WeWork and the Death of Leisure

From today’s New York Times “Opinion” by Ginia Bellafante

This past week, Hudson’s Bay, whose story begins 347 years ago in the fur trade, making it the oldest company in North America, announced that it was selling Lord & Taylor’s flagship store, on Fifth Avenue, several years after it had acquired the department store chain through a deal with a private-equity firm.

The buyer would be WeWork, the office rental outfit very much rooted in the virtue-and-shell-game ethos of 21st-century capitalism. The founders Adam Neumann and Miguel McKelvey got together in a building on the Brooklyn waterfront where they both worked — Mr. Neumann as the proprietor of a company called Krawlers that produced padded clothes for babies — and quickly realized that they could make money from all the vacant space they saw around them by simulating the atmosphere of the Silicon Valley workplace, fueling the dreams of young entrepreneurs who always wanted to appear as if they were having fun. Over the summer, seven years into its existence, WeWork reached a $20 billion valuation.

On the face of it, the transformation of a department store — the first in the country to install an elevator — into the headquarters of a start-up is simply a story of the new economy cannibalizing the old. Traditional retail businesses have been in decline for a long time; the cult of shared goods and services enabled by technology is ever ascendant.

The first iteration of Lord & Taylor was a dry goods store on Catherine Street in Lower Manhattan that opened in 1826. The 676,000-square-foot Italianate building in Midtown it eventually occupied in 1914 (a building for which WeWork is now paying $850 million) stood not merely as a monument to turn-of-the-century commerce but also as the grand testament to what the sociologist Thorstein Veblen called the rising culture of “conspicuous leisure.”

Leisure, Veblen wrote, “does not connote indolence or quiescence.’’ What it conveys is the “nonproductive consumption of time,” by which he was not anticipating the 10,000 hours people would fritter away playing Minecraft, but any time spent away from the activity of labor. In their infancy and well into the first 80 years or so of the 20th century, department stores were largely places to pass the hours. When Lord & Taylor opened on Fifth Avenue and 38th Street it featured three dining rooms, a manicure parlor for men and a mechanical horse that could walk, trot or canter. Harry Gordon Selfridge, founder of Selfridges in London, dictated that “a store should be a social center.” To that end he installed an ice rink and shooting range on the roof of his store and exhibited the first plane to fly over the English Channel.

Read the entire article here.