A few months ago, I was crossing Williamsburg in a cab when we stalled in traffic on Lee Avenue. Looking out of the window to my left I saw it—my grandfather’s old store and above it, my mother’s childhood home. I called my mother to let her know that I was right in front of 39 Lee Avenue. This was the site of so many of the stories I had heard while growing up in Canarsie, a different section of Brooklyn much farther along the L train line. This address was as deeply embedded in my memory as the one to my own childhood home.
“Does Zaidie’s store look as bad it did when I was growing up?” she asked. “Zaidie” is the Yiddish appellation for grandfather, which is what my sister and I called him. I used to visit him at the assisted living facility, and then at the nursing home. In all of those visits, he never brought up his past life as a shopkeeper. I only had my mother’s accounts of her childhood to go on. Her most oft-repeated story was about the neighborhood beat cop who would warn my grandfather that the government inspectors were coming to check if stores were open on Sunday. My mother’s family was Orthodox and kept the shop closed on Saturday in observance of the Jewish Sabbath. They could ill afford to keep it closed an additional day in observance of the Christian Sabbath as mandated by the Sunday Blue Laws. The police officer would warn my grandfather when the inspectors were afoot, who would close the dry goods store for a few hours until the coast was clear.
“Zaidie would always give him Christmas presents for his kids from the store’s inventory,” my mother explained. “It wasn’t a bribe. Just his way of saying thank you.”
I didn’t see any beat cops, if such things still exist, outside my window. All I could see was a dingy looking haberdashery catering to the Hasidic community that now populated the area.
“It doesn’t look great,” I told her. There was no way of knowing whether if it was better or worse, which is also another way to think about the ever-changing city I grew up in.
After I hung up, I looked out of the cab window at the Hasidic Jews milling about the street and wondered: Do they realize that New York is over? Probably not. They’re too busy tending to their families, businesses, and communities. This concern with beginning, middles, and ends, of satisfying narrative arcs—that’s the domain of writers.
And lately, writers seem to be washing their hands of the city. The authors of the new anthology, Goodbye To All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York, and all of the other recently published pieces about writers who left New York, are concerned that the city is “over.” At least the version they dreamed of before they moved here to become (annoyingly) “themselves” and writers, too. Edited by ex-New Yorker Sari Botton, Goodbye to All That pays tribute to Joan Didion’s essay of the same title; its contributors write about the city in love/hate tones that range from the nostalgia usually reserved for a lost beloved to the studied distance of “insiders” who embody a lost element of urban cool. Some found success in the city and then left. Some found success after they left New York. And some returned after years away because they couldn’t quite get the city out of their systems. For them, New York is not a place but a developmental phase, sort of like adolescence. And as we know from Hollywood’s output, you never get over high school.
In her contribution to Goodbye to All That, Rayhane Sanders writes in Hannah Horvath fashion, “I had come here many moons ago to find out who I was.” To her, New York was “more symbol than place.” And once she worked out the kinks of her adult self, she felt it was time to go, like a plant that was grown in the soil, and then potted and shipped out.
But to New York City natives, the city isn’t simply a developmental phase or a symbol. It’s a place where families such as mine have lived for generations (since 1908) without somehow being drawn into the arts. Imagine that? I’m the first writer in my clan, which seems like the natural consequence of having teacher and librarian parents. (They are as supportive as you can be of a journalist working in a dying industry in the most expensive city in the country.) New York is where people have set down roots, built communities, and fought for social change to make the place more livable, just as folks have done in cities all over the country. The city is far greater than the sum of its writers’ and artists’ ambitions and disappointments.
The greatest disappointment when it comes to living in New York is, of course, the cost of living here. It doesn’t go down the longer you stay. And of course, they—we—have chosen a career that is not known for being lucrative. Hence, All That is a book about money as much as it is about writing and the city, if not more. Every essay touches on the cost associated with living a New York life. The final piece in the anthology is a reprinting of Meghan Daum’s “My Misspent Youth,” written over a decade ago, which catalogues all of her income and costs. “As I write this,” she began,” I owe $7,791 to my Visa card…My checking account is overdrawn by $1,784. I have no savings, no investments, no pension fund, and no inheritance on the horizon.”
But money is the biggest frustration of most writers, no matter they live, regardless of the era. As Oscar Wilde once said (and one of the essayists notes), “When bankers get together they talk about art. When artists get together, they talk about money.”
It’s not as though I don’t feel these writers’ pain. I feel it acutely. I’m a writer in New York, too. My rent has increased sharply; my income hasn’t followed suit. I can’t bring myself to move into my mother’s basement. Some days, all I can think about is money. Other days, I look for jobs in a different field such as advertising. But I try not to conflate my career frustrations with New York City itself: my financial troubles are as much a function of choosing writing as a career as they are of choosing to live in the city. I also recognize that to some degree I selected my socioeconomic status. Well, that and the Internet came along, making a career in journalism an even tougher financial slog.
But this essay isn’t about that, because I love the Internet.
The writers who can recall the 1980s before Times Square was Disneyfied, whose memories stretch back far enough, tend to point to a not-so-distant New York past where things cost less, just as my mother used to tell me how much a movie ticket used to go for.
And then they do the thing I hate: romanticizing the grit and squalor of the 1970s and 1980s. Maggie Estep’s “Think Of This As A Window,” starts with this provocative sentence: “I fell in love in love with New York City in 1971, when I saw dozens of people blithely stepping over a dead body on the sidewalk.” She was seven at the time, visiting the city with her grandfather. “By the late 1990s,” she writes, “my beloved Lower East Side wasn’t squalid anymore.”
