#107: Is New York overrated?
Happy to be back in your inbox so I can stop pondering my inevitable irrelevance/death. It’s good to just keep working so that you never have to do that <3 I hope you liked all the 15 things guests over the last month (I loved them)! I’m back to kick things off with my monthly advice column, Dear Baby. In keeping with the spirit of sneak-peek-July, I’m sending this to everyone, free riders included. 😎 Paywalls go back up in August.
Today’s column is New York-themed, sort of. If you don’t live here, don’t worry, I’m going to be talking a little shit, so maybe that will be nice for you. And as always, Danny and I will be answering a bunch of new questions for the podcast on Tuesday (not New York-themed). Btw I love hearing how much you all love Dear Danny, especially the people who say they hated it/him at first, and now are obsessed. Danny can have that effect…isn’t he annoying?
All right, let’s get started. The film photos sprinkled in are Avi’s. I picked anything that gave me a New York mood.
1. On New York jealousy
“I'm hoping you could help me think through a problem that probably sounds (and is) a bit silly! I've followed your newsletter from the beginning, and have always enjoyed the bits and pieces about living in New York that often shine through. But in the last year or so, that appreciation has turned into some weird FOMO about not living there (I was born and live in Europe.) This baffles me because I truly believe I actually don't want to live there. But New York is made out to be so magical, like you're crazy for not living there at least once, and now I feel stupid and lame and boring for staying where I am as if not living in New York bears its own stamp of disapproval. For example, whenever I encounter the quote ‘The true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding,’ I get super-triggered and defensive. Then I just have to laugh at myself! I am both amused and irritated with these feelings, but nonetheless would like to go back to appreciating the idea/dream of New York from a distance, instead of making it such a personal issue. I'm happy and content where I am: I live in a vibrant city where I have all my closest friends and family nearby, lots of things are happening, life is affordable (yay for basically free healthcare and college education!), etc. Maybe it's all a bit too familiar or comfortable, and that's what's playing up here. Either way, I was hoping to get your perspective as someone who lives in New York and evidently loves it, and also as someone who's very thoughtful and familiar with feelings of FOMO.”
That quote about New York is so annoying! At first I thought it was Joan Didion, and that maybe I could unearth some forgotten, self-deprecating context, but sadly it’s John Updike. If it’s helpful, I don’t feel that way at all. There was a time when I held New York in a similar esteem, but that’s when I was newer here and thought being 26 made me “old,” so naturally my perspective has shifted. I still think it’s an incredible city, but I also think the mythology around it is sustained by its inhabitants with a survivalist’s vigor.
New York isn’t all fantasy, nor is it “dead.” When such a wide swath of people and cultures intersect in a crowded coastal metropolis, the resulting vitality can’t be faked, no matter how many Chipotles and glossy high-rises with phony street-art in the lobbies get built. New York is a rambling, heart-throbbing maze of everything. Incredible food, fascinating people—it means something to be the backdrop of so many people’s dreams and creative ambitions. It has a palpable effect. You can feel the history here, and also the sense that history is being made, and it’s thrilling to stand in the middle of that. But in a more practical sense, New York is a dense urban center plagued by political corruption and economic disparity. It’s suffering and complicated and drowning in hype.
The hype is important. As my friend Mallory put it, New York is extremely well-marketed. But saying New York is the greatest city in the world is kind of like saying celebrities are the greatest people alive. Beneath the veneer awaits something far more regular than you might expect. To be widely beloved, to have global impact—it’s certainly exciting to be around. But the superlative is too shallow, too literal. Sure, New York conjures a specific, singular mood, but so do a lot of places.
Here’s how I feel after living here for six years: a little amazed, a little jaded, and mostly somewhere in-between. I still get swept up in its current, but just as often I let it pass, and in the end I settle back into my more tangible reality: my apartment, my friends, a slow walk around the park, time to do laundry, where should we go for dinner, people-watching at the coffee shop, friendly neighbors, time to get groceries, ah, look, the trees are changing. I love the New York version of all of those things, just as much as anyone might love (or dread) their city’s versions, but no one’s life can be special all the time. Hedonic adaptation comes for all of us.
To me, that Updike quote is about delusion. And delusions of superiority in New York are like canals in Venice: a defining feature. People come here to experience them. Which is why there’s no fun in trying to disprove them—better to just swallow the attendant grains of salt. The idea that a life outside of this city is wasted is of course absurd. The idea that “people who live here are inherently more interesting than people who live in, say, Milwaukee,” as Willy Staley put it in his critique of the show High Maintenance, is just standard-issue pretension. Tons of awful and wonderful people live here, just like anywhere else. We’re just very close together, and spotlit.
