New York City Glorifies Personhood but Does Not Prioritize People
Ask anyone, “what is the most important thing(s) in life” and they will all inevitably reply with something along the lines of “family and friends.” Yet if you were to measure the actual time they spend with them, it would be a drop in a bucket compared to the time spent away from friends and family.
When I said that spending time with those I care about is what matters to me, my great friend and titan of conversation challenged me with: “Then what are you doing in New York City?”
The answer would stew in my cerebral slow cooker the next couple of years. Eventually, a point was reached when I at last reflected, contemplated, and evaluated my reasons for staying in NYC. I could no longer justify it. If I am here for my friends and I hardly see them, then why am I here?
I lived in New York City for nearly ten, very formative years. A city where seemingly unanimously agreement asserts the titles “Greatest City on Earth”, or “Capital of the World.” Where the best of the best come to chase their dreams, or make it big, or whatever you want to call those things — we’ve heard them all. I do not wish to discredit these claims. I can confidently say that New York has a great, nonstop energy, where you can find every niche or scene from all over the world — the Big Apple is truly an international city.
Despite all the talk about how great New York is, what I rarely hear discussed is what it will cost you, as a human being, to live there. Specifically, what the city demands from you in exchange for the privilege to regularly rest your head on its concrete bed. This is not merely a monetary question. These are all the things you will inevitably consider: what you are willing to sacrifice emotionally, mentally, physically?
So I said goodbye to New York and hola to Madrid, Spain. After three months residing here and after returning from recent trips to Florence, Bucharest, and later Berlin, I have firmly established, emotionally, that for now, this is my home. Returning to Madrid, it was a relief to re-engage in my recently developed routines sans tourism. Yet, in the following days a sudden wave of sullen sadness washed over me. I certainly had been happy to return. What was missing?
My mental landscape had become flooded by memories of friends. This year was the first time that I had spent my holidays away from all my nearly lifelong companions. I’ve been told that I have amazing friends, more than once, by more than one person — sufficient enough to inflate my social ego. Usually, the testimony is divulged at a gathering of some kind. The witness is amazed at how easily they can always find someone genuinely warm, friendly, and eager to strike up an engaging conversation. There is never a dull moment when my friends come together in one space.
I should note that my friends aren’t part of some cohesive whole formed in a common function. These are not coworkers meeting after work for drinks to converse about their shared struggles, nor a post-college gathering reminiscing about the supposed golden days. Rather, these people, I can proudly say, are a curated gallery of personae, a multitudinous, overlapping Venn diagram of amorphous social circles and interconnected histories. Several years ago, I decided to invest more quality time in current relationships and new friends, to surround myself with people I love and adore. In these last few years I have truly seen the fruits of my labor. These people are the coolest of cool, the sweetest of the sweet, and yet the most humble, endearing, genuinely interested, passionate people you’ll ever be fortunate enough to meet.
I use my birthday, or any major life event, as an excuse to gather them. Everyone gets along magnificently and I always relish in the aftermath and highlights from the newly initiated. I always hear about how wonderful the event is and someone always says “this should happen more often!”
This is exactly what I heard at our going away party. My partner Sam and I had returned to NYC after coming off a four-month full-time house-sitting stint in Salt Lake City and traveling the U.S. for the first half of 2016. I had just replied affirmatively to my acceptance letter for an English teaching position in Spain and preparations had to be made. We hopped around on the couches of friends and family in between local house-sits as we finalized our European relocation arrangements i.e. satisfied the bureaucracy. Since this qualified as a major life event, the friend forces were mustered. We even (as per usual) managed to grab a few dinner ditchers to join us for some pre-party cheap eats at one of our favorite budget spots before making our way to the main event space: a cash only bar with prices so budget friendly that it even astonished the most seasoned New Yorkers.
Everyone had a great time, and as usual, someone said that this needs to happen more often. I agreed, while personally lamenting that our collective reality was moving in the opposite direction. Even after being away for the first half of the year, we found it incredibly difficult to see friends upon our return, as if everyone somehow just became even busier. Even with our super flexible schedules and efforts made to make plans, there were close friends we never saw, despite being in the New York area for three months.
I know why — I am well acquainted with their unending bombardment of busyness- everyone is overworked. The financial cost of living in NYC is one of the highest, taking in more than 60–70 percent of people’s income for rent alone. This does not include utilities, the two months security fee, broker’s fee, and yearly moving costs to do it all over again because you can’t afford the inevitable rent increase once the lease ends. You commute via a mass transit system mired in frequent delays and constant construction. Travel takes upwards of an hour plus to get anywhere — your train running on time is the exception. Make that 1.5 plus hours if you’re doing any inter-borough travel that isn’t to or from Manhattan.
Full-time entry level jobs with benefits are rare, and frequently you and your co-workers are overeducated and under-compensated. Two or three part-time jobs, with gigs, is the norm. When you need to decompress, going out is “cheap” when drinks cost 7 dollars, dinner is under 20, and movie matinees are 9 (instead of 15). You work 50- 60 hours a week so you can have a place to sleep that isn’t falling apart (if you’re lucky). As a bonus, you have a world class selection of overpriced venues for the few free moments in between the grind. This is the reality for the vast majority of New Yorkers I personally know.
