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The Sky's the Limit: Passion and Property in Manhattan    by Steven Gaines order for
Sky's the Limit
by Steven Gaines
Order:  USA  Can
Little, Brown & Co., 2005 (2005)
Hardcover, CD

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* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

The Sky's the Limit is investigative reporter Steven Gaines' chronicle of residential changes in Manhattan living. Buying or renting luxury condos and co-ops in Manhattan is about much more than signing on the dotted line. Gaines looks at real estate carriage brokers, luxury sites' board control and power, and vying for social status. He examines celebrities, rules and regulations of who can move in, how one should dress for a board interview, and why certain hopefuls are turned down for residence in New York's most expensive condos and co-ops.

The infamous 'Social Register' was preceded in 1883 by the 'Society-List and Club Register'. This black book (sometimes referred to as the 'stud book') contains an alpha list of names and addresses of 'people deemed to be in society'. In an 1985 Esquire article, Tom Wolfe explained that 'le monde is sheerly divided into Good Buildings and those that, for whatever reason, are not Good. It may have nothing to do with space, construction or grandeur.' Gaines reports that 'Fifth Avenue is the address against which all others are measured' (especially 820 5th Avenue). Parallel comparisons are Central Park West, Park Avenue, River House, lofts in TriBeCa, Chelsea, One Sutton Place South, San Remo, and Beresford.

The author includes an extensive and fascinating history, from the initial plan of William Earl Dodge Stokes to build the famed Ansonia Hotel, an architecture with an amazing 'vertiginous staircase' (of the few black and white photos in the book, that of the Ansonia staircase is the most splendid). As part of the Hotel's history, Gaines mentions Stokes's teen wife, and how the Ansonia took four years to construct, and was over budget by 800%, with lawsuits and a workers' strike, before it opened in 1904. Over the years the Ansonia deteriorated. At one point in the later 1960s, to generate income, the basement housed a gay men's gathering place - 'The Continental Baths'. In the 1970s, Larry Levenson created the swinging scene, and the Ansonia-housed 'Plato's Retreat'.

Statistics of the 1982 U.S. Census listed twelve billionaires, and by 2003 the number increased to two-hundred sixty-two, of whom 48 lived in New York City. Manhattan is a 'vertical world' of twenty-two square miles of land, with 1.5 million plus in population. Gaines talks of civil rights cases that require the plaintiff to give hard proof of bias in being turned down - however, he tells us that not many win over a board's decision. Gaines writes of the history of tenement houses, the invention of the first elevator, and housing developers in the 1800s. He tells how one broker suggested to her ex-husband the creation of an opening from the bedroom to the living room of his residence, 'But instead of creating a graceful archway ... he hired a man with a sledgehammer to whack a hole in the wall ... big enough to step through and never bothered to have the plaster and rubble carted away.'

Me, read about real estate? Never ... but I enjoyed this well-documented work. I expected a dry-read, but instead, was delighted by an informative (sometimes even gossipy) account of historical and modern New York. It isn't just the brokers, tenants, boards, and landlords, who have stories to tell - the concierges speak up, too. If you're interested in the stories behind Manhattan's luxurious residences - who and why some got (and get) turned down no matter the weight of their financial statements - and memorabilia of the then and now of historical buildings, enjoy Gaines' superb The Sky's the Limit.

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