Despite Everything, I Still Love New York
The city isn't the same. That doesn't mean we should give up on it.
Photo illustration by Lia Kantrowitz from a Getty image.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.
This isn't one of those essays about leaving New York City.
I’m not here to bitch about the grime and noise and how my kid has no grass to run around on—though you can’t avoid the impending doom cloud of gentrification caused by Amazon’s recently announced move to my home in Queens.
Fuck those people.
I am not a transplant hipster who finally realized that selling platelets to pay for a “junior” bedroom in a junky pre-war walk up with three weirdo roommates and a 75-minute commute to a dead-end admin job isn't worth it anymore because the city is no longer cool. (Pro tip: It’s a lot cooler with people who say things like this gone.)
I'm not some mediocre artist shouting from the rooftops that art in New York is dead, that only the already rich and networked can make it in this town these days, and that the starving artists who produce the real breakthrough work are merely ghosts from generations past when Alphabet City hosted their likes as squatters. And no, yarn mosaics slung on fences in Bushwick will never count as real art.
You know all about these people because you can’t avoid their ruminations on leaving New York, each as special and pointless as a snowflake in a blizzard, the consequence of hundreds of thousands of residents moving out of the city every year.
I'm not going to complain about how grimy, abandoned streets in Williamsburg and Hell’s Kitchen were backdrops to endless nights of shenanigans that are now stifled by generic glass-and-steel high-rises crammed with white fools and their designer dogs and babies. I won’t kvetch about how money flows freely here for everyone but the people who actually seem to be from here. That will all be even more apparent soon in the Long Island City neighborhood I called home for the past 15 years, with tens of thousands of Amazon employees encroaching on the already over-capacity 7 train, ready to pay premiums on rent and Uber and artisanal brunches.
I won't use this space to talk about the domino effect of mom and pop shop deaths, and how now even better-funded, larger entities are shutting their doors because the Rent. Is. Too. Damn. High. Even though it is too damn high, and getting higher all the time.
I won't talk about the vibrancy the West Village's transgender prostitutes mastering the cobblestone streets in stilettos added to the city. Or the raw energy of the gay kids voguing out the angst of being rejected by their families and society in the one place they were welcome on Christopher Street. Until we weren't welcome there anymore. Until the city bastardized itself so badly that queer street sex was replaced with overpriced, heteronormative Sex in the City tourist walking tours. Even though all of that is clearly a contributing factor to New York’s number-one ranking in the list of states that lose residents to other states.
I will refrain from complaining about the loss of a good deli. About how I walked as a kid (without adults) to get fresh seeded rye that they'd slice right in front of you, still warm and slightly gooey. About how incredibly soul-quenching a pastrami sandwich and impeccable sour pickles from now defunct Jewish delis could be. Today, nearly the only option in all of the outer boroughs is an underwhelming hipster replica in Greenpoint. Maybe their mishpocheh made a mean matzoh ball soup, but the watered-down version three generations later leaves me nostalgic for Jewish New York past.
And I won't even get into the subway. How the sorely neglected 100-year old system keeps getting worse, with a shutdown of a key line on the horizon. I miss the graffiti- and crime-ridden unreliable subway days. At least you felt truly down in the dumps. And you didn’t have a yuppie from Oklahoma elbowing you, oblivious as she stared into her iPhone. You can't get to work without experiencing the joy of no less than three bodily fluid transfers. Rich businessman sweat isn't less disgusting than a construction worker's. The subway is the gross equalizer.
That’s not why I’m leaving. I still have love for public transportation, the secret way Arab and Jew, black and white, rich and homeless, young and old, rub thighs. The way the city whizzes by in all its colorful and exhausting glory from the M5, M23, Q103, BX12 buses.
The Duane Reades and Starbucks now on every corner are a map to the old city, to those of us who have been here long enough. That CVS used to my favorite hot dog place; that Starbucks pushed out the last gay coffee shop. The New York City I grew up in feels like a faded record, every beautiful scratch from overuse a familiar and anticipated sound.
The South Bronx is now gentrifying, but there are still old boriquas pushing granny carts with their boomboxes.
Astoria is building high-rise condos, but there are still Yemeni bodega owners frying up $2 egg and cheese sandwiches, their kids racing in milk crates down the sidewalk.
