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What does it mean to occupy Wall Street? After all, the protestors in New York City are camped not on Wall Street itself, but in a small park one block away. They want to draw attention to what they see as abuses by the nation's financial system. And Wall Street remains the symbolic center of that system.
But as NPR's Jim Zarroli reports, most of the industry's biggest players decamped long ago for other locations.
JIM ZARROLI: People who come to Wall Street for the first time are often surprised by how small it is, just a few blocks long. And yet, for much of its history, this little street was the epicenter of the U.S. financial system. Richard Sylla is chairman of the Museum of American Finance.
RICHARD SYLLA: Wall Street just got to be the place where you went to do your banking, when you went to buy and sell your stocks and bonds. The House of Morgan was here, National City Banks was here. The First National Bank was here.
ZARROLI: One brisk afternoon recently, Sylla and I went for a stroll down Wall Street. The sun had fallen behind the high buildings and the narrow street was already in shadow. Because of the demonstrators, metal barricades have been placed across Wall Street and the sidewalks are choked with pedestrians. Most of them appear to be tourists. Sylla says in recent decades, there has been a huge exodus away from Wall Street.
So, how many big firms are on Wall Street today?
SYLLA: Far fewer than in the past because most of the big banks like Citi, Chase and so on, they've moved uptown.
ZARROLI: Right now, there's just one major bank still on Wall Street, Bank of New York Mellon, though Goldman Sachs isn't too far away. Many of the grand old buildings that once housed Wall Street firms have been converted into condos. What's happened on Wall Street has everything to do with technology, says Charles Jones, professor of finance and economics at Columbia Business School. Back before the telephone, people who traded stocks needed to be near each other.
CHARLES JONES: And everything had to be done by courier, by messenger, by, you know, having a runner go from one place to another. So you needed to be - you needed to really have that physical proximity.
ZARROLI: But with computers, Jones says, the decentralization of Wall Street has really accelerated. At one time, for instance, stocks were traded mostly through the New York Stock Exchange at its iconic columned building at the corner of Broad and Wall. Today, Jones says, you can buy and sell stocks from anywhere in the world. Most stock trading now takes place on electronic exchanges, on computers that can be located anywhere. Even the New York Stock Exchange does most of its trading electronically.
JONES: That's still where the trading floor is, but the trading floor is basically a show piece these days. The vast majority of the trading is happening on a computer somewhere in suburban New Jersey.
ZARROLI: So, Wall Street itself is no longer the physical center of the American financial markets and hasn't been for some time. Richard Sylla.
SYLLA: One of the reasons there hasn't been more of a, what you might call, a Wall Street backlash or reaction to Occupy Wall Street is that so much of Wall Street is someplace else and is not being very inconvenienced by the occupiers who march around and beat on their drums and so on.
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ZARROLI: I went over to Zucotti Park, where the demonstrators are camped out and I spoke to Mark Bray, part of the ad hoc press team that answers media questions. I asked Bray, why demonstrate here? Wouldn't it be better to go up to mid-town where the really big firms are located? Bray said the point of the protests isn't to send a message to CEOs.
MARK BRAY: We're not expecting that they're going to change what they're doing because they hear our protest. Instead, we're trying to appeal to the wider public to re-envision our relationship to democracy and really re-envision how we need to rethink the priorities of this economy.
ZARROLI: Bray says Wall Street remains a symbol of high finance. The protests are a reminder of how potent that symbolism remains even if much of the financial industry has moved away.
Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.