Monday, August 17, 2009

easy living, not always easy to maintain

Golf in communist Cuba, migrant workers in Depression-era California, these are precursors to today's post on the impact of current recession in the US on what we used to call the country club set.

The editors of yesterday's Washington Post decided that an article on the financial hardships of wealthy suburbanites deserved front-page placement above the fold. The article, Squeaking by on $300,000, gives information about the inhabitants of "Birch Hill," a $2.5 million house which the author calls "a majestic property of tender grasses and low stone walls and a whimsical sculpture next to the swimming pool." Maintaining this place is expensive: the house requires $8,000 to $10,000 a month in outlays and other costs pile up: the live-in nanny, for example, at $40,000, as well as pricey schools, shops, and services. Kids expect, and get, clothes and possessions to match the prevailing standard of living. And — these days — the income of the owner, divorced mother of three, is not quite commensurate:
As a vice president at MasterCard's corporate office in Purchase, N.Y., she earns a base pay of $150,000 plus a bonus. This year she'll take home 10 percent less because of a smaller bonus. She receives $75,000 a year in child support from her ex-husband. She figures she will pull an additional $50,000 from a personal investment account to "pick up the slack."
The author of the piece profiles the nanny alongside the employer:
"I hit my recession 15 years ago in the Catskills," the 55-year-old nanny says one morning after everyone is gone. , and her words tumble out with a loose honesty. Plugging a leak under the sink, she stands up and gestures toward the pipe and says, "I fix things, too. Being as how once I had a house."

In 1994, Shellogg was working at a cement plant in Upstate New York as a chemical analyst earning $40,000 a year with a union card. "I had everything in that job," she says. When the plant shut down, she lost her position and then her home. A help-wanted ad for a nanny lured her to Rye, and now, three families later, she has the hang of Westchester County.
Steins wears a dark Armani suit and take-charge heels; has blue eyes that are lustrous and skin that is golden. "Even with wet hair and no makeup, she radiates confidence." Shellogg is also tan and blond, but has a chunker figure, less patrician face; wears comfy sweats (view images 6 and 7 in the Post's gallery accompanying the article). "Yet," the author concludes, "they can also seem like two exhausted blondes trying to keep a house going."

The Post article includes a photo of the house (no. 9 in the gallery). And it's pretty easy to find others like it, with its pool, gardens, and quarter-mile long driveway. For example, the New York Times did a real-estate background article on Harrion a few years ago: A Lovely Stretch of Suburban Opulence. It gives this photo:

{EMERALD LAWNS A house at Archer and Stratford Roads in Harrison; source: NYT}

Also, a page called Harrison Real Estate shows what's currently on the market in the range of six down to a mere one million dollars.

I've some small experience of the environment. The last reunion of my high school graduating class took place close to a Harrison-like suburb and a classmate invited some of us to lunch at her home, one very much like Laura Steins's Birch Hill. She was recently widowed and, with grown kids, was planning to sell out. I was very happy to be a visitor there: large, traditional house set on sloping hillside with floral and vegetable gardens, groves of fruit tress, a pool with pool house, lawns and old trees.


I was raised in a suburb near Harrison but not too much like it. It possessed lots of open space, a quiet village atmosphere, and an exceptionally good public school system. Though pretty much homogeneous as to ethnic origins (as in northern European), it wasn't an enclave of rich bourgeois; there were lots of little houses on small lots, like the one in which I grew up. I now live in a close-in, small-lot suburb which is coping with a "mansionization" problem but still has many small homes (again like mine). It too isn't much like Harrison. There's lots of wealth and power here, but also lots of neighborliness — no vast expanses of lawn or quarter-mile driveways.

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