Farewell, New York City
The grand experiment is over and the metropolis has no one to blame but itself.
It’s always the little things that tell the story. For me and New York, it was the dog poop.
I keep wanting to love this city but it kept fighting back. I finally realized it had become an abusive relationship and it was time to leave. I no longer live in New York. My adult kids and quite a few of my neighbors bailed out months ago.
The final straw was everywhere underfoot. I lived in a “nice” neighborhood. The fact that we so easily accept that we have nice and bad neighborhoods butted up against each other is part of the problem, too. But my neighborhood was nice, mostly residential, with a lot of pets. There was dog poop everywhere, such that you learned to look down as you walked and developed a kind of skip-and-slide move to quickly reroute. You saw the brown skid marks where someone did not nail the landing.
We had human excrement, too. A nice neighborhood means “good” edible garbage for the leagues of homeless who live off our thrown-away food scraps alongside the rats. A lot of people also tend to throw out their recyclable cans. The spud boy variety homeless can often scrounge up a few bucks in returnable cans each night. Then they have to poop and there are no public toilets. After corporate Starbucks ordered all its stores to make restrooms available to customers and others because racism, many in sketchy areas just locked up their toilets and stuck on a sign saying “Out of Order.”
But I can’t blame the dogs for us leveling down. The issue is with the people walking those dogs who, decision by decision, choose not to pick up the crap. Every day so many neighbors decide not to pick up, leaving it for the people they live near to deal with. “I only care about me.” There is no better summation of why I left New York.
But alongside the little things are, of course, the big ones. New York is a failed experiment. Massive public housing estates were built on the east side and northern end of Manhattan, as well as in the outer boroughs, starting in the 1950s. What was once seen as an expedient to get people back on their feet (alongside food stamps and the other A-Z of social welfare) morphed into inter-generational poverty, extended families who have never really worked and exist on the taxes of those who do. Knowledge of how to best exploit these systems is passed on, the way a father might once have passed on his skills as a carpenter to a son.
Though the causes are complex, the reality is very simple. Poverty lines, like most of the city geographically, are sharply racial in division. People proudly claim New Yorkers speak 70 some languages, but in truth not often with each other. Broadly NYC is one of the most racially diverse places in America, but people live close, not together. Everyone knows where the white-black-brown lines are, usually by street (96th Street near me is a marker) but sometimes by housing complex.
Even the magnificent Central Park is racially divided. Check real estate prices at the southern end of the Park, called Billionaires’ Row, versus the northern end where the Park is capped by liquor stores with bars on the windows and tenements poor people have been swapping out since 1900. Chinatown and Greektown sound fun for tourists, but nobody is comfortable admitting we also have Hebrew Village, Blacktown, and Caucasianland.
The underlying financial system is unsustainable, far too few people (fewer now with COVID flight) paying too many taxes to support, indefinitely, too many others. The wealthy still enjoy NYC as long as they stay in their own layer, living hundreds of feet above the city, taking advantage of cheap labor for their needs, and scuttling to cultural events in town cars like cockroaches when the kitchen light flips on. They don’t live in New York, they float above it. Many play at liberalism, supporting the cool-kids-approved cause of the day espoused by the Daily Show and donating to PBS, but they really have no way to care. They literally do not even see what is happening around them.
New York had great pizza, enough to have America’s only professional pizza tour guide (though the city has fallen to a disgraceful third place nationally.) Amazing bagels. Shopping to die for. The museums. The energy. Broadway. But the list of what one has to put up with on an everyday basis to access all that grows worryingly longer, even without factoring in COVID. Street crime. Homelessness. A deteriorating public transportation system that gets more expensive to use proportionally as it gets less pleasant.
Take a non-rush hour bus ride and you will almost certainly be forced to navigate around someone with mental illness. The police force has either pretty much given up doing anything more than keeping the combatants apart or is a racist invading army, depending on where you think. I love a great slice of pizza, but I also got beat up on my own block, in what the cops said was some sort of gang initiation, and I was damn lucky not to have gotten seriously hurt.
Add in the black-slush lagoons that form on every street corner after a heavy snow melts. The co-op apartment system where each building is like a bitchy mini-Vatican with its own rules and eccentricities. Some of the highest taxes in the country. Creaky infrastructure that leaks water, steam, gas, and electricity, sometimes all at once, to blend with the street gravy of the homeless.
And what is the city government focused on? Defunding the police. The inmates are literally in charge of the asylum; NYC did away with bail in favor of catch-and-release in many cases.
That NYC’s problems exist in some form in other cities across America is nothing to be proud of. Rather, the prevalence is symbolic of America’s stubborn and globally unique insistence on not providing universal healthcare, of its maintaining a tax-stock-economic system which brews economic inequality, of our not controlling our immigration, and of the country’s leadership not creating infrastructure jobs to fix the infrastructure that, at this point, should be in a Colonial Williamsburg-type theme park dedicated to the early 20th century.
New York has never pretended to be a warm and fuzzy place. It has always challenged its residents to accept a certain amount of guff in return for the shoulder tab “New Yorker.” But the line between that and watching people suffer is one too far now for me. I’m not alone; people are neither moving to the city nor staying.
A realtor friend in Florida says every phone call these days is from someone in Boston, Chicago, or New York. “They ask about schools,” he said. In the last year over 33,000 New Yorkers moved to Florida, a 32 percent increase from the same period the prior year. A drop in the bucket some may say, until they realize about that same number of high earners pay 40 percent of the taxes in the city. Florida has no income tax.
If I sound frustrated, like I should be doing a Jeep commercial for next year’s Super Bowl, it’s because I am. I was born in New York; I have seen these up and down cycles before. This one seems like it will stick for a awhile. That’s enough right there. But this round, driven by a near completely terrible series of COVID decisions, is so clearly man-made. Most of it did not need to happen, but it did. Living through it, I can’t say it made me a better man, a happier man, a more caring man. I don’t like what it did to me. To us.
New York, like other large cities in the U.S., fails to understand that what was done to it in the name of COVID is no temporary change, even if some of the tourists dribble back in. No one will blow a whistle or yell “cut,” so that everything resets to March 2020. A profound change occurred in America. For the first time in history, where one lives and where one works have been decoupled for many. New York City no longer holds the record for most billionaires resident. That’s Beijing now.
I’ll miss some of the hustle, as well as the symphony of overheard interactions which end with “And f*** you, too!” And I know New York will be back in some form post-COVID, but it will need, in the interim, to have a hard conversation with itself along the way. Playground for the rich? Island prison for the poor? Stumbling social experiment while the towers literally deteriorate around us all? As the famous song goes, “it’s up to you New York, Neeeeew Yoooork!”
Just do it without me. And yeah, I heard that about the door not hitting me on the way out, and f*** you, too.
Peter Van Buren is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent.