Bjarke Ingels Group has released a conceptual design for its latest project in New York: an office skyscraper wrapped in a ribbon of green terraces
By the time I had moved into an apartment above The Hole, in the middle of the last decade, usage of the previous term, “Ground Zero,” was thankfully fading. It was a haphazard phrase anyway, a clash of words too evocative of territory (ground) and nothingness (zero). It lingered too long, uninvited, like an expression coined by Sartre, or maybe Rumsfeld.
New Yorkers, who wisely seemed to avoid calling it anything, also seemed to avoid the entire neighborhood. On the rare occasion that I could convince a friend to visit — to dine, or to drink, or to watch the season premiere of LOST, or to do whatever we did in that hazy decade — they would inevitably peer out the window, down onto the fenced space, softly breathing the same words:
It was sad. But tragedy often pairs with farce, and here it was, 35 floors in the sky: a wide-angle view of the world’s most kinetic city, but directly below, an inert plat of earth.
For days on end, nothing happened down there, the dusty embodiment of a bureaucratic lock-up. Months accrued into motionless years, broken only by the occasional lazy afternoon when a bulldozer coughed itself awake, puffing the will to move some earth northward. The next day, revving up again, the dozer pushed the same soil southbound. Back and forth, across 16 inert acres, no change, except the illusion of change.
It was like that for a long time.
But then, without warning, the earth cracked, and the sky broke open. From the chasm below, the arcs of construction — cobalt sparks and copper flickers — lit up the night. Steely glass erupted from the ground, towers of freedom. And soon, the mirrors — oh, the mirrors! — the surface of each new building reflecting the best angles of its shiny peers.
We clearly needed a new name for this space. Instead, we returned to the old name: World Trade Center.
“A hundred times have I thought New York
is a catastrophe, and fifty times:
It is a beautiful catastrophe.”
― Le Corbusier
“New York will be a great place, if they ever finish it.”
— O. Henry
Before any of the occupants were even announced, this photorealistic wallpaper was wrapped around the construction site, a mural of aspiration pasted over the once-bleak landscape:
Like a map placed over its territory, this wallpaper is the purest projection of how the city imagines itself. In its new skin, all logos advertise the same product:
The fonts may change, but the fantasy stays the same.
The new World Trade Center is the embodiment of New York City as the fantasy it has always projected, a constantly refurbished dream of America. In this place, images can change, but names are always waiting to be remembered.
This is what it means to never forget.
This neighborhood was always, from its founding, a fantasy. Fifty years ago, it literally did not exist. When the original Twin Towers were built, rubble from the site was used to push back the Hudson River, creating a new neighborhood out of thin air. I now live on the soil from the original Hole.
The rectangular appendage on the western side of Manhattan was added through land reclamation, a euphemistic process that rebuffs nature and creates new urban space. Nostalgia is impossible here, because the place has no history. It was invented.
If nostalgia is impossible, a different form of wistfulness thrives in lower Manhattan. Now, we residents fondly remember an earlier era, before the tourists.
When you live around WTC, tourism becomes a guiding principle and constant obstacle. Sidewalks congest in unexpected places, crowds gawking at construction sites and memorials, disrupting your commute. Quick, there’s an opening — seeing a path through the congestion, you plunge through the congealing mass, toward the empty space — whoa, wait! You halt, teetering, to avoid crossing a photographer’s sightline — a family portrait, taken with an iPhone, by a cop, with the Freedom Tower in the background.
Every day, on my jaunt to the subway, someone in a new dialect asks for directions. Once, several years ago, as an elderly couple approached, that beseeching look on their faces, I tried to guess — will they ask for directions to the Statue of Liberty, Central Park, or Katz’s Deli?
“Ver eest zee 9/11?” asked the hunched man, in a deep brogue, seemingly German. The first few syllables were a jumble of harsh über-sounds, but the glaring anglicized numbers at the end resonated loudly.
“Where is The 9/11?” his wife repeated, in more familiar English.
Oh. Yes. The 9/11.
“Um, right there,” I replied, pointing at the tall fence, 20 feet away, barbed wire running along the top.
Their disappointment was obvious.
This is not a place to visit, I thought to explain. It is not even a place. There is nothing to see. It is an empty square on the map, the opposite of tourism — no adventure, no leisure, no attractions. It is void. Why would you come here? You cannot see The 9/11.
But the elderly couple moved on, circling the empty fenced space.
