Weeks ago, reeling from a night of booze and bad decisions, I ventured to a local Bayou-themed restaurant in search of comfort food. I wanted to absorb the last of the alcohol that remained from just hours before, fully determined to get rid of my hangover. When you live alone, this is not an uncommon practice. I often eat out by myself—it’s hard to wait on friends to make brunch plans when all you want to do is devour a plate of syrup-coated waffles—so it wasn’t strange when the bartender and the gray-haired gentleman to my right decided to include me in their conversation. “What do you think?” he said. They had been discussing rising property values in the neighborhood, and the ills of gentrification. The bartender mentioned how a small patch of dirt between two brownstones, just blocks from the restaurant and my apartment, was going for $2 million. “There was also that old gas station in Crown Heights that sold for 30 million recently,” she said. “How is anybody expected to live here now? It’s just too much.”
In the last year, I’ve asked myself this question more times than I can count. So, to help me figure this out, I enlisted the help of four transplants: Deadspin senior culture editor Puja Patel, PORT magazine US editor and regular contributor to the New York Times Alex Vadukul, Gawker contributing editor and author of The Awl’s “Surreal Estate” series Brendan O’Connor, and TV writer Cord Jefferson. Our conversation appears below.
Jason Parham: Let me set the scene. The Friday before Memorial Day. Uptown, 112th and Frederick Douglass. At a launch party for a new literary journal, I’m sitting at the bar talking to a friend of a friend who is visiting from Atlanta. Let’s call him Jack. Like most uncharted conversations between strangers in New York, he asks where I’m from—I tell him Los Angeles—and how long I’ve been living here. “Five years this July,” I say. He inquires why I moved to NYC, and I tell him “for the writing opportunities.” I then say: “It was something that felt right at the time.” “And now?” Jack asks. I pause to think for a second, before offering an “I don’t know.” It was an unexpected reply. But not untrue. Lately, I’ve been feeling like New York City is no longer for me (or at least the city I have known the last five years). It was an odd response given the circumstance: I was doing what I envisioned long before I ever stepped foot in this city—attending a party full of young, inspiring black creatives where free drinks, great convo, and good food was in abundance. This was a small piece of the New York City I wanted when I was younger with dreams of being a staff writer at the Danyel Smith-era Vibe and living in Harlem. Now, at 29, I’m not sure I want to live here much longer.
Rent is too high and rising; the weather is shit; mass transit remains a never-ending nightmare despite fare increases; jobs are in abundance, sure, but opportunities are plentiful in other major cities. These were all points Jack raised, and ones I really couldn’t dispute. Not too mention I have this scary feeling that I will never be able to own property and build a life for the family I’d like to have one day. But I’ve endured these realities, some more horrific than others, because, well, it’s New York City, right? There are highs. The friends that have become family. The late nights at Von or Kinfolk that I never want to end. The pizza squares at Prince Street Pizza. The free concerts during summer. The generally positive vibe the city exudes when it’s sunny and above 70 degrees.
But two recent articles in the Times paint of picture of a New York in flux (“Shop Owners in a Changing Brooklyn Decide to Call It Quits”; “Strange, Beloved, Local, Endangered: Five Years of the Neighborhood Joint”), of a New York that soon might not be. In a lot of ways, for me at least, this city has become like an abusive relationship: it beats you up, and yet you still kind of love it. Or at least convince yourself that you should.
We’re all transplants, so I have to ask: Why do you (still) live here?
Brendan O’Connor: So. Growing up in New Jersey—an hour and ten minutes outside of Penn Station by train, the Manhattan skyline visible from the highest hills in town—I’ve always been in the city’s orbit and felt its pull. As a kid, I had no particular love for New York, but moving here after college felt inevitable just the same. Two-and-a-half years later, I am glad that it did, because I plan to stay for as long as I can afford to do so.
Certainly the city is changing. That seems beyond dispute. But, I mean, isn’t that what cities do? People come, people go. Old people die. Young people move in. I’m no nostalgist, and, despite having an affinity for stories and characters from an older New York that is fading into the past, I’m not really even much of a preservationist—preservationism playing no small part in the processes of gentrification—either. But it also seems beyond dispute that the city is changing for the worse. As my favorite urban doomsayer Jeremiah Moss told New York magazine, “There’s a big difference between the people that used to come and the people who do now. Now they don’t want to become New Yorkers, they want New York to become like them: boring.”
