We're Europe's Bargain Bin
The pain of watching foreigners buy up Manhattan.
When I sent out the invitations for my December New York City wedding, my European guests were flushed with excitement—and not entirely over the event itself. They arrived en masse, flashing credit cards, ravenous to pillage the stores. iPods were bought; champagne was ordered before water in restaurants; even my impoverished-artist friends were giddy with newfound buying power.
"Thank you for throwing your wedding during the holiday sales," said one, calling me from an uptown department store. "It was good enough getting it all half-off, but now it's like a posh bargain basement."
At the time, I was too busy to feel jealous or left out. And anyway, who could take the decline of the dollar personally, for God's sake? If anything, I saw the situation through the prism of ironic detachment: Wasn't it all so interesting, how the tide was turning? New York City, once a formidable fortress of look-but-don't-touch, was becoming practically kittenish in its accessibility.
But six months later, the joke is wearing thin. Despite some rah-rah rallying this week in response to a pep talk from Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, the dollar has fallen 11.5 percent against the euro and 7.2 percent versus the yen since September 2007, and it continues to limp along.
So the European conquest proceeds. Realtors partially credit the strength of the Manhattan residential real estate market to foreign investment. Jim Gricar, executive vice president and director of sales at Brown Harris Stevens, estimates that such purchases may have spiked 15 percent recently (others have placed the estimate as high as 25 percent). In the ultimate gesture of pragmatism, some American women are reportedly paying as much as $6,000 a year for membership to dating services that introduce them to British men.
"It's a fire sale," the owner of one such service told the New York Post.
Market-savvy opportunism? I guess, but frankly, the latter trend just grossed me out, like seeing a bunch of scabby rats flee a sinking ship.
Not that you can blame the Europeans in this equation: They're simply taking advantage of their good luck, as we've done before. Indeed, our country owes a chapter of its most important literature to the dollar's former strength overseas, allowing expats like Fitzgerald and Hemingway to revel in the then-cheapness of Paris and the French Riviera. It's just unfortunate to be part of a generation in which these particular cards have turned on us.
And on some level, we should be quite grateful to our European patrons—as Floyd Norris recently suggested in the New York Times, it's entirely likely that European tourist spending in Northeastern cities is just about the only place (except gas) where U.S. consumer spending is on the rise.
Still, there's truth to the old adage that you eventually grow to resent your benefactors. It's undeniably depressing that we're relying on European tourists to prop up our economy. What makes it worse: Our consumerist benefactors don't even like us. International opinion of the United States and its inhabitants has tanked over the last eight years, practically eviscerating fond memories of Americans as midcentury saviors of the free world.
Lesley M.M. Blume is an author and journalist based in New York City.
Photograph of shoppers by Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images.