It’s Not You, It’s Me.
They say every writer gets a “Goodbye New York” essay.
Well, this is mine.
by Ned Dymoke
When I got here it was cold, the middle of January, and my jacket was paper thin and I knew I was woefully unprepared. I took the subway from the airport all the way into Manhattan. Not because that’s where I was heading, but because I had no idea where I was going.
A cab driver in Chinatown picked me up and we headed to Brooklyn over the Manhattan bridge and my friend greeted me at the door with beers in hand. I slept on her floor for two weeks until her landlord found out and I had to leave. I stayed at a friend’s place for two weeks longer. And after checking out a place in Clinton Hill I finally had a place of my own, roughly the size of the inside of a large car. Four walls and a window that opened up onto an air shaft. There was about enough room for a bed and a nightstand and little else. I spent the first month wandering into Manhattan and drinking in what remained of the East Village. I brought a girl home one night and she broke the bed by sitting on it, leaving soon after, and I had to spend the rest of my time there sleeping at a 30º angle. I could prop it up and fix it for a day or two but the slats just kept breaking, sometimes in the middle of the night. So, I thought, this is New York. Eventually the mattress just laid on the floor in the middle of the bed. One of my earliest memories of the city is looking up at the ceiling and being thankful for having four walls and a bed, even if they weren’t the greatest, they were, at least for the time-being, mine.
I had four roommates. We didn’t see each other that often. I was drunk a lot of the time. At a bar around the corner from the apartment they had dollar beer nights and I’d spend ten to twelve bucks a night and just get slowly hammered. I gained weight and made friends. I spent many mornings hungover and many evenings back at the same bar, repeating the process, smoking half-packs of cigarettes with people who’s names nor faces nor stories do I remember. The city does a dehumanizing trick to anyone that’s not important. Their faces just seem round and blank, like the faces one can find on the signs to bathroom doors. I drank in Manhattan and I drank in Brooklyn. I spent money I didn’t have on cabs if I got too drunk and took a certain pride in taking a cab back across the bridge, watching the temperature and the time on the Watchtower sign and being grateful that I lived here. A lot of that first year I had maybe a hundred dollars in my bank account at any given time but I was happy to be here, happy to see what New York had in store, and happy to live in The Big City. Capital T, capital B, capital C. Within a year I had made friends with people who ended up moving from here. These friendships were fast and frenzied friendship and often culminated in nights with noses to mirrors or tripping out of our minds in bar bathrooms on the Bowery.
It began to dawn on me, during that first year and with those friends in particular, that the experience was the one thing that held the friendship together. It only worked if we pushed the boundaries. It only felt good if we upped the ante every time we hung out. A beer with one of these friends turned into 1, 2, 3, 4, 5am drinking sessions. The next time we hung out we’d have to do cocaine or, worse, to push the envelope. We spent hours talking about the city, about how much we loved it here. About how difficult yet invigorating it was. And they’d leave. Often back home. Or perhaps to a job in another city. I remember thinking how crass it was that they’d eschew such love for this place and pace of life but then leave. Now, less than five years later, I can barely remember their names. But I do remember hearing the birds through the airshaft and watching the sun rise from my tiny patch of sky, if I angled my head just right at 5:30am and looked upwards. I used to wonder how my fairweather friends could leave such a great city like New York. And now I’m the one that’s leaving.
Along the way I began to change. I made real friends, ones that I didn’t have to hang out with in bars. They weren’t as brash as my nighttime friends and the stories weren’t as hyperbolic, but the more I was around them I found that I was learning more. Even if it was just to drink less so that I could remember the evening better. Countless times we’d prop our elbows up on the bar at Boat or Brooklyn Inn and just talk and talk for hours. Those are the nights I’ll miss the most, the ones that unfolded, rather than the nights spent with a foot on the accelerator.
New York changed me and gave me a direction. Even if that direction was something as simple as sinking or swimming. I can look back on the kid with an apparent death wish that moved here and, to be frank, I feel sorry for him.
I genuinely didn’t think I’d make it to 30. I didn’t want to. I just wanted to fucking die. But being in New York gave me the energy to write for Playboy. Esquire. The Week. Interview. Places I’d dreamed about writing for. And places I couldn’t have written for if I hadn’t changed from the kid with a death wish that just wanted to drink himself into oblivion. Heck. I moved here under an assumed name (“Ned Hepburn”). New York smacked the ego out of me and I’m grateful for that. Having known myself for the past 31 years, that’s an impressive feat.
