The One Commodity the Wealthy Value Above All

This is a free edition of Brooklyn, Everywhere, a newsletter where I ponder the many meanings of gentrification, and what we lose in our relentless pursuit of “the American dream.” Sign up here to get it in your inbox. For access to all editions of the newsletter, including subscriber-only exclusives, subscribe to The Atlantic.

Past editions I’ve enjoyed include: And Just Like That… Is A Mirror Image of the New NYC, On Gentrification of Self: An Ode to Jeremy Strong, and America’s Inside Voice.

As I’ve probably mentioned, before I was a writer, for many years I was the proprietor of a luxury-wedding-planning business here in New York City. It was a very stressful job, one that I do not miss at all—but not for the reasons one would expect. You see, in order to earn a livable wage in a city like New York, you can’t plan just anybody’s wedding. You must plan the weddings of the uber-wealthy. And when dealing with the uber-wealthy, any mistake you might make is a potential lawsuit. The wrong color of a flower, the tone of a photograph, the shape of a cake, the temperature of a ballroom, the temperament of a shuttle-bus driver: all things largely beyond your control as a planner, and all things that have been floated to myself or one of my colleagues as grounds for a lawsuit.

When the following story of a wedding gone wrong in a spectacular New Brooklyn way came to my attention last week, it felt like something I had to discuss here. But before I get into it, allow me to first set the table for you.

For decades, a group of civic-minded Brooklynites had a dream: to transform some very lovely, dormant, waterfront land in Downtown Brooklyn into a public park. Eventually, the time (and the mayor) was right: Deals were made, warehouses demolished, dumpster pools and running paths installed, and Brooklyn Bridge Park was born. And the people were happy.

Well, most people were happy. The plan for the park was ambitious, and, as New Yorkers are wont to do, we bit off more than we could chew. So to fund the park, we made what some called a Faustian bargain: We allowed developers to erect luxury housing for some in order to fund the park for many.

One of these developments was Pierhouse & 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge: an adjoined complex that features 104 water-view condos and a luxury hotel with 194 rooms. There are also restaurants and bars, conference spaces, and, of course, places to hold special events, such as weddings.

A waterfront condo in Brooklyn with sweeping views of Lower Manhattan is not going to come cheap. According to StreetEasy, the average sale in this particular development is about $2.9 million. Weddings in such properties have equivalently hefty price tags. There are countless variables, many of which could send the cost even higher, but we’re talking somewhere in the ballpark of $250,000. We paved a parking lot to erect a waterfront paradise where the rich can live, lodge, and wed, and the rest of Brooklyn can visit.

And everyone was happy. Until they weren’t.

Here is where, in Old Brooklyn, there would be an incident between the haves and the have-nots. But in New Brooklyn, the have-nots are, more and more, relegated to background roles in the lives of the haves: They are the people who provide character and make the haves feel interesting without meaningful interaction. In New Brooklyn, tensions arise as the desires of the haves come into conflict with the desires of other haves. Often those desires involve noise.

As I’ve discussed here before, there is one commodity that the wealthy value above all else, and it isn’t an NFT: It is silence. Everyone wants outdoor dining, but not the noise that comes with it. People want to live in the newest, tallest buildings, but then complain about the sounds they make. I can’t help but wonder, as noise complaints rise in the city, if the issue is not the volume of the place but the expectations of its ever wealthier inhabitants.

Noise is at the heart of this wedding story. One of the few things you can’t do quietly is have a wedding, no matter how much money you spend on it. And the noise from weddings (and presumably other events) at the 1 Hotel was proving to be a nuisance to the condo owners at Pierhouse. In the hierarchy of needs, the desires of the uber-wealthy residents trump those of the wealthy guests, and a strict noise ordinance was passed by the condo board, greatly restricting the volume allowed for music in the main reception area of the hotel.

Why the hotel agreed to this so easily and neglected to carve out exceptions for upcoming weddings are questions I’m sure will come up in court, which is where this story is headed. Three weeks after the noise ordinance was passed, and while a wedding reception was under way, the 1 Hotel told the bride and groom that they would need to lower the volume on their music or move the reception to a smaller space where the noise would be less of an issue.

This created an understandable amount of distress for the couple and their family—an amount of distress that they have quantified at $5 million, for which they are suing the hotel and, yes, their wedding planner for. And they are not just suing: They have run full-court press on their story, presumably to gin up public sympathy for their case. The New York Post, The Daily Mail, Insider, and others have covered it. The couple’s main complaints, as stated to media, are that the planner and the hotel failed to warn them of this new restriction. If the planner or hotel had done so, the couple could have opted (with three weeks’ notice) to have relocated their affair.

Sure. Fine. Okay. There are a million reasons I can imagine this either wasn’t or wasn’t properly communicated to them. Yes, there’s the possibility of sheer negligence, or the more sinister intention to deceive (though no sane human wants to deal with this kind of thing with a bride in real time). But I also can see the possibility that, given the newness of the ordinance, there was a lack of practical understanding of how this “challenge” would really impact the day.

What I find most fascinating is how the family filing the suit never interrogated the people and the principle behind the noise ordinance itself. In all of the commentary to media, never, ever were the condo board at Pierhouse and its “right” to impose its auditory preferences—and to dictate the business operations and customer-service delivery of the hotel—called into question. The villains, it seems clear to me, are the people who aren’t content just to own the vistas but also need to control the volume of the world around them.

But it’s harder to take on your own when there are worker bees you can point a finger at. Because yes, 1 Hotel is a big corporation that will probably pay the couple what they want just to make this go away. But when the family suggests that the hotel failed, what they really mean is that someone much lower on the food chain screwed up: a banquet manager or an event coordinator. And then, of course, there is the intensely easy target of the wedding planner, the person responsible (read: liable) for “making sure everything is perfect.”  

And oh, yeah: This particular planner, apparently, is a Real Housewife of Miami, Guerdy Abraira. I don’t watch the show, so I write this knowing nothing about her or what image she projected about herself or her business. But based on the market, she was probably paid between 10 percent and 15 percent of the couple’s whole wedding budget for her planning services. Which sounds like a lot, until you realize that this is spread out over several payments for a year’s worth of meetings and calls and texts and freak-outs. And this also needs to cover the wedding planner’s staff on the day to ensure that everything runs smoothly (because if you are spending $250,000 or more, you don’t usually have a large threshold for imperfections), to say nothing about business overhead and things like, you know, liability insurance. Common sense probably tells you this, but wedding planning is hardly an enterprise that can operate at scale. I know hundreds, if not thousands, of wedding planners. I can count on my fingers those whose businesses could possibly sustain a $5 Million lawsuit without crumbling.

Which raises the question, for me, of what these kinds of lawsuits are really about. Is it really about restitution? Or is it about feeling badly and wanting the release of blaming someone—someone to tie to a stake, hurl wet noodles at, without feeling guilty about it? Or better yet, someone you can brag about (at a dinner or even another wedding) having “made to pay” for how “they screwed up.” Someone low-stakes, who can be taken into the public arena and shamed. And let’s face facts: In the blame game, there’s hardly anyone lower-stakes than the help.

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