Now, years later, there is much to see, especially since this summer, when the 9/11 Memorial opened to the public. You can now walk right up to the Reflecting Pools, which are the largest man-made waterfalls in the world.
In yet another linguistic conundrum, the memorial is officially called “Reflecting Absence,” yet the slate gray surface reflects nothing.
Was that intentional? Does the contradiction highlight the folly in deriving meaning from absence? Are the waterfalls like language itself, which aspires to be mirror of the world but is more of a foggy window? Or is “Reflecting Absence” merely a wink at the surrounding WTC towers, which reflect each other with abandon, a phalanx of architectural #selfies?
Perhaps it was a good question after all: Where is The 9/11?
Although the catchy moniker implied proximity to financial territory, Occupy Wall Street was actually several blocks from the New York Stock Exchange. However, it was right next to The Hole.
Watching New Yorkers turn into tourists, like Batman morphing into the Joker, was a supreme pleasure. Gotham seldom noticed that their doppelgangers — actual tourists — were across the street, gazing at The Hole. Both groups were strangers in a strange land, tourists on a pilgrimage of memory.
Like many people, I believed in #OWS on principle, even when those principles were unclear, which was more often than not. Occupy’s goals were often baffling, but sometimes the incomprehensible response is the perfect one. And gazing at the incomprehensible in wonderment — even better.
My neighborhood is nothing less than a surveillance state. You cannot walk outside without being photographed, hundreds of times within a block. In all likelihood, I get photographed inside my apartment. Cameras are everywhere — some obvious, some hidden.
WTC now resembles an absurdist theatrical troupe where robotic cameras take pictures of tourists taking pictures of cops taking pictures of tourists. It’s a fucking panopticon opera down here.
A “Freedom Tower” cannot exist in a surveillance state. This place is freedom’s antithesis.
But this morning, September 11, 2014, I awoke to a new place. The land is completely different — a new skin of America, a luminous carapace shimmering with optimism, but ambivalent about forgetting its past and fantasizing its future. I am still unsure what to call the land below, but for the first time, I can embrace not knowing.
This is what it means to forget.
Choosing books for a library like mine in New York is a fulltime job. The head of acquisitions at the Society Library, Steven McGuirl, reads Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, The Times Literary Supplement, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, The London Times, and The New York Times to decide which fiction should be ordered. Fiction accounts for fully a quarter of the forty-eight hundred books the library acquires each year. There are standing orders for certain novelists—Martin Amis, Zadie Smith, Toni Morrison, for example. Some popular writers merit standing orders for more than one copy.
But first novels and collections of stories present a problem. McGuirl and his two assistants try to guess what the members of the library will want to read. Of course, they respond to members’ requests. If a book is requested by three people, the staff orders it. There’s also a committee of members that meets monthly to recommend books for purchase. The committee checks on the librarians’ lists and suggests titles they’ve missed. The whole enterprise balances enthusiasm and skepticism.
Boosted by reviews, prizes, large sales, word of mouth, or personal recommendations, a novel may make its way onto the library shelf, but even then it is not guaranteed a chance of being read by future generations. Libraries are constantly getting rid of books they have acquired. They have to, or they would run out of space. The polite word for this is “deaccession,” the usual word, “weeding.” I asked a friend who works for a small public library how they choose books to get rid of. Is there a formula? Who makes the decision, a person or a committee? She told me that there was a formula based on the recommendations of the industry-standard CREW manual.
CREW stands for Continuous Review Evaluation and Weeding, and the manual uses “crew” as a transitive verb, so one can talk about a library’s “crewing” its collection. It means weeding but doesn’t sound so harsh. At the heart of the CREW method is a formula consisting of three factors—the number of years since the last copyright, the number of years since the book was last checked out, and a collection of six negative factors given the acronym MUSTIE, to help decide if a book has outlived its usefulness. M. Is it Misleading or inaccurate? Is its information, as so quickly happens with medical and legal texts or travel books, for example, outdated? U. Is it Ugly? Worn beyond repair? S. Has it been Superseded by a new edition or a better account of the subject? T. Is it Trivial, of no discernible literary or scientific merit? I. Is it Irrelevant to the needs and interests of the community the library serves? E. Can it be found Elsewhere, through interlibrary loan or on the Web?
