When famed writer Ta-Nehisi Coates backed away from moving into a New York City brownstone, he gave voice to celebrities’ qualms about city living.
The National Book Award winner wrote this week that media coverage of his $2.1 million home purchase slammed the door on his planned move, saying he was concerned for his family’s safety and uneasy about the idea of fans showing up on his stoop after the address was published.
“Within a day of reading these articles, my wife and I knew that we could never live” there, he wrote in an essay at TheAtlantic.com.
Coates, whose “Between the World and Me” offers a searing assessment of being black in America, isn’t the first prominent person to try to shield his address or to rue the up-close-and-personal nature of New York. But in a city where spotting celebrities can be easier than snagging a cab, the idea of a writer lamenting lost privacy to the point of abandoning a low-key neighborhood seemed to draw a new -- to some, puzzling -- line.
“In New York, a lot of `celebrity’ people live among non-celebrities,” notes Ainslie Binder, a 20-year resident of the neighborhood where Coates bought the brownstone. She’d been pleased to think a best-selling author would burnish the area’s growing reputation as a hotspot for writers and other creative people.
In a community where residents stage an annual house tour and plant sidewalk flower barrels together, Coates would be treated “just like everybody else,” she said.
The nation’s biggest city has long been home to the famous and rich, living in settings from Central Park-facing apartments to Brooklyn townhouses. Even in the see-it-tweet-it era, many New Yorkers pride themselves on understated reactions to encountering off-duty stars on the streets, in cafes and elsewhere.
Still, tabloids and widely-read real-estate media regularly delight in reporting who bought where, to the consternation of high-profile buyers.
“Privacy is a huge concern,” says Jared Seligman, a broker with Douglas Elliman Real Estate’s Sports and Entertainment division, which caters to celebrity clients. Whether the stumbling block is a building board that won’t allow purchases in corporate names or simply a passer-by who sees a celeb walking from limo to lobby, “in New York, it’s very hard to make a move without going onto the radar.”
Not that luminaries don’t try.
Doormen are prevalent, and famously discreet, in high-end buildings. And some notables put a premium on homes or buildings with internal garages or courtyards, so they can drive in unseen, said John Burger, a Brown Harris Stevens Residential Sales broker who specializes in super-high-end Manhattan properties.
Fears about being on the public’s map aren’t unfounded in a city that, by nature, can’t match the seclusion of a gated estate.
Celebrities ranging from Uma Thurman to Alec Baldwin have had stalkers show up at their Manhattan homes. A man described by police as emotionally disturbed was detained outside Taylor Swift’s building just this Tuesday (she wasn’t there, and the man was taken to a hospital for a psychiatric evaluation).
A Madonna fan, meanwhile, scrawled messages of adoration on the sidewalk near a Manhattan building where she lived for a time. The Material Girl later moved to a townhouse with an unusual privacy feature -- its own garage.
And some celebs simply grow weary of having the nation’s biggest city as a sometimes nosy neighbor.
After testifying at his stalker’s trial, having run-ins with photographers, and being suspended from his ultimately short-lived MSNBC show because of his behavior during one of the encounters, Baldwin wrote a New York magazine cover story in 2014 decrying the constant tabloid coverage of his comings and goings.
“I just can’t live in New York anymore,” the longtime New Yorker wrote, saying he was beginning to crave instead the gates, cars and ability to shut out the public that Los Angeles offers.
At one time, “to be a New Yorker meant you gave everybody five feet,” he wrote. “And now we don’t leave each other alone.”
Yet even for Baldwin, New York evidently has its pluses. He still lives here.