by Kathleen Goodwin
I'm currently in the process of moving away from New York City and while I've only lived here for two quick years, now seems as good a time as any for some reflection. Apparently since Joan Didion wrote a piece in The Saturday Evening Post in 1967 about her departure from the city (on a temporary basis as it turned out), it's become a trope for self-centered New Yorkers to announce their leaving the city in the same way, as if this place cares about one less inhabitant. I guess I'm more of a New Yorker than I let myself realize.
While many of my peers seemed to consider moving to New York an end-goal in itself, I had never intended to end up here and was primed for resentment that only grew as time passed. To me, it seemed that New York was a fantastic hoax, where everyone claims to love it and to be happy to be there, so no one is able to admit that they feel otherwise. At times I have felt like screaming that the emperor isn't wearing any clothes. In “Goodbye to All That” Didion says that New York is “a city only for the very young.” Leslie Jamison, in a passage about living in New York in her novel The Gin Closet, says, “The truth of being young felt like an ugly secret that everyone had agreed to keep.”
Within the surplus of literature about New York writers love to utter universal truths about the city, probably not taking the time to consider if their experience is the same as the woman who does their laundry or the guy who guards the doors at their midtown office. My observations of New York come from the conscious vantage of someone who is white, educated, and gainfully employed in a city where one is likely to have an entirely different experience if she isn't one or any of those things. It would be very easy to write about unfathomably high rent prices, working too many hours, and competing with all of my former classmates for jobs and grad school spots. But that is the allure of the New York I know, after all. It's a difficult and competitive place to thrive which is precisely why many ambitious people want to be here—a self-perpetuating phenomenon.
I had been counting down the days until I escape New York when unexpectedly I began to appreciate it. Touching down at LaGuardia from a weekend away last Monday, I felt tears unexpectedly welling at the sight of the Freedom Tower. Showing off Brooklyn Bridge Park to a West Coast native, I felt a little bit proud of the place. Lest I think my emotions were only a symptom of nerves as I prepare for a transition, I even begrudgingly began to admit some ways that New York is deserving of its status as an aspirational brand. I do think it is a unique place that challenges people, particularly young ones, to recognize that the world is very vast and their place in it is a lot more precarious than they may have realized.
It is impossible not to be awed when you realize that 8.7 million people willingly crowd into trains and buses on an average weekday to hurdle across bridges and through tunnels to be spat out in a new place. Of course, there are the complaints about delays and services changes and uncomfortable platform temperatures, as Joshua Ferris wrote in a short story in The New Yorker, “…winter would give way to hell: the subway's two seasons.” Yet, I still find the MTA to be incredible both for its relative reliability and penetration and its role as an equalizer in an unequal city.
While talking about leaving New York with a friend, he mentioned his own frustration in realizing that many of our peers living in New York cited diversity as a reason to love the city. There is some emptiness in that accolade, he insisted, when you consider that the neighborhoods, schools, and professions are mostly segregated. While I agree that there is still mountains of progress to be made when it comes to achieving integration rather than superficial diversity in New York, I think the subway at least allows people from a huge variety of places and experiences to interact in close quarters on a daily basis. Recently, I briefly visited Nashville and Dallas, and I'm moving to Baltimore, all places where residents advised me that it's difficult to get around without a car. Most people in other cities around the U.S. go about their day moving from their homogenous neighborhood to their workplace or school within their own small metal box, presumably rarely getting within 30 feet of many people who look or think differently from themselves.
New York, if all of the pessimistic forecasting is correct, is growing increasingly unequal and more segregated, but it is still the most dynamically diverse place that I have ever experienced. If you are young and looking to become an informed and open-minded adult, I can't think of a more crucial place to live than New York. Growing up in my mostly white and mostly Christian suburb I never saw a lesbian wedding happening in a public park while white, black, Asian, and Hispanic families looked on. I never saw Hasidic Jewish families with men wearing shtreimels or women in sheitels. I never saw women in burqas and hijabs. I never saw Sikh men in turbans. And I certainly never saw all of these people sharing a single patch of grass, watching the sun setting on a city skyline together.
I may not miss New York but I appreciate what I experienced while living here in my formative early 20s. I can't return anyways because according to a tweet from Jen Carlson at Gothamist, “if you write a ‘why i'm leaving nyc' essay you should not be allowed back in nyc”.