In NYC: Stomping Grounds

(Photo: Where I’m from, the more things change, the more they stay the same.)

[This entry is one in a series of dispatches from my recent trips to Gotham.]

I don’t remember being here, yet nothing ever changes here. I’ve spent almost four weeks staying with friends in New York City; it’s almost as if I’ve already moved and settled in (even without a job offer and apartment lease yet). So much has changed in the four-and-a-half years that I’ve been away. Residential and commercial development is sweeping the Big Apple the likes of which I’ve never in my life seen. Housing costs have become even more astronomical than ever. Funky neighborhoods have become sadly Establishment (good-bye, Park Slope), while former slums have become exclusive enclaves (hello, DUMBO). It’s hard to realize that this is my home.

What’s curious, even with all that’s new, the fundamental remains. The dirt, and noise, and crowding are overpowering (while Chicago resembles an orderly northern European city, New York resembles a crazily ebulliently southern European city all the way). But they mask this city’s century-long status as the crucible of immigrant American beginnings. Everyone comes to New York, and everyone who comes here belongs here, simply by dint of having the courage to stay here.

But if you stay here, it’s purely on Gotham’s terms, not your own. Qualities of life and standards of living considered overwhelmingly normal in other cities are unrealized fantasies for millions of New Yorkers. A sub-$1,000 rent? Renting an apartment at all without having to pay a broker fee equal to 15 percent of your yearly rent? (Honestly, reread the last sentence). A clean and pee-free sidewalk? A line shorter than an hour at the Trader Joe’s cashier? An afternoon seat on the subway? You must be dreaming.

None of that has changed. I wonder why exactly I want to leave my downtown Chicago idyll when I think about it. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. I left these stomping grounds of mine for a reason. The pressure, the struggle just to exist in the five boroughs…it simply doesn’t exist in Chicago (much as some Chicagoans would beg to differ). Is moving home really worth putting up with a downward lurch in my everyday quality of life? I don’t have an answer to that. Maybe I never will.

But sitting in a Rego Park pizza joint a couple of weeks ago and hearing four pungent New York accents animatedly announcing the trials and tribulations of living here from the next table, I was humbled. Four years ago, I considered those classic New Yawk accents base, and droll, and uneducated. In that pizzeria, I suddenly realized how powerfully that accent now brings me home and makes me feel welcome. I’ve heard it all around me for weeks, now. I find, muchly in spite of myself, that I actually crave to be around it. My own accent, layered in its own way with four years of Chicagoisms, has been swinging like a loose gate between Midwest and New York for weeks. Friends in Chicago have already asked me to slow down when I call them.

One of those friends, suburban hip-chick Val, tells me that the measure of a city should be the people whom you have there, not the places or things. I wish I could import Val to New York–she’s right. I crave the people back home as much as I crave the wonderful way they express themselves. I don’t know how that intersects with the coming changes in my day-to-day life.

I want an answer. I wish I had one. I wish I had an apartment, yet, for that matter. Because I have to decide. This is it, one of those life-changing junctures. A fork in the road. Which one do I take? How do I move forward knowing all that I will leave behind in either city?

And what do I do if I make the wrong decision? The shadow knows. God knows.

I wish I knew, too, for the window of opportunity is growing short. I feel like I’ve found myself again in my old stomping grounds this month. And yet, I have the perilous feeling that I have no idea at all who it is that I’ve really found. I am not coming out of this experience the same. That’s all I know for sure.

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