The ads in the real estate section of the Sunday New York Times are a barometer of perceived need: what we think about when we are at our hungriest, our most grasping, our most insecure. Like the Times’ wedding announcements—which are now detailed narratives about love at first sight, missed opportunities, and second chances—the ads are a literary form dealing primarily with desire. With little more than newsprint and ink, they dangle the hope that we will someday carve out a permanent place in this turbulent city. They whisper the word “stability.”
Even if you understand that they belie the “real” in real estate, that they are entirely stardust and moonbeam, that you will never, ever be able to afford what’s on offer, the listings for the latest in luxury condos are compelling. Why? Because here in New York we live on top of one another—literally and figuratively. We inhabit 500-square-foot studio apartments that brokers call “mini-lofts” and floor-through apartments in walk-ups that have been around since the Civil War. We live in spaces where the right angles have warped away and every surface is coated with the effluvia of generations past. And let’s not even talk about the bedbugs. The copywriters have our number.
Take the Lucida on East 85th Street, where prices start at $2.8 million. The ad boasts of “filtered fresh air.” In other words, if I lived there, I wouldn’t have to breathe the same dirty air as everyone else in New York. Or I could buy into Village Green on East 11th Street—with its one-bedroom apartments for just over a million—and feel good knowing that the place is “targeting LEED Gold certification.” Many of New York’s newest apartment buildings eagerly advertise a relationship, however tenuous, with LEED. One is “LEED registered”—meaning the building is still under construction and is not eligible for certification yet—and another says “LEED Certification Anticipated.” It’s not just that a shiny plaque from the U.S. Green Buildings Council suggests energy efficiency and long-term thinking (and bike rooms). It’s that the very idea of LEED telegraphs cleanliness.
A few years ago, before the bubble burst, the ads were full of names—marquee architects and interior designers listed as if condos were Hollywood films. Now, as the market is creeping back (median sale price in Manhattan is $1.48 million, up over 12 percent from last year), and the dormant projects that dotted the post-bubble landscape are waking up, the values expressed in the ads are more nuanced.
Yes, there are still names. “World-renowned architect” Robert A. M. Stern designed 1280 Fifth Avenue; Rafael Pelli, son of Cesar, is credited for the Visionaire down in Battery Park City; and the Lucida ad namechecks Cook + Fox, a firm known for high-performance green buildings. But the advertising copy has become markedly zen. “Live better in every sense” is the motto at Village Green. “A smarter kind of living” is available at the Lucida. The ad for two buildings called Liberty Luxe and Liberty Green insists, “You are where you live.” Yes, you are.
After I bought my own apartment six years ago, found in a tiny classified ad entirely devoid of glamour or poetry, I went cold turkey: I stopped reading the real estate section, even the articles. Gradually I backslid into recreational perusing; after all, the real estate section is like Page Six for the architecturally inclined. But just recently I’ve become fixated. I was planning to move into my sweetie’s improbably huge SoHo loft and rent out my place, a complex maneuver in itself. But he’s found it necessary to put it on the market. So when the loft—“stunning and dramatic” in brokerese—sells, we will have to find a new apartment together. Extra complex. The ads are now speaking to me with a frightening urgency.
And one in particular sucks me in. It’s the address: 123 Third. After a moment I realize I used to live next door. The new building, where one-bedroom apartments start at $815,000 and LEED certification is surely on the way, occupies the “prime corner site” of my former bodega—a crazily dysfunctional little store where I’d sometimes stop in for a three a.m. fried-egg sandwich. This luxury tower, with its Poliform kitchens and Miele appliances, actually takes up several building lots and wraps around my old co-op like one of those face-hugging movie aliens.
But the newspaper ad does its job: It lures me to the website. There, I see a sample of the panorama afforded by the ten-foot, floor-to-ceiling glass window walls. Weirdly, it’s almost exactly the view I used to have—except better. The Con Ed building’s clock and the goofy pyramids atop the Zeckendorf Towers never shimmered like that through my standard issue aluminum-frame windows. And I realize that this is precisely what real estate advertising is designed to do. I can see a revamped version of my own life: bigger, brighter, no effluvia.