We Need a New Metonym

Earlier this year, Duane Reade, the New York pharmacy/convenience store chain, opened its “flagship” store at 40 Wall Street, just east of the Stock Exchange, and slightly west of a set of skyscrapers formerly owned by financial giants like J.P. Morgan Chase, now upscale apartments. The banks that used to occupy these buildings long since left the Financial District. Shortly before Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy, that institution moved its headquarters far uptown, to 51st and Broadway. Others had their headquarters in or around the World Trade Center, and simply never returned after 9/11. In the picture below, both of the skyscrapers are apartments. The remaining buildings, high end boutiques.

This is all to say, the “Financial District” no longer lies at New York’s economic heart. When we talk about reforming “Wall Street,” we’re recalling a piece of the past, which no longer describes the new neighborhood. And while I’m normally the first to encourage historically-based descriptors, this one isn’t without its drawbacks. The idea that New York, and a particularly small part of New York, controls the nation’s financial destiny is inaccurate, encourages the kind of culture war tropes that “leaders” like Sarah Palin exploit to set us against ourselves, and fosters a misunderstanding of how structured transactions, and the other types of instruments involved in modern finance, actually operate.

To our other problems with the Occupy Wall Street protesters, then, add this: they’re playing off an outdated definition. Though I suppose it does make the NYPD mounted brigades tasked with “holding” the entrance of Wall Street strangely appropriate — an outdated symbol of state power to defend an outdated symbol of the financial sector.

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2 comments

  1. The Bastille was not a terribly important prison. In fact, when it was stormed, there were like 2 or 3 prisoners and a handful of (mostly elderly) guards.

  2. New York need not hold power; it need only define its terms. “Wall Street” is as real as “Madison Avenue” once was, whatever its physical location, because so many people believe in it.

    New York’s real power – one that is not going away soon – is the power of the maker of mass opinion. Left, right, center or anywhere in between, the agendas and terms of discussion on blogs and boards the net over are mostly defined by New York.

    This is true because fresh ideas and thoughtful discourse are such a poor cultural fit with so much of America. In most places they simply betoken elitism, be it class, educational, or even ethnic. Because New York is so secure in its place as the home of elites of all those descriptions, the conversations intelligent people can’t have in public most places are always on the table in New York.

    And because of all these things, New York will remain the maker of mass opinion as long as it wishes to. Nowhere else, certainly not in Washington, can talk be so quickly and effectively made reality.

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