Yuppie porn at the New York Times

Daphne Merkin goes postmodern on the new real estate mag, Key

Published September 12, 2006 6:49PM (EDT)

In an exquisite display of deckchair-on-the-Titanic-rearranging timing, on Sunday the New York Times debuted Key, a fat new quarterly real estate magazine. I have just finished reading every word (minus the special advertising supplements on Lower Manhattan and international real estate trends) and while I am tempted to ask for those two hours of my life back, I will grudgingly concede that there are some worthwhile gems mixed in among the ads for Fifth Avenue penthouses and Central Park South "bedroom residences."

Noam Scheiber's piece on how housing futures markets may smooth out the historical boom-bust real estate cycle is provocative, Sridhar Pappu's profile of the creator of New York's PropertyShark.com (which lets you see who filed a lien against the owner of that swanky Upper West Side brownstone) sent me straight to the Web to start spying, Damon Darlin's article on how immigrants will keep the housing market strong in the long run is interesting (although too short), and Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, is a funny guy.

However, the issue gets off to an awful start with an appallingly overwritten and deeply annoying essay by Daphne Merkin, which purports to explain "How we have come to talk, dream and muse incessantly about houses we don't own and could never afford." Like Tonto said to the Lone Ranger, "what do you mean 'we,' white (wo)man?" Merkin wants us to believe that "the buying and selling of homes has become the ultimate postmodern spectator sport -- a form of yuppie pornography, a voyeuristic diversion from the quotidian." But after plowing through her first paragraph, with its "be it ever so humble" and "haven in a heartless world" clichés and thudding references to E.T., Dorothy (of Oz fame) and the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, I was already so exasperated that I was unwilling to grant her the least bit of right to speak for me, let alone the rest of Key's readers. The photo spread on the houses of Martha Stewart and an interminable, syrupy tale of three North Carolina siblings and their oh-so-tasteful development of a pristine deep woods valley did little to banish the sour taste.

But most irritating of all was the blithe disconnect between the issue and the current state of the housing market. Only Scheiber makes even a gesture toward the possibility that a significant bump in the road may be fast approaching. I could be forgiving, and surmise that this issue went to bed a long time ago, or I could be cynical, and say that the demographic that this vehicle for delivering real estate ads is aimed at is pretty well insulated from everything except a Great Depression-scale disaster. But it still feels remarkably out of touch. I'm going to save it -- it might be a lot more fun to read six months from now.

By the very end, though, I must confess, Daphne Merkin's maunderings took on a sudden new hue. The very last item of content in the mag is a photograph of a charming nuclear family at play in their gorgeous lap pool in a Boulder, Colo., home. Yes, of course this is yuppie pornography -- there is no other phrase to describe it. So if you return to Merkin's essay and read it as a description of Key itself, and translate her numerous references to "we" to refer to the editors who put this thing together, well, yes, it does begin to make a certain sense. Now, that's postmodern.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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