Perhaps it’s just the vestigial influence of my suburban upbringing, but I’ve always felt slightly ridiculous living in New York.
My immigrant forebears arrived here 100 years ago and got the hell out as soon as they could. A century later, I moved back and presently find myself — after five years of fairly constant striving — with some modest savings, a handful of steady freelance gigs and the lease to a reasonably well-priced studio in a rapidly gentrifying outer-borough neighborhood off one of the city’s more notoriously temperamental subway lines. Personally, I’m delighted with the situation, but I’m not sure my ancestors would see this
To come to New York intending to make great gobs of money on Wall Street is one thing. To come to New York intending to eke out a quiet existence in some more moderately remunerative field (say, journalism) is quite another. The former makes perfectly good sense. Getting rich is a proud area tradition dating back at least to the days of Peter Minuit. The latter, however, is a nakedly bizarre pursuit requiring something in the way of explanation. Being middle class in today’s New York is like swimming the English Channel or climbing Everest without oxygen, or translating the Bible into LOLcats. Sure, it can be done, but is it really worth the effort? A city where the average apartment runs around $800,000 is not a place for those of modest means. In other words, shouldn’t you just move to Austin already?
People have their reasons, of course. Some are here to make art and live within the sort of large community of likeminded folks that exists in few (if any) other places in the country. Some are here to press themselves upon any one of the various industries the city dominates. Some are here because they came for college and now can’t bear the thought of not being able to get sushi at two in the morning. Some (myself) just really like to look at tall buildings.
In any case, it’s an enterprise that rests by and large upon a certain assumption of privilege. That a person feels able to spend their time scraping by in New York City is a sign that, in all likelihood, the demands of sheer material necessity aren’t pulling too strongly upon them. In fact, for such a materialistic town, there’s something curiously post-materialist about middle-class life as it’s lived in New York. If it’s stuff that you’re after you could almost surely do better somewhere else. For the same price as a decent studio in a Murray Hill co-op, you could buy a fully tricked out three-bedroom in a nice Dallas suburb. For the monthly rent on an Upper West Side one-bedroom, you could swing the lease on a new BMW and a sprawling home in one of Atlanta’s best neighborhoods. The decision to live in New York on $45,000 a year entails a sort of chosen asceticism. In the rest of the country a 32-year-old with roommates is a genuine oddity. Here you’ll find one around every corner.
What nags is the question of authenticity. Not authenticity in your traditional existential sense, but in the sense that, looking around New York, comparing the way life is lived here with the way it’s lived elsewhere, considering the relative inconvenience and difficulty of it all, you begin to wonder if you haven’t, perhaps, misread the situation; if the city you’ve been pretending to all this time isn’t actually real but just some anachronism you’ve taken from an old John Cheever story (and even Cheever eventually split for the suburbs).
When I was eight years old my family took a trip to Disney World. I came back wanting nothing more than to live out the rest of my natural life in Epcot’s faux-Viking village. In my more pessimistic moments, the notion of a New York middle class seems to me much the same sort of fantasy. There’s simply something unnatural about the idea, something unsustainable. There’s the bothersome sense that history, entropy, are flowing against you.
Which is not at all to recommend against sticking it out, but simply to highlight the somewhat gloomy backdrop looming behind the gallery openings, the dinner parties, the skyline views, the strolls in the park. At the end of the day, it’s all a very tenuous business. And barring sudden and dramatic changes in the wage structure of your typical corporation, or an utter collapse of the city’s real estate market, eventually many of us are going to have to leave.
Some won’t, of course. The hardcore bohemians will hunker down in Bushwick or the South Bronx or whatever neighborhood is next in line to be pioneered. Your more bourgeois diehards might take the ferry to Staten Island and cling to the city from across the harbor. Here and there a writer might hit it big with a book contract and plow their advance into renovating a brownstone in Sunset Park. Some tech company’s in-house yoga instructor could reap an unexpected windfall when their stock options vest. Bond traders will need spouses and galleryists will become real estate agents and young teachers will leave the classroom for law school and perhaps even an odd bartender or two will see their dreams of minor movie stardom come true. Who knows what might happen? Just last month a struggling novelist snagged an Upper East Side studio for $14,000 through a city housing lottery.
That’s the thing, though. It could all work out, but there’s no particularly good reason to think that it will. Most places, putting together a middle-class life is, if not exactly easy, at least a fairly ordinary accomplishment. You get a decent job, buy a modest house, start a college fund, send your kids to public school, etc. If nothing else, you have the illusion of control, a not unreasonable belief in the efficacy of your plans. In New York, unless your plan is to get rich (which, granted, as plans go, is not such a bad one), sooner or later either fortune will smile or you’ll find yourself in a moving van on the other side of the Hudson. By and large, the rest of the country is designed to let a person exist comfortably within the middle class. New York, as currently configured, essentially demands that you escape it.
The good news? When at last the time does come, you might actually be ready to get out of here anyway. A co-worker recently asked me if I’d ever been to Phoenix. Born and raised in Queens, he’d just come back from visiting a relative in Arizona.
“I don’t know, man,” he said, “It’s pretty nice out there. Quiet. Cheap. Warm all the time. For like $200,000 you can get a big house in a good neighborhood.
“Everyone’s always like, about New York — ‘I want the restaurants. I want the bars. I want the excitement.’ Yeah, sure, whatever. I’m like, ‘just give it a few years.’
“Believe me. You get over it.” •