Has Tom Wolfe Blown It?

In the author's latest foray into combat, it's his fame he's fighting to preserve

Wolfe watched intently as various power players lined up to support their friend Aby Rosen, himself a figure in the New York social world; he recently married socialite- psychiatrist Samantha Boardman. Wolfe must have felt a shudder of joy, a twitch of youthful nostalgia, as the muse of instigation once again fluttered into his mind.

To wit: If the city's elite were lining up behind the development, then Wolfe would line up against the city's elite. He would take on the powerful developer and his celebrity machine. He would expose how its seductive hum influenced the landmarks commission. He would shake his fist at the power players in City Hall. It would be a return to his homespun Southern populism. Wolfe versus Goliath all over again!

On November 4, he wrote a letter to the commission. "On the face of it, sticking a gigantic glass box in the middle of the Upper East Side Historic District at 980 Madison Avenue is a flagrant violation of the principles upon which the New York City landmarks preservation process was founded in 1965," wrote Wolfe. "But this is a new century with new money, new politics, and bungee principles. Who is to say that your office should have to keep looking backward and not go with the flow?"

Tom Wolfe's right stuff
Tom Wolfe's right stuff


Tune in: Has Tom Wolfe Blown It?

Three weeks later his diatribe against the commission appeared in the Times. In the end, Wolfe might not think too highly of 980 Madison Avenue. But the building had served a higher purpose. What else could Wolfe possibly want from 980 Madison Avenue? I ask Wolfe, if he had his druthers, what he would do with the building in the future? "Well," says Wolfe, "nothing."

Toward the end of our interview, I ask Wolfe about the feedback he's received from the Times tirade. "If you write a piece about land- marking, you don't sit by the telephone waiting for reactions," says Wolfe. "It's not considered the most sexy subject in the world."

If nothing else, Wolfe's critique of the landmarks commission has succeeded in getting Wolfe's name back in the limelight. Once again, he is basking in the glow of public admonition. Compared to the fervent protests that have met his other work, the outcry over his attack on the commission has been mild. Perhaps not a perfect storm. But at least a perfect drizzle.

In subsequent weeks, the New York Observer responded with a piece called "Preservationists Cry Wolfe; We've Got Their Numbers," which essentially argued that Wolfe was exaggerating the ineffectiveness of the commission. In the pages of The New York Sun, Edward Glaeser, an economics professor at Harvard University, argued that the disruption of 980 Madison Avenue would end up further limiting the housing supply and thus help keep real estate prices astronomical.

Not surprisingly, Wolfe is more than happy to rebut his rebutters.

"Unfortunately the demand for places to live in Manhattan is overwhelming because New York right now is the capital of the Western world in the way that Rome was once the capital of the Western world, and Paris and, to a lesser extent, London," says Wolfe. "Right now this is the place. That development certainly isn't going to help the housing situation. Just more people who have the money will be able to move in."

"To take [Glaeser's] theory to its logical conclusion would be to develop Central Park," adds Wolfe. "When you consider the thousands and thousands of people who could be housed in Central Park if they would only allow them to build it up, boy, the problem is on the way to being solved!"

In the week following Wolfe's attack, Robert Tierney, the chairman of the commission, eventually responded by writing a gentle letter to the editor at the Times pointing out that the commission "has protected more than 7,000 historically, architecturally and culturally significant buildings and structures in the last 20 years alone."

One member of the landmarks commission, who asked to remain anonymous because the case of 980 Madison Avenue remains open, notes that Wolfe—despite his supposedly detailed reporting on the motivations of the commissioners—has not attended any hearings in recent history. Which might help explain some things. "He is definitely a good writer of fiction," says the commission member, "definitely over-the-top. The references to all these fabulous parties and all these fabulous people who are at the door wanting to shake our hands and air-kiss us are preposterous."

"I don't think he's in the trenches much," adds the commissioner. "He's like a deus ex machina."

But is he like a theatrical Greek god, lowering himself onto the stage to extricate the protagonist from a difficult situation? Or is this more a case of Tom Wolfe returning to the public stage yet again to rescue Tom Wolfe from the maw of obscurity?

"If you judge simply by people sending me e-mails or stopping me on the street or at the gym—I meet more different people at the gym than anywhere else—then, yes, anecdotally I think I got a lot of response," says Wolfe. "The layout in the Times was so big. A lot of people read it and said, 'Wow, what's going on?'"

Note: Absolutely, positively not Wolfe's real e-mail address.
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