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Watching The Meltdown

Tourists flock to witness fall of Wall Street

AFP  Oct 12, 2008

NEW YORK — Gawking tourists and panicky financiers brought a bizarrely carnival-like atmosphere to Wall Street on Friday.

Outside the New York Stock Exchange hundreds of tourists joined police, TV crews, school children, hot dog vendors, and a white-bearded busker playing "Amazing Grace" on the flute.

Swedish visitor Agneta Blomgren, 43, photographed her mother Berit outside the exchange. An electronic board displaying plunging share prices provided the backdrop.

"We wanted to come and see it," Blomgren said. "The Americans aren't world leaders any more. It's time for a shift and this is the symptom of that. Power is shifting away -- perhaps to China."

The Chinese were there too.

Tour guide Ying Wang had added the stock exchange to her 10-strong group's itinerary that included Times Square, the site of the destroyed World Trade Center, and Central Park.

"Everyone wants to see what's going on, what the place really looks like," Wang said, waving a long toy flower to catch the attention of her excited flock, all clutching cameras.

The tourists and school groups come to witness history barely noticed the tense, well-dressed figures flitting through the finance district's dark, narrow streets.

These shock troops of the world's ruined financial capital cut a sad sight.

"It's very scary. I feel numb, like I'm in a horrible nightmare," said Rob, 39, an employee of giant insurance group AIG, which the US government rescued from bankruptcy last month.

Rob, who would not give his last name, said his last job had been at Lehman Brothers, the investment bank that collapsed last month, and that the pension he had been building up for 10 years was now worthless.

"If I could do it all again I'd do something less stressful, like teaching math. Yeah, I like numbers, or I did until now," he said, nursing a large take-away coffee.

Patricia Cronin was on her way to the bank she'd worked at for 27 years. Her job, she said, was about to be axed.

"This is a major happening," she said, "this is very unsettling. There's a wide sweeping impact on the psyche, on home owners, on share holders, on the ability to take decisions."

Cronin said that 20 to 30 of her friends were also about to lose their jobs.

The crisis has rippled out to far more than financiers and curious visitors.

At Trinity Church, a landmark just off Wall Street, leaflets advertised "help in uncertain times."

Counselors were offering free sessions for those "stressed or overwhelmed financially, psychologically or spiritually." Another workshop was titled "navigating career transitions."

"More of the Wall Street people are coming in to church," said Renata Shrog, selling silver crosses and choral CDs in Trinity's gift shop.

"When times are bad, people come in. When life is good, they don't think about it, do they?"

Because this is New York, even Philip Belpasso, the bearded busker sitting under a lamp post by the stock exchange, had a strong -- and remarkably informed -- opinion.

"These companies spend so much money on their parties and golden parachutes and so on, they're just not lean fighting machines. They can't take the slowdown. They're too fat," Belpasso said.

Belpasso, dressed in a dirty army jacket, gloves, and a red baseball cap marked USA, said the government's decision to boost insurance for bank deposits was "the kiss of death to the stock market."

"If everything's insured in banks, then who would go and put their money in stocks?"

As tourists' coins clinked into his box, joined by the occasional dollar bill, Belpasso said: "I play 'Amazing Grace' because I feel sorry for all the pain."

Tourists flock to witness fall of Wall Street
Watching the meltdown / AFP

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