New York kept me alive for a couple of years. It made me wake up. Sometimes the only thing that kept me going was the promise that things can and would get better. And eventually, they always did.
And besides. What could possibly be more life affirming than a fresh bagel?
For every time New York has let me down, for everything that has led up to the decision for me to leave here, I’ll always stand by the fact that New York is like a boot camp for the soul. But once you get fixed, once you change, once New York actually lives up to its promise and makes you a better person, perhaps it’s time to head back. Perhaps towarmer and perhaps more familiar waters.
I‘m back in California now. As any ill-advised think-peice or two-bit stand up comedian will tell you, New York and California are very, very different. The most notable difference between New York and California — I’ve found, however — is that the accomplishments in New York are manmade, and build upwards. Manhattan — if you want to know the truth of it — is a giant testament to wealth. Which each building, with each sale, one outdoes the other, and the cycle continues. The accomplishments in California are natural, and you have to actively seek out a direction. Or else you’ll get hopelessly lost. I’ve always liked that about this place. You’re encouraged to find your own way. New York is and has always seemed like an endless race to the top of the New York Times real estate page. The apartment next door to mine in Brooklyn rents for $6,000 a month. In 2007 it rented for $2,500. It’s a nice place. But nothin’ to write home about. You’re not getting a better New York than you would 8 years ago but you’ll be paying twice the price.
The party line I always used to say was that New York teaches you how to work, how to truly work, for what you want. California will inform you on how to dream. I think if you combine the two ideologies you’re unstoppable.
I will miss the New York community, though. There are events that bring this city together like the true community it is. Because it’s so condensed and because it’s so expensive there is an inherent need to validate why you’d stay here, and in those moments of tragedy or celebration, when the whole city feels electric, those are the moments that will stay with you forever when you leave. Playing cards and drinking whiskey at the one open bar in the neighborhood during Hurricane Sandy. The death of a cultural force like a Beastie Boy. Election nights. The hush of the streets during Thanksgiving afternoons and Christmas mornings. It sounds odd and perhaps trite, but you wonder why the city can’t come together like that the rest of the time.
I feel like I arrived in New York at the tail end of something. It’s not Frank O’Hara’s city anymore… the grit and poetry that made it so charming has now very much gone. Nobody within the five boroughs will want to admit this, but New York in 2015 now more closely resembles a bizarre combination of London and Miami: a much beloved but slightly hollow old-world charm with the affectations and glitz of major money. Russian oligarchs, Chinese and British super investors, and simple plain’ ol East Coast old money buy up condos and treat them as like safety deposit boxes in banks: it’s a safer bet to buy a condo in Manhattan than it is to buy gold, because New York real estate has been going up and up for forty years. The fact that those apartments go for so much is the only visible sign of the much-lambasted “trickle-down effect” that Bush era economics promised us: as the top 1% buy more real estate, they therefore make the rest of the real estate more expensive for the rest of us. You can’t buy taste. But by all means, you can buy a condo by the water in Williamsburg or a condo by the Barclay Center. Never you mind that the condo pushed out decades of life, love, and laughter in that neighborhood. As long as the rich are happy, we’ll all be fine, right?
That’s not economics. That’s fucking feudalism. And it’s ruined the city almost beyond repair. New York is at a major tipping point: its trying to hold on to what attracted so many people to it in the first place — while simultaneously trying to appeal to major money. It doesn’t seem in this moment to know what to do or which way to go. But if history dictates anything, money always wins.
Even the downtown rock and art scene from a decade ago… the last push of the LES and the East Village… the one that had breathed so much life into the city post 9/11… can’t afford to be here anymore, pushed out so that some Facebook or Google employees can feel like they belong somewhere other than a comment section. Outsiders have long laughed at the prices of the apartments before this bullish tidal wave of property practices, and they’re doubly balking now. Manhattan has always been the most American of places because it’s the one that, much like America itself, hides the power structure in plain sight. At it’s core, New York has always been about the people that own the buildings moreso than the people that live in them. These streets may be the streets of many a legend, but ultimately no artist can afford to live here anymore. And increasingly, even Brooklyn is getting harder to afford. And while you’re supposed to struggle and make sacrifices for your art, you shoudn’t be sacrificing your art to support the struggle.
New York is always gonna be a mecca for anyone who wants change.
I just wonder how much more New York can change before it ain’t New York anymore.
