We’re not talking metaphors here. In urban hotspots like New York, the slender luxury towers of the global super rich are assaulting the sky. Inequality is literally blocking out the sun.
By Sam Pizzigati
In the late 1920s, the walk through his Manhattan neighborhood always left attorney Amos Pinchot thoroughly depressed.
The scion of an affluent New York family, Pinchot had once enjoyed taking a stroll down Park Avenue. But the street had changed. The heyday of America’s original plutocracy had changed it. Park Avenue by the 1920s had more millionaires than any other stretch of real estate in the world, four times more than all of Britain.
The immense wealth of these Park Avenue millionaires towered over the rest of America, as did their residences. New York’s wealthiest, Pinchot sadly recorded , “have permitted this Avenue to be built up almost solidly with skyscrapers so that, in spite of its width, Park Avenue has become, except for a few brief hours each day, a great sunless gulch of high winds and shadows.”
Few of Pinchot’s fellow affluents shared his perspective. They rushed instead to take up residence in the new high-rising palaces like Park Avenue’s thrilling new Ritz Tower, all 541 feet and 41 stories of it. No one in the world had ever lived in a home as high up as the top floors of the Ritz.
In our 21st century, an era of plutocracy reborn, a new generation of luxury towers has invaded New York.
And Pinchot’s complaint about the shadows? The gentleman, his neighbors no doubt snickered, doth protest too much. Any sun-worshippers, after all, could just mosey over a few blocks into Central Park and find all the unencumbered sunshine they could ever want.
Not anymore. In our 21st century, an era of plutocracy reborn, a new generation of luxury towers has invaded New York. These new residences are rising twice as high — and more — as their predecessors in America’s original plutocratic era.
The shadows these new towers cast, notes  architectural critic Paul Goldberger, extend deep into Central Park and amount to “no casual matter.” Someday soon, notes Goldberger, Central Park is “going to look striped.”
The initial icon of Manhattan’s bold new generation of skyscraping residential towers, the blue glass One57, sits just south of Central Park on 57th Street and stands 1,004 feet — and 90 stories— tall.
One57 won’t officially open until later this year, but some residents have already moved into the soaring building’s 94 condos. They’re paying top dollar, $6,000 and up per square foot for apartments that can take up entire floors.
Can’t get a handle on how expensive over $6,000 per square foot can be? Try this: The typical American home these days runs about 2,500 square feet. At $6,000 per square foot, the typical three-bedroom American home would cost $15 million.
A mere $15 million won’t get you past the doorman at towers like One 57.
A mere $15 million won’t get you past the doorman at towers like One 57. One unit in the slender building has already sold for $90 million.
Over at 432 Park Avenue, a tower set to open in 2015, a penthouse apartment has gone for $95 million.
This new 432 Park will, at completion, rank as the world’s tallest residence. Its 96 stories will rise up just under 1,400 feet, 150 feet taller than the Empire State Building and about 40 feet higher than the world’s current tallest residential skyscraper, the Princess Tower in Dubai.
New York’s new residential towers don’t just rise incredibly high. They rise incredibly slender.
Traditional skyscrapers all sat on massive, thick bases. The original World Trade Center North Tower, for instance, rose 1,368 feet into the sky off a square base 209 feet long on each side.
The North Tower’s ratio of base to height, less than 1:7.
Structural engineers, observes  a current Skyscraper Museum of New York exhibit, define as “slender” any tower that sports a 1:12 ratio. To visualize that ratio, the museum suggests, just take the ruler in your desk drawer and stand it straight up on your desk.
The new 432 Park will rank as the world’s tallest residence.
Midtown Manhattan’s new towers make 1:12 buildings seem short and stocky. The tower at 432 Park, once ready for residence, will sport a 1:15 ratio.
The most slender of all the new towers, a structure now starting to rise at 111 West 57th, will soar  at a 1:23 ratio by its 2017 completion. The 77 floors of this over 1,300-foot-high luxury residence will rest on a base only 60 feet wide.
Why so many floors for these ultra-luxury towers? Why such a slender profile? The developers of the new towers, points out  New York’s Skyscraper Museum, are simply following the “logic of luxury.”
The world is currently overflowing with super rich willing to pay a premium — willing to pay, in fact, almost any price— for lofty condos that can take up entire floors and offer spectacular views looking in any direction.
For the globe-trotting super rich, these condos actually do double duty. They give “the top 1 percent of the 1 percent,” as Paul Goldberger notes, a place “to touch down in when the mood strikes.”
The new towers also give the super rich a place to park their cash, a tradable luxury commodity. Ultra-luxury condos, says  real estate appraiser Jonathan Miller, amount to “bank safe deposit boxes in the sky that buyers can put all their valuables in and rarely visit.”
The new towers give the super rich a place to park their cash.
The insatiable demand— in our increasingly top-heavy world— for these “safe deposit boxes in the sky” gives luxury developers an irresistible incentive to build tall and thin. They build tall to maximize the number of sky-high units they can put on sale. They build thin to give as many units as possible entire floors — and the panoramic vistas that only apartments taking up entire floors can provide.
How tall can this new generation of residential super towers go? Architectural analyst Paul Goldberger isn’t making any predictions. Almost every new tower announced, he notes, “seems built to be taller, thinner, and pricier than the one that came before.”
In the meantime, the new slender towers— and the shadows they cast— do serve a social purpose of sorts.
“If you seek a symbol of income inequality,” says Goldberger, “look no farther than 57th Street.”
Labor journalist Sam Pizzigati, an Institute for Policy Studies associate fellow, writes widely about inequality. His latest book: The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970 .