Obviously, not all the MUSTIE factors are relevant in evaluating fiction, notably Misleading and Superseded. Nor is the copyright date important. For nonfiction, the CREW formula might be 8/3/MUSTIE, which would mean “Consider a book for elimination if it is eight years since the copyright date and three years since it has been checked out and if one or more of the MUSTIE factors obtains.” But for fiction the formula is often X/2/MUSTIE, meaning the copyright date doesn’t matter, but consider a book for elimination if it hasn’t been checked out in two years and if it is TUIE—Trivial, Ugly, Irrelevant, or Elsewhere.
People who feel strongly about retaining books in libraries have a simple way to combat the removal of treasured volumes. Since every system of elimination is based, no matter what they say, on circulation counts, the number of years that have elapsed since a book was last checked out, or the number of times it has been checked out overall, if you feel strongly about a book, you should go to every library you have access to and check out the volume you care about. Take it home awhile. Read it or don’t. Keep it beside you as you read the same book on a Kindle, Nook, or iPad. Let it breathe the air of your home, and then take it back to the library, knowing you have fought the guerrilla war for physical books.
So many factors affect a novel’s chances of surviving, to say nothing of its becoming one of the immortal works we call a classic: how a book is initially reviewed, whether it sells, whether people continue to read it, whether it is taught in schools, whether it is included in college curricula, what literary critics say about it later, how it responds to various political currents as time moves on.
De Rerum Natura, lost for fifteen hundred years, was found and its merit recognized. But how many other works of antiquity were not found? How many works from past centuries never got published or, published, were never read?
If you want to see how slippery a judgment is “literary merit” and how unlikely quality is to be recognized at first glance, nothing is more fun—or more comforting to writers—than to read rejection letters or terrible reviews of books that have gone on to prove indispensable to the culture. This, for example, is how the New York Times reviewer greeted Lolita: “Lolita . . . is undeniably news in the world of books. Unfortunately, it is bad news. There are two equally serious reasons why it isn’t worth any adult reader’s attention. The first is that it is dull, dull, dull in a pretentious, florid and archly fatuous fashion. The second is that it is repulsive.”
Negative reviews are fun to write and fun to read, but the world doesn’t need them, since the average work of literary fiction is, in Laura Miller’s words, “invisible to the average reader.” It appears and vanishes from the scene largely unnoticed and unremarked.
Whether reviews are positive or negative, the attention they bring to a book is rarely sufficient, and it is becoming harder and harder for a novel to lift itself from obscurity. In the succinct and elegant words of James Gleick, “The merchandise of the information economy is not information; it is attention. These commodities have an inverse relationship. When information is cheap, attention becomes expensive.” These days, besides writing, novelists must help draw attention to what they write, tweeting, friending, blogging, and generating meta tags—unacknowledged legislators to Shelley, but now more like unpaid publicists.
On the Web, everyone can be a reviewer, and a consensus about a book can be established covering a range of readers potentially as different as Laura Miller’s cousins and the members of the French Academy. In this changed environment, professional reviewers may become obsolete, replaced by crowd wisdom. More than two centuries ago, Samuel Johnson invented the idea of crowd wisdom as applied to literature, calling it “the common reader.” “I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers, uncorrupted by literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtilty and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim to poetical honours.” Virginia Woolf agreed and titled her wonderful collection of essays on literature The Common Reader.
The Common Reader, however, is not one person. It is a statistical average, the mean between this reader’s one star for One God Clapping and twenty other readers’ enthusiasm for this book, the autobiography of a “Zen rabbi,” producing a four-star rating. What the rating says to me is that if I were the kind of person who wanted to read the autobiography of a Zen rabbi, I’d be very likely to enjoy it. That Amazon reviewers are a self-selected group needs underlining. If you are like Laura Miller’s cousins who have never heard of Jonathan Franzen, you will be unlikely to read Freedom, and even less likely to review it. If you read everything that John Grisham has ever written, you will probably read his latest novel and might even report on it. If you read Lolita, it’s either because you’ve heard it’s one of the great novels of the twentieth century or because you’ve heard it’s a dirty book. Whatever brings you to it, you are likely to enjoy it. Four and a half stars.
The idea of the wisdom of crowds, popularized by James Surowiecki, dates to 1906, when the English statistician Francis Galton (Darwin’s cousin) focused on a contest at a county fair for guessing the weight of an ox. For sixpence, a person could buy a ticket, fill in his name, and guess the weight of the animal after butchering. The person whose guess was closest to the actual weight of the ox won a prize. Galton, having the kind of mind he did, played around with the numbers he gathered from this contest and discovered that the average of all the guesses was only one pound off from the actual weight of the ox, 1,198 pounds. If you’re looking for the Common Reader’s response to a novel, you can’t take any one review as truth but merely as a passionate assertion of one point of view, one person’s guess at the weight of the ox.
