Reflections | World

April 4, 2006

Loving and Leaving New York City

Why Bloomington beats the world's most important city; plus, two dissenting views.

Jenny Reisinger Cohen

Gelf is an unabashed New York City lover (see "City Seen" for a slice of street-scene serendipity), so when Jenny Reisinger Cohen submitted her critique of living in NYC, we were intrigued. Jenny was gracious enough to allow us to solicit feedback on her argument from three of her former colleagues: Stacy F., a Minnesota native who has left New York for Wisconsin; South Dakota native and current Brooklyn resident (and Gelf contributor) Erin Schulte; and Megan Doscher, who's moved from New York to Washington, D.C. Their responses, and Jenny's rebuttals, follow her piece:

First, let me say that I love New York City. It really, truly, is one of the great cities in the world, and everyone should visit it at least once in their lifetimes. Note the emphasis on the word "visit."

new apartment
All photos Jenny Reisinger Cohen
That red door on the right side is my apartment. That blue table is on my porch. That doormat is urine-free.
When I first moved to Park Slope in 2000, my dad and I unloaded what little I owned from my car for my new apartment. My "apartment" was really a room with a bed, a sink, and a hot plate. I shared the bathroom with the guy down the hall. For this, I paid $1,200 a month. It was awesome! That first day, my dad and I were walking down 7th Ave. in the Slope when some guy passed us, talking to himself. "Do you really want to move here?" my dad asked. Hell, yeah! Interesting people, bars within walking distance. I was young, it was my first job out of college, and I had no one who depended on me. I was going to live in a room and have a great time with my life!

Five years later, my husband decided he wanted to get his M.B.A., which is expensive to begin with but even worse on one salary, with tuition on top of the normal New York living expenses. He was born in Brooklyn, raised in Queens, and wanted to try living somewhere else. Plus, as a Midwestern girl, I liked the idea of going back. So last summer, we packed up our two-bedroom, $2000-a-month apartment in Carroll Gardens, and moved to Indiana.

In December, we were back in town to visit my husband's family. That's when I realized it—New York City is a great place to visit. Other than that, New York City sucks.

I think I really figured this out the first day we were back. I packed up my trusty messenger bag, hitched a ride on the LIRR in Queens, and landed in that beautiful bastion of transportation—Penn Station. That is, of course, until I walked in and remembered it wasn't really a beautiful bastion. Being away can warp your mind like that. Oh look, there's the subway! A,C, E—I missed you! Wait, can't get too excited. Stoic face on the subway and no eye contact with anyone—this isn't the warm and fuzzy Midwest. What's that smell? It smells like ... is that ... stale urine? I forgot that was the lovely smell that greeted me when I walked onto 70% of the platforms in the city.

But that's ok, I'm in NYC! And it's raining. No matter. I have a little umbrella that fits perfectly in my bag so I'll be dry. A little umbrella that only covers my head and gets my bag wet so I have to rearrange my crap in it so my book doesn't take a beating. Can't wait to start my trek around Manhattan ... until I started my trek around Manhattan.

This is called nature and most New Yorkers only see it if they schlep up to Central Park [or Prospect Park, which we all know is the better of the two]. On the right of this picture is a half-mile nature trail that's gorgeous in the summer and behind the cabin is one of two pools for the development's residents.
By the end of the day, I was wet. The hems of my jeans were soaked with gutter water, my socks were slushy, and the umbrella had blown inside out at least three times. I got all my shopping done but my purchases from the day—CDs, books, candy from Dylan's—were all stuffed strategically in my wet bag to try to keep certain things dry while still securing everything such that I could get the damn thing closed. I was cold and wet and miserable, which is probably no better than the summer version of hot and sticky with humidity and miserable.

It broke my heart, but as I sat on the LIRR back to Queens, I had to admit to myself that the New York City I loved when I was so bright-eyed and bushy-tailed was gone. I had seen another side of life, and it made me realize that New York City sucked.

Let me tell you what I have now in Bloomington, Indiana. My rent is $840 a month—this includes central air, central heat, a garbage disposal, a dishwasher, a washer and dryer. The apartment is built well enough that I can't hear the people above me walking and talking. My rent also covers the gym at the clubhouse, two pools to lounge around in the summer and a beautiful walking trail when the leaves change in the fall.

