Vanderbilt on a Friday
‘I wonder when they’ll realize that they’ve been building below sea level.’
When I was a teenager, my dad and I would wake up early, at least one morning each weekend, and walk from one end of our neighborhood to another. We would begin, of course, at our apartment building, located on a quiet street that in the morning was suffused with a peaceful golden light. This was especially so if it had rained the night before. We’d walk from there down a street that hugged the coastline. Past the hospital, past a few small shops, past a pharmacy and a colmado, and — inevitably — past the construction zone of the Vanderbilt Hotel.
The Vanderbilt, one of the ritziest hotels in all of San Juan, took about a decade to build. In that time, my height increased by a good ten or twelve inches, the island witnessed the installation and replacement of several governors, and the sea level rose too much. My dad’s preoccupation had to do with this last point — as we passed the construction site, he would typically offer some variation of the above comment. The fact that the construction of this hotel was out of sync with the ecology was indeed worrying. And over time, I developed some other, related worries of my own.
A couple of years ago, the Vanderbilt opened for business. The lobby was spectacular, decorated in velvety reds that juxtaposed dramatically with the deep turquoise of the ocean. However, after a while, I learned that while the lobby was open, none of the guest-rooms were even remotely finished. Put a different way, while the lobby had already acquired great social standing, each and every one of the upper-level rooms was a gutted disaster filled with concrete, and perhaps the occasional roach. Not quite up to the standards, I would wager, of their preferred customers.
Today (and I do mean, literally today), the Vanderbilt is playing host to an event called ‘The Lifestyle Program.’ It is exclusively for the spouses of the Puerto Rico Investment Summit attendees. The Puerto Rico Investment Summit, for those of you who are wondering, is — to quote directly from the event’s materials — ‘The Premier Investment Conference in the Caribbean.’ It explores ‘Opportunities Under Acts 20, 22, 273, 399 and Other Investment Vehicles in Puerto Rico.’ Simply stated, it gives local politicians, lawyers, and bankers a chance to network with foreign (US and international) investors — and, together, explore the exciting opportunities that Puerto Rico’s financial crisis offers for the world’s wealthiest.
The event, which consists of conference sessions and $150-per-person galas in equal measure, is sponsored by the Puerto Rican Department of Economic Development and Commerce, and a number of partners. These include Sotheby’s (an international art dealer), El Nuevo Día (a Boricua newspaper), BDO (a consulting firm), and a dozen or so listed others. Guest speakers include Alejandro García Padilla, the Governor of Puerto Rico, former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and John Paulson, the CEO of Paulson & Co.
As I write this, the Lifestyle Program for Spouses is underway. Information sessions on real estate, healthcare, education, and lifestyle are taking place. The invited speakers represent the island’s elite in all of these sectors. As I gaze in the direction of the hotel and peruse the program brochure, I cannot help but notice the irony that amidst a real financial crisis, people are celebrating the fact that the so-called best of what Puerto Rico has to offer is open, wide open, to them.
I am not in a position to write about what the financial ramifications of outside investment are on Puerto Rico. I do not have access to that kind of information. But in truth, neither does anyone else. Whether or not the welfare of the island is being discussed in this summit is something that most of us may never know. We cannot pretend to know precisely what is going on.
But nor can we believe implicitly in the value of foreign investment — in the ability of outside capital to, by default, create jobs and improve an economy. And we definitely cannot believe that such private investment is a good thing if, at the same time as these conversations are happening, funding is dwindling within the public sector. The budgets for services like higher education are being slashed. I do not trust the opportunities that the summit attendees are discussing. And I don’t have to.
‘I wonder when they’ll realize that they’ve been building below sea level.’ You can take my dad’s comment literally — after all, it’s true. But you can also take it metaphorically. As I’ve seen in Condado, environmental and social responsibility are not top priorities when new construction projects are approved, and overhauls to the ecological and cultural landscape take place. Irresponsibility is permitted, often in the name of luxury. Symbolically and in fact, wealthy investors are indeed building below sea level. They are making choices that do not correspond to the irrefutable realities of contemporary environmental, economic and social conditions on the island (or indeed, the wider world). Nor do they seem at all interested or (if you like) invested in the changes that need to take place for Puerto Rico to thrive — and to, in the words of a friend, ‘come out of this on the other side.’
More than the Vanderbilt’s structural integrity is at stake here. And fortunately, the community of activists on this island is formidable and resilient. Pa’lante.
What Is Enough?
Many of us have heard these two words so often that they now seem clichéd.