Manhattan resembles an Americana strip mall lined with corporate chains, but you can still find the halal guys, the homeless man who feeds his measly food scraps to the pigeons, the old lady hobbling down the street to the latest exhibit at such and such, an equally ancient, equally elegant dog tucked under her arm.
New York remains predictable in its rhythm, its stenches, in its brilliant ability to be unpredictable.
I still fall in love with how a ten-minute walk to get milk can turn into an A-list celebrity sighting and paparazzi shoot (in which you wind up as unseemly backdrop with your hair and a critical shirt button undone). Or you may witness the arrest of a drug kingpin by undercover cops. You may get to play superhero to an elderly woman with Alzheimer’s locked out of her apartment, or help return a lost child to his mother. You may see a pigeon fly directly into someone’s head (or your own—seriously, WTF, twice in one month?!), or see two cab drivers stop four lanes of traffic to play fisticuffs over a lane change gone awry. Fuck Netflix. Just walk outside and you’re guaranteed to be entertained.
In a bustling city of 8.5 million people, New York still feels like a small town. Practically every week I run into an old friend, a teacher, a flame. And I live for one of those collective moments of comradery when everyone stops ignoring each other for a minute to focus on an activity of great importance—rescuing an injured bird, helping a bike messenger who got hit by a car door, laughing at an extra-strange subway performance (the woman donning a Disney innertube who excuses herself from her political tirade to take a shit between the cars).
I'm not running away to the safety of mom's couch in Chattanooga to exhale into the ennui of manicured lawns and strip mall shopping.
I'm not leaving because "I could never raise a child here." Fuck those people twice as hard.
I relish in my child digging around in superfund site dirt because we're lucky to have proximity to park access, a thing so rare I appreciate whatever we can get. My best friend licked the subway pole on a self-declared dare at age 14 and lived to tell the tale. New Yorkers build immunities.
I grew up eating fresh-baked naan at my Indian friend's house after school, exploring Flushing and Chinatown with my Taiwanese and Chinese friends, playing kickball in the street with the kids on the block—Italian, Jewish, Pakistani, Thai. I learned how to say "fuck your mother" in Cantonese, Italian, Hebrew, Mexican and Puerto Rican slang. I mourn that my son may not have this stunning exposure when I raise him outside of the city.
I'm leaving New York not because I'm "done" with it, or because it's a ghostly shell of the city I grew up in, fell in love with—although there are truths embedded in these statements. You don't kick your beloved puppy to the curb because he grows old, or starts to smell, or becomes a homogenized, hyper-gentrified perverted version of itself.
New York City was my first true love. It's where I had my first kiss. My first heartache. My first everything. Smoking joints in Central Park on crisp spring nights, emerging from Limelight just as the sun starts to poke above the horizon. Making love on rooftops on hot summer nights with the city twinkling above and below us. Walking down the middle of 42nd Street at 4 AM like we damn well owned the city. Because we did. It was ours (well, ours and the rats’). Peeing anywhere I goddamn pleased. And then cursing when I inhaled the stench of someone else’s urine. And shit. And barf. And garbage.
I am leaving for the same reason a perfectly decent couple decides to split because they’ve been together since high school and never tried loving someone else. I’m leaving because I made a promise to myself (and my wife) to try living somewhere else, just for once, to see if I can eke it out. I’d like to try a place that is completely different on for size even if just as a basis for comparison to say, “See, I tried. Now can I go back?”
I'm leaving hoping I may one day return. I'm leaving with an ache in my heart and a chip on my shoulder.
But I’m not leaving because New York isn’t New York anymore. Yes, it’s changed. The chickens are gone from the Lower East Side and there are more white people in Bushwick than god intended.
But New York remains the place that will kick your ass when you arrive here from Idaho, so you better toughen up. New York is still the place where us natives are actually the nicer ones who want to give you directions (even if it’s just to feed our egos and show off our city knowledge). It will always remain New York so long as a dinner and a show can make an old couple fall in love all over again.
You can still feel the city’s realness, its grit, its diversity, even if you do have a squint a little harder to see past the gentrification.
I will miss you New York. And fuck the ungrateful transplants.
Allison Hope is a civil rights advocate, communications professional, and lesbian living in New York. She has written for the Washington Post, Slate, Time, Conde Nast Traveler, Bustle, among many other outlets.