Under my byline

The wailing wall

Posted in Living by Rrishi on 12 October 2008

George Washington at Federal Hall, NY, by JQA WardWall Street: one-time bastion of capitalism, new destination for the disaster tourists

After Hurricane Katrina had completed its awful work, and while government and voluntary agencies were still gathering their wits, tour operators were already organising bus tours of the devastation for the morbidly curious. You see the same thing in the media anyway — the moral argument goes — so why not see it with your own eyes?

Locals along the coast who were hit by the Asian tsunami are also familiar with “disaster tourism”. In Tamil Nadu carloads of gawpers drove through, and freelance do-gooders turned up with quantities of “relief” materials that often did no good.

Well, there’s disaster in the air everywhere now — financial disaster, that is — and who’s to stop the disaster junkies from descending on its epicentre? New York is where it all started, and if you’re there, do take a turn through the Financial District around Wall Street to see what the agony has wrought.

All may be quiet on the surface, apart from wailing restaurateurs with a suddenly thinned clientele, deliverers of $300 haircuts tearing their hair and limo rental agents kicking their wheels.

Look below the surface, then: try the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, which hosts about $100 billion of gold in its underground vaults. In democratic America, you are welcome to take the free tour, and they will give you a glimpse of the only commodity that’s ballooning in value.

There’s also Federal Hall, first capitol of the USA, where George Washington was inaugurated and the Bill of Rights passed. Washington was a landowner, and you may imagine his famous statue shaking a finger at passersby and telling them they should have stayed with land instead of all these incomprehensible “financial products”.

Or try the Museum of American Finance, which preserves, with ominous relevance, such items as ticker tape from the Great Wall Street Crash of 1929, and share certificates signed by John D Rockefeller.

Wander around and you will pass monsters of modern capitalism such as the NYSE, NASDAQ, NYMEX and other exchanges, all now deserving their gloomy look in the shadow of other monsters — the skyscrapers, of which there are several from the optimistic years before the Great Crash. You can curl your lip at 14 Wall Street, where J P Morgan once lived on the 31st floor, or at 40 Wall Street, which was briefly the tallest building in the world — before another corporate titan eagerly overtopped it with his Chrysler Building (and then along came the Empire State to topple that dream).

And there’s the Wall Street bull, the hubristic sculpture of the rampaging herbivore gifted to the city by sculptor Arturo Di Modica. It cost him $360,000 of his own money.

Nothing is permanent — have fun while you can afford to.

(Archana Jahagirdar gave me the idea for this story.)

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