Sunday, March 22, 2009

Puffery in the Press

Advice to writers: Sometimes you just have to stop writing. Even before you begin.
-- Stanislaw J. Lec (1909 - 1966), "Unkempt Thoughts"

Well folks, the boys and girls at the Southampton Press are at it again. We’re not really in a Recession or even a mild Depression, because the “bridge and tunnel crowd” are all around us buying out the stores in the Hamptons. In fact, there’s barely any room to park those Mercedes’. Lizzy Grubman says so. Even though her comments are made from home in Manhattan.

After trashing Grubman mercilessly in their rag a few years ago, they now want to quote her to revive the local economy. The comments following the article all focus on Grubman and, of course, the negative remarks were all published. Press editors usually filter out negative comments about them or the publication if they appear online.

And, in a sideswipe at the New York press, (not to mention this blog) which has been reporting the fact that real estate sales are non-existent and that rentals are a disaster, this article practically oozes confidence in the Hamptons chic. In other words, maybe someone at Town Hall thinks that, “Gee, maybe we do need the New York people to pay the bills here, after all!” But, no one can seem to admit that and simply say it.

Of course, the fact that the author, “investigative journalist” Michael Wright, quotes PR people and advertisers found in the Southampton Press, begs the question: from what planet does the writer hail? Or, better yet, did the assignment to find optimism come from Joseph or Donald Loucheim, the current publisher. Is advertising down, perhaps?

Now, before anyone gets too testy, let’s understand our terminology. The “bridge and tunnel crowd” a term used by the Southampton Press writer, was coined to describe visitors from New Jersey and the Boroughs (as in Queens, Bronx, Staten Island and Brooklyn), who regularly visited Manhattan on weekends, to party. Referring to those from Manhattan obliquely as part of the “bridge and tunnel crowd” is not only incorrect – it is indicative of the negative attitude towards all New Yorkers. As, in, “we love to hate them but they bring cash.” In fact, the only cash that is likely to prop up the Hamptons. And, in truth, on an income basis, it is more likely that a Manhattan resident would be the owner of a weekend retreat in the Hamptons. Jerseyites generally visit and buy on the Jersey shore – where it is more fun, cheaper, and has less Code Enforcement police to hassle them in a summer rental. While the summer rental crowds from the Boroughs as well as Manhattan still do come to the Hamptons, they have been disillusioned by the anti-New Yorker attitude that has chased away summer house shares, which used to proliferate in the Hamptons and supported so many local businesses. Skip Heaney, as Supervisor, saw to it that they were treated as targets by Town government.

Now, the Town wants that money to come back because McMansions are no longer selling. With no mortgage money available, dwindling Community Preservation Fund money to dip into, evaporating property taxes, missing Town funds, and a budget deficit -- rentals may now be the only form of hard currency for the Hamptons. Think about that folks.

While the reporter acknowledges that Sag Harbor has seen no such uptick in business (except for the American Hotel), that fact is merely a tag line in this puff piece trying to pass as news. And, although Westhampton Beach Village was recently visited by another, stellar reporter named Jessica DiNapoli, no mention was ever made of the fact that in that village numerous businesses have closed up, several establishments have ceased to exist and large stores are vacant or closed with no date for re-opening (National, Westhampton Bowling Lanes, Westhampton Movie Theatre, the Health Food store and a few others). In addition, several stores have shrunk or downsized. Apparently, no one who attempts to write at this newspaper talks to each other about such “facts” to check.

There is no line for a space to park your Mercedes in Westhampton Beach. Nor is there ever a sighting of the Mayor or Village Board. Perhaps, those elected officials should visit Water Mill or East Hampton and pick up a few tips on bringing in business. Or, the reporter might give them a lecture on how to arrange for those crowds milling about in Water Mill, like zombies from “Night of the Living Dead,” to move their operation in front of some shops on Main Street?
It is likely that the business experienced in the last week was due to the numerous, rolling, spaced out St. Patrick's Day revelers that has brought some restaurant activity in many villages, but little else. The same holiday is celebrated for weeks in different East End Towns and Villages.