I drive a new car:a Ford Escape that can fit all my groceries in the back and then some. The car also is warm in the winter morning or cool in the late summer sun with the window down. I always get a seat. I always get to listen to my music, and not some random girl's with her iPod turned up too loud. And I can sing along to my stereo without anyone looking at me funny.

A grocery bill of $100 covers at least 10 bags of stuff that I can unload in multiple trips to and from the apartment. No more slogging blocks and blocks with six bags that cost you $100 just so you can eat Stove Top Stuffing for dinner. If my husband and I go out to dinner, it costs $20 total for two good sit-down meals including, free refills on pop [not soda, thanks]. Beer? A pint that costs $5 in New York City costs $1.50 here, or maybe $3 if you go high-end for a Bass.

That blue SUV is mine. If I lived in my old Brooklyn neighborhood, it would have taken me 45 minutes to find a parking spot. This parking job took 10 seconds.
When I walk out the door of my apartment in the morning, I am greeted by trees and grass, not rotting trash nor dog poop someone decided not to pick up off the street. At night, I can sit on my porch, look up at the stars, and pick out all the constellations you can never see from the Brooklyn Promenade except duringthose rare blackouts.

I know what you're thinking. "Yeah, but you live in the middle of Indiana." Touché. It did indeed take six months for Capote to finally show up at the local theater. New York's concerts with great bands—something my husband and I loved to attend together—have been replaced by bad cover bands at bars fronted by frat boys. And that $20 dinner I talked about? Good food, but I will admit it's cheap because it's from the Applebee's at the mall.

But really, I usually didn't go to the movies the day a show opened, anyway, and I never ate at snobby, expensive restaurants on a regular basis, so why start now? I mean, c'mon, sushi at the Time Warner Center for $300? That's ridiculous! A $15 Thai Chicken Salad at the Bloomington Mall's Applebee's—not so horribly bad.

Living in the middle of Indiana is worth it, and it's a good place for me and my husband for the next two years. I do know this—when we're 30 years old and trying to figure out where we should settle down, a city where it costs $1 million for a closet in the sky isn't going to cut it. I want to actually own the place I live in, but how many 30-year-olds can do that in New York?

I still have a special place in my heart for those years spent in the Big Apple, but I'm sticking with the Midwest for now. I'll be back to New York for a visit in a few months. See ya then!

Erin Schulte responds:

The great thing about the Midwest is that it's where "it's happening." It's where big, fresh ideas burst forth onto an unsuspecting world from visionary minds, prompting onlookers to remark, "Well, why didn't I think of that before? It's a new way to look at things!" Imagination blossoms among the cornfields like cocklebur, and revolutionary insights like "New York City is dirty, smelly and expensive" awe all who hear them afresh.

Being a New Yorker, I, of course, exist on a higher plane of creativity than even Midwesterners, which is why, after many hours of thought, I have come to this reply regarding your assertsions: "The Midwest is flat, ugly, and empty. The people there are stupid and boring, and fat to boot. You all eat at Applebee's, snack on processed cheese, and buy mayonnaise in five-gallon tubs. You all drive sedans and call yourselves 'values voters' even though your man Georgie hasn't done crap to stop abortion."

Someone from the Midwest could have only thought of something that profound after having eaten a plate of peyote brownies or dropping a few hundred tabs of acid. But because I'm from New York, it came to me without the aid of illegal drugs.

So we agree to disagree. Mostly, what I'm happy about is that we've managed to avoid empty stereotypes during this discussion of Nowhere versus New York, which would simply negate any discussion at all. (Although I must add, people out there really are fat.)

Jenny rebuts:

I've only been to Applebee's twice since moving here and it wasn't so bad. They give you free refills on pop [not soda], and who can resist those crazy-colored cocktails they concoct there? That being said, Bloomington has been described as a blue island in a red state, so we're more liberal than most. We do have our fat white guys here, but I think they hang out at Wal-Mart, mostly. I wouldn't know, though—I usually go to Target at the mall next door to the Hot Topic and the best New York-style pizzeria in the area. Yes, the best New York pizza is at the mall. Funny enough, I spotted John Mellencamp at Target the first week my husband and I were here. I bet you won't spot a celebrity that cool at the Target in Brooklyn!

