In the spring of 2001, a friend and I drove up to New York on a Friday night and were waiting for Skeleton Key to take the stage at Brownies, a deliciously grimy rock club in the East Village, when we got into a conversation with some locals who were curious about our native Philadelphia. “I went down there to visit a friend, and, like, what is there to even do there?”
There’s actually plenty to do. Philadelphia is the sixth largest American city by population (assuming this year’s census data confirms it’s been overtaken by Phoenix), but it’s still thoroughly dwarfed by New York, as is every single other American city. By virtue of its sheer size (and, yes, its status as a global cultural and financial hub), New York’s controlling stake in the American urban conversation has engendered in its residents a certain myopia. A lot of New Yorkers (especially native ones) simply can’t seem to understand why anyone would want to live anywhere else. Compared to the Big Apple, every other city is inert, provincial, boring.
Growing up in New York’s shadow, I always resented that attitude. Like my fellow Philadelphians, I bristled at New York Times lifestyle articles crowning us “the sixth borough,” as if the periodic migration of young, hip people from Brooklyn to Philly were an act of annexation rather than a search for affordable rent. As if they were bringing New York with them rather than leaving it behind.
New York is great, but it’s not the gold standard; it’s one option among many. That was the attitude I brought to that conversation at Brownies (R.I.P.) nearly 20 years ago, and I still know it to be objectively true.
Having now spent a decade living in New York myself, I can say to my myopic neighbors with all sincerity: I completely get it.
My former neighbors, that is. My apartment lease of the last 10 years in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, expired at midnight. I’m neither as young nor as hip as the Times’ favorite colonialists, but I’m back in Philly, where a mortgage payment on a three-bedroom row house is about the same as the rent for a Brooklyn studio apartment.
I never really expected to be in New York forever, and I think that helped me avoid taking it for granted. I made mental notes to myself almost every day: This goes on the list of things I’ll miss about this city. The brilliant yellow ginkgo leaves that coated my block in the fall; the late night bike rides across Manhattan Bridge; the euphoric canine anarchy of off-leash hours in Fort Greene Park; the random teenage drum lines; the stew of humanity that is the subway; the pizza; the music venues; the cinemas; the museums; the inexhaustible well of ambition and concentrated creative energy. The place is just alive like no other I’ve ever experienced.
My plans to make the most of my final few months in New York were scuttled by COVID-19, which was both a blessing and a curse. It prevented me from saying a proper goodbye, but, as many wealthy New Yorkers with vacation homes to escape to can attest, it also made it easier to leave.
I don’t know when I’ll be back or what the city will be like on the other side of the pandemic. Neither thought is comforting. But if I’ve learned anything from my 10 years in a shoebox apartment in New York, it’s that comfort is overrated.
Thank you, New York, for all of it.