Which, I mean, sure. But the problem is not just about the city becoming boring, or losing its “character” (a notion that is dangerously close to “authenticity”). It is also, as you pointed out, Jason, unaffordable. Right now, I don’t have to worry about supporting anyone other than myself and my cat. But the idea of raising a family here—or even just buying property—is beyond laughable.
However, there is a part of me—as a, ugh, writer, and a journalist—that wants to see how bad things can get—and whether there is something on the other side. I don’t know whether this feeling is motivated by morbid curiosity or something more noble (or both!), but it seems to me that New York—where immense wealth and intense poverty reside in constant confrontation—is as important and necessary a place to be as ever. As inequality increases—the gulf widening and deepening, as it has across the country—that dynamic seems increasingly unsustainable. Perhaps that is naive! Probably it is. Indeed, things will probably get worse before they get better—there’s no reason to think otherwise. But surely things cannot just keep getting worse for most people forever?
Who knows. Maybe they can. And if they do, that seems worth documenting as well. But, still, I guess what I’m saying is, don’t sleep on the city that never sleeps. Because also, when New York is good, it’s really good. Sure, there are the two dozen days out of the year when the weather is pleasant, but that’s not enough to keep me here. What really keeps me here—what really makes New York stick, for me—is the rest of the time: when it’s too hot, or too cold, or too expensive, or too dirty—being united in grievance with my friends and neighbors and the old lady next to me on the stalled subway train. And, of course, disdain for everyone who hasn’t chosen to endure this city with us.
Cord Jefferson: The short answer is I live here for work. In 2010 I moved to L.A. to take a job in magazines and this year I moved to New York to work in television. Go figure.
There was a time in my life I moved to New York in pursuit of a romantic ideal. I’ve written about that time for this very website. I grew up in Tucson, Arizona, a black kid who liked books. I felt misunderstood and out of place as a kid, and when I watched movies like Do the Right Thing and listened to albums like Liquid Swords I felt like New York was a place where people were more like me—in terms of race, tastes, passions, etc. Like Jason, I was enamored of the Danyel Smith-era Vibe. Vibe was the third magazine my parents subscribed to for me—after Mad and GQ—and I can remember hanging its covers on my walls and and being so sad when I finished an issue weeks before a new one would be out.
But then I moved to New York after obsessing about it for years and it was like anything else I’ve ever obsessed over (relationships, jobs, college): Some of it was as good or better than I imagined, but a lot of it was a struggle, and after a while it got sort of dull.
Sure, there’s the stuff everybody hates: trash smells, piss and vomit everywhere (and frozen piss and vomit everywhere in the winter), crummy weather, violent cops—and that’s all before you get to how ferociously expensive everything is. But even beyond that, the things I thought I’d like about New York aren’t so great either. It turns out that a lot of people in my industry—even ones whose work I like!—are boring or terrifically self-involved or witless or mean. It turns out that a number of people who get snobby about their cosmopolitan liberalism like to forget about all that when it comes to their interactions with minorities and women. It turns out that a lot of celebrated artists are just rich kids who expect you to be impressed because they DJ rap music and sell weird, expensive t-shirts. It turns out that an $80 dinner rarely gives me eight times as much joy as a $10 dinner. It turns out that a city steeped in a rich history is great, but then that history catches up to infrastructure, and sewage spills where it shouldn’t and subway tunnels fall apart and gas-line integrity falters.
One thing I’ll add is that I’m well aware a guy moving to New York and badmouthing it can come off like an asshole who took his shot and is now throwing up the “No Vacancy” sign for people not here already. I’m not trying to do that. I still think everybody should take their shot at New York if they want one. I also still think New York is frequently a lovely place with a lot going for it. It is undeniably a great city. But today I’m a little too old, a little too jaded, and a little too traveled to see it as the Most Wonderful, Most Cultured, Most Important City in the World (TM) the way I once did.
