New York is a city of con artists, cutups, philanthropists, philosophers, overachievers, and dealmakers. Legends are made, by putting a name on a skyscraper or on Page Six. These are the stories of eight legendary New Yorkers, all of whom you should know, whose legends have been blown out of proportion. Their names are all over New York. They were the toast of society. They won prizes, inherited fortunes, created empires —— but at the end of the day, they hurt more than they helped.
John Jacob Astor
New Yorkers know the Astor family for all the sites in the city named after them: Astoria, Queens; Astor Place; Astor Court; the Waldorf-Astoria hotel; Astor Row; and Astor Ave in the Bronx (where they stabled horses) — even one of the lions guarding the NYC Public Library was initially and informally named after John Jacob. The family dynasty was founded by brothers George and John Jacob, two German immigrants. John Jacob came to the US determined to make his fortune and kicked things off nicely in the fur trade. He would go on to become a multimillionaire — the first in America.
But the foundation of the Astor family fortune is based in John Jacob Astor’s real estate dealings in New York. During the Panic of 1837, when banks began accepting only gold and silver in payments after a period of unchecked inflation on paper money, banks in New York lost nearly $100 million and the entire country took a hit to the tune of a seven-year depression on par with the Great Depression. Property values in the city also took a major tumble, and Astor, who was looking to diversify out of the fur trade, stepped in and started snapping up land.
Astor dipped his toes into the real estate pool early in the 1800s, leasing land from Vice President Aaron Burr that he in turn broke into lots and rented to tenants. So if you’ve ever wondered why we rent in New York, as opposed to buying in London, this tradition has its roots in the money-making agenda of John Jacob Astor.
He did smartly realize there would be interest in developing further north in Manhattan and subsequently spent plenty of time grabbing property there, but he would often let it lie, undeveloped and unused, if there were no renters. His fever for buying deeply discounted property in New York City during The Panic was so great that a government agency forced him to pay more for some of the insanely good deals he was finding. He was known to be a tough landlord, foreclosing on people who couldn’t pay in spite of the economic downturn.
In short, John Jacob Astor didn’t care much about improving New York City. He cared about making money. His lack of community spirit and philanthropy hardly make the proliferation his family name a proud contribution to some of the city’s big landmarks.