| Arts & Culture
Housing New York, I Love You—But Are You Bringing Me Down?
What parts of me are still fed by my New York environment? Are other parts of me getting hungrier? For more, or for something else entirely?
I’m sitting in the sixth “office” that I’ve had in my neighborhood in about eight years. Five of those offices have been in various spaces of my home: A side room that has since become my children’s bedroom. A small glass table in my husband’s office/closet. A corner of my own bedroom. A room downstairs that we now rent out on Airbnb to help cover our bills. And currently, a former piece of my children’s play area. (The sixth was a glorious space a few blocks away from my home, in a coworking spot for writers that my husband and I ran until we lost that building one year into the pandemic.)
I know that, as a resident of New York City, I am in the lucky minority to have enough room for a functional workspace—a table, a chair, a cup of coffee, and a small vase of flowers—so near the place I roll out of bed every morning. Heck, I’m still in my pajamas and have yet to don a coat today even though it’s below freezing outside. My work-from-home status is another aspect of my privilege that I don’t take for granted. In a city where many trudge onto a subway every morning for crowded commutes among fellow passengers who may or may not be wearing masks anymore at this point—despite the ongoing Covid pandemic, increased influenza numbers, and an uptick in RSV cases—my days are relatively safe.
I used to be the person who would travel an hour or more on the subway every day, to jobs in nonprofits, retail stores, higher education, and art studios. Like many young folks who migrated to the city to find their way as artists, I worked ten-plus-hour shifts on my feet as a bartender, event producer, hired hand at trade shows, and more. I’ve lived in New York City for almost twenty-five years—long enough that my rental history includes more than one cramped residence where I paid only six hundred dollars a month to live in now-hip Brooklyn neighborhoods—and these were fine and even exciting jobs for me in my twenties and into my thirties. But I’m almost forty-five now, with two young children, and a career (as a writer and creativity coach) that I’ve built to be mobile. I don’t need to be in New York anymore, do I? At least, not in the same way I did when I came through the Holland Tunnel on a bus for the first time, looking for validation from a place that I associated with a creative life.
Many of the people I came up with have moved away. More leave as the years wear on. And in their place, seemingly every month, expensive condominium high rises go up, blocking more and more sunlight from the nineteenth-century two-family structure in Queens where I now live. My home is a pretty good setup, it’s true, made affordable via a creative patchwork of Airbnb rentals, roommates, and hosted events. (It’s a rather unusual spot in the city, hard-won and complete with a backyard. In a way, it’s gotten me used to a kind of living that isn’t typical for most city dwellers. But, like two-thirds of all New Yorkers, I rent my home. I don’t own it.)
And now, I’m facing the possibility of leaving. Will I be joining the masses who have said Goodbye to All That over these past several years?
It’s not just since the pandemic that I’ve seen scores of friends go; after so many years in this city, I’ve seen several waves of folks approach and retreat. I’ve witnessed people celebrating five years, then ten years, in New York, and in many ways I’ve felt like an urban elder to them all. Like, hit me up when you’ve been in the city long enough for your residency status to equal the legal drinking age, you know?
There’s almost a sadness to it too. I cheers my friends who reach these anniversaries, and I remember my relationship to the city in the early aughts, in the recession of 2008, during Obama’s election, and more. I remember watching the towers fall. I remember so much change, and I remember how it feels to prove yourself a little bit more with every anniversary. I don’t have anything left to prove.
But if I go somewhere else, will I be starting over, back to eating rice and beans at home every night? Or will I have the superpower of New York grit and determination that I’ve been reading about for years, in these magazines that tempt city dwellers to relocate to, say, the rust belt and be a big fish in a smaller sea?
There’s plenty of me that doesn’t want to leave (and about 100 percent of my husband who doesn’t want to). Though my husband and I didn’t meet each other until 2013, we both moved to New York in the late ’90s because the city offered possibilities and communities that simply weren’t possible where we’d spent the first twenty years of our lives (me, in Maryland suburbs; him, in rural northern Minnesota). I find myself in a state of questioning: What parts of me are still fed by my current New York environment? And are other parts of me getting hungrier? For more, or for something else entirely?
