Old Money and new, in the age of foreclosure. The town is more ephemeral than it appears, and an influx of hedge-fund wealth spurred a speculative-construction boom.
In the town of Greenwich, Connecticut, it is illegal for a real-estate agent to post a “For Sale” sign in front of a house or a tract of land. For many years, such an ordinance was unnecessary; those who needed to know knew, and those who did not did not. But in the nineteen-eighties, with the arrival in town of national real-estate firms, “For Sale” signs started sprouting up, cluttering the roadways with middleman names and numbers. Many residents found the signs unsightly and crass; some home-town agents, keen to preserve the relationship between their local knowledge and their market share, agreed. The signs’ most persistent opponent was a satellite-television mogul named Rene Anselmo, who lived in a mansion modelled on the Petit Trianon, at Versailles. Patrolling his street in a Bentley convertible, Anselmo uprooted any “For Sale” signs he could find and piled them in the Bentley’s back seat. One day, the police arrested him for spray-painting over a Realtor’s sign near his house. After admitting that he had done this to eight or nine other signs, and remarking that he wished he’d used a chain saw, he became a kind of folk hero, the John Brown of real-estate signage. In time, the town came around and passed a law. It has never been tested in court.
By Nick Paumgarten, The New Yorker, August 25, 2008
The absence of such signage has been a blessing in recent months, as the town’s brokers and homeowners have sought to maintain, in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, that they are immune, more or less, to the ravages of the credit crisis. On its own, the subprime-mortgage fiasco would not much affect home prices in Greenwich, a place more prime than sub, but it has reverberated through the financial system, costing many residents, actual or aspiring, their jobs or credit lines. If brokers’ signs were allowed, the town might look, from the right distance, like a giant and very expensive tag sale, and the sudden conspicuousness of so much supply, in a time of slackening demand, might shatter a range of illusions best epitomized by the risible listing prices. Generally, people are almost as protective of their property values as they are of their children, and will be as doting in their appraisals of both.
We’re in a season of white elephants, of projects commenced in good times now languishing in bad. The sight of a stalled construction project or half-empty development touches off, even in the most disinterested passerby, a kind of queasy delectation. Deep-seated thrift craves vindication, just as envy wishes for comeuppance, but even the most pious strain admits a twinge of fear in the face of vacancy and failure. When others are going under, you could go under, too. An unwanted house, no matter how hideous, is a little sad, like an empty restaurant or a child left out of a game.
North of the Merritt Parkway, Round Hill Road, one of four arteries that run up from central Greenwich to the New York State line, enters what is called backcountry Greenwich, the precinct of the old country estates, now mostly gone or diminished. Still, it is a neighborhood of stately houses, vast fields, big oaks, and stone walls. Not far along, you come to Mooreland Road, which passes through what used to be a hundred-and-sixty-eight-acre farm belonging to the industrialist Charles A. Moore (starting in the nineteen-twenties, Scottish hands in his employ staged annual Highland Games there) and near the childhood home of the actress Glenn Close (a Moore descendant and twelfth-generation Greenwicher). It ends in a cul-de-sac, at the head of which is a large new faux-classical house belonging to a hedge-fund manager named Julius Gaudio, who once spent seven hundred and eighty thousand dollars at a charity auction on two packages, for himself and his wife, featuring a round of golf with Bill Clinton and a pair of Manolo Blahniks, and whose clutch-burning attempts to gun his Ferrari up his steep driveway greatly amused the longtime Moorelanders next door.