“I really enjoy reading this novel it makes you think about a sex offender’s mind. I’m also happy that I purchased this novel on Amazon because I was able to find it easily with a suitable price for me.”
“Vladimir has a way with words. The prose in this book is simply remarkable.”
“Overrated and pretentious. Overly flowery language encapsulating an uninteresting and overdone plot. Older man and pre-adolescent hypersexual woman—please let’s not exaggerate the originality of that concept, it has existed for millennia now. In fact, you’ll find similar stories in every chapter of the Bible.”
“Like many other folk I read Lolita when it first came out. I was a normally-sexed man and I found it excitingly erotic. Now, nearing 80, I still felt the erotic thrill but was more open to the beauty of Nabokov’s prose.”
“Presenting the story from Humbert’s self-serving viewpoint was Nabokov’s peculiarly brilliant means by which a straight, non-perverted reader is taken to secret places she/he might otherwise dare not go.”
“A man who was ‘hip’ while maintaining a bemused detachment from trendiness, what would he have made of shopping malls? Political correctness? Cable television? Alternative music? The Internet? . . . Or some of this decade’s greatest scandals, near-Nabokovian events in themselves, like Joey Buttafuoco, Lorena Bobbitt, O. J. Simpson, Bill and Monica? Wherever he is (Heaven, Hell, Nirvana, Anti-Terra), I would like to thank Nabokov for providing us with a compelling and unique model of how to read, write, and perceive life.”
What would the hip, bemused author of Lolita have made of Amazon ratings? I like to think that he would have reveled in them as evidence of the cheerful self- assurance, the lunatic democracy of his adopted culture.
“Once a populist gimmick, the reviews are vital to make sure a new product is not lost in the digital wilderness,” the Times reports.
Amazon’s own gatekeepers have removed thousands of reviews from its site in an attempt to curb what has become widespread manipulation of its ratings. They eliminated some reviews by family members and people considered too biased to be entitled to an opinion, competing writers, for example. They did not, however, eliminate reviews by people who admit they have not read the book. “We do not require people to have experienced the product in order to review,” said an Amazon spokesman.
Gotham is a family of widely used geometric sans-serif digital typefaces designed by American type designer Tobias Frere-Jones in 2000. Gotham’s letterforms are inspired by a form of architectural signage that achieved popularity in the mid-twentieth century, and are especially popular throughout New York City.
Since creation, Gotham has been highly visible due to its appearance in many notable places, including a large amount of campaign material created for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, as well as the cornerstone of the One World Trade Center, the tower to be built on the site of the former World Trade Center in New York. It is also the current font to be used in title cards for film trailers in the US.
The Gotham typeface was initially commissioned by GQ magazine, whose editors wanted to display a sans-serif with a “geometric structure” that would look “masculine, new, and fresh” for their magazine. GQ agreed that they needed something “that was going to be very fresh and very established to have a sort of credible voice to it,” according to Jonathan Hoefler.
Frere-Jones’ inspiration for the typeface came from time spent walking block-by-block through Manhattan with a camera to find source material, and he based the font on the lettering seen in older buildings, especially the sign on the Eighth Avenue facade of the Port Authority Bus Terminal. “I suppose there’s a hidden personal agenda in the design,” Frere-Jones said, “to preserve those old pieces of New York that could be wiped out before they’re appreciated. Having grown up here, I was always fond of the ‘old’ New York and its lettering.”
The lettering that inspired this typeface originated from the style of 1920s era sans-serifs like Futura, where “Type, like architecture, like the organization of society itself, was to be reduced to its bare, efficient essentials, rid of undesirable, local or ethnic elements.” This theme was found frequently in Depression-era type in both North America and Europe, particularly Germany. This simplification of type is characterized by Frere-Jones as “not the kind of letter a type designer would make. It’s the kind of letter an engineer would make. It was born outside the type design in some other world and has a very distinct flavor from that.”
Reviews of Gotham focus on its identity as something both American and specific to New York City. According to David Dunlap of The New York Times, Gotham “deliberately evokes the blocky no-nonsense, unselfconscious architectural lettering that dominated the [New York] streetscape from the 1930s through the 1960s.” Andrew Romano of Newsweek concurs. “Unlike other sans serif typefaces, it’s not German, it’s not French, it’s not Swiss,” he said. “It’s very American.”
