Never Can Say Goodbye
I’d like to begin by making one thing indisputably clear: I love New York City. I am so crazy in love with it, so excited on the occasions when I get to return to it from my home upstate, even just for brief work-related appointments on frigid winter afternoons, that I almost can’t see straight.
I wanted to get that out of the way because there’s been a bit of confusion about my stance on the city. To some degree, I’ve put together this collection of essays by some of my favorite authors about their love for New York City to clear up that confusion.
Here’s the backstory. In 2013, I edited Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York, an anthology of essays by twenty-eight women writers, all paying homage to Joan Didion’s iconic 1967 essay about quitting the city at twenty-eight. The book was published that October, which turned out to be an interesting time for it to appear.
To begin with, billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg’s twelve-year tenure was coming to a close, capping more than a decade in which the quality of life in New York City was on the upswing, as was the cost of living there. The city was cleaner and safer than ever before, making it an even greater draw for those at the higher end of the economic spectrum. Over the course of Bloomberg’s three terms in office, real estate prices soared at record rates. According to a recent report by the New York City comptroller’s office, since 2000, median rents have risen 75 percent while median incomes have decreased by 5 percent. That’s made it unaffordable for many to stay, especially
those struggling to make it in creative fields (myself included). Not to mention artist-friendly shops, bars, and restaurants. For the past several years, just about every morning I’ve been greeted by an outraged post or two in my Facebook feed about one haunt or another having to shut its doors, being replaced by a Chase, a Starbucks, a Duane Reade, often on the ground floor of a new, gleaming glass tower. CBGB’s, Life Café, Mars Bar, Milady’s Pub, Roseland Ballroom, Pearl Paint, Bereket . . . the list goes on.
Calling attention to this—and doing so just one day before my book’s pub date—was an op-ed published in the Guardian by iconic New Yorker David Byrne (best known as a member of the rock band Talking Heads but also a painter, photographer, and author) warning that if the city became so unaffordable for artists that most of them left, he’d be joining them. “If the 1% stifles New York’s creative talent,” he wrote, “I’m out of here.” He was echoing fellow musician Patti Smith, who in a 2010 Q&A at Cooper Union told author Jonathan Lethem, “New York has closed itself off to the young and the struggling. . . . New York City has been taken away from you. So my advice is: Find a new city.” She recommended a few, including Detroit and Poughkeepsie.
Shortly after Byrne’s op-ed was published, blogger Andrew Sullivan announced that after a bit more than a year of living in New York, he’d be returning to Washington. “I loved New York City with a passion until I tried to live here,” he wrote in a blog post accompanied by a video of Kermit the Frog singing LCD Soundsystem’s 2007 song “New York I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down.” (Sample lyric: “Your mild billionaire mayor’s now convinced he’s a king . . .”)
Byrne’s and Sullivan’s declarations struck a nerve, and so did the book, which became an instant hit. Many identified with either the impetus or the need to leave New York. Some others, though, felt affronted, as if Byrne, Sullivan, and the twenty-eight authors in my book
had issued a joint proclamation that the city they loved was over and ordered a mass exodus.
In the case of Goodbye to All That, nothing could have been further from the truth. But there were some people who hadn’t picked up the book, who assumed, because of the title, that it contained twenty-eight anti-city screeds. They didn’t know that it was (with the exception of a few essays) more like a collection of love letters to New York City, including one from me.
They didn’t know that I intended for the book to be about what it means to people to leave the most exciting but also most challenging city in the world—the idea of leaving it, which I believe every New Yorker considers at one difficult moment or another, or when tempting opportunities arise elsewhere. Which is why I included essays by several women who had either returned to New York after leaving for a while—as Didion ultimately did—or who’d decided in the end that it was better not to leave at all. I even included one by an author who’s never lived there—Roxane Gay—who decided that, despite a childhood fascination with the city, she was meant to love it from a distance, as an occasional visitor.
Although the people who assumed I was dissing the city seemed to be very much in the minority, I was troubled by the idea that anyone might have gotten that impression, because I am besotted with New York and always have been.
When I was a college junior in Albany, New York’s state capital, I took an internship writing for the I Love NY campaign because I thought it would offer me the opportunity (and bus fare) to make frequent trips down to the city. I was eager to discover more of the place I’d been completely enthralled with since my early teen years and was ecstatic over the chance to write about it.
To my twenty-year-old mind, the New York that the campaign referred to was “the city,” and I wanted a legitimate reason to spend as
much time there as I could instead of being stuck three hours north in depressed “Small-bany” or on homogenous suburban Long Island, where I grew up.