Here in the US, we often receive injunctions to appreciate the small things in life. The magazine Real Simple (which, incidentally, is several hundred pages long) encourages us to clear the clutter in our closets and living rooms. At yoga studios, paring down to the basics — the breath, the body, and Enya — is an essential element of many teachers’ philosophy and style. And very often, advertisements entice us to buy products by sending the message that, if we purchase that latte or eyeshadow or blazer, we’ll somehow have access to more of life’s simple beauties. And there’s no time when, in popular culture, shopping is more linked to beautiful simplicity than during the holiday season. Allow me to explain.
Go to the mall nearest you. Buy nothing. Just windowshop. Take in the displays, the floorplans, the music. Explore the way it all makes you feel. If you’re like me, you might creep into the following stores: Teavana, Anthropologie, Zara, Williams Sonoma (Trust me.), Pottery Barn. You’ll regard the overpriced merchandise the way you would museum artifacts — fun to look at, but not to own.
In all of these places, you’ll find coziness and comfort. You’ll be the recipient of messages that beauty, family, friendship, laughter are indeed possible. If only you bought that $200 parka, that $50 bottle of mint lotion, that $70 cheese grater, that book A Hipster’s Christmas (price on request).
… A professor in Washington, DC once told me, with laughter in her eyes but gravity in her voice, that the only place in the United States where people can gather publicly without a permit is the mall. This half-joke, half-truth brought another observation to mind: that the mall is the place where we can most easily find affirmations of the simple things that we want out of life. Shops that sport yogawear also feature images of skinny women meditating (?) in sun-soaked studios. The models featured in makeup stores pose against dazzling, glittering backdrops. And during the holidays, marketing geniuses bring the environment into the mix with full force.
… A well-dressed twenty-something drinks coffee and smiles out the window at a bright red cardinal — who is holding a sprig of holly in his beak for good measure. Kids snuggle up to their mothers and fathers on a sofa that, somehow, has made its way to the center of a snowy landscape. Jewelry hangs on bare branches, creating a sort of aesthetic symbiosis that makes both look more beautiful. These images of people coexisting with nature fuels one of my (sort of) guilty pleasures: admiring what advertisements have done to transform the way we imagine global capitalism. When faced with such attractive images — such depictions of simple pleasures — we forget how extraordinarily complicated, and shrouded in secrecy, global capitalism actually is.
I don’t know about you, but I have no idea where most of the goods I buy come from. I don’t know their stories. I don’t know the ecological and social sacrifices that were made to bring all these products to a mall near me. And thanks to advertising, it’s all too easy to forget to ask these questions.
This holiday season, a group of climate activists here in the US (myself included) are launching a campaign that challenges us, our friends, and fellow Americans to ask the question: What is enough? I’m humbled by this question, from the very first. I don’t feel equipped to answer it. But I feel confident in this: that without simple pleasures, it is very difficult to enjoy this life. And simple pleasures are, by definition, available to all people, regardless of how much you earn or where you live.
Or at least, they should be available to all people. We should all be able to enjoy the friendliness of a flower if we wish. To sit for hours over a cup of tea without being rushed. To appreciate the beauty of a smile. To walk alone and contemplate the trees in our neighborhood at night, without fearing for our safety.
But here’s the problem: we do not live in a society that honors simple pleasures. We are all encouraged to be too busy, and congratulated when stress forces us to forget the things in life that matter most. In our minds, we’ve transformed the environment from a source of sustenance and inspiration to a product — something to be coveted, priced, owned.
Our campaign this holiday season revolves around a simple message: that consumerism is rapidly destroying our environment, and the environments of our brothers and sisters all over the world. And though we are not encouraged to think about it, the truth is that we need a healthy planet. Without it, would not be able to drink. Or eat. Or rest. Or hope. Or laugh. Or breathe. I challenge the makers of the $200 parka, the $50 bottle of mint lotion, the $70 cheese grater, or the book A Hipster’s Christmas (price on request) to meet such absolutely essential needs.
Advertisements often tell us that consumer products will satisfy our most simple and beautiful wishes. And they do so with spectacular success. But this holiday season, we hope to challenge ourselves, and others, to seek beauty and simplicity in the Earth, and in each other, instead of in the mall. I promise that the world around us can be just as lovely as the world represented in store windows and the ad pages of our favorite magazines. And it is up to us to see it.
