“Take me off your mailing list/For kids who think it still exists/Yes, for those who think it still exists,” LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy sings on the 2007 track “New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down”. For kids who think it still exists. “It” being the version of New York City where dreams still come true, and the Lower East Side is still filthy, and Bed-Stuy is still one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the city, and Escuelita is still open, and diners are still the founding fathers of the local food scene.
I moved to New York in 2007, into a newly renovated two-bedroom apartment in Morningside Heights, with one of my college buddies. Morningside Heights is this little slab of Manhattan squished between the Upper West Side and Harlem. I was so close to Harlem I could practically smell the grease from Famous Fish Market every time I left my apartment. And I loved that the city took the time to differentiate this little sliver from the surrounding neighborhoods as though it were really all that different. I felt a sense of pride in knowing the difference, in knowing that Harlem started at 125th on the west side but the border was at 96th on the east. I was proud of knowing I could get to midtown on the 1, A, C, D, or B depending on how late I was running. I was proud to be in New York. It’s not something everyone gets the opportunity to do—live in the Big Apple and learn it and make it.
I had friends from high school and college who attempted to make it in the city and couldn’t hack it. For various reasons. Finances, opportunities, attitudes, distance from family. New York is a city that doesn’t care about your feelings or the size of your wallet or how nice you are or how much you miss your folks. Every time you wake up and step out onto the sidewalk, the city demands that you buck up and take it. Each day that you do, you’re stronger, wiser, and better than you were before.
Living in New York felt like a badge of honor. I knew then, at 22 years old, that I couldn’t leave. Even when my credit card debt piled up over $25,000, and I almost quit my full-time job to become a temp, I knew I couldn’t go back home. If I left the city on unfavorable terms, I’d be a failure. New York doesn’t like failures.
Back then, I was happy to sport the badge of honor, take the L on the chin, and push through. Unlike every other place I’d ever lived, New York was the one city that asked a lot from me and from everyone else around me. And because of its promise and its adventure and its dirty romanticism, I was willing to give it everything I had.
But now, 10 years later, I’m beginning to wonder if my dear New York has asked for too much.
I’m not sure of the experience that native New Yorkers go through. I’ve met some who think no other city can compare. (“There is no world outside Manhattan.” Remember that guy? Sex and the City season 2, episode 3—look it up.) I’ve met others who can’t wait to leave—who think of Manhattan the same way some teenager thinks of Marfa, Texas. But for non-native New Yorkers, we go through phases of love and hate with the city.
First, we’re just in awe. The buildings are so tall! There’s so many people! Riding the subway is so cool! I can’t believe I’m actually here. That movie moment lasts all of a month until we get our first rent statement and realize we’re not in Kansas anymore. After we spend all our savings in 30 days, we start to notice everything that’s wrong with the city. The rats that rummage through the trash at night twice a week. The impossibly small bedroom that we sleep in every night. The cocktails that cost as much as dinner for two. Then, when we’re done hating the city because it made us poor, we flip back and forth between unconditional love and furious hate. Depending on the weather, train delays, and slow tourists, we can slip between these two emotional states at any given time.
Then, there comes a point where we decide to either accept it or leave it. How fast you get to that point depends on your temperament. For some people, they run through the range in 6 months. For others, it’s 6 years. But it seems that, eventually, most of us non-native New Yorkers decide to stop putting up with everything, pack our bags, and bounce. After a decade here, it might be time for me to explore new horizons.
I don’t know if there’s any one determining factor that brought me to this point. Maybe it’s the fact that my husband and I could live in a mansion anywhere else for what we pay in rent. Maybe it’s the fact that the public transportation system is crumbling right before our eyes. Maybe it’s because gentrification threatens to suck out the last bit of soul this city has left. Maybe it’s because I could live on my freelance writer salary if I didn’t live here. Maybe it’s all these reasons and more.
Kids like me moved to New York because it seemed like this magical place. It was a hedonistic playground, a life-size Rolodex, a real-time fashion show. Everything I’d ever wanted in a city existed here. But, as is the case with many friendships and relationships, New York and I have grown in two different directions. I’ve gotten married, changed my career, and started thinking seriously about my future (professional, financial, emotional), and New York has decided to overcharge for everything while improving exactly nothing. I was attracted to the city’s contagious energy and buzz. But after 10 years together, the city ain’t as pretty or appealing as it used to be.
I don’t think I was meant to stay in one place forever. As a kid, I moved around from Indiana to Ohio to D.C. to Florida. New York, my only self-initiated move, is the place I’ve stayed the longest. And perhaps that’s why I have the itch to go somewhere else.
It’s not to say I want to leave tomorrow. And it’s also not to say that I’d never come back. But I think my definition of home is changing.
“maybe I’m wrong and maybe you’re right
maybe you’re right, maybe I’m wrong
And just maybe you’re right”
Somehow this city is too amazing to leave and too crappy to stay in. Damn you, New York.