As an adolescent, I watched Woody Allen movies and Seinfeld, listened obsessively to Talking Heads, and fantasized about living in New York City. When I moved here after college, exuberance brightened my view of my new home, turning the negatives — the crowds in Time Square, the sewage-y odor in the summer, the threat of muggings when walking home alone from a party late at night — into positives. I was, if not tough, street smart. I could handle myself, I thought, patting myself on the back.
That’s part of what the city is about when you move here in your twenties, right? If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere, and of course you envision yourself as making it — you’re headstrong and young and not had the experience of trying and failing or trying and being denied. And so the nightmarish aspects of the city seem like part of the dream.
A lot has changed since I moved to NYC in the late 90′s. I remember walking down a dark, deserted stretch of Broadway in Chinatown, trying to hail a cab who wouldn’t mind heading to Brooklyn. Now that area boasts so many flagship retail stores it looks like an outdoor mall, and Brooklyn’s Flatbush Avenue teems with taxis. The Avenues near where I live once held storefront churches, bodegas, and unused, abandoned storefronts. Today, Manhattanites flock here for pre-Prohibition era cocktails, craft beers, and haute cuisine. A couple of blocks away, big monied developers filled in the abandoned train yards and erected The Barclay’s Center, which hosted this year’s MTV Video Music Awards. The city is safer and perhaps cleaner, but it’s also expensive and terribly bifurcated between the 1% and the hoi polloi, a city that veers from impoverished projects to luxury condos in the space of a block, with no options in between.
As one of my New York heroes, former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, recently put it in a piece for Creative Time Reports, “Middle-class people can barely afford to live here anymore, so forget about emerging artists, musicians, actors, dancers, writers, journalists and small business people. Bit by bit, the resources that keep the city vibrant are being eliminated.”
Novelist Cari Luna is one such artist, a New York native who moved to Portland, Oregon, and now has a backyard where she grows asparagus and keeps chickens. As she wrote in her essay “Priced Out of New York” on Salon, “To be a middle-class family in New York these days is to be in eternal survival mode, always scrabbling, always scraping by. What happens to a city that’s priced itself out of reach of the average family?”
Certainly many of my friends from college have left, especially after having kids, and even David Byrne threatens to decamp if the economic divisions in this town continue to grow. So then why am I sticking around? We’re lucky to be renting from my mother-in-law, which puts us in the fortunate position of having a patron. My mother-in-law could get more than double the amount in rent that she receives from us. And still we avoid vacations and watch our budget as we try and get by — we probably could afford to buy two meals in most parts of America for the price of one meal out, and I’m not talking about a fancy restaurant here, I mean at a neighborhood eatery.
And so, I thought it worthwhile to compose a list reminding myself why, with all the financial worries, we still love living and raising our son in New York City. Because we do! It’s still a great town, and one I believe worth staying in, and fighting to improve. I don’t mean improve for just the few, but improve for all who live here.