Never Rich Enough
By Gina Bellafante
New York Times August 28, 2014
On an evening during the last stretch of summer, 385 people arrived at the studios of LTV, a cable-access programmer in Wainscott, on the East End of Long Island, for a town-hall meeting to discuss mounting aural assaults from commuter helicopters going to and from Manhattan.
The issue had been igniting tempers all season — especially in the communities of Shelter Island, the Springs and parts of the North Fork, areas where a lot of the noise has been absorbed and where local self-perception runs less toward the glossy and indulgent than it does elsewhere on the East End.
“In 2007 we banned helicopters,” Jim Dougherty, Shelter Island’s town supervisor, told me, pointing out that none of his constituents ever complained about the prohibition. “So it is the height of irony that we should become the dustbin for the East Hampton airport.”
Helicopter traffic at the airport this summer has increased by close to 40 percent over last and with it has come a comparable rise in tension between the very affluent and the exceptionally rich.
“Quality of life truly is being diminished for commercial greed and the convenience of the same people who burned the economy,” a longtime Shelter Island summer resident said to me.
“When I look up at small planes and choppers I see a fleet of middle fingers across the sky.”
At the turn of the last century it was the bourgeoisie in New York and other major cities who might have envisioned similar gestures of contempt directed at them by robber barons fleeing to Saratoga and Newport during July and August via the era’s own elaborate and expensive means of transport, private rail cars or yachts.
Richard Hofstadter, in his classic work of historical analysis “The Age of Reform,” published in 1955, argued that it was the disgust and disruption felt by those who had previously occupied the highest ranks of the social order toward the new superseding class of self-lavishing bankers and industrialists that ultimately allowed the Progressive movement to flourish. The undermining of status radicalized the formerly complacent, and class politics took shape because one segment of the population had so much money that the merely respectable could now identify with the actually poor.
“To face the insolence of the local boss or traction magnate in a town where one’s family had long been prominent was galling enough,” Hofstadter wrote, “it was still harder to bear at a time when every fortune, every career, every reputation, seemed smaller and less significant because it was measured against the Vanderbilts, Harrimans, Goulds, Carnegies, Rockefellers and Morgans.” A survey of Progressive Party leaders in 1912, he noted, revealed how overwhelmingly urban and middle-class they were. None were farmers and only one came from labor.
It is easy, of course, to mock the grievances of those driving their $40,000 Volvos to $1 million summer houses against those spending thousands on helicopter rides to their $10 million houses as distinctions without a difference.
Every fall, this dynamic of envy-repulsion finds renewed context in the private-school world of the city’s most exclusive neighborhoods, where parents who trudge to school with their children on foot find themselves exercised by those who drop them off in Town Cars; and parents who spend $2,000 a year on SAT tutors mine their outrage over those who are able to afford 10 times that or more. (On Tuesday, a piece in Business Insider profiled a Manhattan SAT tutor who charges $1,500 for 90-minute sessions delivered through Skype.)
As in the early 20th century, however, the subject of inequality, especially in New York, began to dominate conversation in our own age, once those near, but hardly reigning at, the top started to feel acutely affected by it. And today, the urban upper-middle class again animates progressive politics. A current example is the candidacy of Zephyr Teachout, a Manhattan legal academic, who with her running mate, Tim Wu, another Manhattan legal academic, is challenging Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in the Democratic primary on the grounds that he has been too submissive to the interests of big money, and that Wall Street generally has wielded too much influence — too much of it pernicious — over the lives of New Yorkers.
“Mike Bloomberg was a great pragmatist, and there’s something to be said for that,” Mr. Wu told me from a campaign bus, just before he was endorsed in his bid for the nomination for lieutenant governor by The New York Times editorial board. “But we need to get past pragmatism, past the Democratic Party ideas of the ’90s that you could just tinker with capitalism around the edges.”
This was obviously the sentiment shared by New Yorkers who elected Bill de Blasio as mayor last year. Then, in the months leading up to the mayoral primary, a high-end downtown real-estate broker explained his leftward shift to me, and the reasons he intended to vote for Mr. de Blasio. Included among them, he said, were the struggles he witnessed in families “with $2.5 million apartments” who were juggling multiple school tuitions and so on. In the primary, exit polling suggested, Mr. de Blasio received similar percentages of votes among those making more than $100,000 and among those making $50,000 to $100,000.
The fight against helicopters on Long Island has involved many in local politics for the first time and empowered others to realize that they can call upon government to rectify imbalances that may seem like variances in lifestyle, but have broader resonance. What may fail to result in easy victory might in the end serve as an incentive to a more expansive activism.