Of course, the I Love NY campaign existed to broaden pea-brained perceptions like mine, and to extend the cool New York brand to attractions elsewhere in the far-flung state. The Adirondack Museum; the high peaks of the Catskills (technically not mountains, I would learn, but rather dissected plateaus); the Colonial saltbox houses of East Hampton; the Revolutionary and Civil War sites in Elmira—those were the kinds of tourism destinations I was assigned to visit and write about, without ever once receiving a free ride down to the city.
The internship did in fact expand my ideas about New York. I came to know a great deal about the state and its various regions and even fell in love with a few of them. But never anywhere near as deeply in love as I was—and remain—with New York City.
I longed to live there someday, and eventually I did, first in the late eighties and then again from the early nineties to the mid-aughts. It wasn’t all wonderful all the time. Far from it. I lived in decrepit mouse-and roach-infested apartments with crumbling walls and noisy neighbors. I had to work long hours just to stay afloat. I had the hardest time finding anyone to date but noncommittal men who seemed to be biding their time until the city delivered on its apparent promise of a supermodel or ballerina girlfriend. In the heat of the summer I felt landlocked. In the dreary winters my mood often mirrored the dark gray slush encrusting the pavement.
But all that was just the price of admission to a city where there were more varieties of everything than anywhere else; where around every corner was a unique view, a new friend, an old friend you hadn’t seen in forever; where anything was possible.
For most of the time I lived there, I was relatively certain that for better or worse, I’d never leave, even in low moments when staying
felt like a marriage of convenience, the positives just barely outweighing the negatives. But then the equation shifted, and it began to seem as if, consistently, the city demanded more from me than it offered in return. It was at just that time that my husband and I got booted from the cavernous way-below-market-value East Village loft we lived in. We were priced out of the market for even most studio apartments, and so, with a bitter taste in our mouths after an expensive year in housing court, we moved upstate.
I was cranky and fed up when we left nearly a decade ago. And when I lived there, I had my issues with the city, its many demands and contradictions, as I believe most New Yorkers do. There was a piece of me outwardly copping a jaded “good riddance” pose when I said goodbye to all that. But it was little more than a thinly veiled defense, meant to mask how heartbroken I was about having no real financial choice but to leave.
I continue to have my issues with the city. Like many of the authors in this collection, I lament the rapid succession of favorite haunts shuttering. It’s annoying—and frankly, mortifying—to travel in excitedly on the Trailways from upstate and make plans to meet a friend at old standbys like the Pink Pony and Max Fish on Ludlow Street, only to have the friend say, “Seriously? Both of those places have been closed for two years.”
Of course, that doesn’t stop me from making the trip down again and again. I’m thrilled to go and discover new haunts, and just to be there. When it’s time to return to Port Authority to catch the bus home, I don’t want to go. To quote that LCD Soundsystem song, warts and all, New York City is “still the one pool where I’d happily drown.”
I explained this often when pressed by interviewers after Goodbye to All That was published. Another thing I was asked frequently was why the book included only women writers. Why no men? It’s a long story, but before I even had a chance to tell it, some interviewers sug
gested that maybe only women write those kinds of essays. “No,” I’d always respond, “that’s hardly the case.” In fact, some of my favorite essays about New York City have been written by men—Luc Sante’s “My Lost City,” Colson Whitehead’s The Colossus of New York, E. B. White’s 1948 classic “Here Is New York.”
Since I first read it in college, White’s meditation has always held resonance for me. It is at once timeless in its observations about the city’s appeal despite all those many demands and contradictions; dated (he laments that the subway fare has risen to ten cents and refers to someone singing on the street as a “cheerful Negro”); and eerily prescient (“A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions”).
After mentioning “Here Is New York” in many interviews, I found myself reading and rereading it. And then it occurred to me: I could put together a collection of essays by men and women, inspired by White, that, unambiguously, were more about loving the city than about ditching it.
Here, I’ve wrangled some of my favorite writers into contributing essays about how they became permanently, irreversibly cemented to the place—their experiences of becoming and remaining New Yorkers, feeling as if they belong there, regardless of where they are in the world at any given time.
Just about every aspect of working on this book and its predecessor has been sheer joy for me—reading and editing authors I admire on the topic of a place I adore and long for, not to mention having cause to visit the city more often. (The bonus, as the guy named Wade in Jon-Jon Goulian’s essay might say? It would be difficult for anyone to mistake me for a hater now.)
When an acquaintance learned I was working on a follow-up
anthology, he asked, “What are you, some kind of representative of the New York City marketing and tourism board?” And it dawned on me that perhaps I’ve finally, thirty years later, created an extension to my I Love NY campaign internship that’s more to my liking—the city edition.
Kingston, New York