I realized I might need to leave New York when I became envious of every friend who’d managed to escape.
A Swiss friend moved back to Lucerne with her American husband and New York-born child, and I found myself wishing my husband were from someplace else, so I might have an excuse to flee, as if an honorable discharge were necessary. But honorable discharge or not, we had to face facts: We had a baby now, and could no longer afford to live in the place where we’d both been born.
This was 2007, and just that week in Park Slope, parents had camped out overnight to secure spots for their children in the pre-K program they were zoned for. The schools in our Brooklyn neighborhood of Prospect Lefferts Garden were failing.
We heard gunshots every night. (Shouldn’t failing schools and gunshots come with affordable housing, like in the old days?) What exactly were we struggling to hold on to? The idea of New York? Our identities as New Yorkers? What was that worth?
But we also could not imagine living elsewhere. New Yorkers don’t leave New York. It was unthinkable.
I was born on the Lower East Side in 1973 and dragged to New Jersey at age 5 when my father changed jobs. My grandparents remained in the neighborhood, as did our closest family friends, and we visited often enough that I knew what I was missing, viewing New York as my true (lost) home through the romanticized eye of the suburban kid who longed to escape New Jersey.
When I moved back to the Lower East Side — in 1991, to my college boyfriend’s apartment on E. 11th between B and C, and later to my own tiny rent-stabilized studio on St. Marks and First Ave — I returned to a neighborhood that challenged my middle-class, suburban notions of how a life is to be lived, a neighborhood that pushed me to consider my assumptions and habits, that made me uncomfortable in some very necessary ways, forcing me to think, for the first time, about race and class and privilege.
But in the time I lived there, the Lower East Side grew more and more gentrified, more and more homogeneous and unchallenging for the returning kids of the parents who’d fled for the suburbs in the ’70s. It also became colder and more anonymous.
My apartment building, 76 St. Marks Place, sat across the street from the building where the poet W. H. Auden had once lived. In the time I lived there, Auden’s majestic old stoop was torn down and replaced by a boxy storefront soon filled by a crappy but expensive bistro.
Our building was a small, vital community. We knew each other’s names and took care of each other’s pets and hung out on the stoop in the evenings and always, always held the door for each other because we were neighbors.
As the cost of living in Manhattan rose and the turnover in our building increased, vacated apartments got bumped up to market rate and the new residents, who paid a premium for their cramped tenement spaces, didn’t learn our names, didn’t sit on the stoop, would let the door fall closed in your face.
In 1999, I got engaged (to my first husband, another story entirely). Two hundred and fifty square feet was too tight a space for two adults and two dogs, but we couldn’t afford anything bigger in Manhattan. Like many of our friends, we moved to Brooklyn. By 2001, I didn’t know anyone my own age in Manhattan anymore.
I knew only those in my parents’ circle who still lived in Stuyvesant Town in their rent-controlled apartments. My friends and I leaving Manhattan for more affordable Brooklyn (in my case, Prospect Heights) drove up real estate prices there — and so gentrification crossed the river and marched eastward. You could say I’m responsible; you could say I conspired to price myself out of New York. You could say that I was a part of the very gentrification that so pains me. (Go ahead. Say it. It’s OK.)
There’s no place like New York when you’re in your 20s — or so it seems when you’re in New York in your 20s. That’s the thing about New York, isn’t it? That’s the city’s neatest trick, its most readily swallowed propaganda. (And you have to buy into it to live there, to make all the suffering seem worth it — noble even. You’re brave to struggle. You’re in New York and hell yeah, it hurts. Suck it up.) What New York does, better than most places, is convince you that it is absolutely the best place to be. The only place to be.
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