Quick history: New York is first and foremost, a commercial center at a crossroads. The city was originally founded as a Dutch trading post (read: fort) in the early 17th century, on land essentially swindled out the current inhabitants via a third party (for further reading, see 1491, Island at the Center of the World). The main priority of the ruling merchant class has always been one thing: money. Multiculturalism and tolerance grew out of the mercantile desire to reach and maintain the widest customer base possible. And they had the ideal geographic location to do so (again, read those books). Consequently, pluralism and diversity are ideals that run so deep they’ve become institutionalized. New Yorkers openly embrace and celebrate them.
NYC putting commercial interests over its most vulnerable inhabitants, while paying lip service to tolerance, multiculturalism and its inherent greatness, is just business as usual.
New York is a paradox this way. It’s a place inundated with people driven by passionate energy to survive, who apparently work all day and party all night. A place where you can’t wait to get home, away from people, only to feel alienated and distant. And when you finally do spend time with people, it’s to commemorate the community of drudgery we all willfully participate in.
There was a time (think Bob Dylan and Co) when you could come here with nothing and build something. From this era, I have a friend and native New Yorker whom I greatly respect. He once told me that his favorite decade of his life, his twenties, was markedly different in New York City. Having his own studio apartment and paying for school, was all possible with a part time tutoring job. Hunter College, where I received my Bachelor’s, was free. Things have changed indeed. But the myth of The Greatest City Ever has endured, much like the spirit of Sauron the Deceiver — the unending hordes of orcish replacements for recently vacated domiciles attests to this.
If you think your will to “succeed” will hurdle over these obstacles, your innate corporeal desire to maintain harmony will disagree. The weight of the city affects one’s health and yet all the same, the residents brush it off and chalk up their persistent ailments to some anomaly, or bad luck/genetics i.e. — basically, something uncontrollable. All these health issues just can’t be related to the constant, overwhelming stress and crippling anxiety of living the urban rat race. Instead, they see another adversary to overcome.
New Yorkers love to gloat about being a New Yorker. This struggle makes you tough, they brag. I know many who wear it like some shitty badge of honor. Yet they equally love to lament about how much it sucks to live in New York, without somehow blaming New York itself. I can personally attest to the many who insist on staying, despite acknowledging the increasingly insurmountable demands of tribute to fuel the ceaseless energy of the city.
Most of these people, who live within a geographic mile or two, I hardly ever saw, if at all. And one by one, I’ve watched them leave. Friends are genuinely supportive and understanding when sending them off, but not one person suggests the reason is that New York may actually not be an enjoyable place to live. Those who have moved away, and I’ve been able to visit thereafter, bear the signs of recovery; a renewed sense of purpose and a desire to put their New York experience to the task of building a better life.
New York can be character-defining; I owe most of who I am to this place. Here I learned how to deftly socialize, breaking out of my shy inner shell. I witnessed how truly confident people carry themselves and speak their minds with authority and conviction. At my many jobs, university, social life, even running inane errands, I developed interpersonal skills purported to be elusive or to only come naturally. New York’s finest gifts presented themselves: I learned by observing others, taking mental notes, and putting them into practice. I would go to social events where I knew no one and try to interact with unfamiliar faces in order to develop my social skills.
Once I emerged from my rites of passage, I set out to discover New York on foot and bicycle. There is an incredible amount of places to see and things to do that cost hardly anything. Most people have difficulty believing how little money I lived off of here. Since I had refused to overwork myself, I found alternative ways to enjoy this city. I cultivated my interests and developed a sense of what I want from the place I live. I like a city with punctual, extensive, clean public transport — I don’t own a car and, don’t plan to either. I want to step out my door, walk anywhere, and see other inhabitants doing the same.
Sometimes I like to wander aimlessly, and take in every moment along the way: streets lined with homes, stores, bars, and public spaces unabashedly adorned with signs of life like graffiti and street art. If I find a cafe, I want to afford their services, and not feel rushed. When the urban hustle bustle starts to grate on me, an escape is just a commuter rail or bus ride away.
In other, much shorter, less verbose words, I got real good at living in New York despite. Like most New Yorkers, I’m always ready to tell people how to make the most of New York. Feel free to ask. Seriously.
I miss my friends but not the place I collected them. It’s a bizarre feeling to come to terms with. How can one separate the place from the people? Don’t the people make the place? How can I separate from the place that shaped my young adulthood?
I don’t doubt that I’ll return to New York someday. However, right now, it’s passing through some serious growing pains and fortunately, I’m not its legal guardian. When I weighed the pros and cons of living there, it wasn’t worth it anymore. When the city itself became an obstacle to enjoying myself with my friends, I couldn’t see why I’d want to stay. Yes, I know some are the rare, elusive native born New Yorkers; this is their home and the choice is less simple. But I’ve met many of their ilk in the vast beyond, who have zero interest in returning, some not ever since leaving. I was a transplant, as are most of my friends. We decided to move there and living there continues to be a choice. For that, I wish them the success they hope for.
I’m interested in what other people have to say about living in New York. Anyone planning a visit? Or planning a move (oh boy)?
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Originally published at alternativetravelers.com on February 19, 2017.