When I first moved to New York City in 1994, it was a game of survival. The chaos and scuffle and enormity of everyday life was such a shock to my system that for a long time, I couldn’t figure out whether I was actually happy there or not. In fact, I recall someone telling me around that time, that it takes a year of living in New York before you even realize how much you hate it. But of course, I can’t remember who that was – it’s all a blur.
I’m sure that narrative of survival doesn’t hold true for everyone. People move to the city for all different reasons, from all different places in life. They are working actors, or unemployed; they don’t know a soul, or they move to be with a girlfriend; they go for school, or to open an art studio with their trust fund; they are illegal immigrants, or foreign consultants; they are gay and move all the way from Ohio, or they’re Irish and grew up in Great Neck. Your identity shapes your sense of place -- how well you adjust to living in a city of millions of people, and skyscrapers so high that the weather is different from top to bottom.
But I suppose the reverse is also true: over time, your sense of place shapes your identity. I think a lot of people who move to New York stay there for the same reasons. The things that they hate about the city become things they can tolerate, while the things they love come to feel like things they can’t live without. The scuffle feels more like a dance over time; there is order in the chaos; and the enormity of the city becomes highly localized. There is no place quite like Madison Avenue, or Astoria, Queens. The Brooklyn Bridge is glorious every time you see it. Central Park is a magical wonderland in the autumn, with winding passageways of vivid color against a backdrop of glistening glass and steel. All year round, there are a zillion places to eat, many open late at night. Perhaps the most addicting thing is the incredible output of creative talent everywhere and always around you in New York, in every professional field. People stay there to be part of that creative buzz. Maybe they came there because they already were.
Over time, I came to think of myself as a New Yorker. But like a library book, it turned out that identity for me was borrowed. It had a time stamp on it. Graduate school turned into work, dating turning into a family, and some of the very things I used to think I couldn’t live without became reasons I wanted to leave. (When all those smart and creative people need to get their kids into preschool, for example, buzz and stress blend suddenly and curiously into one). As magical as Central Park is, the buildings around it came to feel a bit more like barriers to nature than a backdrop for natural beauty.
Last year, after almost 15 years in New York city, I packed up my family and moved back to Wisconsin, where I grew up. Now, it turns out, I find that I feel more like a New Yorker than I might have guessed. Maybe in a year, I’ll figure out how much I hate it here. In the meantime, what I want to do in this blog is something I wish we could have done from the time I moved to New York – examine the process of change and adjustment more closely, so it’s not such a blur. And find as much humor in the transition as possible. People leave New York for all kinds of reasons, but I’m guessing that what we’ll find is that our experiences of life after New York are surprisingly common.