Wall Street on the Potomac

It can’t be a hopeful sign of the nation’s economic health that this year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C., includes an exhibit about the New York Stock Exchange. If buying stocks and bonds is an activity we must now equate with Morris dances, Navajo songs, and the weaving of sweetgrass baskets, can worldwide financial ruin be far behind? Concerned about the implications for his modest stock portfolio, Chatterbox went down to the Mall to investigate. Making his way past Calypso singers and brick masons, Chatterbox came upon an area near the base of the Washington Monument dedicated to celebrating the culture of New York City, an activity in which Washingtonians almost never engage. (Decrying New York City for being too expensive; expressing resentment or anxiety about Washington’s presumed cultural inferiority to Manhattan; evincing disgust for New Yorkers’ obsession with sex and money–these are more typically Washingtonian stances toward the metropolis 240 miles to the north.) New York, D.C., turned out to be a fairly disappointing replica of the real thing. One major problem was the Mall’s oppressive flatness (on a hot summer day there’s no place more unpleasant than this treeless expanse), which failed to convey any sense of New York’s essential verticality. This is what New York would look like if it were a city of long vistas–a red subway car here, a replica of a New York-style water tower there, a replica of a Spanish Harlem bodega, assuming there are any Spanish Harlem bodegas with signs out front that say, “Bodega.”

The Wall Street tent was a similarly haphazard affair. An interactive sign out front invited passersby to look up the meaning of various “Wall Street Words.” When you lifted a green hinged block labeled “Exchanges,” it said, “Facilities where stocks and bonds are traded.” When you lifted a red hinged block labeled, “Bull and Bear Market,” it said, “Stock prices are up in a bull market, down in a bear market.” There was an old-style stock ticker, a big bell, and a handsome display of stock certificates engraved by the American Bank Note Company. At 11:30 a.m., someone rang the big bell, and two speakers sitting in front of a large photo of the stock exchange’s main trading room began to talk to an audience of about a dozen people, nearly all, from the looks of them, retirees interested in learning more about the fate of their pensions. (Although there were children milling about the rest of the Folk Festival, there were none here.) One of the speakers was CNN financial editor Myron Kandel. Kandel talked mainly about the extraordinary growth in news coverage of the stock market since the 1960s, when he was financial editor of the New York Herald Tribune. The other speaker was Joe Gabriel, a beefy man who is in charge of the NYSE’s physical plant. In his talk, Gabriel explained how many air conditioners there were in the main trading room, how many electric generators, that sort of thing. When Gabriel mentioned the air conditioners, Chatterbox glanced over to a fan at the far end of the tent and wondered where he could get a cold drink. After listening a bit longer, Chatterbox wandered off to another tent and bought a Pepsi. Then he left, feeling vaguely comforted by his discovery that the workings of the nation’s financial markets made for a poor carnival sideshow.