I’ve recently had the benefit of taking a couple of road trips with my family into states and neighborhoods where you can stretch your arms out on the sidewalk for miles and not touch another human. I have seen the expansive nature of the Pacific Northwest and noticed the lift in my mood as I breathe in the heavily oxygenated air and exist alongside countless trees that have lived on this earth way longer than I have. I can’t deny the power of these places that give a kind of perspective that is in direct opposition to the constant hustle and ambition of New York and its glorification of the individual.
I remember how it feels to prove yourself a little bit more with every anniversary. I don’t have anything left to prove.
My midlife priorities came into sharper focus during the pandemic too. Health concerns, grief, loss of access to regular support systems—it all led to a feeling of no longer having space to put up with the stuff that wasn’t the most important to me anymore. I began shedding clothing I no longer wore at a faster rate, so I could better see what I owned and actually loved. What made me feel comfortable, functional, sexy? My closet and drawers were collections of my past selves: old T-shirts from long-ago concerts, prepregnancy pants that I’d wear out to East Village clubs, socks that had long lost their mates. I marveled at the hundreds—no, thousands—of books I’ve accumulated over the years as a writer and producer of literary events. My middle-aged back winced as I thought of the number of times I’d carted boxes of them from apartment to apartment over the years. I decided to turn my stoop into a library of free literature for my neighbors, with new additions every day until I gained some clarity on my own shelves.
I became a human Roomba as I constantly cleaned up the detritus of my two young children, their art projects and toys filling every nook and cranny of our home. I became aware of the objects that were truly meaningful to me on a daily basis (e.g., my much-loved espresso machine, my bathtub for soaks after everyone else has gone to sleep, even the flowers and candles I keep near me as I work and write). That is, the objects that were becoming most important to me all seemed to reflect values of ritual, slowing down, and time to myself. I was no longer up all night in bars, racing from one party to the next, or even attending as many concerts or galas as my past self.
Lest you get the impression that I’ve turned into a total hermit, I’d like to correct that impression by sharing that I do still volunteer on various literary committees, teach writing workshops, and even, on occasion, host boisterous book-launch parties in my home. My husband and I welcome anyone who is looking for company to our Thanksgiving table every year, and we are regulars at the House of Yes, a New York hot spot that hosts dance parties, burlesque musicals, and killer aerial performances by artists we are proud to call our friends. I am still, in many ways, the same person who celebrated our surprise marriage in 2014 by turning my home into a Through the Looking-Glass wonderland, with Drink Me concoctions and a Mad Hatter bartender for our guests in their mandatory themed costumes. A White Rabbit answered the door, the Jabberwocky made a surprise appearance in our kitchen, and a Caterpillar hookah lounge commenced in our basement. (Indeed, the amount of space we have at our disposal in our city home is mind-boggling, and it’s also a constant creative hustle as we figure out how to pay for it all, month after month.)
The comedian George Carlin said, “ That’s what your house is, a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get . . . more stuff!” But I don’t think it’s just about stuff. It’s about what you do in your home, and the people you gather in your home.
The concept of gathering took on new significance over the past few years. I remember early in the pandemic, I listened to a podcast called Staying In , hosted by the writer Emily V. Gordon and her husband, the actor Kumail Nanjiani. It was one of several podcasts listed in an article in Time magazine in March 2020, meant to help us through a seemingly temporary period of social distancing. But that social distancing went on longer than most people anticipated. Staying In petered out, and I, like many folks in America, was left with the realization that things were truly different now. Once socializing became more possible again, I knew I wasn’t the only one who got a lot more intentional about who I wanted to see, while also, frankly, being used to all that time alone. Like other closet introverts, I respond with recognition to the memes that revel in the new normalcy of just staying in on the weekends and keeping to yourself with a good book or television show.
What I’m saying is, I’ve got a lot of amazing memories in my home—and I haven’t even mentioned the fact that I birthed my second child on my very own bed here. But I’ve been sensing a creeping identity shift in my bones that has accelerated recently. I feel a bit like I am surrounded by past versions of myself, and not just in the form of clothing.
