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Why the New New Yorkers Live in Glass Houses

Why are developers building these monstrosities? Well, because the glass houses are cheap, pre-fab structures.
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Writers have been expending a lot of ink lately in trying to figure out who in their right mind would want to move into one of these leaky aquariums developers keep building all over New York City. The short answer, according to Penelope Green in Sunday's Week in Review section of the New York Times ("Yours for the peeping," 11/4/07), is that it's people who want to expose themselves. (Like that oblivious hipster with the cell phone who strolled around nude in Times Square recently, I suppose, though he's to be commended for going about it more directly.) Green then launches into a long analysis of this tendency, worthy of the best speculative ramblings of Freud, which seems to conclude, basically, that You-tube and Facebook have confused these people to the extent that they don't know what's appropriate anymore and so have thrown up their hands and decided that they don't care if the whole city sees them prancing around naked or not.

Though I'm sure Green has a point, I believe the real answer is a bit less complex, at least psychologically, though it does have two parts. A blurb accompanying the article claims that these people are "goldfish by inclination," but then again, even the goldfish don't live in their bowls by choice. If they stopped to think about it, they would probably rather be in a nice, spacious pond somewhere. Unfortunately, they can't do anything about it: someone just threw them in the bowl, and there they must live. Analogously, the first part of the answer is that these people live there because that's what developers are building these days.

So then the question becomes: why are developers building these monstrosities? Well, because the glass houses are cheap, pre-fab structures. Quick and easy, down and dirty: you don't have to pay a brick layer or a stone mason, you just slap up a truckload of rectangular panels and before you know it, you have a twenty-story skyscraper. (The ones that were built early in the boom are a bit different, in that they are more unique, and often feature wavy glass and other nice touches, but they were the wedge that allowed the later cookie-cutter glass boxes to avoid scrutiny.) The one nod to aesthetics is that at least the panels are transparent. The buildings look nicer, admittedly, than if the developers had just slapped up sections of plywood or opaque fiberglass, but the practical result is the same. Who cares if they leak, or if residents don't have any privacy? As long as they can be sold before they fall apart, developers stand to make millions of dollars.

By a strange coincidence, the second part of the answer as to why people live in these glass towers is provided by another front page story in the very same issue of the New York Times, this one in the real estate section (Foreign Buyers Take Manhattan). Though I suppose Green wasn't allowed to read the article in advance, what the author, Christine Haughney reports is that foreign buyers have purchased 1000 new condos in Manhattan in the past 18 months, constituting an amazing one-third of all condo sales for that period. These apartments are sold, often sight unseen, to buyers who often have no intension of living in them, but are just planning to rent them out until the market takes an upturn, in which case they will sell them for a profit. In other words, they are speculating in real estate as if it were the stock market. So for one thing, they don't see the glass towers, and for another, they don't care what they look like or how they're built. As Green notes, when you do see inside of one of these apartments, it looks like a dorm room. And that's because it is: the speculators sublet the apartments to students (their captive "goldfish"), who are easy to get rid of when the time comes to sell.

Speculation drives up the cost of apartments for those of us who actually want to live in New York City, and indeed forces a lot of the working and middle class out of the city entirely. The real estate market outside of New York has recently been rocked by the subprime lending scandal, as banks gave mortgages to high-risk homebuyers. But as Haugnney implies in her article, foreign buyers are risky as well, as they have no credit history in the U.S. Perhaps New York, in so many respects on the cutting-edge, is just a little bit behind the curve in real-estate trends.