Stacy F. responds:

Much of my day is spent alt-tabbing from one Internet Explorer screen to the next, and so it was that I alt-tabbed from Jenny's piece about living in New York to the One of the top stories was about how parents are struggling to get their children into private preschools that cost upwards of $10,000 a year.

"Even if you're rich, you're not guaranteed a place in a preschool," said a policy director from a child care referral service, who was quoted in the story.

So, I'm going to have to go with Jenny on this one.

I made much the same move she did, about a year and a half earlier. In Brooklyn, I had a 250-square-foot studio apartment where I slept on a loft bed, albeit in an adorable brownstone on a quiet street in Park Slope that had a stoop suitable for sitting. I traded it in for a much bigger apartment in downtown Madison, Wisconsin, for about two-thirds the cost, and have since upgraded to a townhouse—with a garage! And a fireplace! And closets! And a big kitchen where I can spread out and actually cook! I also have a spankin' new Honda Accord and never have to worry about where to park it. Oh, yeah, and on my very first day of work in a fantastic job as a reporter for the biggest paper in the state, I met the man I married just last month. That's right, folks: After four years in New York, in what I'll euphamistically call a "challenging" dating scene, it took me one day in Madison to find the absolute best guy in the world.

Granted, I grew up in Minnesota, so the sensibilities and lifestyle in Wisconsin are probably more familiar and comforting to me. I never planned on staying in New York; in fact, I'm surprised I stayed as long as I did. And I'll never regret living there. I'm just tremendously happy I don't have to do it any more.

Jenny agrees:

It was sad to see Stacy leave the Big Apple, but I now understand why she left. Admit it, you're envious of her ample parking, unlimited supply of fresh cheese and good cheap beer, and a great husband her friends approve of. And I saw that loft bed in her Brooklyn apartment—any bed that requires you to walk five little steps up a teeny tiny ladder after a night of drinking at Loki in Park Slope is not a good idea.

Megan Doscher responds:

I moved to New York straight out of college in 1996 and stayed there until 2002, when I packed my bags for the Washington, D.C., area in a post-9/11 burst of patriotism. I was headed for grad school and a counter-terrorism-related major. Truth be told, there was also a boy—but I moved to my own place and had a job, a life of my own, a rigorous graduate program, and my own somewhat meager salary. If things didn't work out with said boy, I had every intention of moving back to NYC after I got my master's degree. Meanwhile, I figured, D.C. is probably America's second-best city, right? How different could it be? The answer: very.

My colleagues and fellow grad students in D.C. were all scattered across the metro area, unlike in New York where we all seemed to live in the same handful of neighborhoods. Happy hours were unheard of, and would have been dicey at best, as many of us needed to drive home, with the D.C. Metro (aka the subway) taking longer and costing more to get you to work than driving does. Oh look, another article in the Washington Post baselessly claiming that Washingtonians don't use the Metro because they love their cars. I lived here for three years before I broke down and got a car, and it's the best decision I ever made, giving me back hours of my life each week. The public-transportation system here just is not viable unless you live within D.C. proper. And even then—don't get me started on D.C.'s outrageously sketchy taxi "zone" system.

For my first several months in the D.C. area, I searched in vain for a good bagel, stopping at literally every bagel shop I passed at any time. "Georgetown Bagelry's bagels are just like New York bagels!" stated Washingtonians who had never lived in New York. I finally gave up and learned to eat cereal for breakfast again, as I had growing up in the wilds of Pennsylvania. Another elusive staple: pizza by the slice. Sbarro is among the only options for a slice in D.C. Most of the good pizza here is of the brick-oven variety, served by the entire pie. Tasty, but not what I was looking for.

And the sushi—the sushi here is a travesty. The fluorescent pink tuna gives away its formerly frozen nature at "Japanese" steakhouses where Salvadoran chefs cook fried rice on your table while making the same stale jokes ("Japanese egg roll") in a ridiculous attempt at a Japanese accent. After soliciting advice from friends who had lived in Japan, we found three excellent sushi restaurants in the metro area. Not bad, but when I lived in Brooklyn, there were three excellent sushi places within a five-minute walk. I used to rotate among them so the delivery men wouldn't get to know me too well. Now it's a half-hour drive for decent takeout.

