January 23, 2013

Living in Manhattan in 2013

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What is the issue?

bowerylarge

A few weeks ago, I was going to meet a friend at a bar. Living in Manhattan, I had assumed when the friend said “Rye” that he meant Rye House, a bar in Manhattan. I had a distant suspicion that my friend was waiting for me somewhere in Brooklyn. But I went to the Manhattan bar anyway, and found it to be filled with men and women quite a bit older than I, and dressed in nice work clothes. I felt very out of place, and I seemed to be looked upon as such by the other patrons and waitstaff. I exited quickly. “Wait,” I texted my friend. “Is there another bar called Rye?” Yes, there was, and it was in Williamsburg. “I just assumed you were in Brooklyn,” he said.

I wasn’t interested in staying at the Manhattan Rye, which is just off Union Square, not that there was space for us anyway. A quick L train ride later and I was walking into the Brooklyn bar, where I immediately felt more at ease. The only people wearing anything resembling a suit were the bartenders. The cocktails were about $5 cheaper. The bartenders were actually attentive, and welcoming. Why do I live in Manhattan again? I asked myself, and later my friend. He wondered too.

I can’t really say, except that I enjoy being in the middle of a maelstrom. It motivates me. My fiancé and I sacrifice a lot. No — who am I kidding? We sacrifice exactly two things: money and space. But what’s space when you have so many other spaces around you? — “coves,” as a friend calls the various inviting bars, restaurants and cafes one is likely to stumble upon in any given Manhattan neighborhood. There is solace to be found in Manhattan; it’s just probably not in your actual home (unless you have a bathtub (that you are not afraid to lie in)). And it’s probably not to be found in an overpriced whiskey bar off Union Square, at least if you’re me.

“There is no stigma to renting a place you can afford only because it is rent-regulated,” wrote Amy O’Leary in a great article that ran in the New York Times this weekend called “What Is Middle Class in Manhattan?” Nor is there a stigma about living in a tiny apartment where the walls are so invasive that they cause minor physical injury every time you try to walk from one room (or “room”) to another. You may be able to get something cheap in Manhattan, but if you want space, you move to the boroughs. If you are sane, I hear myself say, you move to the boroughs.

But even that might pose some problems. I remember a few months ago watching some online video extra about Bravo’s Gallery Girls in which the intolerable Chantal gives a tour of her and her boyfriend’s Brooklyn loft. Her boyfriend’s desk is on top of her closet, and the desk is actually a piece of wood hung from chains from the ceiling of the loft. Chantal’s closet is feet from the dining room table. There is a sink in their bedroom, right next to the bed, and the bedroom is simply a four-foot-high crawlspace on top of the living room (which, to be fair, does resemble an actual room). But at least Chantal has space for her wine collection. Indeed, most of the cupboard space in the couple’s small but nicely renovated kitchen is occupied by wine bottles.

These kinds of tight, compromising and downright eccentric interior design details are really a point of pride for the New Yorkers who endure them, regardless of borough. The host of my writing group used to host meetings in his 150-square-foot apartment on the Upper West Side, and would boast to everyone the number of people he’d once squeezed in there (50). He plastered the walls with pretty magazine ads, which only made the apartment seem smaller. Eventually, he sold a book, and then another, and moved into a one-bedroom nearby.

But as creative people are pushed out of Manhattan by rising housing costs, spaces in the actual city are less quirky than simply intolerably, absurdly small. There is no other word for it. But the smaller “small” gets, the more, well, adorable it gets, or at least that’s Mayor Bloomberg’s belief. The city is currently developing a building on East 27th Street that consists only of “micro-units,” apartments under 370 square feet, and recently held a competition to help find a designer for the project. Those with rent-controlled apartments can maintain a certain sense of uniqueness and character in their places, maybe, but so much of what Manhattanites are looking for — or what they get, regardless of what they want — is clean (i.e. new), modern, renovated, and amenity-packed. There are still pockets where you can find “charm” (so often a euphemism), but you’re better off riding out to Brooklyn or Queens if you want that. In Manhattan, “charm” mostly means actual charm, and that’ll cost you way more than a new condo.

In my local dog park in the East Village, Tompkins Square Park, there is an older gentleman with an old, friendly, fox-colored dog. He likes to talk to the young women in the park best, and every few weeks or so he will ask me to guess how much he pays in rent, and I will pretend I don’t know, when really the number is seared into my brain forever: $300 a month. “And!” he will say, “it just went up!” “Oh no,” I’ll say, feigning concern. “To $303!” he’ll say, and smile. He is retired now, but he still sells wares at flea markets on the weekend. Meanwhile, over at the nexus of the universe, the border of the East Village, the Lower East Side, and a neighborhood apparently known as Bowery, my fiancé and I, both freelancers, spend many times that amount for slightly less than 500 square feet. Our neighbors on either side seem to be mostly young twenty-somethings with high-paying jobs or amenable parents. There is much dancing to Katy Perry and playing beer pong in the garden on warm (this year they are mostly warm) winter nights.

