The Price to Pay in New York City

I read a post on called “Priced out of New York,” in which the author discusses being born in New York, moving to Jersey as a child, dreaming of moving back, doing so, moving to Brooklyn to get a better cost to benefit ratio, and eventually moving to Portland, Oregon to live a more pastoral life while raising her child(ren?), after struggling and not advancing enough professionally in New York. The author is contemplative and acknowledges that she and her husband were, she writes, “part of the very gentrification that so pains me.” (I hasten to add that she and her family proceeded to participate in the gentrification of Portland.)

Having lived here in New York for a few years now, and having come here probably for reasons similar to the reasons that bring most people to New York, I’m very sympathetic to the argument that it’s hard to live elsewhere after having lived here. I’m also sympathetic to the argument that New York of 2013 is more like Disneyland than it is like the “New York” that brought us abstract expressionism, the beats, the Pentagon Papers, rap music, or, shoot, Sesame Street. Now we are here for the possibility that we might make it on our own in this place or otherwise benefit from the spectacle or the bazaars. Or that we might command or build status by being here, among the people who live in the place where things happen–or used to happen. In my estimation, this is a significant factor in the lamentations of people who, like the author of the piece writes,

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.

To me, that sounds a bit sensationalized, but I know how it is to have neighbors who turn over often and appear to be too cool for school (but are probably just shy because they’re from wherever and want to be discovered by someone who can make them special). And the worst part is, having been on both the insides and outsides of various groups, I find that the inside can be as boring as the outside is intimidating. In my personal experience, what I’ve noticed in New York is that interesting people have been pushed to the outer boroughs because interesting people don’t tend to worship cash the way investment bankers and media professionals do. And so there are a few odd computer geeks and models and random business owners, but the intellectual landscape of Manhattan has much more in common with a record label board meeting than a rehearsal space.

All of which brings me to my reason for reading or caring about this article in the first place… I’ve been thinking lately that I don’t really have any New York based clients, so it’s kinda silly for me to be staying here, paying over two-thousand dollars a month rent on a < 600 sq ft apartment to a guy who, according to a google search and the New York Daily News, lies about his income in order to take advantage of government health care. But it's so hard to leave. It's partially hard to leave because of all of the apparent opportunity in the city. Even with all of the interesting people pushed out to the outer boroughs, many interesting people still have to come into the city to work in the service industry or to service global capital, and so it remains possible to meet all kinds of people, if you're willing and able to get past their fronts and shells. Moreover, I didn't realize what I now realize or contemplate what I now contemplate until I lived here; this is what keeps new people coming to the city every day, whether to visit or live. Additionally, as I suffer from a strand of American Exceptionalism myself, when I moved in, I figured that within a year or two, I'd be raking in millions of dollars per month, reducing my increasing rents to a rounding error. And while it's certainly possible to make dramatically more income for certain people in certain industries and positions, the tradeoff is usually at a cost to one's personal life. But plenty of people are willing to make the trade to put themselves in golden handcuffs.

I have no conclusion; I’m just starting these thoughts. I don’t want to leave because I feel like all I ever do is leave when I get bored or mentally stuck or uneasy, and I want to believe there’s a higher level if I stick it out and discover some sort of remedy for my malaise….or is it ennui? Or is it either? Is everything actually ok, and I’ve gotten so caught up in semiotics and iconography that I can’t tell up from down anymore? Is it possible for me to live the life I want and just turn my mind away from all that which troubles me? Am I living in a hell of my own creation that I could simply escape if I quit insisting on living in it?

How do we reconcile wanting to be happy or wanting to pursue our dreams in a world full of such horror and suffering? When I run and see people who are out of shape or disabled, I sometimes think to myself, “I’m running because that person can’t”–as a way to motivate myself to pick up the pace, but as warm and fuzzy as that makes me feel, it doesn’t heal anyone else. I can hear my new age friends telling me that by taking care of myself, I’m healing the world around me. I don’t want to reject that because it means I don’t have to do anything for anybody else, but at the same time, it’s hard to ignore how conveniently that fits nicely into the cynical worldviews expressed by titans of industry: You just focus on what you want, and everyone else will just take care of themselves. Sounds awesome, but the fact that a plurality of American children are living in poverty suggests this message is breaking down somewhere. And rather than doing anything about it, I’m biding my time, subsidizing the rentiers of New York. But maybe the randroids are right. Maybe I shouldn’t worry about all these big social concerns and the effects they have on us individually. Maybe it’s like a homeless man in Seattle once said to me, “I deserve to make a lot of money, too.”

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