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After Work: Bargains In New York

…Tourists to New York stand out, no matter where they hail from. Some walk three and four abreast. Whole groups seem to come to a halt all at once, causing little sidewalk collisions….

Because the US dollar is in the doldrums, bargain-hunting Europeans are flocking to the Big Apple, as Dona Gibbs reports.

Is it too much to hope that NY City could take the best leaf of all out of Paris's boo9k?

I was strolling along a chic part of New York’s Madison Avenue recently when I noticed a family group, mom, dad and two kids, pointing and murmuring in front of an upscale realtor’s office.

They were discussing Manhattan properties for sale.

Now, so far, none of this was at all unusual, but as I walked by I was surprised to hear them speaking French.

They were indulging in a wonderful little fantasy, I thought, as they twittered like birds poking through promising bits of nest material.

“Wouldn’t an apartment in New York be wonderful? We could spend holidays here. The children could practice their English with real English speakers. We could see all the Broadway shows. There’s so much culture.”

“Look here’s a marvelous two bedroom. Real herringbone floors. Original moldings.”

“That seems very reasonable, don’t you think? I wonder what the neighborhood is like?”

Or so I imagined.

Ever Enthusiastic Husband and I used to have these kinds of conversations while gazing longingly at properties for sale in France way back when the dollar was strong. Now the exchange rate is on the other foot, so to speak, and that affluent French family could well indulge themselves with a New York apartment.

One of the listings they were pointing to was a three bedroom, three and a half bathroom apartment on the upper Eastside. It was listed for $1,595.000. While that doesn’t exactly make it a bargain, if you calculate the price in euros, it’s 1,002,935. I checked out a couple of Parisian real estate sites and a two bedroom, two-bath apartment in a similar neighborhood would list for about 1,800,000 euros.

I did some further checking and found that several New York City realtors have estimated that about one-third of their condos sales are to foreigners, mainly to Europeans.

The weakness of the dollar against the euro and the pound has also brought droves of tourists to New York. The traditional July sales seem to be a big tourist attraction, bigger than the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty. In one popular chain store I waded through an excited group of British mums to see what the feeding frenzy was all about. They were pawing and exclaiming over tank tops.

“Imagine,” one warbled. “Only twelve dollars.”

They were already weighed down by several stuffed shopping bags. I hope they had brought empty suitcases. No matter, they could snatch up new luggage here at bargain prices.

I checked out estimates of what foreign visitors are shelling out for their shopping sprees in New York City. It’s estimated that they’ve spent about $560 million more in the first three months of 2008 than during the same time period in 2007. That’s a welcome 7 percent increase.

The sidewalk cafes that bloom in summertime Manhattan are packed with Europeans, sipping wine, nibbling olives, watching the passing scene.

The Modern, the restaurant in the Museum of Modern Art, lists its wine list prices in both dollars and Euros. It’s a marketing ploy that’s paid off, according to what I’ve read. Sales of wine have increased, especially the more expensive ones.

On a recent Sunday I found myself in midtown right in the thick of a group of Italians. There must have been a dozen or so, pointing their cameras across Fifth Avenue and clicking away.

What were they photographing? Why it was Tiffany’s, the jewelry store of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” fame.

I saw two obvious tourists with their arms draped around a replica Statue of Liberty in front of the huge flagship Nike store. That’s probably about as close they were going to get to the famous landmark. Liberty Island isn’t known for its shopping district.

Tourists to New York stand out, no matter where they hail from. Some walk three and four abreast. Whole groups seem to come to a halt all at once, causing little sidewalk collisions.

Many have unfortunately adopted standard U.S. tourist attire: baseball caps, tee shirts, athletic shoes and backpacks. Some even sport, Oh good grief, fanny packs slung around ample bellies. Everyone is gripping a water bottle and a cell phone. They’re not going to get dehydrated and they’re not going to miss a call.

In a local diner, I spied two people going over their breakfast bill very carefully in that universal you-can’t-trust-these foreigners way.

Tourists clutch maps in a retail-induced daze, looking wonderingly around them in Soho. It’s not the long-gone art galleries they’re seeking. It’s the glass staircase of the Apple Store.

There was long polyglot line outside of Abercrombie and Fitch. Good ole squeaky clean Abercrombie’s shed its wholesome ways a few years back. The store is dimly lit. The minders of the velvet rope are a leggy young woman in a slinky dress and a jean-clad guy stripped to the waist. I didn’t find out what the event promoted, but he was obviously too sexy for his shirt. That needed no translation for the foreign visitors.

While I’m amused at habits of tourists and awed by the money they’re spending, I welcome them.

See, I entertain a whimsical thought. I’ve read that part of what made Paris such a big attraction to American artists and authors back in the 1920s was that they could live well on the cheap.

The dollar is in the doldrums, but maybe that could spur an influx of creative people from abroad.

What if New York suddenly became a creative magnet for artists and writers from around the world. What if cafes were suddenly filled with philosophical debate? What if one of those pale, sullen people I see tapping away on a laptop in Starbucks turned out to be the next Fitzgerald? What if someone proclaimed that Russian artist who sells his paintings on the sidewalk in midtown the next Picasso? What if Long Island City became the next Left Bank?

What if this is already happening? Then I guess I’m missing it.

Nobody has invited me to a salon. Or saloon, for that matter.

And the only thing approaching a philosophical discussion I’ve participated in is the sad, sad state of the dollar.


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