The life you’ve described in Europe—a vibrant city near friends and family with affordable healthcare and education? It sounds incredible. I envy you a little right back. I love New York, but sometimes I’m sorry that the most fertile roots I’ve laid in my adult life are in such a transient place, so far from my family, so expensive, so chaotic. To leave now sounds lonelier than if I’d never come. But I don’t regret it either, it’s just how my life unfolded. And I’d say the same to you. New York offers a particular type of experience, and it’s great for certain jobs. But so many other places offer so many other things. How a person lives is much more interesting than where, in my opinion. You can be boring or interesting anywhere.
2. On proximity to celebrity
“Why do we feel like proximity to celebrity makes us ‘better’? That it affirms our life choices somehow?”
On my very first night living in New York, when my brother and sister, who already lived here, took me out to dinner, the host sat us right next to Meryl Streep. She was sitting around a big table with her friends, telling them a story like a character in a movie starring Meryl Streep. We couldn’t believe it. We could barely hold a conversation while we ate. “Welcome to New York baby!!!” my siblings screamed on our walk home. I was reeling. That proximity felt significant, kismetic. New York City! An Oscar-winning actor! Surely it would be impossible to feel small, now.
And to be honest, proximity to fame can make you feel less small, until it does the opposite. When a celebrity once texted me to hang out, I jumped on my couch and screamed in surprise, imagining all the ways my life might change. But that pseudo-friendship fizzled out fast. Maybe they’d detected my eagerness to connect with someone “more important” than me and disliked it. Or maybe I was so cautious to not appear overeager that I seemed standoffish. Either way the result was the same: our difference in status became a bridge we couldn’t cross. Later, when I experienced a shade of that dynamic in reverse, I felt irritated and small myself, even though I knew the person’s missteps were human and forgivable. We’re social creatures; we seek status for a sense of safety. But treating people like ladders is inevitably dehumanizing.
This social dance is common practice to a certain New York set, since so many people come here to improve their lot in life. The chance to befriend someone who could help you out, or who you could help out, or who might grant you social currency you otherwise lack—some people treat it like a sport. And it’s not always as malicious and hollow as it sounds (and sometimes is even fun), but tactical connections just don’t run deep enough to give you a long-term sense of belonging. They’re like a drug you have to keep hitting. When you operate from a place of insecurity, your whole life becomes focused on alleviating that feeling.
I think proximity to celebrity plays out like that too, albeit on a more spiritual level. In a paper called “The Celebrity Icon,” social theorist Jeffrey C. Alexander argues that modern celebrity worship can (and should) be compared to totemic worship in primitive societies. In his view, famous people are simply projections that allow us to express and experience reverence. This doesn’t mean celebrities aren’t real. “Celebrity-icons are not untruthful and distorted fiction,” he writes. “They are real in the symbolic sense.” As in, they’re real to the extent that we respond to them and feel for them, not because they exist in the flesh. Celebrities are our deities. It’s no wonder proximity to them is thrilling. Status and attention may feel nice, but faced with our inevitable demise, fame offers something more: a path to salvation.
In Sex and Rage by Eve Babitz, the book I just finished last night, the protagonist Jacaranda experiences euphoria at being noticed by a famous publishing firm in New York: “For Jacaranda to be accepted by them meant that she could get hit by a bus and not die,” she writes. The whole book (as far as I can tell) is about status and the human propensity to revere it, and it’s no surprise that one of Babitz’s most famous lines (from another book) is this:
“I did not become famous but I got near enough to smell the stench of success. It smelt like burnt cloth and rancid gardenias, and I realized that the truly awful thing about success is that it's held up all those years as the thing that would make everything all right. And the only thing that makes things even slightly bearable is a friend who knows what you're talking about.”
3. On moving to New York
“Hi Haley, I’m wondering if you have any general advice for someone who is 30 and single and moving to NYC for graduate school. More specifically, about which direction to go when it comes to my living situation. I’m someone who really cares about having my own space and have lived alone in a nice apartment building for years. However, after a recent trip to NYC to attempt to sort out my living situation, I’m feeling really demoralized about housing. It’s so expensive, inventory is so low, and it seems like pest issues happen everywhere. On the one hand, I feel like my happiness in the city and comfort and whether I have a good experience will be heavily impacted by my living situation, so part of me just wants to spend 4K roughly on a studio alone. I also have minor OCD and feel less willing nor do I have the stamina to rough it at this stage in my life. The other part of me feels like I should just rough it and get a roommate I don’t know. I’m fortunate that my parents are willing to help me and I am going to continue to work, but in either case I feel bad/guilty asking my parents to pay that much for my rent. As someone who moved to NYC and lived with random roommates, what would you suggest?”
Seeing as your rent is being taken care of by your parents, I wonder if there’s more you’re not saying about what you want from this experience. What part of you feels like you should just rough it and get a roommate? Just guilt about making your parents pay more for you to live alone, or some deeper desire to immerse yourself here? I think clarifying that for yourself will go a long way in helping you decide. (I might even point you to my litmus test.)
