The Incredibly Shrinking Native Manhattanite in Manhattan

“We are a very happy and yet jaded people,” said Zoe Schneider, 36, the creator of Zoe Lou Designs, a line of New York-themed kid’s clothes.

Ms. Schneider was standing at the dimly lit entrance of Dusk Lounge bar on West 24th Street last Tuesday evening. Inside was September’s gathering of The Magic Garden, a regular congregation of people raised in the five boroughs.

Ms. Schneider is the club’s founder.

“We used to play ‘where’s the native’ at Luna Lounge,” she said, talking about how she arrived at the idea for the club. She and her husband would sit at the bar, look for people, guess where they were from, then ask them. “People from New Jersey always said they were from New York.”

Shortly after that, Ms. Schneider said, she got the idea for a gathering of natives. “It started as a joke.” But, now, it’s a roving monthly celebration with a password. Party goers fill out a high school-specific questionnaire to access the password. Rejections are posted on the club’s Web site:

Q: I grew up in New Jersey–isn’t that pretty much the same as NY?
A: No, you must be smoking crack.

Ms. Schneider hugged most members as they arrived at Tuesday’s party. She wore an adult version of one of her Zoe Lou T-shirts as she fit people for wristbands.

“New York is New York,” she said, making a grandiose hand gesture. “And we are from here. We grew up here. This is our home, you take this away–where the hell are we going to go?”

We talked about faux cities (Houston, Stanford…) for a bit, plastic cities short on sidewalks and real pedestrian populations. Ms. Schneider herself grew up in Manhattan’s Tudor City and now lives in Harlem.

“You have young people moving here,” she said, “and where do they say they want to live? They don’t say ‘New York City,’ they say ‘Williamsburg.’ It’s an instant social life; and it’s great for some people, but it’s not my New York.”

Her New York’s Manhattan-even if Manhattan’s not quite what she grew up with.

Manhattan borough historian Michael Miscione stepped up to the Dusk Lounge to get his wristband. He’s from Turtle Bay, he said, “where the first crane fell.” (Mr. Miscione later told me that he had been born and raised in Brooklyn, but had been living in Manhattan for the last 25 years.)

“My neighborhood used to be filled with elderly people, now it’s a much younger demographic,” Mr. Miscione said of Turtle Bay. “That’s the story of New York: people move out or die away. But for the past 10 years, Manhattan has been a turbo-charged pressure cooker of change.”

Ms. Schneider and Mr. Miscione reminisced about the idea of change versus the old “desolate hole” that Manhattan used to be. “No, I think change can be a healthy thing,” Mr. Miscione said quickly. Ms. Schneider: “But it’s going at an alarming rate!”

The two looked at each other.

Mr. Miscione tried to explain himself: “People that have complaints about over-development have short memories of how bad blight was. They’ve romanticized a dangerous New York. We’ve come a long way. There’s a lot about Times Square that isn’t exactly charming, but it’s safe. In the Times Square of before, it may have been charming, but it was certainly not safe.”

But does he think such improvements are positive when they force out native Manhattanites? “The cost of living is making it hard to live,” Mr. Miscione said. “What pains me is how rare in New York the natives are becoming. We’re a dying breed-we need to make more babies.”

 

TIM HAFT, THE 47-YEAR-OLD president and founder of Punk Rope NYC, was the sponsor for Tuesday’s party. He wore a sleeveless cotton shirt and jeans, and he asked me if I was the non-native reporter he’d heard about.

Yes. Where was he from?

“Twenty-third and Second Avenue,” he said. I asked him where he lives now and he shrugged. “Ironically, I have very reasonable rent in Stuy Town. I can’t afford to leave; there’s three of us in a one-bedroom right now.”

Mr. Haft said that he has been thinking a lot about Greenpoint; he works as a personal trainer at the YMCA there.

“To me, Manhattan is a bit of a mall,” he said. “It’s gotten really homogenized. Greenpoint still has it a little bit. You go to a bar in Manhattan and it’s a very odd feeling-the fact that you are a native, it makes you a minority.

“I feel like the days where New York was dominated by Woody Allen are over permanently,” he said, shifting his drink from one hand to the other.

 

OTHER MANHATTAN NATVIES SOUNDED a similarly detached and dismal tone.

Kim Zeray, a 37-year-old bartender from Hell’s Kitchen, said later by phone that it’s a strong distaste for Brooklyn and an inability to drive that keeps her in Manhattan. And, suppose her husband, whom she lives with in the 70s on the Upper West Side, asked Ms. Zeray to move to Brooklyn, would she?

“Mm,” she said, paused. “That’s a tough question. O.K., ultimately yes, but I would do everything I could to get him back to this rock.”

“I’m not green enough for Brooklyn,” she said. “The people are too nice for me, like nice at the bar-people are holding doors; in Manhattan, we’ll like push it really hard so it doesn’t hit you in the face, but I have a train to catch, you know?

“When I go to Brooklyn, I feel like I am going to camp. The streets all have produce names, like peach, apple, pineapple-I feel like I am on another planet.”

Any other reasons for never moving off the island? “Because I never learned to drive. I’m committed to staying here, unless I am going to row a boat.”

We discussed the financial difficulties of living in Manhattan. “My best year [in annual income] was ’97-six digits for my first and only year on record, cash. This year? Thirty-five thousand. It’s incredible how hard it is.”

But, she said, it’s worth it to stay in Manhattan. “I feel like an alien anywhere else, I am paying for comfort.”

Harlem native Jack Roache, 31, lives in Washington Heights with his mom. He too has an unusually sharp antipathy toward Brooklyn.

“Basically, for me, it’s only the Bronx or Manhattan,” Mr. Roache said. “I grew up around different ethnicities: with buildings, and buzzers, and diversity, and up here I feel comfortable. Not in Brooklyn.

“People are crazy there. Everyone’s screaming all the time, they’re all so wild. It’s because people fight over everything there-the yuppies freaking out over everything on Curbed and Brownstoner.

“To me, New York real estate is like dating, dating that doesn’t work out, in both natives and non-natives are trying to reconnect with childhood stuff. It’s bad and co-dependent, and it just never works out.”

Why does he live with his mom? “A four-letter word: R-E-N-T, man.”

Would he raise his kids here?

“I’m like a lot of people in New York,” he said. “I should to move to Rio. I’m not locked down with kids right now. I’m not trying to make it-I would like to say I’ll move out of Manhattan, but I tend to come back. I can’t help it. And my grandma’s here, you know?”

The Incredibly Shrinking Native Manhattanite in Manhattan