In 1898, what are now the five boroughs of the city of New York were united for the first time, adding a million residents to what was already the largest metropolis in America. One borough-to-be in particular was a holdout, eventually joining but reluctant to do so. That was Brooklyn, which until the consolidation had been an independent city with its own very distinct culture and identity; it was also the third-largest city in America on its own. Today, Brooklyn is the city’s most populous borough, with about 2.3 million residents.
Very soon, I hope, I will no longer be one of them.
I moved to New York City in 2003, subletting a cramped, cheap, far West Village studio. Over the course of nine and a half years I moved eight times but never left Manhattan, even as my friends joined the mass exodus to Carroll Gardens, Williamsburg, Park Slope, and Bushwick (which had yet to earn the catchy moniker “East Williamsburg”). By 2011, I was happy as could be as the last dinosaur in Manhattan, but I was simultaneously confused by my lack of desire to head over the bridge. Was something wrong with me?
I’m neither wealthy nor a Carrie Bradshaw wannabe. I’m a college dropout from the South who feels most at home in a dodgy sports bar. My favorite apartment was a ninety-eight-square-foot, thousand-dollar-a-month studio in Chelsea where I resided for three years. While getting my career off the ground, I often worked two or three jobs to make ends meet: restaurants, bars, hotels — I did it all. I wanted a life in New York City, badly, and worked hard to make that happen for myself, as so many who come here do.
Over the years, I read more and more blogs, magazines, and newspapers declare that Brooklyn was the new Manhattan. Brooklyn was where it was at, y’all. It was where you would become the person you’d always wanted to be. You could do yoga and drink artisanal coffee, or coo at hip young dads with babies strapped to their chests as you’d make your way to a supercool vintage store and then back to your huge apartment with lots of light, on a street filled with brownstones and sunshine. You’d laugh at the fools still running around in Manhattan. After a while, I began to believe I was staying in Manhattan purely because it was so convenient. I started feeling the pressure.
Brooklyn legitimately seemed like a cool idea. So when my partner and I moved in together, in 2011, we poked around Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill, and Carroll Gardens, which together have their own Manhattan-style acronym, BoCoCa. To our surprise, we found we got more space, beautiful views, cheaper rent, and a pretty rad neighborhood, to boot, in the South Street Seaport — in lower Manhattan. On October 28, 2012, we were forced to evacuate from our Seaport residence due to Superstorm Sandy. We never returned home.
As luck would have it, a six-month sublet in a beautiful Cobble Hill town house fell right into our lap. It had to be a sign. A newly renovated Brooklyn town house, in a coveted neighborhood, that we could rent while we decided on our next move? I could feel all the magazine headlines becoming my reality. All of the “Best of New York” picks in Brooklyn would suddenly make so much sense. I could become one of those people talking about how much better her life was, now that she finally made the move to Brooklyn. I’d have this experience. I would be enlightened.
I was not. It quickly dawned on me: Brooklyn is kind of the worst.
Before you draw your swords, know this: I’m talking about a very specific Brooklyn — not Bay Ridge, or Bed-Stuy, or Coney Island, or the old Italian areas of Carroll Gardens.
I’m talking about the other Brooklyn — I like to call it the Sunday Styles–section Brooklyn, named after the pages of the popular New York Times section. This is the Brooklyn with people who coin phrases like “hipsturbia” when they finally move out to the burbs. It’s the Brooklyn of Girls. The Brooklyn that gets proclaimed the “New Manhattan” on at least one local-magazine cover a year. It’s not so much a physical place as it is a narrative that’s been drilled into New Yorkers’ heads for the better part of a decade. What I thought was going to be distinct and cool, relaxed but still citylike, was really just an inconveniently located spin-off of the East Village, inhabited by a bunch of former Manhattanites attempting to stall their eventual move to suburbia.
What’s ironic about those fleeing Manhattan to the Styles-section Brooklyn, as a place between city and suburb, is that the borough isn’t just a suburb — it invented the suburbs. Brooklyn (Brooklyn Heights, specifically) is credited by some historians with being America’s first suburb.
