Compared to what it looks like and implies today, Wall Street had relatively humble beginnings. Its towering skyscrapers and art Deco architecture, its digital tickers and wireless waves resemble little the original New Amsterdam road. Named after an actual mud -- and timber wall built by original Dutch inhabitants of Manhattan Island, Wall Street has morphed beyond its geographic location, and has come to symbolize American corporate culture in general. Films like Oliver Stone's Wall Street promote its image as a bastion of greed and financial prowess, of investment genius and corporate corruption. Wall Street therefore signifies more than just the New York Stock Exchange that started there over two hundred years ago. In fact, most major New York-based investment firms no longer maintain headquarters on Wall Street. In spite of its many transformations, Wall Street retains an aura of mystique and intrigue that is unrivaled by any other financial district in the world. The term Wall Street also refers not only to the street itself but to a set of relationships that defines and characterizes American culture. As such, Wall Street embodies an American subculture. Anyone who has worked on or near Wall Street, or who knows people who do, can describe Wall Street subculture in familiar sociological terms. For instance, as a subculture, Wall Street represents a "set of values, behavior and attitudes of a particular group of people who are distinct from, but related to, the dominant culture in society," (Bilton, cited on the University of Canterbury website). Moreover, as is stated on the University of Canterbury's "Glossary of Sociological Terms," the term subculture is most often associated with "deviant groups." Although Wall Street culture is normally not considered to be deviant, a closer examination of the attitudes, values, and behaviors shows that the subculture does deviate from the mainstream.
Geographically, Wall Street extends from Broadway near the Hudson River to the East River. Wall Street and the New York Stock Exchange serve as the financial pulse of America, and by extension, the world. What began as an informal gathering under a buttonwood tree in 1792 became the world's largest stock exchange. Therefore, the trading that took place on Wall Street impacted and continues to impact the global economy, affecting even those people who have no money invested. For example, a company that trades publicly in the New York Stock Exchange might hire tens of thousands of employees. If shares in that company drop in price, the executives might decide to lay off a few thousand workers. Decisions made on Wall Street therefore directly impact the daily lives of people all over America. Because so many companies now run offices around the world, individuals who live on different continents might also be affected by the Wall Street world.
As the heart of the New York financial district, Wall Street has witnessed the likes of J.P. Morgan amass huge amounts of money and subsequently create influential financial institutions and banks. Furthermore, what happened on Wall Street can and does influence what happens in Washington, D.C. Anti-trust legislation created from New Deal policies under President Roosevelt are examples of legislation created to counteract the imposing influence of the elite Wall Street society. Political and financial powers are closely connected in modern American culture, and therefore Wall Street definitely represents an actual place of power. Wall Street means big business: the billion- and multi-billion dollar corporations that essentially run the country because of their ability to influence political agendas and legislation. An understanding of how the stock market works is not necessary to observe the impact of Wall Street on American culture in general.
The Wall Street subculture is elitist and almost resembles a secret society. In fact, Wall Street began like a secret society. In 1792, a group of twenty-four merchants met at a local hotel to sign what was called the Buttonwood Agreement, named after the tree under which they normally convened. The Buttonwood Agreement set the ground rules for what would later become the New York Stock Exchange, located at 11 Wall Street. "The exchange was an exlusive organization, new members were required to be voted in, and a candidate could be blackballed by three negative votes," ("History of the Stock Market"). The name "Wall Street" is symbolic because it denotes the wall separating rich from poor in America. Moreover, the wall keeps out the riff-raff, those persons who were and still are prevented from participating in the secretive society of Wall Street.
Those behind the wall are called "insiders." They conduct insider business and trading and know about the market's affairs far before ordinary shareholders do. Throughout its history, Wall Street insiders have been predominantly white males. The bull that stands as a symbol of a powerful and prosperous stock market is itself a symbol of male dominance and power.
Kate Jennings worked as a speechwriter at several major Wall Street financial services corporations. In her New York Times article she recalls, "Until then, I'd had no experience of closed societies and rigid hierarchies ... I had to turn myself into something of an anthropologist" in order to understand the goings-on of Wall Street. Jennings observed that "fear was the primary management tool and dossiers, censorship, misinformation and various forms of surveillance were standard practice."
Jennings' experiences on Wall Street prove that the subculture is indeed deviant. Not only does Wall Street not represent the overall demographics of the United States of America, which is not comprised almost totally of white males, but Wall Street culture does not represent mainstream values, beliefs, and behaviors. The insider trading evident in the Enron scandal is one of the examples of deviant behavior by the Wall Street subculture. Wall Street "fat cats" lie and cheat, which are commonly regarded as deviant behaviors. However, Wall Street insiders do so regularly, almost as an integral part of their jobs. "the stock market ... has become deleterious only because certain rapacious people have taken control of it and twisted it to their purpose," ("History of the Stock Market").
An interview with a leading hedge fund manager working on Wall Street can show another insider's point-of-view on the subculture.
'About ninety percent of my coworkers are white males like me," Mr. Wayde said. "I would have to agree that Wall Street is run by white males. I'd also agree that Wall Street seems like a secret society. I've often thought about the fact that all the recruits to investment firms come from top business schools, most of which are financially out of reach of people who come from low-income backgrounds. Therefore, the rich really do get richer and the poor really don't have much of a chance of breaking through the glass ceiling. I'm usually dismayed when I work with the group of new recruits and interns. More and more of them are people of color but the balance of power is still for the white males. I wouldn't be so concerned if it didn't mean so much.
"But you know," Wayde continued. "Wall Street is more important than Washington, as far as I'm concerned. Who has a greater impact on job security? Washington bureaucrats mean little compared with the people who trade stocks. I mean, if a company does well on Wall Street, they build new stores or factories and hire new workers. When a company's stock price drops the opposite happens."
When asked about the level of secrecy involved in Wall Street affairs, Wayde chuckled. "You got that right! It is like a secret society in many ways. I mean, we don't have secret handshakes or passwords when we enter buildings, although we do have to go through metal detectors now! I think we are under constant surveillance like Big Brother is watching us."