[ Return to the review of “The Address Book.” ]
How is this possible? In New York, even addresses are for sale. The city allows a developer, for the bargain price of $11,000 (as of 2019), to apply to change the street address to something more attractive. (Cashier’s check or money order only, please.) The city’s self-named vanity address program is an unusually forthright acknowledgment that addresses—rather than just locations—can be sold to the highest bidder. In the early years of the program, vanity addresses were granted with little regard to whether they made any sense. Circling around Madison Square Garden and Penn Station, the numbers of Penn Plaza addresses, in order, are 1, 15, 11, 7, and 5. You can’t even reach the atrium of 237 Park Avenue from Park Avenue, because it’s actually on Lexington. No one would describe 11 Times Square as being anywhere close to Times Square. (Times Square is itself a kind of vanity address, having been renamed from Long-acre Square in 1904 when The New York Times moved there.) But there’s a good reason. An apartment on Park Avenue or Fifth Avenue can cost 5 to 10 percent more than an equivalent property on nearby cross streets.
The formal vanity street address program exploded in the time of borough president (and later mayor) David Dinkins, when the city was trying to attract more development. Basically, if the post office didn’t care, it was okay with the city. (If the post office did care, it was probably okay with the city, too.) Some international buyers may be fooled, but even many New Yorkers, well aware that they won’t actually live on Park Avenue, are still willing to pay to say that they do.
I requested a list of vanity street names from the borough of Manhattan. Some of the specially designated addresses were obviously desirable, either because of the fashionable street name or the nice round number. There are the 1s (1 Times Square, 1 World Financial Center, 1 Columbus Place); the 1 plazas (1 Haven Plaza, 1 Liberty Plaza, 1 Police Plaza); the Avenues, Squares, and Circles (400 Fifth Avenue, 4 Times Square, 35 Columbus Circle). Some corner buildings puzzlingly choose to locate their entrance on what sounds like the less fancy street. (This does not necessarily require a vanity address change.) For example, a condo building, the Lucida, uses 151 East 85th Street as its address instead of Lexington Avenue because, apparently, it sounds more chic. Another apartment building chose an address on East 74th Street rather than Madison Avenue because the developer wanted to make it sound like a more “boutique-type property.”
Even before the vanity address program, as Andrew Alpern describes, developers had named their buildings to boost their images. They borrowed grand English names: Berkeley, Blenheim, Carlyle, Westminster, Windsor, and even Buckingham Palace. Then the Continental names: Grenoble, Lafayette, Versailles, Madrid, El Greco, the Venetian. And then the Native American names closer to home: the Dakota, the Wyoming, and the Idaho. But now developers could change their buildings’ addresses, too.
Vanity addresses seem like a cheap way to increase the value of real estate, but they can cost more than money. Police and firemen might struggle to find a building with a Fifth Avenue address that is not actually on Fifth Avenue (one problem Manhattan and rural West Virginia share). In Chicago, where a similar program allowed developers to manipulate addresses, thirty-one-year-old Nancy Clay died in an office fire when fire- fighters didn’t realize that One Illinois Center was actually on the less grandly named East Wacker Drive.
I went to visit the Manhattan Topographical Bureau, tucked away in a small corner of the David N. Dinkins Manhattan Municipal Building’s million square feet of offices. There, Hector Rivera works in a windowless room filled with hundreds of the city’s maps, including John Randel’s maps of the then-newly gridded city. Rivera grew up in New York in the Frederick Douglass Houses, a series of subsidized houses in upper Manhattan. In high school, he won an internship in the Borough President’s office and never left; by now he has spent half his life in his office, curating the maps, managing house numbers, visiting building sites, and fielding questions about the streetscape. When developers want to build new buildings, it’s Rivera who researches the history of the street, to make sure, as he puts it, your shovel isn’t going to hit a skull.
Rivera takes great pride in the orderly numbering of houses in his hometown, and later he showed me the complex systems he has created to manage the databases. Files on every street in the city are meticulously sorted in drawers in the Map Room. Hector only helps administer the vanity address program; the borough president is the one who actually has to approve the change. But it’s obvious vanity addresses aren’t Hector’s ideal. “Of course, you get more money per square foot,” he told me, “but, yeah, it doesn’t make sense if you spend three million dollars on a place an ambulance can’t find if you have a heart attack.” Still, he had a stack of applications for vanity addresses on his desk.