on this obviously uber-wealthy one percent — rather than the deeply growing divide between those who are well-educated and those who are not, more visible in rural areas and smaller cities nationwide.

And yet…here’s a glimmer of hope — Resource Generation, an organization of younger Americans who have inherited or earned wealth dedicated to re-distributing it more equitably.

Do you see an economic divide where you live?

How’s it playing out?

11 thoughts on “The View From One PercentLand

  1. I live in an area where we don’t see any 1%, and even when I go into the city it doesn’t seem to be too huge of a difference, though it does depend on the area. In certain areas you can definitely see it, and feel it, while others are clearly more taken care of where there is more money.

  2. Living in a rural part of France, the divide is not obvious, except when the Parisians visit! In the UK there is, as in America a growing class of people being left behind. They are also realising it is not necessarily through any fault of their own. The ability to move between classes has been eroded, sad since we have had thirteen years of a Labour government who profess to be for the workers. That went well then. There is a lot of distrust and unrest over the fact that the top 1% are not affected by problems they have caused.

    I am not sure where it will lead. I don’t believe that rioting will work, it only destroys the infrastructure and more money is taken from a system under strain to repair the damage. Who knows where it will end. I don’t, I just try to make things as good as I can for me and mine. Without causing damage to others!


  3. Here in Michigan the divide is obvious though still not to the degree seen in NYC. We live in Ann Arbor, an insulated enclave compared to many others. The contrasts are stark. Detroit is struggling to keep the lights on in the inner city. Every time streetlights are repaired they are vandalized again for their valuable copper wire. Detroit looks like a bombed out city and it was once vibrant and filled with activity. What I fail to understand is why those most impacted in rural areas support the party most aligned with the one percent. Maybe they hope that they too will one day pull themselves up by their boot straps and reign supreme? Maybe they are just naive? I find it scary that anyone blames the poor for being poor.

    1. It’s so much simpler and easier to blame the poor for being poor — that American notion that every individual is solely and wholly responsible for their good or ill fortunes — than to stare at/into the laissez-faire capitalist system and its functioning clear-eyed.

      It’s not PC to say so, but I think many of these people are poorly educated. They don’t know any better and don’t care.

  4. Here in Australia, there are areas, mostly in the capital cities, where the rich live. Where we are, in a village about 45km from the once industrial city of Newcastle, is not an affluent area, but not poor either. There are suburbs nearer to Newcastle that consist mostly of welfare recipients and their families or low-income workers.

    The extreme gap between the super-rich and the poor is not as evident here as it is in the U.S., but that gap is becoming wider each year.

    We have enough to live on, and own our own home, and we are politically and socially aware (and educated). We vote for the person/party which we feel will do the best job for the people and the country, not for those who fill their pockets at the expense of those least able to afford it.

    I think education is the key to getting the apathetic to take charge of their own lives, but the financial costs are too high for either individuals or the state to pay them in most cases. Then, unfortunately, the socially and economically deprived produce generations that are highly likely to be welfare dependent and poorly educated.

    It is a vicious circle that is difficult – almost impossible – to break. And those one percenters are the ones least likely to help do it.

    1. Thanks for such a long and detailed reply! I find it fascinating (and cool) to have readers worldwide to share their perspective. I’m always hungry to know what’s happening “out there” as the U.S. media are hopelessly navel-gazing.

      I see in the States a very thin layer of people — 20% — who are well-educated, politically astute (and active), semi-sophisticated. But once they have done well economically, they pull up the lifeboats. The standard sorting mechanism in the U.S. is “Where did you go to school?” I was asked this last week by a stranger; I am 54! Who cares?! But, aaaah they do. Desperately. Only the Ivy Leagues (and an Ivy grad degree) mark you as one of the favored elite, someone who they feel comfortable with. That cuts out, say, about 85% of the rest of us.

      But if you look at who makes policy here (Obama, etc) you’ll see this.

      1. Your 20% of educated and thinking people is about the same here. Where you were educated is not as important with the elite here – although, not walking among them, I can only surmise that.
        We have contact with quite a number of poorly educated people, and are often astounded at the ignorance they display about their own country and the world. They cannot see past ‘Dancing with the Stars’ or the next great singer to be discovered, or their favourite soapie.
        It is so sad that they have no grasp of real life – but I suppose, to them, ignorance is bliss. They don’t feel the concern we do over the future of our families, our country, society as a whole.

  5. Australia presently has a “two speed economy” according to the media. Basically it’s resources/mining vs everyone else.

    There are some incredibly rich people here, but they’re mostly over east. WA (Western Australia) is still the wild west, so while there are extremely wealthy people here, the ostentatiousness hasn’t quite hit those heights yet.

    That 740 Park Avenue building’s story is fascinating!

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