Time lends perspective. Despite the initial rush of tabloid coverage, the story of Menachem Stark, Hasidic landlord and real estate speculator kidnapped from his office on January 2, his still-smoldering body found in a dumpster several days later, was not especially unique. Beneath the distinctive dress and behind the provocative headlines, he is best understood as a symbol of a much wider narrative—one in the vein of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasios’ “Tale of Two Cities” campaign motif and the “Two Americas” theme coined by then-Senator John Edwards, taken up more recently by progressives such as Senator Elizabeth Warren. His story is a tale of two Starks.
The first Stark is the slumlord represented by the now-infamous New York Post cover. The anecdotal evidence in the media painted the picture of a profiteer indifferent to the plight of hundreds of tenants who endured steadily rising rents in unsafe, dirty buildings. His record of loan defaults, unresolved building violations, rent manipulation, and shady dealings tells the story of a man who enriched himself at the expense of those who found themselves under his watch.
The second Stark is the dedicated community leader, the first to help a neighbor with a loan or monetary gift. He was known among the Satmar as a philanthropist who generously gave of his time and resources in support of local charities and institutions. At his funeral, which was attended by thousands of Satmar community members and leaders, mourners heard how Stark always carried large amounts of cash in his pockets, which were always open for any needy person who might approach him. He was known as a pious individual and a family man, representative of the highest ideals and values of his religious community.
Ultimately, though, Stark is just a particularly dramatic illustration of what was Mike Bloomberg’s New York—a city powered by an economic engine that, even with the interruption of the Great Recession, scaled new heights. The big banks grew bigger than ever, the Dow Jones reached record highs and high-end real estate development, especially catering to the international jet-set, continued apace. Across the city, parks, cultural centers and the arts flourished, fueled by levels of philanthropy not seen in generations, paced by a billionaire mayor who pumped hundreds of millions of his own dollars into the city and its institutions.
And yet, as de Blasio insisted on the campaign trail that led to his landslide victory over Joe Lhota to succeed Bloomberg as Mayor, New York is really two cities inhabiting the same geography. The second city is one where city agencies face steep budget cuts, where homelessness has reemerged as a public humiliation, where the middle class has been hollowed out and the working class slips further into poverty. It is a city in which humanitarian charities and aid organizations raise record amounts of money from millionaires and billionaires—many of whom played leading roles in the economic crash at the root of the trouble—to provide millions of desperate people with the basic necessities of life, only to realize that they too are falling further and further behind.
In fact, New York City itself may be a microcosm of the larger picture: the two Americas. The first of these Americas is best symbolized by the Walton family, whose leadership stake in the Wal-Mart empire founded by Sam Walton, known his whole life for his smile, gentle manner, and middle-American values, puts their collective worth at over $150 billion. Each year, the Walton Foundation donates well into the nine figures, supporting hundreds of causes, including environmental protection, museums, education and humanitarian assistance.
However, despite possessing the combined wealth of 48.8 million other American families (42 percent of the U.S. population) and with their company sitting on over $7 billion in cash reserves, they pay their “associates” an average of $8.81 per hour, placing the vast majority of their workforce at or below the poverty line, often making them reliant on public assistance to survive. Wal-Mart fiercely and actively resists employee efforts to organize or unionize, depriving them of the opportunity to even begin to negotiate for living wages and dignified working conditions. At the same time, Wal-Mart’s rock-bottom prices for cheap goods produced overseas have strained or bankrupted thousands of mom-and-pop shops across America, creating millions of low-income consumers who have little choice but to shop at Wal-Mart themselves, or even work there. For most of these people, the Waltons’ philanthropy, however extensive, is beside the point.
But back to Stark. “This community lives on charitable donations and philanthropists,” Satmar leader Gary Schlesinger told the New York Times, “people like Menachem helping out his poor brothers and sisters.” He meant his words as praise, but they are, in truth, deeply disturbing; in one swoop he allowed Stark’s supporters to justify his unethical and illegal profits because he gave some back as charity and ignored the reality that many people only found themselves in the position of needing charity at all because they had been the victims of Stark and those who share his profit-first mentality. And, at the end of the day, they no longer even have Stark himself to shoulder the burden.
It would be far better for us all if we put stricter limits on the business practices of the Menachem Starks and the Waltons in our world. We might get less from them in the way of donations, but we would likely not need them as badly in the first place. As income inequality rises to the front of the American public conversation, Stark’s story bears a lesson that deserves our close attention. The moral of the story is that living in two worlds is ultimately destructive to both of them.