Gotham Handcuffs: What Happens When You Make It Here and You Want to Leave?

golden handcuffscover Gotham Handcuffs: What Happens When You Make It Here and You Want to Leave?

When Kathleen Parker, foil to Eliot Spitzer on CNN, wrote an op-ed in the Sept. 29 Washington Post about her displeasure with her recent move to New York City–the “rules for potted plants on an apartment terrace”; “a building ban on lighting birthday candles”–Manhattan media meted out a swift punishment.

The Awl encouraged her to move to Westchester. Gawker derided her “whining.” Had she spent more than three weeks here before unleashing her displeasure, maybe Ms. Parker would have had the requisite time to learn an important lesson: One does not publicly castigate New York City in New York City, particularly as a newcomer.

“It’s like someone telling you, ‘Here’s your dream and the emperor has no clothes,’” said John Falk, a writer and lifelong New Yorker who recently moved to Pittsburgh. “If you’re kind of derisive about it, it’s causing you to question your whole game plan.”

When you’ve gotten to a certain point, what other city will have you? A $400,000 house with two acres in Decatur sounds lovely, but where’s the demand for a $300,000-a-year banker there?

Of course, most New Yorkers know what’s rough about their city, and could empathize with Ms. Parker, who must suffer this town for the sake of her ambition. It sometimes seems that the only pastime occupying more New Yorkers’ minds, besides bragging about New York, is fantasizing about getting out.

Yet, they won’t–or can’t. The recession has left the city more of an archipelago than ever, as opportunities recede elsewhere and strand its professional and creative classes, who remain acutely aware of what they’re giving up to give their best years to New York.

[Planning Your Escape? The Top Ten Alternatives to New York]

“I came here with this kind of idealistic conception of New York,” said Angela, 27, who works in a big publishing house and lives in Astoria. “That lasted for a good year and a half to two years, and then suddenly the high cost of living started to set in; my friends elsewhere started getting married and buying houses.”

And certain things about New York just began striking her as sad.

“Like two years ago, I was coming home, and outside on the sidewalk there was this little adorable chubby kid, and he was making a snow angel on the sidewalk in like two inches of snow and it just broke my heart,” Angela said. “This is wrong, you’re making a snow angel on public sidewalk property! You should have a yard. I don’t think ultimately if I ever do want a family I can do this. … I will probably have to switch careers to do that. That’s probably going to happen.”

Jeremy Smerd, a 36-year-old Park Slope resident and reporter at Crain’s New York Business, likes New York plenty, but he never imagined he’d stay here after he graduated from journalism school seven years back.

“I think we’re all sort of bound to some degree by the bad economy, limiting our choices,” Mr. Smerd said. “I did not think I was going to stay in New York. I thought I was going to go to a smaller place and start at a small newspaper. But it was right around that time newspapers started tanking. I ended up staying in New York and … I think I’ve had an up-and-down career–not a linear trajectory, where you go from a small to a medium to a large newspaper. But I’m happy where I’m at right now, so that’s good.”

The conventional wisdom is that these pros are here because they choose to be: because they picked professions that find their apotheoses in New York, like media, publishing, finance, real estate, certain types of law. When the pace, the limitations, the expense, the loneliness sets in, you’re free to leave.

Unless you’re not. When you’ve reached a certain point, what other city will have you? A $400,000 house with two acres in Decatur sounds lovely, but where’s the demand for a $300,000-a-year banker there? (And it’s not just a hunch, either–New York really is a solid place to ride out the recession: More than 10 percent of new private-sector jobs created in the U.S. this year have been here.)

“Being that I don’t have a lot of financial backing yet, being that I’m young, New York is really the only place where I can leverage my relationships to do that,” said Jack Heaney, a 31-year-old Brooklynite and aspiring real estate developer, originally from Chicago. “My experience is that if you’re creative and a bit of a hustler and hard worker, serious people will take you seriously here. They’ll listen to you.

“That kind of opportunity is unique to New York. And that experience is reinforced even more in a bad economy.”

And then there’s Sally, a 31-year-old commercial production executive from the U.K., who would love to live in a place that offers more peace, more nature, less stress, more community. But in this economy, she just can’t see divorcing herself from such a good job in the one profession she knows.

“It sounds totally corny, but the older I get, I would prefer to be somewhere quieter, with more nature,” she said. “There’s a lot of pressure here, you know. But my job doesn’t really translate anywhere else. It does in L.A. or London, but you don’t make as good money as you do in New York. But it’s hard in this economy to walk away from a really good position that other people would really die for.”

 

IN EARLY 2010, Science magazine published an academic study of happiness in the United States that found New York State residents to be the unhappiest, vying for the honor with New Jersey and Connecticut. (Residents of Louisiana and Hawaii, were, according to the survey, the happiest in the nation. Bully for them.)

Much as New York boosters like Mayor Bloomberg, Gawker and Marty Markowitz may protest, living in New York these days can be a problematic proposition.

“There are lots and lots of good things and bad things about New York,” said Andrew Oswald, an economist and one of the study’s authors, on Monday. “But the key fact is that wages are high; people earn a lot of money there. An economist like me would say that’s to compensate them for the difficulties of living in the state of New York or the city of New York. Think of the congestion of New York from an Englishman’s point of view, the noise and crowding.”

(Mr. Oswald is an Englishman.)

“Thirty thousand a year, you can definitely get by on that in Vermont,” he added. “In New York, that probably doesn’t buy you a great standard of living.”

There are countless reasons for reasonable people to reasonably conclude that New York is, at the very least, a difficult place to live without a trust fund: the far-beyond-reach housing prices; the claustrophobic skyscrapers; the dirty sidewalks; the gum-spattered subways; the self-importance; the loneliness; the crowding; the Bloombergian homogenization of once disparate neighborhoods; the oceans of ambition and accompanying cut-throat behavior; the precious interest in food; the smell in August; the gray slush in winter; the dreary days in between; the paucity of marriageable men; the preponderance of lights from jets flying low over South Slope tenements; the scarcity of stars; the ubiquity of “stars.” On and on …

Perhaps it’s a matter, then, of not how could the professional and creative classes leave this wonderful place behind–rather, how could they eventually not?

“A lot of my writer friends keep places in New York City, because the idea was to get there, get in the publishing world, and then they hate it,” Mr. Falk said. “And to sort of pull their troops back and move upstate and have no connection to New York City or, God forbid, move to Oregon. It’s a defeat. So you’ll put up with a lot.

“In Pittsburgh, suddenly I’m hanging out with neurosurgeons and computer robotics Ph.D.’s from around the world,” he said. “There’s this whole world outside of New York. It’s like that New Yorker cartoon. I was just blinded by it.”

drubinstein@observer.com