Here’s where I’ve lived in New York and what I’ve paid:
In a shared four-bedroom apartment with roommates in Bushwick near the Jefferson L. Ground level, central air, laundry in the basement, no bugs, $1025/mo for a bedroom with a big window and room for a dresser. (Later I moved to the weird, massive basement with a half-bath and paid $1225.)
In a one-bedroom apartment by myself (then with Avi) in Bed-Stuy near the Utica A/C. Second-floor walkup, central air, dishwasher, laundry in the basement, no bugs, $2000/mo for the whole space.
In a two-bedroom apartment with Avi in Bed-Stuy. Third-floor walkup, central air, dishwasher, laundry in unit, two cockroaches spotted in 1.5 years, $3000/mo for the whole space.
All the apartments I’ve lived in have been nice and clean and basically pest-free, and I’ve never felt like I was roughing it. I know rents have gone up recently, but I still don’t think you need to spend $4,000 dollars/mo (!) to rent a decent studio—praying, actually—unless you’re trying to live in the heart of Soho (I don’t recommend it). If I were you I’d pick a few neighborhoods to focus your search on. The obvious questions are: What trains would be ideal to live near for your commute to school? How close do you want to be to a park, or a lively drag, or any connections you may have here? Living near someone you know can make a big impact in New York.
Seeing as you’re only here for a limited time, I’d suggest sacrificing some of your comfort for a more central location. Being near trains you plan to use and places you want to be will impact your experience here more than a little bit of extra space or some other apartment feature you don’t actually need. That works in reverse though too: You don’t have to live in the exact center of things in a complete shithole—there are plenty of great areas that are less scammy in terms of square footage than, say, the West Village. I’ve used StreetEasy almost exclusively for my own apartment hunts, and for what it’s worth my searches have centered around a chunk of Brooklyn that included Bed-Stuy, Clinton Hill, Fort Greene, Crown Heights, Prospect Heights, Bushwick, and Greenpoint. If I were moving again I’d definitely widen that net, but anyway your list may be completely different depending on your priorities.
Before I moved here I lived with an ex in a sunny one-bedroom in San Francisco and I thought I’d never live with roommates again. But I’m so glad I chose to live with people when I got here. The four of us were strangers to each other but we became fast friends and went out together a lot, which was a nice way to integrate into the city. (I also ended up falling in love with one of them, but that was very random and I wouldn’t rely on that…lol.) If your fear of living alone is that you tend to be a homebody and don’t want to be a homebody in New York, it could be worth at least exploring the idea of an apartment share. You may actually end up being able to afford a nicer place overall by splitting the rent, and the right roommate could introduce you to New York more quickly than you could do on your own.
But you know yourself best. If living alone is key to maintaining your mental health and your rent is being paid for? That seems like the easiest path to enjoying your time here. Just consider what you want from this experience, and what immersing yourself in it might look like, i.e. actually getting to know the local characters, not walling yourself off in a luxury high-rise in a deadzone. Keep in mind that loving your time here might mean sacrificing some comfort. I’d prepare for that—it’s a pretty classic New York tradeoff. But overall, this city is not as intimidating, uncomfortable, or unfriendly as outsiders tend to think. It’s not scary, it’s not all bustling and sirens and tight guest lists. Every borough has plenty of beautiful parks and quiet, tree-lined streets and people looking for new friends. New York at close-range may be a little less shiny than its reputation, but it’s also much sweeter.
If you have additional or different perspectives to share, join the convo:
I’ll see you on Tuesday for Dear Danny. We’ll be discussing ghosting, getting through a boring spell in life, “bad signs” in relationships, falling in love with a married person, whether it’s possible to be too stable, and a surprisingly fertile would-you-rather about an egg...
Thanks for reading! Hope you have a nice Sunday.
Oh man getting my question answered really made my week in a surprising way (I'm the not-living-in-New York-FOMO person). Thanks for the thoughtful and insightful response! Not sure if "you can be boring anywhere" is ultimately a reassuring thought or a scary one for me, but I love the phrasing nonetheless. A funny extra anecdote about my case of NY FOMO: last night, I dreamed that I was in New York and that you and Avi were looking for a housemate (?!!? lol), Avi was giving me a tour of the apartment and we became instant friends, he was super funny. So I agreed to move in, then tried to find a job to pay for everything (I remember calculating the costs in my dream and even in dream logic it was decidedly impossible), but somehow ended up in London to do interviews? Brains are really something... Typing all of this out made me realize how creepy I might sound but I promise I'm not! Anyway I'm still happy staying put in Europe, I hope you guys are not too disappointed that I'm not moving in after all :p
For #3, your answer was excellent but I feel like the real solution should be that graduate schools should offer basic private studio apartments near campus for students who are paying exorbitant tuition prices.