And, should it be pointed out that parking spaces and window-shopping do NOT bring in cash. Just as calls to brokers do not translate into sales or rentals.
In other words, folks, this bizarre puff piece has all of the earmarks of a plant for PR purposes, supported by PR operatives, designed to encourage more business from people who the writer wittingly, unwittingly or dim wittingly is insulting (“bridge and tunnel crowd” a.k.a New Yorkers) and who the Town continues to target if they rent a summer house and try to pay for it the old-fashioned way – sharing it with friends. In fact, last weekend saw another wave of Code Enforcement “visits” to no less than 40 properties owned by various New York landlords to check for rental permits. This is a prelude to more heavy-handed actions against Latinos and young New York renters—which is the reason why the new law was passed. It should be scrapped completely.

This article was, as they say, an attempt to put lipstick on a pig. The pig, in this instance, is the disastrous economy in which we are all suffering. To think that people, who are losing their jobs and cannot afford their apartments, will drop everything and flee to the Hamptons to line up in Starbucks – because of this puff piece -- is approaching madness. And it is an insult to those who are suffering in this deflationary recession. While Wall Street may be responsible for the derivatives-driven economic meltdown, New Yorkers are not stupid.

However, the article is.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Sun Also Sets

People everywhere confuse what they read in newspapers with news.
-- A. J. Liebling (1904 - 1963)

The journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason.
-- Hunter S. Thompson (1939 – 2005)

As the apparent economic implosion arrives with full force more and more businesses are reading the tealeaves and what the facts portend.

It is already March and in the Hamptons real estate-driven economy – where the only form of financial engine pays for everything from summer rentals, to hamburgers, to newspapers – desperation has begun to set in.
This is playing itself out in a few ways. The election process, which has always been a Republican fait accompli at the polling stations, is now seeing inroads from a previously dysfunctional Democratic Party. That is no longer true and there have recently been real challenges and successes – including Sally Pope on the Town Board and possibly Anna Throne-Holst as Supervisor in November.

Many New Yorkers have moved from Manhattan, relocated to the East End, and become more involved in Hamptons politics along with the artists of previous decades. With them has come a more progressive view of how business should be done at Town Hall.
What cannot change overnight, is a response to the Wall Street debacle initiated by the creation of a derivatives market which has poisoned the well for everything from corporate debt and mortgages, to bonds and credit-default swaps for esoteric debt instruments. As this plays out on the economic stage, the Hamptons will suffer more than the canyons of SoHo, Tribeca and Wall Street where condos and coops will first experience defaulted common charges (to be assumed by the others in the building), and then move on to actual foreclosures.
Right now, the outer boroughs are contracting at an alarming rate and the default and foreclosure rates are soaring. The SoHo Journal has been writing about this for several years as Wall Street plumbs the depths of the Dow.

In the Hamptons, the big lie is that it is just going to be a “later season.” In fact, many real estate brokers are saying that the lack of phone calls is scary.

Where will this lead? Well, everyone will be cutting prices on everything. There will be a summer but you know that things are difficult when lawyers start calling for business. Many lawyers and brokers no longer do any closings because there are simply no mortgages, no customers (above the $350,000 range) and more than two year’s worth of product sitting in the pipeline. This will lead to layoffs at Town Hall, in the police departments, at local stores and at many real estate agencies. When the money runs out and the flood of tourists dwindles because they have lost their jobs, the economy WiLL contract. That is already happening.

How is this reality being handled?
Well, among the die-hard Republicans and old boy network, they try to protect their friends.
Instead of reaching out to New Yorkers, where the money has always kept this Ship of State afloat, those who criticize the local economy and lack of foresight – as well as the corruption among the politicians who have brought us to this place in time -- it has always been popular to attack the opposition.

