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So many people come to New York with something to prove. This is obvious. There's no other city that boasts that if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere...with the underlying message that anyone who even cares about making it anywhere else probably just shouldn't even come here to begin with. But now making it here has gotten significantly harder, and almost impossible without having a source of income not related to creative endeavors. Still, it's always been hard to earn a living off a small salary here. Even Joan Didion, in her essay "Goodbye to All That," wrote, "It is often said that New York is a city for only the very rich and the very poor... I talk about how difficult it would be for us to 'afford' to live in New York right now, about how much 'space' we need." And that was in the 60s! When New York was known to actually be affordable. And yet Didion moved, just as so many others are doing now (none of them Joan Didion, of course, because there is only one Joan Didion). Of course, the definition of New York has expanded in recent years, at least it has to newcomers. Brooklyn became just as, or maybe more, desirable as Manhattan, and with that desirability came huge spikes in rent and cost of living expenses that make the struggle to survive here much harder, and certainly less romantic. And just like Didion grew weary of New York as she got older, so too does the city seem less and less a place to live and more a place to have lived in for all the people who came here to make a splash and live the sort of wild, carefree life that almost everyone grows out of anyway.
Didion also wrote, way back in 1968, "You see I was in a curious position in New York: it never occurred to me that I was living a real life there." This is the sentiment that I've found most common among the essays I've been reading about leaving New York, and among the friends of mine who have left or are thinking about leaving. They don't think life here is real. They wanted New York to give them something—something cinematic!—and instead they found that they had to work harder than they'd thought, and still wound up with little or nothing to show for it. None of these people would ever go so far as to say that New York owed them anything, but it sure wasn't even throwing them any crumbs. It's undeniable that life is easier in just about anywhere else in this country, or at least, it's easier for the educated, middle-class people who started flocking to New York at just around the time the Yankees got really good because hey! crime is down and hey! streets are cleaner and hey! maybe I've got a chance to make it here too. But just like how the Yankees couldn't win every World Series (although, hell, for a while it really looked like they might), New York is not actually some fantasy place that only requires you show up with a suitcase and a dream. New York is hard as hell, and you'll only get something out of it if you invest yourself, if you make it your reality, not just your fantasy.
I'm not dismissing all of the legitimate problems that lower- and middle-class New Yorkers have these days—I went into a tailspin myself last month when I found out my rent was going up by 6%, and had fantasies about throwing everything I own in storage, getting a car, driving over the George Washington Bridge without once glancing in my rearview mirror. But New York has always been a city of ridiculous wealth and suffocating poverty. It probably always will be that city. The difference now is that the possibility of a viable middle-class seems to be vanishing, and fighting for middle-class necessities, like good public schools and access to affordable health care and housing is something that everyone needs to care about. But that's the thing, isn't it? You actually still need to care about living here. You have to care enough to invest in having a future here. And not everyone wants to do that, and so they go. Their distorted idea of what New York is vanishes, the bell jar lifts and they breathe fresh air, and they go away.
Here's the thing though. Distortion is beautiful. Distortion is what makes things special. Who needs clarity when all you get to see is a backyard full of trees or, less romantically, a freeway clogged with cars? New York's distorted beauty might seem unreal to many, but to me, and to everyone I know who really loves it here, it's what makes the city our home. I once tried to explain why I like raising my children in New York by saying that I want them to take the extraordinary for granted. I want them to feel ownership of some of the most amazing things in the world. I am fine with them having a distorted reality, because I think it's a foundation that isn't available anywhere else on earth. I like that walks across the Brooklyn Bridge, hours spent looking at mummies at the Metropolitan Museum, walks along crowded streets where it sometimes seems like every person came from a different corner of the world, are their reality. This is why we live in New York. This is why I don't want to leave.
New York is a constructed city. Sure, this land once had great natural beauty and it's possible to still get a sense of that if you find yourself in Inwood, on the northern tip of Manhattan, or wandering through the Vale of Cashmere in Prospect Park, on paths surrounded by thickets of trees and bramble. But most of what's spectacular about New York is manmade; from the impossibly long and graceful arc of the Verrazano Bridge to the constellation studded domed ceiling in Grand Central Station to, yes, those green and wooded areas in Prospect Park and Central Park, all designed not so much to mimic nature, but to improve upon it. As difficult as it can be to live here, as difficult as it can be to like it here, even though it's so easy to love it and hate it, I wouldn't want to live anyplace else for long because New York is one of the best places to put down roots. It used to be common to hear people say that New York is a great place to visit, but who would want to live there? Well, I do. And I do for all the big reasons, but also all the small ones. I do because it is still possible to build things here, whether it's getting farmers markets to neighborhoods underserved by grocery stores, or bringing music programs to public schools, or staging poetry readings at a neighborhood bar. New York only seems like a monolith to people who choose to view it that way. The people who leave it so easily never saw beyond the facade, they left a life that wasn't real. And so they should leave. Those of us who to stay will struggle and fight and suffer and live in the distorted reality, the beautiful reality that is life in New York. And, you know, even Joan Didion came back.
Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen