The Unmappable and the Unknowable

one wilshire at night

Ours is an unmappable, unknowable world that disappears into a mysterious global network of capital and connections. So it is at One Wilshire. In September 2001, CRG-West, an operating partner of the Carlyle Group, acquired the building from the Paramount Group, a real estate investment firm owned by Otto Versand, a Hamburg-based concern specializing in retail clothing, mail order catalogues, and the Internet. Paramount Group owned the structure for some 25 years, but One Wilshire’s new owner is more appropriate for the Palace of Ether. The Carlyle Group is named after New York City’s Carlyle Hotel, the building where the firm was established, which in turn was named after Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish essayist and historian. In his 1832 Sartor Resartus, Carlyle created a new kind of book that blended fact and fiction, speculation and history, essay and satire while confronting the question of truth in a rapidly industrializing society that was losing its religious faith. Finding only contempt for humanity, Carlyle’s narrator ponders the “Everlasting No” of refusal, passes through the “Center of Indifference,” and eventually embraces the “Everlasting Yea.” In later writings, Carlyle attacked laissez-faire capitalism for its destruction of communal values and promotion of individualism as well as what he called the “dismal science” of economics. Indicting aristocracy as deadening and democracy as nonsense, Carlyle called for heroic leadership instead, but his reputation would be tarnished after his notorious essay of 1849, an “An Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question,” in which he defended slavery as a means of keeping lazy people busy at work. During the twentieth century, fascist leaders would admire Carlyle. Adolf Hitler is reputed to have read Carlyle’s biography of Frederick the Great during his last days in the Berlin bunker.

For its part, the Carlyle Group is a private global investment firm specializing in buyouts of assets in real estate and defense. Founded to take advantage of a tax loophole in which Alaskan Eskimos could sell losses at a discount to corporations that, in turn, would claim the full loss as a credit on their taxes—a process that often involved exaggerating the losses of the Eskimos—in the early 1990s the Carlyle Group turned its initial winnings into a quick fortune by buying up defense contractors whose stock was laid low by defense cutbacks in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Founded in the capital of Money, owners of the palace of Ether, the Carlyle Group is based in the capital of the Bomb. Unlike most equity firms that operate out of New York, Carlyle locates its headquarters in Washington, D. C., more precisely on Pennsylvania Avenue, half way between the White House and the Capitol building. Throughout its two decades of existence, Carlyle has excelled at exploiting its relationships with the federal government, leading The New Republic magazine to dub the firm “the Access Capitalists.” The list of personnel who have worked for, or advised, Carlyle includes luminaries from U.S. administrations past and present such as former Secretary of State Jim Baker, former Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci, former White House budget director Richard Darman, former FCC chairman William Kennard, former SEC chairman Arthur Levitt, former President George H. W. Bush as well as international figures such as former British Prime Minister John Major, former Philippines President Fidel Ramos, and financier George Soros.

As the attacks of the morning of September 11, 2001 unfolded, the Carlyle Group was holding its annual international investor conference at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Washington. Carlucci, Baker, and Bush attended the meeting, as did a number of the Group’s key foreign investors, including Shafiq bin Laden, Osama bin Laden’s estranged half-brother, there to represent his family. With the revelation that Osama bin Laden was behind the attacks, the bin Laden family liquidated its stake to quell the growing public perception of a conflict of interest regarding their investment in a key defense contractor that would profit from the chase for their relation.12 How, precisely, One Wilshire fits into the Carlyle Group’s strategy is not clear, but three possible strategies seem likely. First, if One Wilshire’s importance is due to its role as a key peering point, telecoms using it as a base for their Los Angeles switches still need access to AT&Ts local lines. Although AT&T is a competitor to these carriers, it has also previously been an ally of the Carlyle group, pointing to a synergistic relationship. Second, Carlyle is adept at profit from its access to the federal government. With telecommunications bills being rapidly re-written in the United States Congress, the group is strategically positioned to benefit. Third, the huge amount of foreign and domestic traffic flowing through One Wilshire offers a signal opportunity for the American government, which was recently revealed to be installing electronic eavesdropping equipment at telecommunications facilities without search warrants.

Los Angeles is the capital of Ether but the rhizomatic tendrils of Ether extend across the world, dominating it with its silent outposts. Like One Wilshire, carrier hotels, telecom hotels, data hotels, carrier neutral collocation facilities, exchanges, and switching stations are generally found in the densest part of a city or its financial district. In Los Angeles, Ether is concentrated in one area and largely even in one building. By contrast, in New York, Ether is dispersed: there are some half dozen buildings devoted largely to telecommunications in Manhattan. For example, 32 Avenue of the Americas is typical of a building design for telecommunications that has recently been retrofitted as a collocation facility. Designed by Ralph Walker and built in 1932 , 32 Avenue of the Americas once housed AT&T’s offices and equipment for transatlantic communications, but has recently been remodeled by Tyco International to serve as the New York TelExchange Center. Tenants are encouraged to take advantage of Tyco’s transatlantic fiber optic network, which terminates here. Another model can be seen at the AT&T Long Lines Building at 33 Thomas Street, designed by John Carl Warnecke & Associates and built in 1974. Clad in pink Swedish granite, the Long Lines Building was built to resist nuclear blast and fallout and to operate self-sufficiently for two weeks after attack. Each floor is 6 meters in height, providing room for AT&T’s equipment. Unlike One Wilshire or 32 Avenue of the Americas, this facility is only for AT&T, the largest telecommunications company in the United States.