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Real New Yorkers Can Say Goodbye to All That

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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The first year I lived in New York was an utter cliche. There I was, young and fresh and terribly naive, unaware that my whole self was about to transform in ways that I couldn't even begin to imagine. It was as if I’d suddenly burst out into the light, into a whole world that was strange and wonderful and occasionally terrifying. I reached out in all directions, feeling, tasting, seeing, smelling, experiencing this incredible variety of things I’d never known existed. I formed the closest relationships I would ever have. I spoke new words and formed new wants. I tried unfamiliar foods, one after another. I learned to stand on my own and take my first steps into the world.

I’m not speaking metaphorically. I was born in New York. Except for school, I lived there for my first 33 years. And then, eight years ago, I left my home city for Washington D.C., the legendarily poky metropolis that so neatly fuses Southern efficiency and Northern charm. 

There is a perennial cottage industry in essays on three topics: Coming to New York, Living in New York and Leaving New York, of which Joan Didion's "Goodbye to All That" is both the lodestone and the millstone around the writer's neck. No one has ever written so beautifully and completely about the process of being smitten with my hometown, and no matter how fine the writer who attempts to replicate or vary the feat, they join an ever-growing collection that reads as if a Gifted and Talented creative writing class had been assigned "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" for their summer book. I have several collected volumes of the genre on my Kindle right now, and over the last week, I've found myself reading them again on a sort of anti-nostalgic journey.

The inspiration for this jaunt was the essay on "why I will never leave New York," which splashed across my screen last week. It would have been fine reading had it not by its very topic invited comparisons to the ur-text. Naturally I posted it on Facebook, and naturally, because I was born in New York, I had to add a snotty comment. "People like this," I said, "are why I left New York." My best friend liked my post. Like almost everyone I know who grew up in the city, she now lives far away from it.

What I said was true, though I didn't mean it quite the way it sounds. We did leave our hometown because of all these aspirational New Yorkers. But we didn't leave to get away from these people, exactly. We left because those of us who grew up there were less willing to bear any burden, pay any price, to stay. The dreamers simply outbid us for our New York, and in the process, they created a city we no longer loved quite so much. This is apt to make such musings hard reading for us.

But we are not the real audience for these essays, we born-and-bred New Yorkers. Didion memorably writes that "I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and you never love anyone quite that way again," and to judge by the canon of Newyorkature, many an MFA has ecstatically thrummed to the lilting, wistful cadences of that line. I, however, have never loved New York like a lover. To be born in New York is to love the city the way you love your parents, the way you love dog-eared books and macaroni and cheese in front of the television, and the body-memory of running pell-mell down a sidewalk without fear or purpose ... a sidewalk that, in your case, was strewn with litter, and nonetheless beautiful in the morning sun. For us, reading the impassioned essays of the city's adult migrants is a bit like reading the love letters from your father's new 22-year-old bride.

I do not mean to insult you, Non-Native New Yorker. I am sure you are a very fine and authentic person, doing many authentic things in that fourth-floor walk-up you struggled so many years to achieve. But I have to be honest: To us, most of you will never be New Yorkers. You just don't have it in you.

Real New Yorker status can be acquired. Both my parents had it, though it probably took them decades. I know others, scattered here and there. But it cannot be acquired by reading Joan Didion and investing all of your adolescent angst in a few square miles of concrete. It cannot be acquired by going to awesome, funky bars that are totally different from the ones at home and meeting a heroin addict bartender/freelance sex worker who wears cowboy hats and Doc Martens and quotes Allen Ginsburg while the two of you smoke cigarettes underneath the High Line. It is not displayed by your encyclopedic knowledge of the best places to buy exotic foodstuffs.

There are some signs of a real New Yorker that I could point to: for example, you have forgotten how to drive (if indeed you ever knew), you can instinctively navigate the subway system without resorting to the 42nd Street shuttle, you refer to houses in inner-ring suburbs as being "in the country." But these are not universal, and anyway, they are merely the outward signs of an inward state which is: not being able to think like anything but a New Yorker. If you are still marveling at the fact that you actually get to live in the city of your dreams -- if you are one of the legions who are starring in a multi-year run of "Me, Living in New York City!" to an audience of 8 million people, or if you are writing essays about how you'll never leave New York because the place has been etched upon your very DNA -- then you are not yet a New Yorker. You are a tourist who has possibly overstayed your visa.

But after reading all those essays about New York, I think the most remarkable difference between us and the joyous immigrants penning paeans to the city may be this: We don't seem to find it so hard to stop being a New Yorker. Like almost all the natives I know, I have left the city of my birth, and now slowly, it is leaving me. You can tell because I no longer know where to eat in the city, my favorite pizzerias and bagel shops and Chinese restaurants having shut down one by one. You can tell because I actually like living in Washington, where everyone I know is here because they care about ideas, and almost all of them live within a moderate hike of my house, and my house did not cost northwards of a million dollars. You can tell because, well, I left New York City, and now I am writing about doing so, two things a real New Yorker would never do.

I moved to Washington just for a few months, to recover after a harrowing breakup. (Gory details in my book, for those of you who thrive on non-celebrity gossip.) Then I got offered a job here, at the same time my employer, the Economist, announced it wanted me to move to London. Also I was being evicted from my below-market, below-ground, 435-square-foot junior one bedroom on the Upper West Side, a real bargain at only $1,200 a month, so that the building could be turned into condos. I had come to Washington looking for a pause before I started putting my real life back together, back in New York. Instead, I accidentally found myself building a new life. The old one was torn down abruptly to make way for someone else's plans, a thing that happens a lot in New York City.