I was a child in the 1980s and I remember my cousin pulling the radio out of his car after he parked it so it wouldn’t get stolen. This was not a sign of paranoia. It was something that many New Yorkers did during the “gritty” and “authentic” era. I can’t remember precisely when people stopped doing that, but I doubt any veteran city dwellers miss taking those measures.
There are, of course, genuine questions to be asked about the Giuliani and Bloomberg eras, but often complaints about the homogenization of the city in these essays have less to do with concern for the poor than they do with loss of subject matter and inspiration. “I hated it,” Estep writes of the vacant buildings reborn as gourmet food shops and parks that were safe for women with dogs to enjoy. Biking farther into the city, looking for untamed sections the city out in the farthest reaches of the outer boroughs, Estep writes, “I was location scouting.”
This new gentrified New York might be less muse-worthy. That’d be okay with me if it actually meant that there were fewer poor people. But of course, that’s not the case. They’ve just been pushed deeper into parts of the outer boroughs where few artists want to live. In my experience, writers and artists want to squeeze into lofts in Williamsburg, Bushwick and any other up-and-coming neighborhood. (Might I suggest my old stomping grounds in Canarsie? It’s along the L train line. It would almost be like living in Williamsburg.)
All That isn’t just a tale of money; it’s also one of love, or more accurately the wrong way to love. The language of love is all over this collection, in nearly every essay. In her own essay, Botton writes of missing New York, “I yearn for it something awful, the way you’d yearn for a lost lover.” I know that all content is derivative, that there is nothing new under the sun, but is New York really everyone’s boyfriend? New York sounds kind of promiscuous.
But if we go forward with this metaphor, one of romantic love, the writers make the classic relationship mistake—demanding that your lover never change. The writers seem affronted by the city’s many transformations. If your motto is, “I’ll love you as long as you never change,” your relationship is surely doomed.
As my experience of my mother’s childhood home shows, the city is always changing. She grew up in Williamsburg before the Satmar Hasidim arrived after WWII. It’s hard to imagine that neighborhood without the Hasidic presence, but so it once was. She talks fondly about her childhood in Williamsburg and how it used to be, but she never seems nostalgic. She has never expressed a wish that it would change back. As a lifelong Brooklynite, she understands how things work in this city. Change is part of the formula. Those who can’t accept that are chumps.
Also, you can’t ever make this city your bitch. New York is like the Russian winter—you can’t conquer it.
I’m fortunate that I got to grow up in New York before I tried to succeed as a writer here. You recognize, first and foremost, that the city is a place to live, as is any city. Your social circle isn’t entirely comprised of other strivers. Not every gathering is an opportunity to network.
From afar, though, New York must look like a movie set waiting for you to arrive so that the action can begin. Of course, the reality is that every transplant’s New York story begins in media res. The action stretches way back, to before you showed up, and will continue after you leave. It’s not over for the city because you call cut.
As I read the essays in the collection, even the ones that read as paeans to the Big Apple instead of screeds against it, I couldn’t help but feel irked. They were mourning the place I’ve called home for nearly thirty years—I detoured to Philadelphia for college and to Los Angeles for the two years after—and hope to continue calling home because that’s how it feels to me. They’re talking about it as though it’s some dead thing. The collection, as a whole, reads like The Book of Lamentations. Every year, I used to fast and sit on the floor of the synagogue on the Ninth of Av, the date on which the Babylonians torched the Temple in Jerusalem, listening to the cantor wail, intoning the pain of Jerusalem. Zion “narrates” the first poem in the collection, and she mourns her own destruction and that of her people.
It’s a neat little trick when you think about it. People get so attached to places and it’d be nice to think that the places we loved felt the same way about us. In Lamentations, the Jews pretend that Jerusalem cares as deeply for them as they feel for her. As I was reading the essays, I wondered if the writers wanted more than just affordable housing, a paying writing gig, to not grow up, but for the city to miss them? To beg them not to go? For New York to say, “You were here and you mattered”? But only people can satisfy those needs. New York doesn’t mourn those who have left her. The city is indifferent, for better or worse.
These writers’ notes—be they love letters or hit pieces—are their authors’ way of carving their initials into the bunkhouse that has shaped them. I’d be more convinced if it weren’t implied in so many of these stories that because I couldn’t make it work, no one can. Or that the problems in the city are so intractable that no activism or effort could stem the tide, so the only solution is to leave.
Because leaving New York, just as moving here, is a privilege. Many cannot afford to leave or are too old to make the jump. I can’t imagine my mother—who at seventy-three has lived in Brooklyn her entire life, with the exception of her first two years of marriage when she lived in Queens—leaving now. And she’s not wealthy; the city isn’t her playground. She’s a retired public school teacher. She’s never been anything but middle-class.
So where does that leave me? I’m in a bit of limbo, admittedly. I believe the city can change and become more equitable, and not just for middle-class writers and retired schoolteachers. I’d like to think I have it in me to stay to see it through. I may not have a lot of money but I have a lot of other incentives to remain—my family’s history, my fear of driving, my love of mass transit.
But what if I’m not able to hold on either? I guess I’ll have to move. Wherever I end up, however, I’m sure I’ll still walk faster than everyone else. What can I say? After thirty years, my heart beats to the rhythm of New York City. Which is to say, fast and irregular.
Dvora Meyers is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. She has written about religion, arts, and culture for the New York Times, Tablet, Salon, and several other publications. She is also the author of the gymnastics-themed essay collection, Heresy on the High Beam: Confessions of an Unbalanced Jewess.