As New Yorkers, we know that when one neighborhood gets too crowded or expensive, it expands outward. So from Brooklyn Heights, to Cobble Hill, to Carroll Gardens, to Park Slope, and soon to Prospect Heights and Crown Heights, South Williamsburg, East Williamsburg, and Williamsburg proper, and you’ve got the extension of America’s first suburb. I was disappointed and completely surprised by my viscerally negative reaction to a place I felt had been overtly designed for likability. It wasn’t friendlier. It wasn’t better. It wasn’t closer. It wasn’t cleaner. Hell, it wasn’t even cheaper.
Moving to Brooklyn, even into a four-story town house on a beautiful block, in a neighborhood everyone loves, didn’t make our lives better; it made our quality of life worse. It felt like being a transplanted organ rejecting the new body. I so badly wanted it to work. But it was just wrong from the beginning, and because I couldn’t “get it up” for Brooklyn, I felt like a complete jerk. My boyfriend and I struggled to find where we fit in. We didn’t want to have brunch with screaming kids, so that sort of was the end of having brunch. We’re not quite young enough to live in Williamsburg, but without kids or a family, we also weren’t cut out for BoCoCa or Park Slope. I commute to Manhattan a couple times a day for work meetings, and so Prospect Heights and Red Hook felt just a bit too remote. In Manhattan, we were normal, just part of the crowd, but in Brooklyn, we were “in-betweeners,” and we stuck out. It became isolating.
Friends and acquaintances hounded me: “How are you liking Brooklyn? Isn’t it amazing?” Our Brooklyn pals would come to our house and ooh and aah over the space while I sat there feeling absolutely nothing but anxiety.
That said, I feel both annoyed and guilty about feeling lonely and trapped in Brooklyn. The mixture of anxiety and depression I’ve had here was not an unfamiliar sense, but it was one I had forgotten about. It was the same combination of emotions I felt while growing up in the suburbs of Orlando, Florida, desperately trying to get to New York City. Thirty-five minutes after I landed at JFK, I set foot in Manhattan. Those feelings melted away and never once returned — until Brooklyn. I found myself saying the same thing that I say at my parents’ house when I can’t sleep: “It’s just too quiet here.” The borough felt at the same time overexposed and self-righteous. I wanted everyone to stop acting as though my happiness in life hinged on falling in love with Brooklyn.
Everyone’s New York story is different from anyone else’s, and personal. When I moved to New York City, it was for Grand Central station; the Empire State Building; honking taxicabs; the traffic, the tourists, that weird steam that comes out of the ground, the noise, and the struggle. I moved here for Manhattan, and, I realized, I’m not ready to let it go. Manhattan — its absurd inconveniences, annoyances, high rents, crowded bars, and tourist-packed streets — is my yoga.
It never bothered me (or dawned on me to care) that people didn’t like Manhattan as much as they did Brooklyn, but I learned that people do not take kindly to those who say, “You know, I really prefer Manhattan.” I’ve never been judged more — by complete strangers, the media, and even people I know.
I’ve been called a snob (please see); dismissed as “too young to understand” (I’m almost 30) or “out of touch”; and told to “wait until you have kids.” Fair points, but I’ll see them all and raise you the time a woman in Cobble Hill asked me to get off my cell phone at nine thirty in the morning, while I was walking to the F train because her baby was sleeping in a stroller behind me. And the time in South Williamsburg that a young man asked if I were wearing my Detroit Pistons hat in support of the “cool movement over there.” (Nope, just a lifelong Pistons fan who lived outside of Detroit for four years as a kid.)
This is New York: We all like things our own way. We all think we’re the best. I love New York City — every inch of it, even Staten Island, but I prefer to live in Manhattan. So, what? My friends love Brooklyn. Great! I think it’s time we shelve this antiquated story line about which borough is better and leave it for the Knicks and the Nets to decide. Live where you want. Do what you want. Be nice to people. Go Rangers!
One night recently, I was struggling to sum up my feelings about Brooklyn (for this piece) while sitting alone at Henry Public. A man came in and sat down on the stool next to me with a heavy sigh.
The bartender looked over at him. “Long day?” she asked.
He grabbed the drink menu and, without looking up, replied, “Just came back from the city.”
I looked over, inviting myself into the conversation. “Don’t you live in the city?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “I live in Brooklyn.”
I turned back to my Brooklyn Lager and smiled. It was a slight comfort to know that nothing had really changed about Brooklyn since 1898. Brooklyn is Brooklyn and always will be, but for me, the Brooklyn experiment is over. I’m going home — to Manhattan.