As I began to assimilate to D.C., I rotated the black out of my wardrobe. I bought some floral prints but felt weird in them. For the first time, I risked a winter coat in a color other than black. I noticed I had a distinct advantage when pushing to the front in crowd situations. I completed my master's degree and got married, and the husband and I bought a townhouse in the 'burbs. I accepted a job at a government consulting firm, which I love, and overall we're pretty happy. But I admit it, I miss the City.

You're never alone in New York. I had an urban family that I dearly miss, although many of them don't even live in the city anymore. In the 'burbs of D.C., I often feel isolated, although I'm not quite the lonely type.

To me, New York's food is a metaphor for its teeming mass of humanity. I moved to Carroll Gardens at the end of my transient period (North Bergen, N.J.; to West side of Hoboken; to East side of Hoboken; to Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn), one experienced by many post-college professionals as we accidentally move to a mostly Section 8 building or across the street from housing projects (see West side of Hoboken, above). Yes, that's why all those buildings look the same over there.

About a week after moving to Brooklyn, I found myself sprawled on my couch in the twilight of a 100-degree July 4th, realizing I had no energy to leave the house and see the fireworks. Suddenly I saw flashes of colored light reflected in the windows across the street and realized I'd be able to see the fireworks from my apartment. I climbed out the window and up the rusty fire escape to my roof, and watched the East River fireworks in all their glory. At the end, I was surprised to hear a smattering of applause from all around me. Scanning the rooftops, I saw dozens of shadows, some in small groups, and others standing alone like me, watching the show. That's when I fell in love with New York City.

And that's why you'll never catch me eating at Applebee's.

Jenny rebuts:

I still remember telling Megan I got this great new apartment while she was on vacation. Turns out it was five doors down and I didn't even mean to do that! That being said, the first time I saw most of my neighbors was the first day I moved into the apartment when some crazy lady flipped her SUV on our street. I didn't see them again until The Power Outage of '04. So while Megan is right—you are never alone in NYC—it doesn't mean you always have your neighbors for company. Of course, I don't know most of my neighbors here, either. So be it.

Megan is right about the food. The Husband and I hit the best local sushi place in town and it took 45 minutes to get our order to us. How can it take that long to prepare something you don't even have to cook? And I totally went for the girlie sushi since I figured you won't get as sick off a Cucumber Roll as you would a tuna roll. Oh, I miss Faan on Smith Street and I don't even like any sushi past the Boston Roll with the cooked shrimp on the inside. I'm now very thankful I never acquired a taste for raw tuna. As for bagels, we found a good New York City bagel place but you have to drive there. What's the point if you can't roll out of bed, throw your hair up, and walk to the local bagel place?

Pizza isn't so bad—we get the Big Ten Special from Pizza Express here—a large pizza with bread sticks and two drinks. When I lived in Carroll Gardens, Megan suggested a great place called Leonardo's on Court St. I found out recently that it moved out and was replaced by a Dunkin Donuts. Even my cool neighborhood is being taken over. Perhaps it's a sign that 1) we all have to move on sometime and 2) between the Dunkin Donuts and Michelle Williams from Dawson's Creek moving into the neighborhood, Carroll Gardens has two, maybe three years, tops before it will no longer be cool and there will be a Dunkin Donuts on every corner. I'm so glad I got out before that happened.

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- World
- posted on Oct 19, 07

New york city cant't even compare to Tokyo, london, and Rio. There is no freedom in New York City. Everywehere you go you are followed by the cops, homless, hookers and big rats. I rather be a goat hearder in Africa.

- World
- posted on May 11, 09


- World
- posted on Apr 26, 10

Erin's gone and got herself in an angry, irrational heart-attack inducing tizzy, a New Yorker's favorite thing to do. :)

- World
- posted on Jul 07, 10

i heart new york 2, and ive been here for 5 years, i would be considered " low income" because i don't pull in but 31,000 a year. what keeps me here? i have no idea. i am a single female, no kids, no real obligations, so i guess its ok for now. but i don't see myself staying here forever, its just too expensive, and its hard to really save for anything. people are being squeezed. even the yuppies are sweating. im also from the deep south so its very hard to justify what i pay for my 2 rooms, with what my parents pay for a 2 bedroom home, less than 600 a month. but that said, there is nothing to do down there, ( at least for me) jobs are not that great and don't pay much either. im not sure what the compromise is yet. but i know one thing, i have to find one.

Article by Jenny Reisinger Cohen

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