A Choice of City

Sure I could say New York is big, and crowded, and busy, and expensive.

I could talk about riding the subway, and how if you’re not quick enough to grab a seat someone else will swoop in and take it.

Or the way New Yorkers cross the street without breaking stride. Maneuvering through traffic, timing their passage perfectly, and gliding through the intersection just two steps ahead of oncoming cars.

But then I’d just be stating the obvious.

“Theres no other place like it.” My friend said to me right before announcing she was leaving New York after 6 years to move to Seattle.

“But what about all the energy here?” I asked. “The good old hustle and bustle? I could feel it within seconds of getting in to town. Just walking through the streets is invigorating” I said.

“That’s exactly it. The hustle is what drew me in, but its the same thing thats driving me away now” she said. “I can’t afford to do anything. There are restaurants everywhere, but I can’t afford to go out. My husband works in Manhattan, but we can only afford to live in Brooklyn, so he sits in three hours of traffic every day. What’s the point? Living in New York is like being in an abusive relationship. We’ve put up with it for years, but now we’re just done.”

The harsh truth of her story lingered with me as I walked through upper-class neighborhoods like SoHo and strolled along quiet tree-lined streets in the West Village, where it looks and feels like a like a quaint little village yet the townhouses are valued at $20 million.

I found that contrast unsettling, and it evolved the underlying narrative of my observations.

To live well in New York (Manhattan specifically), and by that I mean the ability to actually afford anything after paying your rent, you’re likely holding a lofty title at a corporation, a tech or financial services company, or other large firm. Or, there are those with family money (and unless the child labor laws were repealed in New York and every sixteen-year-old I passed on the street wearing designer clothing was actually a successful executive, I’m going to assume that well-to-do families are abundant in Manhattan).

Its no surprise that big cities are expensive to live in, but the barrier to entry for New York is high and the feeling was palpable. Perhaps thats what makes living in New York so appealing. Is it just supply and demand economics? The demand for the elusive Manhattan address is high, but the supply of realistically affordable commodities and lifestyles is limited.

But New Yorkers certainly earn their stripes. The city has grit.

The streets are dirty, the subways are hot and crowded, and the daily obstacle course of stepping over garbage-water-puddles and evading near-death by an army of oncoming cabs should be enough to earn a medal.

As I compared their urban metropolis to my own, I recognized there are two kinds of people that live in big cities. Those who have lived there all their lives, and those that have chosen to live there. For the ones that choose, their willing decision to pay more for everything is written off as an entrance fee to a place where resources and opportunities are more abundant, albeit at times seemingly harder to obtain.

In New York of all places, where Lady Liberty is a sight to behold and she stands for the freedom to pursue the American Dream, I felt it just wasn’t that easy.

As I walked the streets of New York I became intrigued by people completing basic tasks. Curious about who they were and what their story was.

When a woman in her mid-20’s walked out of a coffee shop I found myself wondering what she did for work, where she lived, if she grew up there or if she made the pilgrimage, and if so has she been successful, has she made it, and will she be able to stay?

But after each mile I walked and each subway ride I took, the awe began to wear off. I realized that it wasn’t any harder to live there than it was to live in other big cities. My attraction and fascination for New York was driven by knowing I’d have to give up everything I’ve built in my own city first, before I could join theirs. Perhaps it was that personal restriction that made me want it so bad. Or perhaps it was knowing that I’d have to earn more, much more, and I wasn’t interested in trading my freedom for a title in order to do it.

Many have proclaimed New York to be the greatest city in the world, and I can see why. It’s raw, its tough, and its magnificent.

Sinatra had it right when he sang “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” But I suspect if you make it there, you won’t want to go anywhere else.