I grew up watching Ghostbusters and Home Alone and that version of New York, the dark twisted urban fantasy land, for good and for bad, is completely gone. Even the great dive bars like Mars Bar and Kokie’s are gone. Banks or even goddam Yogurtlands take their place. And sure, those movies I mentioned are 25 and 30 years old, but it’s even safe to say that New York isn’t even close to the New York of The Sopranos anymore… it’s barely even the New York of the mid 2000's. Somewhere along the lines in the last 8 years, I’m willing to bet directly linked to non-regulated financial systems born around Wall Street, the rich got way richer and the poor just had to move.
There’s no doubt that the likes of Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, Basquiat, and Barbara Nessim would be able to afford their formative years here. Unless your parents are footing the bill, you can’t be young and poor and an artist in New York. There are those who work two, three jobs so that they can persue their art here. That’s an honorable thing. But people with money outnumber them 100 to 1. It’s a terrifying notion that so many of New York’s artistic community come from an insular world of money. Dash Snow was truly the end of a line for New York art that actually came from the streets of New York. These streets are for corporate copywriters and creative directors and middle management now. It’s oddly fitting that Vice Magazine… formerly a hipster magazine that sat on top of your toilet before uncomfortably shedding that skin to become a owned advertising and media conglomerate part owned by Rupert Murdoch… mirrors so much of what New York has turned into. They gutted entire blocks of Williamsburg for office space. And in doing so they turned out two of the best punk and DIY venues in the city. Which is exactly the thing they made their bread and butter on in the beginning. It’s fitting, really. Cannibalising the past and reinventing yourself is, too, a very New York quality.
Did they sell out? Or did they buy in? (The answer is both) How gloriously quickly that we all become our parent’s generation, eh?
You gotta hand it to the Barclay Center.
Only a giant bank could think of building a safety deposit box that big, in plain sight, and have the gall to charge admission.
The simple magic is going, too. The imagination is draining. The likes of the fictional Travis Bickle and Holly Golightly wouldn’t be able to settle here anymore. Instead we’re left with the feeling of a proto-real HBO series that only seems to act as a mirror onto the upper-middle class. The world of literary journals and wine bars. Of start-ups and venture capitalists. Fuck, man. They painted over grafitti mecca 5 Pointz to make way for condos. That alone is just a big white flag that says “SURRENDER” to the new wave of new money. We used to fear neo-conservatives with their war-machine money. Now we should fear the neo-liberals with their VC money. They’re the same goddam thing under a microscope. One has to wonder if Sesame Street — long synonymous with a vibrant, colorful New York — would these days be cluttered with cold-pressed juice bars and artisanal cookie stores. The only fictional character that would feel right at home in New York today would be Patrick Bateman.
And apparently Taylor Swift.
About a week ago I walked around near the Flat Iron building, snapping photos, trying to capture what I could. There’s still some gems here, some true weirdos, some real characters. But they’re fewer and fewer than even when I got here. When I talk about the East Village of just four, five years ago to friends, it sounds like I’m talking about New York from decades ago. I don’t worry about the current generation of keyholders, the sea of society folk that keep New York instituions afloat, the kind that you see in the background of parties depicted in glossy magazines. But I do worry about the next generation. Unless there’s a drastic change, I’m afraid that when our generation gets old there won’t be a hungry generation of artists to replace us. That instead the sidewalks will just be teeming with “content producers” and consultants.
Of course, whenever you say you left New York, there’s an army of people that get pissed off. “This is my city,” they say, “Fuck you. Its a lot of work to live here and it’s the greatest city on earth.” They’re right. But maybe if they put as effort into saving their city’s soul from being swallowed as they did into defending it’s name then we wouldn’t be in this mess, now, would we?
Maybe, in a few years, maybe two, maybe twenty, when the money is gone, some upstart kids will move into the once-again run-down and no-good streets of Cobble Hill and make art sculptures out of all the abandoned strollers. Maybe the Gowanus Whole Foods will be turned into a Mad Max-style music venue. One can only hope. But there’s a notion of truth there. Because if there’s anything I’ve learned about New York in my time here is that it all changes, it all goes, and it all somehow stays the same. It’s a lover that never changes. We’ve had some incredible memories together… but I can’t reconcile who you were with who you’re going to be in the future. It’s exhausting being with you while you’re at these crossroads, and you need to figure out which way you’re going to go — be it the way of money or of heart. Maybe you’ve always been like this underneath the books and the camera angles. Maybe all along all you cared about was the money and not the dream.
Maybe we need some time apart.
And hey. Maybe it’s not you that changed, New York. Maybe it’s me.