Should we remain?

Many New Yorkers are rethinking their relationship to the city in the wake of a pandemic

Should we remain?

It is an early Saturday morning here in Manhattan, quiet both because of the hour and the rain. Some storms have a way of energizing the city, but this one has muted the normal hum and drive — I don’t mind it at all. It makes this vast urban warren feel cozier somehow.

My relationship to the city has been on my mind quite a bit recently, as I’m sure it has been for many New Yorkers. The pandemic removed so many of the obvious reasons why we stay here: the culture, the people, the food, the energy. Suddenly all we had left were too-small kitchens in apartments we never noticed were so tiny. I’ve been working from home for many years, so that particular transition didn’t affect me terribly, yet still I felt boxed in, lacking the outlet of a museum, a play, a dinner with friends at a new restaurant. (Always cognizant of my own great fortune, of course, that my largest complaint was one of space — and not one of health or life.)

And so we asked ourselves, we New Yorkers: Should we remain? It’s a good question for anyone at any moment, I suppose — intention in all things! — but it wasn’t entirely new for some of us; I’ve confronted the question every year or so since I moved here. Is New York the right place for me? My move eastward all those years ago was far more casual — one might even say more accidental — than it should have been. It was loose, and probably a bit fanciful.

Here I found art and friends and new ideas to sustain me... but the city taxes, doesn’t it? Wears people down. There have been moments when New York has been more of a symbol to me than a desired reality, almost as if I’ve wanted the ability to say “I live in New York” more than I’ve actually wanted to be here. (Isn’t it marvelous how our self-identity affects us; how our drive for meaning-making pushes and pulls?) The pandemic has amplified this, surely, testing whatever love we have for this place. Two things, though, have renewed me and my connection to New York.

The first is that I spent the fall and winter renting a house up in Williamstown, Massachusetts. I hiked, I shopped at local farms, I went on verdant and ocher drives through New England. I cooked three meals a day in a large country kitchen. And the hills and sky and peace allowed me to breathe during a stifling time. Inoculated me against the cement and steel of the city. (At least for a time: the openness of my western homeland is ever a requirement for my soul.)

The second renewal has come from being in a new apartment, which I moved into shortly after my return to the city. The apartment is in Harlem, a classic New York building that is worn around the edges but seems to have good bones. (Not a bad description of me, actually, as I approach 40.) Of all the nice aspects of this place, one of my favorites is that it allows me to have dedicated space for my office. I loved my old apartment — I was there for fourteen years, if you can believe it — but it was a studio, and so my desk was always present, literally and figuratively. Now, I step away from my desk at the end of the day and close the door to the office — click! — and work is done. It’s perfect.

During the apartment hunt, my immediate concern was more space, unsurprisingly, but what I’ve come to realize in the last few weeks is that my search was also for a new perspective. As New York starts to re-open in the wake of vaccines, as we emerge into a bright summer, I am also at the beginning of a new relationship with my city. I am getting to know a new neighborhood. I am changing my identity from “Upper East Sider” to “Harlemite.” I am juggling where to park my car! But I am, at least, once again a New Yorker, glad to be back and glad to be in process of determining what this city will mean to me next. (And the end of all our exploring /  Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.)

The city might not be my forever home — a ridiculous phrase, I know — but then again, maybe a question doesn’t need the same answer forever. Should we remain? Yes, for now.