Lots of folks have moved out of New York over the past couple of years. It’s a topic on lots of people’s minds. The anthology Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York , edited by Sari Botton, even had a revised reissue last year, at a time when a new surge of folks, some of them who formerly described themselves as die-hard New Yorkers, were again leaving the city, feeling that the pandemic had stripped New York of much of its essence: the ability to observe strangers on the subway (I can’t remember the last time I heard “It’s showtime!” as the play button was pressed on someone’s boom box mid-commute); the window-shopping in stores where the goods are near impossible to afford; the visits for free to world-class institutions like the Met (pay what you can) and MoMA PS1 (free to all New York City residents). We were all trapped in our homes, the small square footage that most of us spend way more than the maximum recommendation of 30 percent yearly salary to afford. Many of us scrape by to pay that premium so that we can experience all that this city has to offer, and the city had all but shut down.
But I didn’t leave during the height of the pandemic. I believed in sticking it out, and it’s exciting to see many things opening up again, though with lots of changes. So why leave now?
I believed in sticking it out, and it’s exciting to see many things opening up again, though with lots of changes. So why leave now?
I moved to the city in the late nineties with no plans that I’d ever move on, and as someone who always thought that this city would be the ideal place to raise my children. I have a six-year-old and a three-year-old now. Am I not giving them the life I’d always dreamed of for kids of my own? The culture, the diversity of languages and backgrounds, the progressive thinking, the opportunities, the street toughness? But as I enter midlife and set my sights on new goals (such as more time with family, more writing; as opposed to the nightlife of my twenties and thirties), I’m seeking new environments to support those goals.
In my training as a coach, and in the work that I do as a one-on-one and group coach to writers, I have gained a solid understanding of the impact that our environments have on the achievement of our goals. Environments are not just home and work spaces, either. Your body is an environment. Your social circles are an environment. The technology you consume and utilize is an environment. We lead such busy lives that it is easy for us to barrel through day after day and not take stock of how each piece of our many environments are affecting our health and mood, for better or worse.
New York City is a big personality, and it is also only one character in the story of my life. Only one piece of my environment. A pivotal and formative one, yes. A place of shitty jobs and good jobs and heartbreak and love and not being able to afford rent and blacking out drunk at parties, and walking all night because there is always something new to see.
But another huge part of my environment are my friends, so many of whom have moved away. And then there is my body, which is now in its midforties and getting just a little older and a little tireder and a little less tolerant of constant noise and the constant new construction that pushes out the lifelong residents and art studios that have been the lifeblood of my Long Island City, Queens, neighborhood for decades.
As I sit here solidly in middle age, I’m taking stock. My home office is great, but what might change for me if I didn’t hear an elevated 7 train passing by outside my window every five minutes? What was once an audio reminder of the convenience of my city location (just five minutes to midtown!) is now quite possibly a low-grade interrupter of my creative thought flow. I love the idea of a porch that looks out on trees for my morning coffee and writing, rather than my stoop that faces flocks of pigeons and a city curb that never drains, making our whole street smell a bit like a sewer every summer—but would I miss the wonderful neighbors and other parents on my block if we lived somewhere more rural? Could I even afford to get a place somewhere with a porch? Like many New Yorkers, any savings I create are more short-lived than the debt I accumulate. If I left the city, could I finally get ahead, financially? Will I never find out, because leaving requires the money to leave? I’m hard-pressed to think of many folks in my orbit who have managed to buy property outside the city somewhere (let alone in it!) without the benefit of some generational wealth, inheritance, or a cosigner. I moved to New York City as a fiercely independent person, going against many people’s wishes and eating one meal of ramen or one slice of pizza daily for a long time just to get by. Any leaving I do will be on my own terms too.
My deliberations are complicated by the fact that my children and husband have their own New York roots now. “Nowhere else we go would have this many freaks!” my husband says with deep love, a self-identified (and long-ago-bullied) freak himself. But he also suffers way less from his allergies anytime we leave the city, and he’s a fantastic and highly experienced outdoorsman. My children have had the same best friends in Queens since they were six months old and are excellent at navigating their city environment. But they also love being in areas where they can run and play with no interference from constant traffic.
Maybe we stay here in New York, as long as our generous landlord will have us. Maybe I get my out-of-city fix with regular visits to friends who have made their exits, who live somewhere with a porch, near a lot of trees. I’m not sure what the answers are, but I think the best way to keep moving forward, toward whatever my evolving goals become, is to continue asking questions and remaining as aware as I can about the benefits of my environments. Right now, my environment includes a place to work all day in my pajamas—and while the train is loud outside my window, it still sounds a bit like possibility, twenty-four hours a day. I’m incredibly grateful for what I have.