To my millions upon millions of fans outside of New York, you may not know all the details about the goings on in our fair city. Fortunately hip insiders like me have this here information super highway where we can throw truth bombs out our Interweb car windows as if they were empty Slurpee cups or Marlboro Red butts (diet of champions, by the way). So here is the scoop: living in New York is like, kind of hard and expensive.
And here is a bonus scoop for people who left New York because of said difficulty and expense: NO ONE CARES WHY YOU LEFT, STOP WRITING ABOUT THE FAILURE OF YOU AND YOUR FRIENDS TO BECOME SUCCESSFUL CREATIVE TYPES WITHIN THREE YEARS OF ARRIVING.
So I aspire to the utter inscrutability, genius wit, and worrying thinness of Joan Didion like any other hot-blooded American gal with a liberal arts degree. But I know damn well that no one is ever going to even get even a tiny bit close to the devastating and poignant accuracy and insight of her own "peace-out, guys" essay on leaving New York, "Goodbye to All That." She hit the nail on the head like she was Simon Burch killing Ashley Judd's character with that baseball in the classic coming-of-age tale. We don't need any more of them.
For the sake of brevity (though this is super-long for this blog), I am only focusing on this recent incarnation of the New York Goodbye Letter though a slew of them have appeared in the last few years and they come with varying levels of insight and writing talent. But all of the self-exiled make the mistake of believing in a place that never existed.
New York's mythology has always relied on the impressionability of the transplant (which so many (LIKE ME!) in New York are) to believe that there was a time before their arrival when things were very very different, very very special. You know in Gladiator when Marcus Aurelius gets all serious-like and says, "There was once a dream that was Rome. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish... it was so fragile. And I fear that it will not survive the winter"? If I had a dime for every time Patti Smith or David Byrne or the apparition of Andy Warhol whispered that shit in my ears on the train but about New York and not Rome, I could buy you one of those fancy seasonal beverages they sell at Starbuck's.
But New York has actually always been brutal to the aspiring creative. And to the aspiring financier. And to the aspiring marketing kid. It is a basic function of competition among highly talented people combined with a sordid economic and political history that has made lots of the city's storied neighborhoods inevitable pockets of struggle for generations at a time while others flourished.
The thing is, this dream New York where all the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed creatives thrived and nurtured each other and made living wages never existed. Some artists that made it big have charming anecdotes that they tell lightheartedly about not eating anything but peanut butter for weeks and living in criminal strongholds and working in butcher shops by day and writing or playing gigs by night. But those are actually horror stories because the physical reality of struggling and poverty and insecurity in New York (or anywhere) is terrifying. It smells like corpses and feels like hunger pangs and if we're gonna be real for a second, is the standard experience of New York for the impoverished that live here because they have to, not because they want to publish the Great American novel.
Let's take a gander at some direct quotes.
When I was living in Brooklyn, I was paying $800 per month to split a three-bedroom with two other girls. We were living on the border of Lefferts Garden and Crown Heights, a quickly gentrifying neighborhood which, while it wasn't bad, wasn't exactly the bustling downtown area people expect when they hear 'New York City.'
Please stand still so I can get a photo of you to send to the folks at Merriam Webster so you and your roommates can be featured next to the word "adversity." You mean to tell me that you didn't get a $400/month walk-through in the West Village upon your arrival? IT'S LIKE MOGADISHU ALL OVER AGAIN.
The irony of the author being less than enthused to live in the Lefferts/Crown Heights zone is that such neighborhoods are the present-day equivalent in terms of amenities, creative undergrounds, etc as The Village and SoHo of years past. Yesterday's Williamsburg is today's Ridgewood, Kensington has more hip cachet now than Brooklyn Heights (or so my 11218-dwelling ass likes to think) and Manhattan has been over forever. The creative hubs of New York City don't simply evaporate into a fog of high-rents and gourmet bodegas. They just migrate across major avenues and rivers, but they do not leave the city limits. When they do, they become something entirely less special and important.
It may sound trite, but the personal identity of many young people who come to the city to flourish creatively is slowly crushed by the reality of affording the lifestyle. Social identity theory outlines the way that humans self-identify with a group or organization that they feel reflects their values and attributes. The identity you apply to yourself, in the United States and especially in a place like New York City, is unfortunately but inevitably tied up in your money-making methods. I am a doctor, I am a journalist, I am a receptionist....In light of this, it's easy to feel like a failure if your job ("receptionist") does not match up with your ambition ("writer"). I often found myself feeling like an outcast because my job wasn't exciting, because I wasn't a "mover-and-shaker," because I wasn't fulfilling the role that many picture when they think of a "creative New Yorker" -- a role that has all but vanished here.
To that last point, just because you don't see something doesn't mean it isn't there. Two years is hardly enough time to get to know a city intimately enough to conclude that such roles have vanished. People who stick around know more than their fair share of these creative New Yorkers that are thriving. Like these dorks that be hating on my alma mater.
Regarding that profession-as-social identification bit, I also know a good share of creatives that have experienced some level of high-brow or mainstream success that still babysit and clean apartments for the smarties that went into finance and technology in to make ends meet. Again, it's a function of competition with ferocious talent and the fact that a lot of people who harvested their organs on a dare from Anna Wintour back in the day are the ones in positions to make or break your career and aren't just handing out staff writer positions because you went to college and got coffees for your boss at some internships.
I'm not advocating that everyone move to the mountains -- it's certainly not for everyone -- but I am hoping that young creatives everywhere can start to open their minds and consider other home bases. New York City had its creative heyday, but cities are constantly evolving entities; perhaps it's time to stake out some new real estate.
Well I'm glad you're not advocating that because:
But my GOD is the funeral for the creative heyday of New York premature. Huge swaths of this city have literally burned to the ground (sometimes multiple times!) and risen from the ashes more alive than before. The astronomical rates for one bedrooms in the Lower East Side are unfortunate but they aren't making New York anything short of the thing that it has been since the olden days when Daniel Day-Lewis was running things like a gangsta, "the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power."
While I don't really identify with the "creative professional" type as much as I do the "cat lady who has a blog and some nice freelance jobs" type, I have done those "real" jobs she seems to scorn and stayed the course and have a modicum of success doing things I love here. I also know a lot of people that were hungry enough to achieve legitimately impressive things in creative fields here without parental help, ins with management, or Carrie Bradshaw's real estate luck. So I feel compelled to say something kind of harsh: it is not New York that failed to be what it was meant to be, it is you that did.
For those of you who are still here, I realize that writing a love letter to New York is arguably just as lame as writing a Goodbye Letter to New York considering how well it's already been done. So maybe instead of writing these little blogs, I should starting passing out copies of "Goodbye to All That" at the airports and bus stations and the school orientations to all the n00bs to the city. I'd put a Post-It inside that says "This will break your heart," but leave them guessing if the note refers to the essay or the city itself.
I mean, the answer is "Both" but letting them know right when they get here is cheating.