The only source of Hamptons news has traditionally been the Southampton Press, a Louchheim publication that has always taken its direction from the Republican Party, Town Hall and Law Enforcement (whom they fear) operating on instructions and fealty to its advertising base – the Republican Party regulars. They employ inexperienced “reporters” who take direction on the slant that the publication should produce for so-called public servants, like Town Attorney/Assistant District Attorney Joe Lombardo (who has been sued in Federal Court for his irresponsible and unconstitutional behavior) and conducts smear campaigns on assignment from Loucheim.
Since there is no real news organization in the Hamptons, efforts by the likes of Jessica DeNapoli, a “reporter” whose journalistic expertise rises to the level of “What I did on my summer vacation” and who apparently follows instructions to target political opponents of the Loucheim dynasty and its political handlers. Joe Lombardo, who works for the Town and its Heaney holdovers as well as his boss Spota call the shots and provide the leads. No matter that they are criminals hiding behind a political appointment.

The search for reasons why the derivative market is THE reason for killing the world economy (all $700 Trillion of the bets that are burying us); the Wall Street boiler rooms which created the foreclosure meltdown by securitizing and selling off worthless debt; the fact that mortgage brokers were psychologically beaten and threatened to create more and more product – is nowhere to be found in the local press. What this “news” organization focuses on is the DWI’s in local police blotters, dogs being brought into Town Hall, and noise violations in Westhampton Beach. Instead of bringing New Yorkers closer to the Hamptons, targeting and attacks are the new “journalism.” The institutional racism, which has spawned numerous Federal lawsuits, against Town Attorneys and politicians, has received little or no follow-up.
Where are the reports about the true costs for legal fees due to the unconstitutional actions that hide behind the Towns legal decisions? Where is the investigation of Code Enforcement personnel that target landlords who rent property to immigrants – under the direction of the Town. Why are there no apologies for targeting landlords in news pieces that are completely false and pander to Town officials?
Why? Because it is too dangerous to the ad budget and would displease the Republicans. It would also open up the Loucheims to unwanted scrutiny and lawsuits. Best not to go there.

Watch for more “leaks” and attacks against political opponents or New Yorkers via DiNapoli which the Press despises and tries to pass off as “investigative reporting” from a “news” organization that cannot even spell-check its articles properly. The Southampton Press is a throwback to the type of local targeting mechanism-for-hire that takes orders from its political handlers who have a lot to hide.

The Howell Raines imbroglio at the New York Times comes to mind – but, of course, even those fictitious journalistic entries by Jayson Blair were not ordered by the local political party in power.

Let’s see how this plays out.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Hamptons Politics

Morality, like art, means drawing a line someplace.
-- Oscar Wilde (1854 - 1900)
Election rumors in the Town of Southampton are heating up. Between the missing money that no one can seem to find and the implosion underway in the economy, it will take clean hands and moral strength to pull the Hamptons through this storm. The bucolic East End was a sleepy rural area at one time but that was decades ago before McMansions and heavy Republican politics. Many of the former politicians like Skip Heaney were from “up Island” and influences from neighboring towns saw the money, which flowed through the Preservation Fund coffers and moved in.

