Photo: Dan Callister/Rex USA.
As a kid growing up in the Bronx, “New York City” was indistinguishable from Manhattan: a city filmed in black and white, where Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” played on repeat over the skyscrapers. (I was basically unable to separate Manhattan the borough from Manhattan the Woody Allen movie.) Of course, this was the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, when NYC was hardly all sparkles and Sinatra. Still, I mostly associated the Bronx with disgusting subway trains, offensive graffiti, and syringe-strewn sidewalks — Manhattan, in my mind, was immune.
I only went into "the city" if I was tagging along with my parents to their acting auditions. Then, we’d sneak into Broadway shows at intermission or walk around the West Village and pretend we lived there — or at least that we would, someday, in that big Christopher Street brownstone in the sky.
Don’t get me wrong; I loved the Bronx, too. I loved the weird (and definitely unsanitary) public sandbox outside our apartment. I loved saving my allowance nickels (yes, nickels; no, it wasn’t 1950) to buy Bazooka bubblegum from the deli. I loved going to sleep listening to the neighborhood teenagers skateboarding on the dead-end street outside my window.
Sadly for my NYC idealism, but happily for my parent’s upward-mobility dreams, by the time I hit high school we were living in Connecticut. That's when my Big Apple attachment mixed with adolescent angst to create the perfect storm of state-based hatred: Uggh, Connecticut! I thought (and said) on a daily basis. There were no sidewalks, no streetlamps, and not even a goddamn ice-cream man. I couldn’t wait to move back to New York.
Full disclosure: My NYC-centric mindset wasn’t helped by my U.S. travel experiences, which were limited to a handful of Small Town USAs, some suffocating suburbs...and L.A. (ew). So, it was pretty easy for me to unquestioningly view NYC as the end-all-be-all of America. I brought my NY love abroad with me, too. I was thrilled that no matter where in the world I went — a hut in rural Serbia, a coastal train in India, or a boiling lake in the jungle of Dominica — everyone, everywhere had heard of my hometown. I pitied the American travelers who had to tell the locals they were from Arkansas, only to have the Serbians/Indians/Dominicans ask, bewildered, “Is that...near New York?” I couldn’t imagine being from anywhere else.
I scrounged $600 for rent and moved to Queens immediately after graduating college. Finally! There I was, back in my center-of-the-universe (albeit outer-borough) home. I got a job and saved some money, and it wasn’t long before I achieved my own Impossible Dream: moving to Manhattan. Sure, it was Tenth Avenue, not the West Village. Yes, it was right next to the drive-through McDonald's. Yes, I lived in a glorified hallway with my partner, roommate, and roommate’s boyfriend. Yes, it was physically impossible for the four of us to exist in any given room at the same time. But, it was Manhattan, and dammit I had gotten there.
That’s when the cracks began to show.
Photo: Courtesy of Amelia Edelman.
It wasn’t an immediate fall from grace, not by a long shot; my partner and I stayed in that Tenth Avenue shoebox for six years of AC-less summers and over-radiatored winters. We said goodbye to our roommate, got a cat, switched jobs 15 times, made friends with the falafel guy downstairs, and watched the entire High Line be built outside our bedroom window. We had sex and fights and breakups and dinner parties and two hurricanes. We celebrated Obama’s election and celebrated it again four years later. I was finally living my own NYC adulthood — not just shadowing my parents’.
But, living in NYC still (again?) meant being far away from the friends and relatives who had moved
forward elsewhere. So, I started paying them visits — in Austin, Nashville, Boulder, Minneapolis, San Francisco, both Portlands. I climbed mountains and ran around lakes and learned the Texas two-step. For the first time, I stopped worrying about the endless ladder of "achievements," like getting a better job or a bigger apartment or another graduate degree. Every time I left New York, I dreaded having to go back. Every time I came home, Manhattan felt more alien and manic, and I felt more unhappy. The people and the buildings and the pace and the price were giving me serious, daily anxiety. I couldn’t keep up with west Chelsea anymore, what with the influx of High Line tourists and $16 cocktails and art galleries and everyone on the street suddenly looking like models. I finally had to come to terms with the fact that the New York I loved — the NYC of my childhood — was gone forever. Bazooka bubblegum wasn’t five cents anymore. My dad had passed away and would never again pick me up from the Chinatown bus stop on his motorcycle. I didn't fall asleep to the soothing scuff of skateboards at night anymore — just the incessant noise of high-rise construction, pounding music, and drunk clubbers. Where was "Rhapsody in Blue" when I wanted to hear it?
I decided it was time to go. I had a silent breakup convo with Manhattan: Sorry, we've just grown apart. We want different things out of life. It's not you; it's me. I'll always cherish the time we had.
So, last year, my partner and I bid Manhattan farewell and moved to Brooklyn (northern Crown Heights, which, oddly enough, looks a lot like the Bronx circa 1993). No one wears Louis Vuitton, cocktails are not $16, and I've never run into a celebrity on the street. Still, there are sidewalks, streetlamps, and an ice-cream man. I save my nickels (yes, nickels) for 75-cent coffee from the deli. Of course, I go into Manhattan constantly, but then I always go home to the quiet and the reasonably priced groceries and fall asleep listening to the teenagers skateboarding on the traffic-less street outside my window. Granted, I’m sure my neighborhood will be completely different five years from now. But, by then, I’ll probably be living in Boulder.