I now know exactly three natives who are still living in the city. Two of them are living in the houses they grew up in. The rest of us left, ultimately because of all those people who flew in on the wings of their childhood dreams. They all had to land somewhere, and New York City real estate being what it is, that meant that some of us had to fly the coop.

Housing in New York has always been expensive. Those of us who grew up in the city "in the old days -- you know, when normal people could afford to live there," nonetheless acquired some wacky ideas about what constituted affordable housing, and how to go about procuring it. Two natives of my acquaintance who moved to Florida were so dazzled by the prospect of a $1,400 townhouse that they descended upon the property manager  waving thousands of dollars of cash and two notarized credit reports to seal this amazing steal of a deal.  The manager, naturally, assumed they were drug dealers looking for a place to build their new meth lab. But if you have ever tried to secure a below-market apartment in the face of New York's sub-2-percent vacancy rate, this sort of behavior seems only sensible.

Now, however, the housing market has gone from "wacky" to "just how bad do you need that extra kidney, Moira?" And so most of my New Yorker friends have decamped for cheaper climes. Even those making very healthy six-figure incomes are simply unwilling to compete with all the newcomers for a seat at New York's bounteous but crowded table. Oh, yes, the bankers and the lawyers, you are saying. Everyone hates the bankers and the lawyers. But I have to tell you, it's not just them. It's everyone who thought that the city could turn them into their best and truest self, whether they pictured that self hunting for first editions at Argosy or ordering bottle service at some hideous nightclub frequented by fashion models. 

Those people are so besotted by New York that they will cling to its towering walls with bloody fingernails if that's what it takes to stay there. And those of us who spent much of our childhood in the city doing the same boring things you did in your hometown always saw it more as the place we lived than as a mythopoetic wonderland. We are simply unable to glamorize the effort it now takes to stay there -- especially since so much of what we loved about "our city" was disappearing even before we did.

The New York of my heart was the Upper West Side of the 1970s and 1980s. If you've seen Annie Hall, you know what it looked like. It was not a glamorous place, nor particularly bohemian; it was Jewish and Puerto Rican and black and Irish and Italian, living side by side in the faded grandeur of buildings erected before the Depression and barely maintained in the years since. The cheap "ethnic" food was good, the "good" food as terrible as in any midsize Midwestern city. There were lots of working musicians and actors who survived by rent control and luck, and it seemed as if every other parent you met had gone to Communist summer camp. 

My city was going to the ultra-liberal Riverside Church, where the Sunday school class didn't sing hymns that had the words "God" or "Jesus" in them, and being allowed, at the age of 10, to walk home with my best friend and a picnic basket through Riverside Park. It was Saturday lunch at a mediocre Chinese restaurant with my father, followed by a matinee at the Metro or Loew's 84th Street. The book-and-video store that let you trade used books for credits on "new" used books. Shoes at Indian Walk or Harry's Florsheim, and summer clothes (plus camp trunk!) at Morris Brothers. Going to Macy's in eighth grade with our parents' credit cards to do our school shopping all by ourselves. Walking up Broadway with my mother, starting at Bruno's for pasta and then collecting things one by one at the stops along the way: Fairway. Citarella. H&H bagels. Zabar's. Murray's. The little fruit and nut shop where you could buy candied fruit mix that wasn't studded with sticky maraschino cherries. 

My New York was getting on the train at 242nd Street every day after track practice to ride back to Manhattan from the cool green precincts of Riverdale, and (Dad, please don't read this part) walking through the train cars as it moved along the elevated tracks. When I think of high school, I always think of one particular day in the fall, cold enough to be more than brisk but less than intolerable, when I found myself between cars just as the train went around the bend at 238th. The sun was shining low between the grimy towers to my right, and I had one of those glorious moments that come to all high school students occasionally, the kind that really calls for a movie sound track, but also doesn't need one. I don't think these moments actually come more often in New York City. But New York City was where I was.

Eventually my city was also tiny poetry readings and very off Off-Broadway, that really cool bar and those really hideous nightclubs and excessively long nights in excessively high heels, and "all that." But the earlier moments gave me one crucial advantage over the newcomers: when I said I loved New York, I never confused "New York" with "being 22." And so when the time came, I was able to leave it without romanticism, and almost without regret.

When I had decided that my Washington getaway would not be temporary, I went back to New York to pack up a few loose ends. Friends reacted to the news as though I were quitting journalism to pursue ice fishing. Washington? Really? "Is there anything there?" asked one amazed classmate from college.

"People and buildings and everything," I assured him. But I didn't sound quite convinced.

That Saturday night I had three parties to go to, in three parts of the city. I was determined to pack them all in, because when would I see these people again? It took an hour and a half to get to the first one, in Cobble Hill. Inwood and Astoria clearly were not going to happen. As I made that calculation, the incipient panic I'd felt at leaving "all that" vanished, as my city already had. The bits of New York that weren't turning into a shopping mall were instead turning into London, where the cost of real estate pushes the merely affluent people so far to the periphery that it is only really practical to make friends along a single train line. I have no desire or right to complain about this. I never owned "my New York," a city too big and too fast and too crowded to ever be fully described, much less possessed or preserved. But the morning after that last party, when I drove across the George Washington Bridge and prepared to turn south, I was glad to be going home.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net