A few weeks ago, my boyfriend came home from a night out with some old friends and was rather annoyed. He’d had a chat with a friend-of-a-friend and the topic of hometowns came up. This gentleman shared his belief that Manhattan is basically the center of the universe when he learned that my boyfriend is a native New Yorker.
Upon hearing that my boyfriend hails from our shared hometown of Richmond Hill, Queens, however, the fellow changed his tone. “Oh,” he said, “basically anything in Queens besides Astoria and LIC is the boondocks.” He, by the way, was from Florida.
Of course people like this are infuriating. It’s incredibly rude to reduce anyone’s hometown to such an unflattering term. But there’s something else at play here, something that’s becoming a frequent occurrence and is, as of late, getting under my skin. Moving to New York City can change a person’s life, and I appreciate that I had the advantage of growing up a stone’s throw away from some of the greatest museums, art galleries, restaurants and site-seeing opportunities America has to offer (although I was rarely able to afford that stuff, but more on that later).
I know that when people outside of the US think of my country, they frequently imagine the Statue of Liberty first -- a New York landmark. And I also know that people think of Manhattan when they hear the words “New York City.” New York is the city for everyone, where, yes, it will be hard and people will not be friendly, but if you can make it here, you’ll make it anywhere, etc., etc., clichés abound. Yes, I know all of this, and that makes me hate what I’m about to say all the more: Please stop moving to my city.
NYC is currently in a pretty hardcore period of class warfare. Right now Brooklyn is both the second most expensive city in the entire country, and some areas boast median incomes of over $160,000 a year. Meanwhile, the median income in the waterfront area of Coney Island? $9,500 a year. More and more neighborhoods are becoming gentrified, with lower income families getting pushed out.
New York sometimes feels like it’s shrinking, a sentiment that I am hardly the first to acknowledge. While it’s been a cost-prohibitive place for as long as I can remember, I’m told that, once upon a time, NYC was the place for artists and creative types, even of the struggling, down-and-out variety. Of course there are arguments to be made against that old New York: it was dirty, crime-filled, scary. But is the Disneyland version, this playground of the 1% and their kin really an improvement? Or is it just the pendulum swinging too far in the opposite direction?
Obviously, I feel the latter is true. I’ve had it with the proud, willful ignorance of any part of New York outside of Manhattan and the chic, hipster-friendly bits of Brooklyn. I’m bored to death by the knowledge that there are still more high rises springing up left and right, some of which take over spaces which had previously been alternative artistic havens, like 5 Pointz in LIC. And, most importantly, I think it’s depressing and disgusting that native New Yorkers who find themselves in the low income bracket are being forced out of the neighborhoods that have been developed around them. As one Bushwick resident eloquently put it this year, “I feel anger that the home that my family tried to carve out of this horrible little slice of earth called Bushwick is not mine any more. Or rather, that the fruit now ripe for picking isn't ours.”
The sad thing is that a large portion of those coming to New York think they’re doing so in the name of authenticity. People who want to be artists and intellectuals come to New York and move to areas like Bushwick, thinking that they are getting the New York experience. And while that’s a lovely thought, it’s riddled with issues. For one thing, many of these people come to New York under the impression that they’ll be able to get a job, maybe in the field of their choice but really any job at all.
These days, that’s not necessarily the case, as the job market is utter poop most of the time, a fact I can personally attest to as I tried in vain to even get an interview while I was working through my MA.
The alternative, of course, is to come on someone else’s dime. For many people, that money comes from well off parents who are happy to support their children’s dreams of making it in New York City, or who perhaps want to scare their children straight by letting them try to live on their own in the big city just long enough to have them running home after a short time.
But these days, with the popularity of sites like GoFundMe, people can, as many other writers before me have lamented, just beg their way towards moving to their city of choice. My issue here is that this encourages more of those with rich family and friends to move here, which contributes to even higher rent costs as these lucky individuals buy their way into the city leaving even less room and opportunity for those who might scrimp, save, and work their way into the city, or for those of us who were born in the outer boroughs with dreams of moving to a nicer area someday.
Essentially, these people become permanent tourists -- they are residents in name only, staying close to the areas that are cool and avoiding any areas not associated with youth culture simply because they are only familiar with New York City as it is portrayed in pop culture. So, for example, my borough becomes the punch line to jokes in the best of times, and is seemingly nonexistent in the worst of times.
When was the last time you heard anything about Queens in a show that takes place in New York, for example? On "How I Met Your Mother," one character has an apartment there for about ten seconds. In "Sex and the City," the only mention of it is that Steve, love interest of one of the four main characters, grew up there and as a result, his mom will be bringing a Queens bakery cake to his son’s christening (because all bakeries in Queens make one type of cake, apparently?). I don’t think it was mentioned by name, but the wedding that takes place during the season one finale of Girls was held at The Foundry in Long Island City. That’s about it, with the major exceptions of "Everybody Loves Raymond" and "King of Queens," which were both set in the borough but could just as easily have been set in any suburban part of any state at all.
Those moving to New York because it’s the exciting, adventurous, cool thing to do are so brainwashed by their vision of what New York City should be that they are at least ignorant of vast swaths of the city, if not outright hostile towards these less-than-popular areas.
Part of the problem with pop culture recognizing Queens, I suspect, is that it’s ostensibly not that interesting of a place; it is a fairly residential chunk of NYC, it’s not especially well known for its artistic movements or amazing bars and restaurants or landmarks (although we have all of those things and more). However, I suspect the blind eye turned to Queens by pop culture at large and NYC’s more privileged residents has something to do with the fact that it’s not overwhelmingly white or especially wealthy. Queens is made up of almost equal parts Hispanic, white, black, and Asian residents, and while it has its fancy areas, it is mostly known for its ethnically themed neighborhoods (like Little Guyana in Richmond Hill and Chinatown in Flushing).
I just have trouble believing that it’s a coincidence that the New York you see represented in the media is the young, rich, white bit, and not the multicultural middle to lower class masses that actually make up so much of the population. And that, in turns, feeds the incoming population of young, rich, white folks in search of the thrill and bragging rights that moving to NYC provides.
So, listen. My hometown may just be boring, and lame, and that’s why no one wants to come here or talk about it or show it on TV. And maybe I’m just angry and bitter because I’m in serious student loan debt and I don’t live in a cool part of Brooklyn or Manhattan, and I was unemployed for forever because I don’t have connections or rich friends to fund my hijinks.
And yet, I must continue to insist that, dammit, if I have to be broke and scraping by in New York, I should not have to deal with people who don’t get my city pretending like I’m not even a part of it. So if that’s your attitude, stay away. Come for a vacation, take some pictures of Times Square, and then head back to Florida. New York isn’t here just to make your life exciting.