According to Frere-Jones, Gotham wouldn’t have happened without the GQ commission. “The humanist and the geometric … had already been thoroughly staked out and developed by past designers. I didn’t think anything new could have been found there, but luckily for me (and the client), I was mistaken.”
Early materials for the Obama campaign used the serif Perpetua. Later, however, upon hiring John Slabyk, and Scott Thomas, the campaign made the change to Gotham, and the font was used on numerous signs and posters for the campaign.
The International Herald Tribune praised the choice for its “potent, if unspoken, combination of contemporary sophistication (a nod to his suits) with nostalgia for America’s past and a sense of duty.” John Berry, an author of books on typography, agreed: “It’s funny to see it used in a political campaign because on the one hand it’s almost too ordinary yet that’s the point. It has the sense of trustworthiness because you’ve seen it everywhere.” Graphic designer Brian Collins noted that Gotham was the “linchpin” to Obama’s entire campaign imagery.
Observers of the primary and general elections compared Obama’s design choices favorably to those made by his opponents. In her campaign, Hillary Clinton used New Baskerville, a serif used by book publishers, law firms, and universities, while John McCain used Optima, the same font used for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
On April 4, 2011, Hoefler and Frere-Jones announced that they had created a new custom version of Gotham with serifs for the use of President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign. In announcing the news they wrote: “Can We Add Serifs to Gotham? For the President of The United States? Yes We Can. Following the closure of the 2012 US presidential elections, this serif version of Gotham has not yet been released publicly.
“The global elite,” says developer Michael Stern, “is basically looking for a safe-deposit box.”
The influx of global wealth is most visible on the ultrahigh end, as Stern and other builders are erecting spiraling condo towers and sales records are regularly shattered by foreign billionaires, like the Russian fertilizer oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev, purchaser of the most expensive condo in Manhattan’s history ($88 million), and Egyptian construction magnate Nassef Sawiris, who recently set the record for a co-op ($70 million). But much of the foreign money is coming in at lower price points, closer to the median for a Manhattan condo ($1.3 million and rising). In fact, if you’ve recently been outdone by an outrageous all-cash bid for an apartment, there’s a decent chance that, behind a generic corporate name, there’s a foreign buyer and an offshore bank account.
The Census Bureau estimates that 30 percent of all apartments in the quadrant from 49th to 70th Streets between Fifth and Park are vacant at least ten months a year.
To cater to the tastes of their transient residents, developers are designing their projects with features like hotel-style services. And the new economy has spawned new service businesses, like XL Real Property Management, which takes care of all the niggling details—repairs, insurance, condo fees—for absentee buyers.
Even those with less reflexively hostile reactions to foreign buying competition might still wonder: Who are these people? An entire industry of brokers, lawyers, and tight-lipped advisers exists largely to keep anyone from discovering the answer. This is because, while New York real estate has significant drawbacks as an asset—it’s illiquid and costly to manage—it has a major selling point in its relative opacity. With a little creative corporate structuring, the ownership of a New York property can be made as untraceable as a numbered bank account. And that makes the city an island haven for those who want to stash cash in an increasingly monitored global financial system. “With everything that is going on in Switzerland in terms of transparency, people are being forced to pay taxes on their capital that they used to hold there,” says Rodrigo Nino, the president of the Prodigy Network. “Real estate is a great alternative.”
“Real estate is a wonderful way to cleanse money. Once you buy real estate, the derivation of that cash is forgotten.”
Every year, the British real-estate brokerage Knight Frank publishes a document called “The Wealth Report.” The latest edition produces the curiously precise estimate that there are 167,669 individuals in the world who are “ultrahigh net worth,” with assets exceeding $30 million. “Of course, the big question is: are the rich getting richer?” the report asks. It answers gleefully in the affirmative, forecasting that over the next decade, the ranks of the ultrarich will increase by 30 percent, with much of the growth coming in Asia and Africa.
This new global wealth is being lavished on the usual status items—planes, yachts, contemporary art—but Knight Frank is pleased to report that the rich favor real estate most of all. Real estate can serve as a convenient pied-à-terre, an investment hedge against a wobbly home currency, or an insurance policy—a literal refuge if things go bad. Other financial centers boast a similar mix of glamour and apparent security—Knight Frank’s list of the top-ten “global cities” includes London, Paris, Geneva, and Dubai—but New York is forecast to add more ultrahigh-net-worth individuals than any city outside Asia over the next decade.
