Big Apple's rich pickings leave sour taste for the city's poor

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The Independent Online
New York is boom city. I know this, because you cannot move for fat wallets on Fifth Avenue, where the likes of Tiffany and Gucci are reporting record takings. I know it because friends cannot afford the tiniest apartments, for which rents are halfway to the Moon. And I know it because the more insane the prices are on a restaurant's menu, the less likely you are to get a table.

These Manhattan canyons that I stare down on from The Independent's mid- town nest are cascading with dollars. The source is Wall Street, where the rise in profits has more or less matched the jaw-dropping trajectory of the stock market. With profits come bonuses. One securities firm boss was reported this week to have taken home $33m (pounds 20m).

So how to explain the scene that greets me one morning on my walk from Grand Central Station to the office? A queue of people, almost exclusively black and hunched against a bitter wind, is snaking around all sides of two city blocks on the east side of Madison Avenue.

Crushes of this kind - police offer a rough count of 5,000 - occasionally occur when a true celebrity is in the neighbourhood. But this is something different. There is no excitement in faces here but rather grimness, even desperation.

It is a queue for work. Its head is at the entrance of the Roosevelt hotel. On its way to being returned to its long-lost splendour, the monolithic Roosevelt reopens next month. On Monday it placed a notice in the city tabloids advertising jobs, 600 of them. Even the hotel's spokesman, Ted Knighton, confessed to being astonished by the queue that started forming at 3am. "I expected a big turn-out, but nothing like this." Take away the worn trainers and the over-stuffed parkas and it might have been one of those snapshots from the Depression.

Frank Brunson, 50, from Brooklyn, arrived at 7am and was told to go home by 11am. Laid off last month from his job as a security officer, he is surprised by nothing. "Every time it is like this. You get to the front and they say come back tomorrow. To me, 30 years ago it was quite different. You could get jobs. Now, I don't know what's happened. Just too many people in this town, I guess."

See how it really is in New York. Not good. Not boom city. For most, those like Mr Brunson who do not have bonus-paying jobs and do not have loft addresses in the hippest corners of Soho and Tribeca, the struggle goes on and is apparently getting worse.

Last year New York City reported 9.9 per cent unemployment, much higher than the national rate of 5.2 per cent and one of the highest city rates.

Underlying this is a new economic disjuncture that is special to New York. It used to be that the city's wider economy rose and fell as Wall Street's did. Bad times on the stock market would quickly cast a pall over the whole of New York. But when good times returned and Wall Street celebrated, it was never long before all the five boroughs joined the party.

It was a relationship most vividly demonstrated by rates of growth in personal income. In previous Wall Street booms, the rate for the whole of New York City would consistently outpace that of the nation, while in bust periods New York growth rates would lag.

Statistics for 1989-1995 show how the formula has been shattered. According to the state's figures, the rate of growth in real income for workers in the security industry was an astonishing 42.4 per cent. For those not employed on Wall Street it was 3.8 per cent.

What happened? There are various explanations. Much of that bonus money, for example, does not get spent in New York but in the suburbs of Connecticut and New Jersey. And in Aspen, Colorado. Some even argue that, in spite of the hordes on Fifth Avenue and in the BMW showrooms, the big-swinging- dicks of the 1990s are not into spending in the way of their 1980s predecessors.

More important, however, is the changing nature of the securities workforce. In 1987 Wall Street employed 163,000 people, compared with 150,000 today. But in addition to that, those jobs are now almost exclusively white-collar. The legions of lower-earning clerical workers who used to keep the brokerage houses from drowning beneath paper have been supplanted by computers.

Another sector of the New York economy experiencing a boom of its own is the tourist and hotel industry. Otherwise, hotels like the Roosevelt would not be getting facelifts, while others are rising brand-new from fresh foundations. And this queue would not be here.

It is hardly surprising that some in the crowd voice the mantra that in this economy it seems like it is the few who get richer, while more people get poorer. "They keep telling us the economy is getting better but better for who?" asked Florentina Melchor, also from Brooklyn, and unemployed. "For most of us it is just getting more difficult."

David Usborne