So, we’re asking the question ‘What is enough?’ and answering it in our own way. And in a nutshell, my answer (or at least, part one of my answer) is this: when it comes to shopping and the holidays, creativity is enough. Making our own presents. Learning to see the wonder in our world. Discovering the joys of laughter, music, and art. Realizing that the act of consuming has nothing whatsoever to do with simple pleasures. And understanding that finding simple pleasures for ourselves is, at the end of the day, more fun than you might have ever imagined. For real.
Radical windowshopping– a contradiction in terms, some would say. If shopping, plain and simple, is passive and uncreative, windowshopping could only be more so. But for me, windowshopping has an entirely different meaning. We live in a world of conspicuous consumption, where people buy in order to show off what they have. Marketing definitely has something to do with it– media messages connect objects to personality, saying that owning certain things will make you a certain way. Malls are filled with displays that not only announce new products, but also offer some suggestions as to how those products can improve multiple elements of your life. The result? Inspiration : ).
Shopping is, for me, one of the least life-affirming activities I could possibly be doing. There’s something about the process of wanting and then consuming that does not appeal to me, and I would much rather do new things with what I already have than purchase new things altogether.
That being said, I grew up surrounded by stores. From clothing to jewelry to home decors, Condado (my neighborhood in San Juan) is filled with shops, and I spent practically every day of my childhood walking past them and exploring inside. Viejo San Juan, too, is the same way, only there the assortment is slightly different. Spices, beads, cotton clothing, masks, paintings, music– San Juan is a beauty-lover’s paradise. And yet even there, I hesitate to buy anything. Instead, I windowshop. Meaning? I walk in, look around, chat with the store owner, try to figure out how things are made, and leave, filled with new ideas and inspiration for creative projects in the future.
Being filled with things you can own is only one of the features of a store. My cousin and I like to talk about stores as museums of sorts– it just happens to be that the things in the museum are on sale. But I’ve found that I’m most at peace with the concept of a store when I think of it as a place where things are not on sale– where we can view works of art and become inspired to craft art in our own lives. So, the next time that you find yourself in a store you really enjoy, try doing the following:
- Stand at the entrance and take a deep breath. Close your eyes and open them again. What is the atmosphere in the space? What makes you feel comfortable, and what makes you feel uncomfortable? If you’re drawn to the atmosphere of the store, what elements of the ambiance can you incorporate into the other spaces in your life?
- Pick an item that you find beautiful, or interesting in some way. How is it made? How it is being presented?
- Now assume that you are unable to acquire this object. Unable to possess it and call it your own, you can only be inspired by it. Let the item– whether it is a piece of jewelry, or a candle, or a jacket, or a pair of shoes– give you some new ideas for ways to live creatively. Maybe seeing a new pair of shoes can inspire you to go out dancing. Or maybe a superbly designed furniture store can propel you to finally rearrange your own living space.
We do not need objects in our lives. And yet, we are surrounded by them, all the time. And we are also surrounded by media messages that tell us that we need those objects, for reasons that run deeper than simply practical convenience. We are told that certain objects are necessary for certain lifestyles, and that our own fulfillment is therefore tied to consuming, consuming, consuming. I think that all of these ideas are insanity. But as long as we are surrounded by objects, we might as well treat them as they could be– as springboards for new thoughts and the realization of creative potential.
As reminders of the variety that is possible in our physical worlds, and what we can do to make the world around us a more beautiful place. We could start treating stores like museums, refraining for buying and instead looking around, interacting, and experiencing. We could stop buying, and instead look at the objects around us as an invitation to create, individually, and collectively. We could be radical windowshoppers.
Who knows, maybe then the huge franchises will close down, businesses will become smaller, and one day, when we see objects, we will not only be able to look at them superficially, and yearn to own them because of what they represent. We will be able to look at objects and talk to the people who made them, experience the object as part of a creative process. We will be able to look at objects and not have to push thoughts of sweatshops and abuses of power out of our minds– labor will be honored because greed and unsustainable demand would have subsided. Objects will cease to be replacements for all that we fear we do not have, and will instead be a concrete manifestation of the creative capacities of people.
When I go into stores now, I don’t know where most things are coming from. I don’t know the stories of each of the dresses, or pieces of jewelry, or shoes that I look at. But, in the stores that I enjoy walking around in, I am still captivated by their beauty, and I appreciate the experience of seeing them and asking about them. But I do not want to buy them. I don’t know their stories, and the act of consuming them scares me more than it appeals to me. So, instead, stores have become museums– and free museums, at that! Ideally, those museums would share the stories of the objects they house, but for now, I’ll treat them with a respectful distance, and practice radical windowshopping. Embracing objects as fuel for new ideas. Free fuel. And maybe occasionally, but only occasionally, fuel for sale.