It used to be I thought New York was a perfect town in which to be young and broke or old and fabulously rich, but now I think only the latter really applies. For most other people it seems like sort of a grind to be tolerated until you can get rich yourself or figure something else out. It’s definitely a good place to waste some time, which is as good a reason to live here as any, and one I wish more people would admit to themselves. Because nowadays when I hear a person who struggles to pay rent while working a job they hate fawn over New York City as “the only place in the world to live”—as I once did myself—I can’t help but hear someone with Stockholm syndrome.
Alex Vadukul: My reason for living in New York might be as simple as: I don’t know too much else. I was born in Milan but have lived here since I was 8, when my family moved for work. It’s an immigrant story. But while they never shed their European roots, I definitely adopted the city as my own. The British accent I had when I got here (my father is Indian but grew up in London) is long gone – this remains a sour topic for him – and speaking Italian takes me a little more effort than it once did (my mother is Italian).
Seventeen years anywhere can give you proprietary feelings about a place, and for better or worse, I’ve become a city romantic, not to mention something of a crank. I remember when taxis still resembled those in Taxi Driver: with metal grills separating drivers from customers, and the cheerful celebrity-spoken “Buckle up for Safety” messages that began when fares started. Or when my mother wanted fresh produce for a special occasion, and I would accompany her to the Farmer’s Market in Union Square, because that was still one of the city’s prime destinations for such things. And I remember subway tokens, and still keep one.
I didn’t think I’d end up becoming a New York diehard, but I did, and this passion is a probably a big reason of what keeps me here. I think it was very difficult not to be subconsciously charmed by the New York I witnessed when I first moved here – a city that for all intents and purposes, no longer exists.
But I can’t say I would have developed this same affinity for the city as it is now. Giving New York a shot is harder than it has ever been (although it was never easy). Everyone has already stressed the challenges of the city in 2015, so I won’t repeat them again, but one that really sticks out to me, as Brandon already mentioned, is the idea of raising a family here, which is a difficult thing to wrap one’s head around. It’s also fair to say that many of characters and elements that defined “classic” New York are in smaller supply, so only so much weight can realistically be given to idolizing them.
I suspect the city will get tougher and tougher to live in and that gentrification will keep spreading across the boroughs like a spider-web. But for the moment, I’m grateful I can write about the city I care about, and the people and occurrences in it that make it special and unique. Maybe there aren’t too many conclusions here, but I guess I can say I’ll be standing by the city until perhaps for some reason I can’t. And if that happens, there are other great places to live out there.
Puja Patel: I grew up in white rural-suburbia, about thirty-minutes north of Baltimore. My school system, the reason my parents moved there, was reflective of that; in the makeup of my classes and teachers, in the way I was taught and regarded by my peers with light curiosity or suspicion, in the way that I laughed at jokes made at my expense as if I was in on them. My parents are immigrants; both are Indian by ethnicity but, while my mother was born and raised in India, my father and his siblings were raised in Zimbabwe (back then, apartheid-ruled Rhodesia). In turn, I grew up traveling and feeling like a person of the world, like someone who belonged everywhere and nowhere at all.
As a result, I was sarcastic and tried hard, irritatingly so at times, to make sure that people knew that I was clever, capable, and unshakeable when I was only barely two of those things on any given day. When I went to a public, state college outside of D.C., I latched onto the idea that I could befriend people like me, other first-generation brown kids. But through college, I discovered that my Indian-ness wasn’t quite Indian enough. Though I had spent most of my summer vacations growing up in the motherland—I registered as too “white” in mannerisms, too liberal on social issues, and too Part of The Outside World to truly be One of Them. Emo as it sounds, from a young age I had accepted that I would always be alone—in this specific way—but I tried to battle it every step of the way; I bit my tongue often and tried to patiently break old friends into new ideas. When I moved to New York, it was the first time I didn’t have to try.
