Tom Wolfe Takes on the Developers

Peter Coy

Tom Wolfe is rarely at a loss for words. This past Sunday, the dapper novelist (Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full, etc., etc.) and preservationist issued a 3,644-word manifesto in the New York Times against a plan by German developer Aby Rosen to construct a 30-story building on Madison Avenue on Manhattan's East Side. Here's a snippet of Wolfe's prose:

Tom Wolfe Takes on the Developers

On top of this block-long low-rise he intends to build one of his Aby Rosen jumbo glass boxes full of commercial space and condominiums, rising straight up a sheer 30 stories. His big problem -- or, to be more accurate, ''problem'' -- is that 980 Madison is in the heart of the Upper East Side Historic District, and it would be hard to dream up anything short of a Mobil station more out of place there than a Mondo Condo glass box by Aby Rosen.

But lest one think that all intelligent people are against the construction, consider this. Harvard University economist Edward Glaeser, himself a native of the East Side, fired back in the New York Sun, which is cheekier and more conservative than the Times. He wrote:

On the costs side, blocking new development ensures that Manhattan will stay unaffordable. New supply is the only way that middle-income people will be able to afford the city.When supply is choked off, people must pay more for housing, and firms in New York must pay higher salaries to their employees. The mayor has courageously fought for and achieved an increase in granting construction permits because he knows that the city’s economic vitality depends on its affordability.
The core issue in this battle is respect for private property. Aby Rosen, not the community, owns 980 Madison Ave. The Landmarks Commission’s stripping him of the ability to build would represent a great step in state power over private property. It seems odd for members of the normally nonsocialist urban haute bourgeoisie to support so enthusiastically such a massive expropriation of private property.

Fights over development go on every day all over the country, but they're especially fun to watch in Manhattan because so many very smart, very wealthy people get into sweaty wrestling matches that make it very hard to sort out the seating arrangements at the next society dinner.