But there are still plenty of people around here that one would be tempted to describe as “more commonly found in Brooklyn,” or at least the Brooklyn that I knew in my early twenties. They are people who work at odd hours, playing fetch with their dogs at 11 in the morning in the public garden behind my building. They are people who are dressed way too interestingly to be going to work at a law firm. They are thirty- and forty-something women and men who don’t seem to have full-time jobs and presumably are in creative fields, though who can say for sure. I would be interested to know why they, particularly, are still in the city, if rent control is not the reason. Work is a perk: being closer to more potential clients or companies to work for. So sure, all things here — housing, food, drinks, activities — are more expensive. Places are harder to get tables at, harder to get into. Lines are longer. But isn’t that part of the thrill? That this love is never totally requited?

Since moving here, the words that run most through my head are: Don’t fuck this up. Whereas in Brooklyn, I felt myself drifting toward some Coney Island of the mind: listing, lost, verging on defeated, though I’m sure that also had something to do with where I was in my life. But I kept moving farther out in Brooklyn, so that one day I may have actually ended up living in Coney Island. The stakes are higher for me in Manhattan. My brain seems to need this, to have the overwhelming financial burden of the place to crack the whip every day. Is the grass greener in Brooklyn? Is there actual grass in Brooklyn? Yes, I know it to be true, having lived there for five peaceful years. But when I begin to question where I am, which is my brain’s favorite mouse-labyrinth to run around in, I now recognize that it’s because my brain needs to be constantly entertained by thoughts, and preferably thoughts of movement, thoughts of escape. If only it could realize that action — small, productive increments of action — so often yields more interesting results than thought. So I’m staying put.

Being a freelancer who owns a dog, I see so much of my neighborhood — perhaps too much. When other people are inside working until lunch, and then working again until dinner, they deal with a limited number of exterior distractions: the commute; co-workers and bosses; the Internet; annoying people in line at the lunch place. I keep a weird schedule, taking my dog to the dog park for an hour every day, usually in the morning, then researching, and then imprisoning myself in an Internet-free cafe for the rest of the day. In the mornings, I experience an East Village that is ghostly and barren. The wind gusts down Avenue A, pieces of trash swirl in the air, the homeless wait in line at Tompkins Square Park for a warm meal, and maybe a random woman stands in the street trying to catch a cab, late for work. Otherwise, there are few people in the streets. I gather at Tompkins with other freelancers, retired people with rent-controlled apartments, consultants of various kinds, stay-at-home parents, dog walkers, and the unemployed. In the afternoons, my cafe, out of reach of any Wifi signal, is populated by people who actually want to talk to each other, which is shocking and wonderful. This cafe also serves wine and beer, so the conversations get animated. It is amazing what people can do when they don’t have computers in front of them.

The Achilles heel of the introverted, daydreaming mind is that basically everything yields an impression of some kind. I am a sponge. I soak up everything I see, and I try to draw conclusions about all of it. I wonder what New York City, or life in general, is like for logical minds. I envy them. I am unable to put their tunnel vision to use in anything I do, except running, which is by nature a logical practice — born of routine, simplicity and numbers. Recently an old high school classmate, who works for a hedge fund and lives in Murray Hill, asked, “Aren’t your people in Brooklyn?” And I wondered again what it means to be a creative person in a place with a diminishing creative class. I am not a big fish in a small pond, but, to paraphrase a Lena Dunham joke, a fish in a pond. Or, more accurately, a goldfish in a river filled with very fast and determined salmon. Manhattan in 2013 seems more and more like the monolithic, digitized, forbidding setting it inspired in works like Batman and Cosmopolis. It is overcrowded in some places and utterly deserted in others. It is thriving. It is bleak. It is embarrassingly rich and devastatingly poor. Parts of it look like Brooklyn now. Many parts look like Dubai. As Amy O’Leary says:

Household incomes in Manhattan are about as evenly distributed as they are in Bolivia in Sierra Leone — the wealthiest fifth of Manhattanites make 40 times more than the lowest fifth, according to 2010 census data.

“Everything is superlative” in New York, she says. That is where the city gets its reputation as an intoxicant. There is too much of everything here. It spoils us, it transfixes us. The challenge for the sponges of the world is to try not to notice quite so much of the “too much” — to let some of it pass us by without making an impact. Besides money, a reason creative people move to Brooklyn is because it’s quieter — less distractions for the wandering, busy mind.

The world is controlled by logical minds, left-brained minds, or so it seems to me. So it isn’t so much of a surprise that New York City is increasingly controlled by these minds too, that the creative class has to look elsewhere for havens: the boroughs, upstate New York, Oakland, Los Angeles, the Portlands, Montreal, Toronto. But the Manhattan holdouts are in a unique position simply by being holdouts. All kinds of people live in New York City, or so it’s been said. Don’t we want that to be true? If we leave, it won’t be true. If we stay, maybe the improbability of our circumstances will help propel us toward circumstances that are not so improbable after all. TC mark

Further Reading:

I Hate Brooklyn,New York Magazine, May 21, 2005
Is Brooklyn Better? Has Manhattan Gotten Worse? Revisiting NYMag’s ‘I Hate Brooklyn’ Article 7 Years Later,” The Awl, September 6, 2012
A Critic’s Tour of Literary Manhattan,” The New York Times, December 14, 2012

image – [Colin Clark]
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