The good old days. Image via Wiki Commons
I have lived in New York City for 18 years. Someday, I will die here, probably in a bar bathroom or—given the realities of both global warming and rising real estate costs—on a reef. Still: I am not, nor will I ever be, a New Yorker. Now, I realize that there are all sorts of arbitrary rules about what makes someone who lives in New York a "New Yorker"—years of residence, age, how long you have been working the cheese market at Zabar's—but I Occam's-razor through that noise and keep it simple. No disrespect to Patti Smith or Andy Warhol or even you (congratulations on making it through your second year out of NYU, by the way), but I'm going to side with my most provincial of native New Yorker friends and say you're only a New Yorker if you were born here.
For myself, I worship New York City like dead people love the grave, but I just live here. I am less a New Yorker than a New Yorker caption contest: a blank space that's occasionally funny.
Earlier this month the New York Times did a piece on the supposed trend of "young creatives" (read: mostly white people with a bunch of money and no kids) moving from New York to Los Angeles. Apparently the streets of LA are paved with artisanal, locally sourced cheese, and former NYC residents are falling in love with what the Times calls LA's "scruffy bohemian spirit and laid-back mood." I say go with God, young Fievels. I will not engage in cross-coastal slander as the notion that one town is better than the other is, on the face of it, absurd. I don't hate LA. I like to go there and hang out in the sun with New Yorkers (who tend to gather and congeal in an expat smugness that I find appealing/bracing). I also don't buy the notions of the city being inherently vapid. Too much good thinking and genuine profundity has come out of LA artists (from Fleetwood Mac to Octavia Butler) to dismiss Angelenos as being the sun-soaked, THC-devoted, water-bugging-on-the-surface-of-their-own-existence Californicators that they sometimes portray themselves as.
Also, I get why you'd make that move west: It's impossible to win in NYC right now. The median rent in Brooklyn is nearly $3,000, a record high, and while wages are apparently going up marginally, that's not enough to make this town affordable. The upwardly mobile have migrated to more comfortable cities; the working classes, not having those resources, have drifted to the fringes of the five boroughs.
Some people—too many people—are forced to leave the city by economic forces. These are not natural forces like the wind, but man-made by your Bloombergs, your Giulianis, and the people like me: the artists, the DIY-ers, the well-meaning if self-centered "kids" who make up that first, crucial wave of gentrification. I refuse to offer moral defense of what cannot be morally justified, only rationalized. To those people born here who have been forced out, I won't even insult your intelligence by apologizing. You may hate me with abandon. But to those for whom leaving NYC means more floor space and perhaps a second ottoman for their pug I say, "Go kick rocks with no socks." I don't understand you at all.
Leaving New York for a merely more comfortable life would seem like such a betrayal of the city.
I moved to NYC to read poetry at open mics (first at Nuyorican Café, where I was correctly laughed out of the room, then at hardcore-mecca-but-sure-poetry-why-not-safe-place ABC No Rio), so defeat was written into the contract I signed with the city. I always knew I'd be second-rate on my best day. I just wanted to exist within the same physical geography of the New York School, even 30 years too late; My Dinner with Andre, even 20 years too late; and Born Against, even ten years too late.
Leaving New York for a merely more comfortable life would seem like such a betrayal of the city, a betrayal of my younger, mostly (or somewhat) harmless delusions. And while I have no problems with you people now leaving, I would like to ask a few favors: First, take Vampire Weekend with you; second, don't blame the gentrification you caused for your leaving if you're not from here (you sound like a lifelong cokehead railing against the cartels after he gets sober); finally, please don't write a "Leaving New York" essay. It makes us suspect that that was your plan all along.
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I can't exactly deny that New York City has changed. Some say it's gone from being full of the kind of sophisticated, romantic enthusiasm of a Frank O'Hara poem to being as mechanical and uncaring as the Jeep that killed the man himself. Others say, conversely, that the city's once cutthroat streets have morphed into Disneyland, and not "Disneyland" as metaphor but LITERAL Disneyland, mouse ears and all. Worse yet, still others claim New York is becoming like Anytown, USA, dominated by the same chains you'll find wherever you go. You always think you want to go to IHOP but, really, you don't.
So why don't I leave? For one, despite everything New York is still my favorite small town. When I moved here, Manhattanites I knew wouldn't dream of visiting Brooklyn (yes, even Williamsburg) and the Beauty Bar on 14th street was (half-jokingly) called "uptown." I liked then and I like now that weird tunnel vision you get when you're in New York. The constant running into people you know, no matter where you are and no matter what time it is; it's a performance of Our Town that never ends, complete with ever-present death and an omniscient narrator who will eventually turn out to be James Franco.
New York is a destination spot if your soul is too pointy and unwieldy to fit in your hometown.
I won't leave New York because where would I go? Who would have me? Portland? I've seen an episode of Portlandia and I don't think that I would get along with those people AT ALL. Austin? After the way LBJ was portrayed in Selma? No thanks. Asheville? And be corrected on how to say "Moog" until the garage band of my heart breaks the fuck up? I'd sooner die. I thought the whole point of New York City was not that if you made it here you could make it anywhere, but the tautology of making it, just existing in New York, meant you got to stay. New York is a destination spot if your soul is too pointy and unwieldy to fit in your hometown, a place where you can let your freak flag, your ambition, your vestigial tail, and your terrible inability to ever shut up, really and truly fly. If you move anywhere else you'll be hated or, worse, ignored. I hear they have writers and singers in other towns now, but I'll see you all in hell before I compete with them.
If you say the town I'm describing sounds like your town and my love for it sounds empirically shaky I would answer, "Yes, sure." NYC has (or had, depending on whom you ask) an energy and vibration, a feeling unlike any other—and so does any hard-luck hamlet you could possibly adore. My New York is your Detroit or Chicago or Pittsburgh or anywhere else where defeatism has the sexual sheen of jeans on Kurt Russell. New York is my dead-end street, and I dig the topography. I will never leave New York because I am, in my heart, provincial. And I have found my province of choice.
I will never leave New York City, no matter how high the rent and no matter how lame whatever influx of bad-hatted chumpery a new and terrible TV show will inspire. Everywhere else belongs to everyone else. In 20 years, find me on a rent-stabilized sandbar off the coast of the Rockaways. Bring me the newest hardcore demo tapes out of Morgantown and a bowl of whatever South American scarcity crop is in fashion. Bring me news of what murderous cop the Post is defending and what Israeli atrocity the News is attempting to justify. Bring me some Starbucks... that shit is delicious, but I can't be bothered to wade to the next reef to get some. And let me cover your bar shift if you can, as I'll probably be a bit short on rent.
Zachary Lipez is on Twitter.