• Sarah Zawacki

New York is Dead, Long Live New York


New York is dead, they say. The pandemic has killed it. Restaurants and theatre and comedy clubs are a thing of the past. The long-term residents bristle: it’ll come back; it always does. The New York Times runs profile after profile of wealthy Manhattanites who’ve decamped to the Hamptons, who’ve bought houses in leafy New Jersey suburbs, forsaking the city for a home office space and a backyard. Let them leave, I say. I read the articles about the changing New York with bated breath, hoping that the New York I knew never comes back.


I moved to the city in February of 2019, fresh from a nearly-five-year educational odyssey in London. London is, by any measure, a challenging, expensive city, yet nothing could prepare me for the eye-watering rent for substandard Brooklyn sublets, for the sheer access to capital required to secure the most basic standard of living. I ended up subletting a tiny-but-clean bedroom for $1,175 per month, only to realize after six months that my hourly freelance wage wasn’t making ends meet. I moved out, opting for a cockroach-infested, $850-per-month sublet deep in Brooklyn, with my sister’s (now ex-) boyfriend as the leaseholder. The relationship deteriorated, and he unceremoniously evicted us via a note shoved under my sister’s bedroom door. New York was tougher than I ever could have dreamed.


My class consciousness spiralled out of control, with my protracted inability to find a job compounding my housing insecurity. I went unemployed for eight months, subsisting on an editing job here, a babysitting job there. Every now and then I’d have phone screen interviews for uninspiring nonprofit jobs, and each time, I felt like they were speaking to me in a foreign language. I didn’t know about “scaling operations” or “leveraging community voices.” Academia and nonprofits alike were masquerading as corporate entities. For my part, as a nobody from a poor, post-industrial Michigan town—where the summer internship is about as foreign a concept as an interrail trip through Europe—New York felt like a club I couldn’t join.


The New York I knew was a place where wealth and connections spoke louder than creativity or dedication or curiosity about the world. The city felt flat, the neighborhoods sanitized. I went searching for evidence that non-transactional human connections were still possible, and sometimes I found glimmers: the group of researchers who cared more about the integrity of their ideas than the strength of their personal brands; the neighborhood discount store, where the owner was always friendly to me, even though he almost certainly classed me as a gentrifier. I wanted to love the city, to soak in the energy of the streets, to look out over the East River at a skyline that brought tears to my eyes, yet the financial pressures were stamping me down, down, down.


You can come to New York with a dream, but the capitalist machine seems fuelled by dreams of poor kids with ambitions above our stations. We want to create, but we end up being the restaurant workers or, at best, the office drones. In cities like the New York I knew, there was no room for writers, artists, musicians without healthy parental subsidies on their cost of living. So we set aside our music to do a coding bootcamp. We bow to the gods of higher education funding. We mold ourselves into the clean lines of upper middle class groupthink. We could change ourselves, or we could leave the city. And still, we stay, because the city drives us.


This was what happened to me: I wanted to write, yet I ended up with a fundraising (ahem, “development”) job with a nonprofit. The work I do is decent, it’s clean, it comes with a degree of dignity, yet I’m underpaid and overworked and unfulfilled. I think about leaving my job and going off in search of fulfillment, even if that means I have to take a retail or food service job for a period of time. Yet I’m stuck. To give up stable employment could well mean that I won’t pay the rent next month, and this is not a gamble that I’m willing to make.


So why do I stay? Why don’t I join the legions taking advantage of remote work possibilities to set up lives in cheaper places? The answer is bound up in the romanticism of my 14-year-old self, who visited New York for the first time and promised to live there someday; the answer is in the view of six stories of fire escapes outside my bedroom window; the answer is in the Puerto Rican music that drifts through the early autumn air. Underneath the broad brush strokes of unchecked greed and exploitation, there’s still something beautiful and complex underneath all of the chain stores and luxury highrises. There are still communities that have managed to keep their neighborhoods safe from the grasping hands of developers; there are transplants from all different parts of the world, who came to New York because we need its energy, because we need its anything-is-possible mythology. We’re the ones who are sticking around, and I hope we’ll have a say in determining the shape of a post-pandemic New York.


This isn’t to minimize the horrors we’ve all witnessed over the past months, as sirens wailed throughout the night and we’d wake up each morning to check the COVID case count. On a personal level, I know that I’ve gotten through this period largely unscathed, and that’s why I have the luxury of these idealistic reflections on the future of New York. Disclaimers aside, though, I’m at a point in this awful year where I need to speculate on paths to a better future. I need to believe that the current demographic shifts will release low-to-moderate income earners from the stranglehold of control by the rich. I need to believe that rents will keep falling, that one day I’ll live in a city where your civic engagement is worth more than your investment portfolio.


With each article I read about wealthy New Yorkers defecting to greener pastures, an image of a more humane city takes shape in my mind. I see a New York where anyone can move and afford to live, where success isn’t determined solely by pre-existing privilege. I see a city government that stops pandering to millionaires and instead prioritizes communities. I see an economy based in small businesses rather than massive corporate entities. Perhaps I’m delusional; perhaps capital will keep winning; perhaps the tax base will become so eroded that there’s nothing left for public services. When you’re on a lower income in New York, pessimism becomes a way of life. Right now, though, I want to hope.


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