This years contests include the Supervisor’s post, Town Board slots, Town Clerk and Town Highway Superintendent. Nuzzi is running again for a slot on the board and, surprisingly, while a Crookhaven transplant and Heaney protégé he’s come out on the right side of a few issues. But, the real contests are Town Supervisor and Highway Superintendent.
First, Alex Gregor is rumored to be considering a run for William Masterson’s position as Highway Superintendent. This is not the first time they would be squaring off against each other. However, the previous race was marred by dirty tricks on the part of the Heaney Republicans and a lot of local voters remember the bad taste in their mouths over that campaign and how Masterson won. Gregor would likely win this contest and it would be a major vote for good government.
The Kabot/Throne-Holst race is a bit different. Kabot was a step up from Heaney and the Republicans who controlled Town Hall for decades. The animosity between Kabot and the Heaney controlled machine was palpable. Unfortunately, Kabot has squandered her victory and has appeared to play it safe at every turn and has not come out with strength on any important issue. Unfortunately, she has also recently dwelled upon a non-issue and leaked a negative press piece to the local organ of the Republican Party – The Southampton Press – about Throne-Holst bringing her dog to work, of all things. Try as it might, the Press’s anachronistic attempt at journalism always manages to fall on its face and show its reactionary roots. If ad sales continue as they have with other major news organizations, however, the days of the online and printed version of this publication may be numbered.
Clearly, while Anna Throne-Holst has had minor missteps in the service of improving the environment, she is an outspoken reformer. The Town now has an opportunity to make a fresh political start in a resort area that will now be severely challenged by world economic events and its local history of punitive values. The little understood financial realities that have trickled down from the derivative disaster – which has caused everything from subprime defaults to the evaporation of credit -- is something that the new Supervisor must cope with. The financial investigation that is going on in the Town, the prospects of a severely reduced budget, and the realities of the Preservation Fund drying up – will be challenging. And, all are Republican-made problems that are a result of greed and, to be charitable, mismanagement.
Throne-Holst has a steady hand and does not owe her success to any group. While the Democrats supported her in her Town Board election, they do not own her vision.

Monday, March 02, 2009

The Panic Phase

The only way not to think about money is to have a great deal of it.
-- Edith Wharton (1862 - 1937)

It is difficult for most of us to believe that we now may be looking over the precipice.

A series of Doom and Gloom pieces published here were somewhat unpleasant – but now there is the real prospect of a very serious drop brought on and also perpetuated by a deflationary spiral. If you’re out of work in the Hamptons and you’ve been trying to figure out what to do next, there is no surprise about what’s out there. What was unthinkable before now seems possible.

Rentals are off, jobs are difficult to find, and home sales are few and far between and the blame game is now beginning in earnest. When in doubt, indict someone.
The press is not immune and the bloodletting in that industry is just beginning. Newspapers are filing Ch. 11 at an alarming speed. Suffolk Life was one of the first local publications to go after the Improper Hamptonian bit the bullet. More will follow. It has little to do with newsworthiness. The problem is lack of advertising. Businesses that typically advertise, which are failing, hasten the demise of publications -- and then there is the readership move to the Internet. and 27 East, for example, have had some success -- but that does not sell newspapers. Regardless of the merits of those publications, people have stopped buying newspapers, stopped subscribing, and will not pay for Internet access. It’s a deadly combination for publishing since reporters and office staff still needs to get paid. This week the venerable Rocky Mountain News ceased publishing,
The New York Times faces a possible Chapter 11 and most newspapers operate in the red.
To make matters worse, it has been open season on journalists. In Russia they shoot them, in Somalia they murder them, in Iran they arrest them, in Suffolk they terrorize and indict them.

The 401K that was supposed to allow boomers to retire in style are now worth 50-70% less than they did a year ago. And, the Buy and Hold crowd is thinning out. Enrollment has dropped at private schools. Real Estate prices are dropping in the Hamptons and in Manhattan and are expected to arrive at a point that is at least 50% below what they were a year and a half ago. There are some who predict that drops of 90% in value are possible if we truly hit the panic phase in the stock market and deflation accelerates. That’s possible. Not likely, but possible. This era of deflation may take all of ’09, ’10 and ’11 to play out. Not a pretty picture.
If that happens, none of us are safe from the financial devastation that will ensue. Social unrest will follow as it already has in the Eastern block countries.

Right now, newspapers and websites dwell upon salacious stories of fraud, murders, disasters and mayhem. Law enforcement personnel, like prime time players in old episodes of Law and Order, are busy trying to find someone to blame. Meanwhile, Wall Street continues to hand out bonuses for having papered the world with securitized debt that was worthless before it was packaged.

If they ever find out where the money went at Town Hall in Southampton, people might wonder if it really was all of those New Yorkers who are responsible for the mess after all. The Feds are at least looking to find out where the money went.