Living The Dream
The demographics at our Warburg offices form a microcosm of the world in New York. African-American, Armenian, Dominican, Puerto Rican, Filipino, Chinese. Irish, Italian, Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews. High WASPS, Poles, and Russians. Beyond our interest in real estate, we are united by a few seminal facts: first, we are all here because our families, in this generation or in the last five or eight generations ago, believed that their lives would be better in America than whence they had come. And second, none of us really knows or cares too much about who came from where. We admire and promote talent. We learn from each other, we embrace everyone’s traditions. We are, after all, a nation, an enormous family, of immigrants.
Being a nation of immigrants breeds some problems, foremost of which is the “pull up the ladder” mentality. In case after case, those who were already here lacked enthusiasm for the subsequent wave of arrivals. Each of these populations, in its turn, was barred from certain jobs at first, until gradually the barriers broke down. And racial discrimination became illegal; in my lifetime I have never seen the want ads which populated my mother’s childhood, ending with the phrase “No Irish Need Apply.”
But prejudice is insidious. During World War Two thousands of Jews aboard the ship “St. Louis” were turned away from our shores, only to be sent back to Europe to die. Certainly the anti-Semitic radio railings of demagogues like Father Coughlin contributed to the problem, but the fundamental issue was fear. The Jews were Communists, some Americans believed, or they ran the banking cartels which secretly controlled the worldwide flow of capital. They formed a threat to our internal security. And consider the extraordinary indignities suffered by the Japanese Americans: our fellow citizens rounded up and placed in internment camps. Again, the fundamental issue was fear.
Human beings fear the unknown, the unfamiliar. As a developing species this fear was no doubt adaptive, and in some situations it remains so. But we have anti-discrimination laws and fair housing laws for a reason: sometimes we all need to be reminded to attend to our better instincts. Landlords cannot discriminate against single mothers or gay couples (nor, incidentally, can co-op Boards!) Neighborhoods evolve, accommodating new waves of people from everywhere, joined by their desire to work hard to pursue the American dream.
I have always made it part of my personal mission to break down barriers in the co-op world. The family I was told could never get into the building was precisely the family I was determined to see in the building. Because when we are our best selves, skin color, ethnicity, religion – none of it matters. When we are our best selves, we see that we unite in a common enterprise – the building of our unique and beautiful country.
My wife Alexandra’s Anglo-Irish father and Italian mother came to America when she was a young girl. “The streets were paved with gold,” is how she still describes the faith her parents had in the possibilities which would open to them on these shores. And open they did, for them like so many before them. They died residing in a townhouse in the East 60s. They raised college and post-college graduates, homeowners, teachers and learners – a family liberated into possibility by their surroundings.
I feel proud to lead a firm which champions the housing rights of all Americans and would-be Americans. I look forward to our dealings with Syrian refugees as they come to America to join the ever-shifting kaleidoscope of our town.