Fear and loathing in tales of Manhattan real estate

July 03, 2005|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Sun Staff

Real Estate

The Sky's the Limit: Passion and Property in Manhattan

By Steven Gaines. Real Estate. Little, Brown. 273 pages.

Poor you, trying to buy a house at the peak of the real estate bubble, getting outbid on even crummy fixer-uppers and dealing with realtors who now answer their phones with a disdainful, "It's already sold."

It could be worse. You could be trying to buy in New York, where, as one realtor in Steven Gaines new book, The Sky's the Limit, tells a client interested in trading up: "Don't even think of selling that house... Even if I got you eight million dollars for your place, there is nothing out there for less than ten million that's comparable."

To read about such woes at the high-end of the Manhattan real estate market is to experience no small amount of Hausenfreude. At least buying your basic Baltimore rowhouse doesn't entail getting past that most ruthless of New York gatekeepers: No, not maitre d' at Per Se or Anna Wintour's receptionist, but the co-op board.

The most dishily delightful part of The Sky's the Limit deals with these monstrous boards, made up of residents who determine who can and can't buy apartments in their buildings. They've been accused in the past of discriminating against any number of groups -- gays and Jews, for example -- but, as Gaines explains, they often win their cases because of the nature of co-op apartments.

Because buyers are acquiring not the physical walls and floors of their new apartments but stock in the private corporation that owns the building, courts have upheld the boards' right to choose who can share their space.

This is almost a uniquely Manhattan thing, it being a small overpopulated island that basically requires its denizens to live on top and aside one another in exquisitely close quarters. Ergo, even the likes of Barbara Streisand, Richard Nixon and Revlon chief Ronald Perelman have been turned away from apartments they could well afford.

Gaines is at his best limning the WASP enclave of the Upper East Side, where the late Baltimorean Reginald F. Lewis was among the rare persons of color in one of the best of the so-called "Good Buildings" or "GBs." (That would be 834 Fifth Ave., and this book is nothing if not a stalker's best friend, revealing where such celebrities as Peter Jennings, Donna Karan, Diane Keaton and Jerry Seinfeld hang their hats.)

The book reads like a string of magazine articles -- the chatty, insider-y kind you'd read in New York magazine or the New York Observer -- and it's not entirely clear what Gaines' larger point is. Some anecdotes point to the waning power of the old Not-Our-Kind-Dear co-op boards, for example, others to their continued iron rule.

But perhaps no overarching meaning is necessary. This is enjoyably pure gossip, with a bit of a veneer of anthropology -- the nesting habits of Homo Richmanhattanus. It is a species that flocks not to Home Depot but to I.M. Pei when it's time to remodel.

Jean Marbella is editor of The Sun's Today section.

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