This documentary by Alex Gibney, director of the Corporation amongst others, takes as its starting point the disjuncture between Park Avenue Manhattan and the other Park Avenue over the river in the Bronx. The former is home to some of the wealthiest people in the country whereas the latter is a site of endemic deprivation:
40 Park Ave, New York City, is home to some of the wealthiest Americans. Across the Harlem River, 10 minutes to the north, is the other Park Avenue in South Bronx, where more than half the population needs food stamps and children are 20 times more likely to be killed. In the last 30 years, inequality has rocketed in the US — the American Dream only applies to those with money to lobby politicians for friendly bills on Capitol Hill.
It’s a startling and provocative documentary. However I would have enjoyed more reflection both upon how such affluence and poverty can co-exist within the context of the city and the everyday lives of the super-rich. This co-existence has always fascinated me about London, as the only world city I’ve ever lived in or really know to any meaningful extent. It’s also something which is increasingly under threat, as ‘reforms’ of housing benefit look likely to create a situation which even prominent conservatives have described as a ‘social cleansing’ within the city. Given the absence of rent controls (and their continual failure to even enter into debate as a possibility) and soaring house prices, as the global elite desperately seek relatively safe investments, housing benefit paid to those on low incomes has led to far higher payments in London then elsewhere in the country. These effective subsidies to private landlords are now being capped, with the likely implication being a large demographic restructuring of the population of London. But obviously the wealthy denizens who remain still need people to serve them… this perhaps is where the lives of the rich and the poor intersect most in an otherwise divided city. But what are these everyday lives really like? We don’t actually know. But a fascinating project being undertaken by a team from Goldsmiths, KCL, LSE and York is investigating precisely this, as described by Roger Burrows in a post for the LSE Politics Blog:
With few exceptions, the very wealthy have not been examined in any detail; this despite the signal increase in their numbers globally, including in Britain, and widespread popular interest in their (mis)fortunes. There is also the suggestion that the super wealthy are ‘moving away’ from the larger ranks of the professional middle classes, and our project is designed to take forward these concerns in a developed, systematic and substantial way.
The number of individuals who might be considered as ‘super-rich’ can be operationalized in any number of different ways and as part of this project we will examine a range of these. One sensitizing conceptualisation is that offered in a 15-year series of reports by Capgemini and Merrill Lynch. These analyses distinguish between High Net Worth Individuals (HNWIs) and Ultra-HNWIs (UHNWIs). HNWIs are defined as people who hold financial assets in excess of $1million – so this excludes residences, collectables, consumer durables and consumables. In 2010 there were estimated to be some 10.8 million HNWIs globally with wealth totalling $42.7 trillion. UHNWIs – a subset of this group – are defined as those who have financial assets of $30 million or more. In 2009 it was estimated that there were just 78,000 such people across the globe (but holding over one-third of total HNWI wealth). The geographical spread of HNWIs is much as might be expected: 31 per cent in North America; 31 per cent in the Asia-Pacific; 29 per cent in Europe; with the residue located in Latin America, the Middle East and Africa.
The few empirical social scientific studies of the super-rich that do exist tend to be nested within the long tradition of studies of elites. This is an important literature, which informs our work, but the existing conceptual tool kit that this tradition provides, focused on corporate interlocks and social network closure, needs to be radically re-worked to allow an analysis of the dynamism and complexity of the materially rich metropolitan and globally-oriented class now inhabiting significant sections of global cities like London – home to a disproportionate number of the world’s billionaires.
In addition to exploring the extent of proactive socio-spatial dis/engagement by the affluent we will also set out to explore the extent and forms of attachment (if any) that wealthy individuals and households have to specific neighbourhoods and urban centres. Do they, for example, develop similar forms of ‘elective belonging’ as spatially mobile members of the middle classes? While the degree to which genuinely super-rich households are ‘footloose’ has often been cited in political debates about inequality and the taxation system, there is little in the way of empirical evidence to help adjudicate on the matter. How important is attachment to neighbourhood in ‘holding’ the rich ‘in place’? This is a significant question if we are to better understand the degree to which the super-rich feel that lifestyle and urban services are substitutable at urban and international levels. Linked to this concern we note the somewhat scant knowledge we currently possess about the links that the contemporary urban rich have with the arts; to galleries and other distinctive service infrastructures – the kind of ‘soft’ attributes of place often identified as influential in attracting a creative and innovative milieu.
Nothing is as emblematic to me of the long term trajectory of London than One Hyde Park. This once-in-a-life-time investment opportunity offered to the world by Christian and Nick Candy quickly smashed records when its incomprehensibly expensive and gaudily decorated apartments went on the market after years of hype.
But the ownership of the apartments is shrouded in a veil of secrecy. Plus the owners are not actually there:
Designed by the architect Lord Richard Rogers, who also designed London’s iconic Lloyd’s building, One Hyde Park has divided Britain. Gary Hersham, managing director of the high-end real-estate agency Beauchamp Estates, says it is “the finest building in England, whether you like the style or you don’t,” while investment banker David Charters, who works in Mayfair, says, “One Hyde Park is a symbol of the times, a symbol of the disconnect. There is almost a sense of ‘the Martians have landed.’ Who are they? Where are they from? What are they doing?” Professor Gavin Stamp, of Cambridge University, an architectural historian, called it “a vulgar symbol of the hegemony of excessive wealth, an over-sized gated community for people with more money than sense, arrogantly plonked down in the heart of London.”
The really curious aspect of One Hyde Park can be appreciated only at night. Walk past the complex then and you notice nearly every window is dark. As John Arlidge wrote in The Sunday Times, “It’s dark. Not just a bit dark—darker, say, than the surrounding buildings—but black dark. Only the odd light is on. . . . Seems like nobody’s home.”
That’s not because the apartments haven’t sold. London land-registry records say that 76 had been by January 2013 for a total of $2.7 billion—but, of these, only 12 were registered in the names of warm-blooded humans, including Christian Candy, in a sixth-floor penthouse. The remaining 64 are held in the names of unfamiliar corporations: three based in London; one, called One Unique L.L.C., in California; and one, Smooth E Co., in Thailand. The other 59—with such names as Giant Bloom International Limited, Rose of Sharon 7 Limited, and Stag Holdings Limited—belong to corporations registered in well-known offshore tax havens, such as the Cayman Islands, the British Virgin Islands, Liechtenstein, and the Isle of Man.
From this we can conclude at least two things with certainty about the tenants of One Hyde Park: they are extremely wealthy, and most of them don’t want you to know who they are and how they got their money.
Is this the future of the city? Luxurious developments owned by absentee landlords who have purchased them as investments, tended to by an army of service staff bussed in from the periphery of the metropolis. There’s something about the vacated nature of One Hyde Park which grips me (and not in a good way) given this vacuity – in more than one sense – goes hand-in-hand with all the staff on call. As a metaphor for the economic structure of neoliberal capitalism, it’s a grim one which, unless something changes, could become ever more accurate.