I was pretty broke when I moved to New York in 2009 but, as Cord mentioned, that was part of the romantic appeal of this town. Young and eager, 22 and finally free from the social pressures of trying to fit into a town you’ve ideologically grown out of. I craved a city full of immigrants with the kind of familiarity and sense of humor and culture—music/food and adaptability—that is core to this city, even if some has been artificially concocted or mapped out thanks to the condo-lined streets of gentrification. But Brooklyn is where I started going to the Rub at Southpaw (RIP) in Park Slope to dance to rap, funk, soul, and whatever else in a throng of sweaty mixed crowds who became friends by way of seeing each other there every month. The Village is where I went to Rich Medina’s Lil Ricky’s Rib Shack and where I went to Body & Soul and cried on the dance floor while watching legends play songs (on vinyl!) that I had only ever heard shitty mp3 versions of as love and inclusiveness radiated out of every queer, straight, or “other” identified person there. Happy Endings’ Deadly Dragon Sound residency, Federation Sound’s Rice & Peas, and Bed-Stuy’s Von King park is where I went to hear dancehall. This is where, just this weekend, I saw Nicky Siano (one of Studio 54’s resident DJs) and DJ Scratch (of EPMD) play music to a bunch of new, gentrifying babies just like I once was. Good god, I am such a romantic.
Jason Parham: Let’s explore this idea of widening inequality more. Cord you hit it squarely when you said, “New York was a perfect town in which to be young and broke or old and fabulously rich, but now I think only the latter really applies.” I came to NYC at the end of The Bloomberg Years, post-2008 Recession. I was broke. Now, I am less broke. In that time, however, the city’s middle class began to disappear. In trying to make New York City into a global metropolis—the global metropolis—Bloomberg also pushed a lot of longtime residents out. Again, this is not a new story. In fact, it is a recurring theme in the city’s history. But I often wonder: If families who have been here for 30 or 40 years in neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights are being pushed to the fringes of the borough (often by transplants like us), what will happen to the families when we are priced out of Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights and have to move to the edges of the city—where will the families go then? I guess my question is: Is development without displacement possible in New York City?
Brendan O’Connor: It seems to me that, unless drastic measures are taken, New York City is destined to end up looking like Paris: rich people living in the city; middle and working class people live in the suburbs. Or, perhaps an even more appropriate analogy—as, after all, we do live on an archipelago—is Venice: nobody actually lives in the city at all—wealthy European just have apartments there and visit for two weeks out of the year, and working people live on the mainland. By that account, families who 30 years ago would have been living in Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights will, in 30 years, be living—I guess?—in New Jersey and on Long Island. And yeah, maybe the creative class will be able to afford Bay Ridge.
But, it’s also possible that that view might be somewhat myopic. For one thing, it does not really take into account the fact that this city of five boroughs is really quite large. Manhattan seems, for the most part, to be finished, and the course of development in Brooklyn, too, seems mostly to be set. But what will become of the Bronx? Queens? Staten Island?? It is hard for me to imagine a future in which all of those people—living in comparatively (currently) affordable neighborhoods—will be forced to go somewhere else. There are just too many people! Again, this may be naive. It is probably so, and underestimates the inertia of historical forces that have already been put into motion. Nevertheless, it seems very unlikely to me that the Bronx is going to gentrify at the same rate or scale that Brooklyn has. I could be very, very wrong about that. (I don’t think I am.)
And yet! It’s not going to not-happen just because we don’t want it to. Development is, probably, inevitable, but the kind of development that is done is not predetermined. Look at public housing. Once upon a time, the federal government, the state government, and the city all dedicated an unprecedented amount of financial and political capital to building housing for working and middle class people. Some of it was segregated, some of it was not. But it was built! It happened! They (“they”) built places for people to live, explicitly motivated by the idea that those people were worth more than their ability to pay for expensive things, and that the value of the city is greater than its most luxurious brand. If it was done before, it can be done again. Maybe even better!
There are laws, and regulations, and guidelines—some of them friendly to developers, some of them less so. Some very important ones are expiring (or up for renewal, depending on your perspective) this summer. We don’t need to get too in the weeds on this, but suffice to say there are policies whose intended effect is one thing and whose observed effect, over time, is another. These policies should be changed! But it seems to me that developers are business people, not public servants, and as such are always going to need an extra incentive to build affordable housing. That’s a drag! But here we are.
There are other methods, too, of trying to ensure a more equitable housing market, like community land trusts and tenants’ unions. All of which is to say, though, that development without displacement—that is, more equitable and inclusive development—is certainly possible in New York. It’s just not the most lucrative option.
Alex Vadukul: I think a New York in which there where was no displacement, and where change came slower, would be great and welcomed, but I think that might not be in the city’s nature. Harsh and unforgiving? Yes.
