Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn is the Marie Antoinette of the Bronx. A Manhattan art gallery owner who lives with her investment banker husband in a mansion just off Fifth Avenue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Rohatyn staged last month’s now-notorious celebration in Port Morris that employed images of the burning borough of the recent past as party decorations.
She simply can’t understand why anyone would be offended that a video of burning buildings served as an invitation to the South Bronx. What, she wondered, could be wrong with adorning the venue with trash fires and with a sculpture fashioned from the carcasses of bullet-ridden automobiles.
Similarly clueless is the man who footed the bill, Keith Rubenstein, a billionaire developer who plans to build luxury towers on the Harlem River at Third and Lincoln avenues. He thought it would be a fun idea to publicize his plans by inviting a batch of celebrities, fashionistas and well-heeled investors– “a horde of gorgeous and wealthy creatives,” the New York Observer gushed–to swill champagne in an abandoned warehouse.
Not many Bronxites joined the throng, but—no surprise—Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and Bronx Assemblyman Carl Heastie, the Speaker of the State Assembly, were among the merry-makers. Apparently, they, too, can see nothing wrong with finding in the suffering of a generation of South Bronx residents the makings of an amusing stage set.
Nor have they taken exception to Rubenstein’s desire—proclaimed in a billboard near the Third Avenue Bridge—to rename the neighborhood “the Piano District.” What residents call home—Port Morris, Mott Haven, South Bronx—the developer sees as damaged brands.
Names have meaning. Erasing these names erases from memory the courage of those who endured, those who rebuilt and those who strive today to raise their families and improve their lot in the South Bronx. But that’s not something a billionaire real estate developer would care about.
Before it was reduced to a political slogan, “A Tale of Two Cities” was a fine novel by Charles Dickens, set in the years before and after the French Revolution and portraying the cruelty of the wealthy and the cruelty it provoked in turn from the oppressed. In it there is a character who could as easily inhabit the New York of billionaires as the Paris of Louis XVI.
Like the partygoers of Port Morris, this aristocrat of Dickens is oblivious to the lives of ordinary people. Like them, he thinks money is the only social bond. He throws a coin to a peasant as today he would make a contribution to a politician. It may not buy affection, but it buys obedience.
Of him Dickens writes sarcastically that he “had the truly noble idea that the world was made” for “his pleasures.” Sound familiar?
He is as astonished to learn otherwise as those who partied in Port Morris were to learn that their celebration was a cause first for sorrow and then for anger, and that they will not so easily trivialize or erase the South Bronx and its residents.
This editorial was published in the Mott Haven Herald on November 10, 2015.