Confessions from Park Avenue: Ignorance, Privilege and Change

This week the Occupy Wall Street protest ventured uptown, to the Upper East Side of Manhattan–where I grew up.

I have always been reluctant to admit that for a good portion of my life I called Park Avenue home.  I knew what kinds of stereotypes would instantly leap to my interlocuters’ minds upon hearing these gilded signifiers: “Upper East Side,” “Park Avenue,” even “Manhattan.”  And indeed, I have known many neighbors who fit the model of the wealthy socialite snob.  But there are also thinking, feeling, compassionate people living on Park Avenue.  They are guilty, above all, of the privilege of ignorance.  They truly don’t know how the other half lives.

I can just hear the scornful snickers and groans that greet this statement.  But it’s true.  I know it because I lived it.  And to some extent, you’ve lived it too.  All of us Americans have this privilege relative to people living in desperate material circumstances in other parts of the world.  At least our society pays lip service to the ideal of equality.

The tony apartment buildings lining Park Avenue are urban gated communities.  Most are co-ops, and it is difficult to buy your way into them–money alone won’t do the trick, you also have to be thoroughly vetted by the co-op board, and depending on the building, you may or may not pass muster.  The people living inside tend to be very reserved with one another.  You might not get to know your neighbors even if you live in the building for twenty years or more.  You might know your daytime and nighttime doorman better than the person who lives on the other side of your bedroom wall.

As for knowing more of the world, and how ordinary people live, well–there is television. There is the internet.  But in terms of flesh and blood, there is very little connection.  Back at the turn of the 20th century, Jacob Riis captured the lives of the less fortunate in his sensational book How the Other Half Lives, which shocked the nation and inspired some excellent reforms.  That kind of documentary expose has become much more commonplace in our time, to the point where even the most shocking revelations–sex slaves in Westchester, sweatshop labor in Chinatown, human organ thieves in Brazil–have lost their power to shock.

A crowd of people chanting, holding up signs and making merry through the hushed, tranquil streets of the Upper East Side, though–now that is shocking!  In my 20+ years of living in that august quartier, I can only remember a few times when anything like this happened.

Once was on a long-ago St. Patrick’s Day, when the Fifth Avenue parade-goers got a little too drunk, a little too rowdy, and the police had to step in and reimpose order.  My mom, brother and I watched in amazement from our the 9th floor window overlooking Park Avenue.  Quiet was soon restored.

Another time was when the lights went out back in 1977, and there was some looting over on Lexington Avenue.  We heard the shouting and sounds of glass breaking, but of course nothing could touch us, secure behind the gates and under the watchful eyes of our uniformed doormen.

This is the central fact of privileged existence, Park Avenue-style.  Nothing can touch you.  The red carpet of privilege rolls out in front of you effortlessly; you live in an enchanted bubble, from which the distant rumors of unrest are just that–distant rumors, which you don’t understand, and don’t care about enough to investigate.

I say this now to underscore the success of the Occupy Wall Street protesters in breaking through that bubble, at least a little bit.  The tight membrane of privilege surrounding the NY Times popped after three weeks of pressure.  It will take a lot longer to penetrate the hearts and minds of the men and women who work on Wall Street and live up on Park and Fifth Avenues.  But just because it will take a while to get through is absolutely no reason to be discouraged.  It can be done!  And it should be done.

I have a feeling that there are probably a lot of people like me living on Park and Fifth Avenues today.  Privileged by birth, but with the same hearts, minds and sense of compassion as any other American.  Just ignorant of what’s up with the 99%.

For instance, one observer of the “Millionaire’s March” noticed “a chic young mother,” who “turned to a puzzled daughter in a tony school uniform, “People don’t have jobs right now,” she explained. Whether Mom connected this fact to the actions of any of her neighbors was anyone’s guess.”

Did Mom connect this fact to her own actions, is more to the point.  For the privileged, it’s too easy to pass the buck.

I am currently working on a book, which I call a “political memoir,” in which I try to understand the social dynamics of privilege, and how and why some people become “privilege traitors” and go against their own class interests.  Judging from this week’s events in New York, I am going to have a lot of interesting material to study, beyond my own story.  Stay tuned.

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2 Comments

  1. It may be that the upper-east-siders are in fact more true to themselves than those of us (point to self) who decry the trappings of cloistered wealth but do as little as the socialites to connect with the less fortunate. (Although I suppose our attempts to live compassionately are reflected in the way we vote and what we choose to spend our money on.) I would like to think I am a privilege traitor but it’s a hard thing to be in a world without a social safety net. When even the well off among us feel they are no more than an unlucky cancer diagnosis away from poverty, it’s hard not to put your own interests and those of your family first.

    Reply
  2. Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

     /  October 13, 2011

    Yes, this is how our society keeps us all in line–through fear of falling/failing. If we did have a strong social safety net, and improved education for all, imagine how high we could collectively fly!

    Reply

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