It didn't take long during Thursday’s Democratic debate for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders to unload on Wall Street, denouncing the financial industry's failings and sparring over who would be tougher on regulating big banks. Sanders decried the "greed and recklessness and illegal behavior of Wall Street," while Clinton said "we can never let Wall Street wreck Main Street."
Both comments drew enthusiastic applause from the Brooklyn audience, at a moment when populist politics are carrying the day in both parties. But in downtown Manhattan, among the working-class voters who spend their days alongside the vilified titans of Wall Street, a more complicated view prevails. These workers—at the restaurants, barbershops and coffee carts that surround high-flying financial firms—don't see the menace depicted by politicians in both parties.
They see loyal customers.
“There are very hardworking Wall Street Americans that come in here,” said Mary Fadrowski, a bartender at Killarney Rose, a pub near Deutsche Bank that sees a mix of blue-collar workers and white-collar financiers. “Not everybody has a house in the Hamptons and a big pool and a driver picking them up. They’re running to the ferry and going home to see their kids.”
Interviews with more than a dozen area service workers ahead of Tuesday's New York primary revealed a mixed bag when it comes to which candidates and which policies they support. Many are Sanders backers who also happen to think their financial neighbors have been unfairly vilified. Others are business owners and managers who value their customers but think income inequality is a major problem in the U.S. Some see a need for more financial regulation and accountability, but many were also quick to correct what they see as negative stereotypes about Wall Street, describing bankers and brokers as hardworking people who are easy targets.
“It feels like being in a major artery of a New York world, and you get people from all walks of life here,” said Alex Shepherd, 23, a waiter at The Growler and a Sanders supporter who doesn’t necessarily agree with how the Vermont Senator talks about Wall Street. “It’s an area that can be very much associated with corruption, but it’s not the community so much as select members of the community.”
Sanders proposes breaking up the largest financial institutions, but has struggled to say exactly how he would do so. Clinton has said she would heavily enforce the regulations already in place under the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, and extend those regulations to other parts of the industry.
“The way that Bernie feels about Wall Street, I kind of agree. It’s pretty irresponsible the way we spend money,” said Ruari Fay, 23, another bartender at The Growler. “I think he vilifies them a little bit, which is OK because it is a presidential race, and he excels at stirring emotion.”
Many who have worked in the area for decades said Wall Street is no longer the place it was in the 1980s. Since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, there are far fewer traders who work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Many banks have moved into offices in other parts of the city or to Connecticut and New Jersey.
“Wall Street is just a symbol now. It’s a name, it’s a catchphrase," said Nanci Tischler, 24, who works at a coffee truck parked on Wall Street just outside Deutsche Bank and the Museum of American Finance. Signs nearby read: “The money. The power. The history.”
She plans to vote for Sanders on Tuesday, in part because she likes that he has been shining a light on a financial system that has often gone unchecked. She bought a Sanders T-shirt at his rally in Washington Square Park on Wednesday.
“I wanted to wear it to work today, but I was like, I don’t know how well that will go over,” she said, sporting a Mets T-shirt instead. Tischler said most of the truck’s customers are regulars who stop by every day for their coffee—“We’re the life source to Wall Street.”
Near the selfie-taking crowds surrounding the area's iconic charging bull statue, Will Marcus, 60, sells souvenirs—New York City keychains, Statue of Liberty replicas, bronze bull figurines—and gives directions to tourists who inquire where they can find Wall Street. “They do that all day,” said Marcus. He doesn't have a problem with the suited bankers that pass by.
“People have a dream. They want to make a fast buck,” he said, likening the industry to his business of selling for $1 the keychains he buys for 60 cents. “They’re under a lot of pressure to be successful. Everyone plays the cards they’re dealt.”
Marcus, who said he is voting for Clinton, thinks Sanders raises good points about banking regulation but would not be able to change the system as President
“Wall Street is the heart of America, and thank goodness it somehow survived the worst in America—and I think it’ll survive whoever’s in charge of America," he said, referring to the Sept. 11 attacks. “My job doesn’t really rely on it, but so many things rely on Wall Street."
The New York state comptroller estimated last month that one in nine jobs in New York City are either directly or indirectly associated with the securities industry.
At Jacobi Barber Shop, manager Jerry Rivera, 55, said his business depends on those working in finance.
“Wall Street is necessary, and these people are necessary, but they just have to play fair,” he said. “It’s OK to have the one-percenters, but the one-percenters got to look out for the rest of us because they’re not alone in this world. There’s more of us than there are of them.”
Rivera, a Sanders supporter who strongly opposes Donald Trump, said he was disappointed in the recent $5 billion Goldman Sachs settlement with the Justice Department because he thinks those responsible for the financial crisis should be serving prison time.
“Some people should have gone to jail for what Goldman Sachs did, but then at the same time, I used to take care of a lot of the Goldman Sachs guys—and they’re great tippers, so it’s OK they didn’t go to jail because they can still tip,” he said, joking.
“They’re very nice guys, very nice guys,” Rivera said, about his Wall Street customers, “But so was the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood.”