As expensive as New York’s luxury real estate might seem, it’s a bargain compared to other global capitals; a million dollars will buy twice as much space here as it does in Monaco or Hong Kong. New York is perceived to be more stable than Miami, Shanghai, and Beijing. It is much cheaper than London, where tabloid-fanned outrage over property prices has created an uncomfortable political climate and various new or proposed taxes are aimed at foreign investors and offshore entities. In New York, by contrast, buyers of new construction often qualify for a tax abatement.
The first rule of selling property to the ultrarich is that you can’t try to sell them property—you offer them status, or a lifestyle, or a unique place in the sky. A marketing video for 432 Park Avenue, scored to “Dream a Little Dream,” features a private jet, Modigliani statuary, and Harry Macklowe himself costumed as King Kong. One recent morning, at the development’s sales office in the GM Building, Wallgren led me down a hallway lined with vintage New York photographs, through a ten-by-ten-foot frame meant to illustrate the building’s enormous window size, to a scale model of Manhattan.
“If you bend down like this,” Wallgren said, stooping to street level, “you can really appreciate the height of it.”
“Rich people come to the U.S., and these people are busy,” he said. “What is, for these people, very important? I am asking you! To save the time.” Perepada doesn’t drag his clients to a bunch of open houses. He takes them to Jean Georges, gets them hockey or Broadway tickets, rents helicopters or horse carriages, sets them up with plastic surgeons. He says that by building a rapport, he is able to sell 80 percent of his properties with a simple phone call.
“Did you see The Wolf of Wall Street?” Perepada asked as we drove. “I love this movie. You see how he works? Amazing. ‘If you trust me, you have to buy. If you don’t trust me, you need to work with someone else.’ This is my regulation: Trust me, take it.”
Jajan believes the most important service he offers is reassurance. “The client wants an adviser here; he wants to feel comfortable knowing he has someone he can trust here in the United States.” Jajan’s firm offers a range of management functions. “We recently purchased a vacuum cleaner,” he told me. “It was for one of our high-net-worth clients that bought $15 million worth of property this year. We’re not about to say, ‘We don’t do that, we’re lawyers.’ ”
An anonymous high-net-worth client of Credit Suisse, who spoke to U.S. Senate investigators after taking advantage of an amnesty for tax cheats, described the process by which he would manage his funds when visiting Zurich. A remote-controlled elevator would take him to a bare meeting room where he and his private banker would discuss his money; all printed account statements would be destroyed after the visit.
The theatrical secrecy is designed to build personal trust between such bankers and their clients, which is especially vital when the goal of the transactions is to conceal assets from the prying eyes of rivals, vengeful spouses, or tax collectors. Moving the money itself is a relatively simple matter: A wire or a suitcase can convey cash from China to Singapore, or from Russia to an EU member state like Latvia, and once the funds have made it to a “white list” country, they can usually move onward without triggering alarms. Concealing the true ownership of a property or a bank account is trickier. That’s where the private bankers, wealth advisers, and lawyers earn their exorbitant fees.
Behind a New York City deed, there may be a Delaware LLC, which may be managed by a shell company in the British Virgin Islands, which may be owned by a trust in the Isle of Man, which may have a bank account in Liechtenstein managed by the private banker in Geneva. The true owner behind the structure might be known only to the banker. “It will be in some file, but not necessarily a computer file,” says Markus Meinzer, a senior analyst at the nonprofit Tax Justice Network. “It could be a black book.” If an investor wants to sell the property, he doesn’t have to transfer the deed—an act that would create a public paper trail. He can just shift ownership of the holding company.
Recently, scrutiny from the United States has punctured some of the traditional secrecy of Swiss banks. But that has just pushed clients to boutique advisory firms, often run by the same personnel. “Banks like working with those firms,” Meinzer says, “because they are then legally in the clear, without the risk of going to prison.” As international blacklisting has pushed some offshore locales toward greater legal compliance, new havens have arisen. New Zealand trusts offer similar secrecy to those of the Caymans, without the stigma.
It’s a sophisticated, well-oiled system that rarely requires crude subterfuge. Though U.S. authorities track all transfers over $10,000, a wire into a real-estate lawyer’s escrow account should look perfectly routine. “A lot of times, I don’t even know where my clients are from,” says the lawyer Bruce Cohen. “But I know that certain countries are very careful about the money that leaves their country.”
The best—though still fuzzy—global estimates say as much as $1.5 trillion in criminal proceeds is laundered each year. The United Nations figures that as little as one-fifth of one percent of that is ever recovered.