Just when the rest of the world seems to be falling in love with
New York Brooklyn, the unthinkable has begun to happen—New Yorkers are all talking about leaving New York. At first I thought it was just something happening with the people I know, too anecdotal and specific to my group of friends for me to turn it into any kind of larger generalization. But then suddenly, it seemed like everyone started talking about leaving New York. There was an article in Salon by Cari Luna, "Priced Out of New York," wherein Luna even recalls that, before she moved to Portland, she "became envious of every friend who’d managed to escape." There was a piece by Ann Friedman in New York, "Why I'm Glad I Quit New York at Age 24,"where she dismisses New York as being "the prom king," and the guy who"knows he's great, and he's gonna make it really, really hard on you if you decide you want to love him." And then there was an essay in BuzzFeed by Ruth Curry about how she left New York to live in New Zealand, putting all her belongings in storage and following her boyfriend to the other side of the world (although she did return here, later on, after a stint in San Fransisco). Curry's essay is a part of a new book edited by Sari Botton titled Goodbye to All That, which is a collection of essays by writers who all loved New York, sure, but then left it. Left it! There was a time not so long ago that the idea of people willingly leaving New York would have been unfathomable, but now, when more and more people I know don't just talk about leaving, but actually leave for LA or Berkeley or Portland or St. Louis, I'm having to come to terms with the fact that liking New York has become about as cool as saying the Yankees are your favorite baseball team. Which, fuck. That's not cool at all.
And so, a note on that. The Yankees are my favorite baseball team. This is something I've needed to defend since I was a kid in the 80s and everyone I knew loved the Mets, whereas I would go to Shea and yell at Ron Darling because, man, did that guy ever piss me off. Which, I was only eight-years-old at the peak of my Darling-hate, and eight-year-olds are irrational and terrible, but still. He was the worst. But then came '95, when the Yankees won the wild card, and '96, when the team won the Series and then suddenly everyone loved the Yankees, and it was great but kind of annoying because they had been my team and I couldn't stop loving something just because everyone else liked it, that's not how love works. So it was kind of a relief when, around 2003, everyone hated the Yankees again because they were too good and spent too much money and it just wasn't fair. But now liking the Yankees isn't uncool the way it was in the 80s or early 90s, when they were a shitty team who, yes, had the awesome Don Mattingly, but also had the bloated boor (and criminal and friend to Richard Nixon, my Mets-loving father always pointed out) George Steinbrenner as an owner. Back then, liking the Yankees still gave you a certain kind of cred. Now? No. Now liking the Yankees is uncool in an entirely different, much worse way. Now, liking the Yankees is for people in Manhattan; it's for bankers and lawyers and more bankers and for a certain kind of politician and for people who have no soul but lots of money. It's for people who can afford to live in New York.
It's been hard to escape the sense of nostalgia that has permeated the media lately. A lot of it has to do with Bloomberg leaving office I think, and the natural inclination people have had (and will continue to have over the next few months) to look back on the New York of the last twelve years and try to figure out what has gotten better and worse, and what that means in terms of their ability to stay. Because staying in New York, even if it sometimes feels like a necessity, is always only a choice. There are always other places to go. Or, at least, that's been what everyone I know who leaves or who wants to leave says. They say that New York is fine, New York is even sometimes great, but it's also dirty and it's expensive and even though sometimes the air smells like maple syrup most of the time it just smells like garbage or like those semen-trees in the spring. They say that living in New York distorts your view on everything else, that it's impossible to lead a good life here because living here makes you forget what living even really is. Life here, they say, is life under the bell jar—it distorts you vision, and it's suffocating, and you forget that you can lift up the glass, so you get trapped, breathing your own breath until you die. This is really what people say!
And so no wonder they want to leave. No wonder all those people who thought that New York would be different, who thought that New York would give so much to them, who thought that New York maybe owed them something, because they are creative people or because they are young and prepared to suffer (only suffer in a very particular kind of way, not the way they actually suffer here), all those people are preparing to leave. And while all their feelings for leaving New York are valid, I always can't help but wonder a little bit how much they loved this city to begin with, how much living in New York really mattered to them, versus living in "New York."
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