The city and various organizations can do things to make the process less intense, but I think this state of development and uncompromising forward motion goes back to New York’s earliest days, when the city was a busy messy clump at the bottom of Manhattan that kept inching upwards and upwards. I think this momentum can have lulls but I don’t think it has ever really stopped, nor will it ever. That would be a different city all together. If I’m being overly cynical, I’d love to get proven wrong, but in nearly 20 years here I can’t say I’ve seen a very different track record. What we’ve seen recently, however, is no doubt accelerated.
Obviously, this isn’t a great state of affairs... But to radically change things would involve changing the matrix of the city itself. Where does that leave someone, especially a creative? Will I be here in ten or twenty years? What will the city even look like? That’s too hard to say, and I don’t have the answer. Even looking five years ahead is difficult.
Cord Jefferson: I do think Brendan is right with his Paris analogy. But the reason he can make that analogy is because this shit has been going on for a long time, all around the world. Rich people get what they want and everyone else adjusts to meet their needs, whether that means serving them food or making laws to please them or uprooting your whole family to get out of their way when they decide they want your apartment.
Ultimately I think that’s going to gradually result in New York City becoming a radically different place than the one we all remember—or imagined from thousands of miles away. It’s like how our children will now probably never associate San Francisco with hippies and free love and ultra-left-wing politics. The next generation is going to go, “What? Hippies? In San Francisco? You mean the place where the robots make all the brain computers?”
My guess is that the outcasts who once looked at New York City as the place to move to be scummy and get by making paintings/music/books are eventually going to stop coming here in droves. Everyone’s going to start working remotely more, so it won’t be a necessity to live in New York to work in publishing or whatever other business happens here. After a while the transplants moving here are going to be the people who very much enjoy sanitized rich-people stuff, and lord knows there are a lot of those types out there. More power to them.
Jason Parham: Do you see yourself living here in 10 to 20 years? I have this crippling fear that even though I want to leave—maybe down south or back to Los Angeles—that I’m never going to. All of us will be drinking beers at some artisanal gastropub in the New New Clinton Hill (aka the old East New York) in 2035. I hope I’m wrong.
Alex Vadukul: I’d sure like to be in New York. But it just might not be possible, especially if there is the consideration of a family. Or, who knows, there’s also the possibility that New York in 2035 might not be a place I like very much, making departure all the easier. However your remark about ending up chained to the city despite the writing on the wall could also have foresight. And if that happens, I’ll be joining you for a beer at that gastropub.
Puja Patel: Maybe I still think of this city as a place where “anything is possible” because I’ve felt like I’ve led a charmed New York life, even during the years where I walked miles to avoid spending $2 on a metrocard or came back from a visit to my parents’ with a suitcase full of food and toilet paper. (Fun fact: My first ever writing assignment was a cold-pitch to the Village Voice’s music section in 2009 that turned into three-year column and launched my writing career.) But also because the local community I identify most strongly with, the music community, is so inherently embedded with the idea of group catharsis. That we’ll deal with the less savory parts of living here—the expense (THE EXPENSE!), the train woes, the industry circle-jerks, the insane work hours, and the noise and the smells and the richer, whiter people who bring all the baby yoga studios to the neighborhood—as long as we know we’re sweating it out together. I’ll probably leave one day, but that day isn’t any time soon.
Cord Jefferson: I’m a single guy who makes good money and moved here from out of state to take a cheap apartment in a traditionally Polish neighborhood, so I feel pretty bad even having this conversation, because I’m a big part of the problem. I’m not anywhere near a working-class family being forced to commute to minimum-wage jobs in Manhattan from an apartment farther and farther away because they keep getting priced out. (Note to someone: The next book of essays about people leaving New York should be written by poor people forced to leave instead of those of us who did it for quarter-life-crisis or career or significant-other reasons). That being said, where people from our backgrounds are concerned, I don’t think New York’s transformation is such a bad thing. I actually find something compelling about the prospect of the world’s weirdos and artists and everyone else looking elsewhere for their utopia. I hope I do leave here someday. And if I have grandkids, I hope they say to me, “We can’t believe you ever thought New York City was cool,” while pushing my wheelchair through their anarchist arts commune in Orlando.