A Place Apart

Is the Big Apple still all it’s cracked up to be? Holly Brubach hearts New York—from a distance.


Stack eight million people in boxes one on top of another, and what do you get? New York, where your neighborhood dry cleaner closes to make way for a high-rise that will obliterate the patch of sky you can see from your bedroom. Where the

E train comes to a halt between stations, making you 45 minutes late for your 50-minute hour. Where bedbugs are on the march. Where sooner or later the same thought crosses the mind of every citizen, young or old, rich or poor: Life is a hassle.

Not every day, of course. New Yorkers can’t afford to think about the hassle too often or think about it for long. I know. I lived there for most of my adult life, and I couldn’t afford to think about it either. But ever since I moved away four years ago, I can and do.

People who live in other parts of the country—and here I am, one of them, to my own amazement—come to New York for business or a Broadway show, to sample a few restaurants popular last year with the locals, shop, and then head back to a place where they park their cars in the building they live in and drive to work when it’s raining, where the cable guy shows up at the designated hour, where the commotion outside their windows in the morning is birdsong. You may say, as I used to tell myself, that they have traded culture and conversation at the highest level for mere convenience and proximity to nature. You can argue that, as tourists, they barely scratch the surface of all the city has to offer. Because you’re eating at the Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare, or stopping by MoMA on your way home from work, or seeing Al Pacino as Shylock in the park. Or anyway, you could be.

Don’t get me wrong. I heart New York. I love its gritty glamour, its you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up serendipity, its adrenaline high, its 24-7 gratification, its philosopher taxi drivers, its come-one-come-all welcome mat. Any one or all of which, on any given day, can make the ­hassle worthwhile. When it is worthwhile.

But then there are the other days. There’s a New York state of mind, and though karaoke anthems by Alicia Keys and Jay-Z, Frank Sinatra, and Billy Joel commemorate it, they stop short of spelling out its crowd-sourced manifesto—the ideas you need to buy into if you’re going to live in the city and put up with the everyday annoyances it hurls your way.

  1. NEW YORK IS THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE, where everything that happens reverberates around the world, and trends soon to be imitated by people everywhere are set by cutting-edge sophisticates. In fact—how to put this?—there are vast tracts of the planet that don’t pay attention to what’s going on in New York and don’t care. Not long ago a friend, a die-hard New Yorker, asked me what in my prior experience had prepared me to make the transition from New York to Pittsburgh, where I now live. “I spent six years in Paris,” I replied. He thought a minute, then nodded gravely, as if Paris and Pittsburgh constituted equivalent exercises in cultural deprivation and exile from the action. That wasn’t what I meant.

What I meant was that living in Paris—which is, incidentally, the center of the universe to the minds of most Parisians—had taught me that the universe has no center. During my years there, I subscribed to The New York Observer and scanned its party pages with fascination. There were parties I would have attended and probably enjoyed, parties I didn’t mind missing, and parties to which, had I been living in New York at the time, I would have wished I’d been invited. And large as these events might have loomed at close range, none seemed to matter in the slightest when viewed from the terrace of my local café.

NEW YORK IS THE CAPITAL OF AMERICAN CULTURE. Forty years ago, if you were a painter, a choreographer, a dancer, a theater director, a playwright, or an opera singer, and you wanted to pursue a career at the top of your field, you had no choice but to do it in New York, which hosted the country’s—maybe the world’s—largest community of people practicing your art. Today New York is the capital of cultural consumption—not the place where most artists make their work but the marketplace where they sell it. You might think this is yet another one of those seismic shifts made possible by the Internet, which enables artists to participate in a community, no matter where they live. In fact, the creative urge to escape goes back much further and found its Pied Piper in Donald Judd, who proved by example that it’s possible to leave SoHo for a whistle-stop in the middle of the desert, buy up the town, and thrive.

IF YOU CAN MAKE IT THERE, YOU CAN MAKE IT ANYWHERE. New York is overpopulated with alpha types for whom the greatest achievement seems to be outdoing one another, but the stiff competition is largely confined to certain fields, like Wall Street and the media. You don’t see aerospace engineers, oceanographers, or golfers flocking to New York to prove themselves.

There’s a corollary assumption: Just because you’ve made it someplace else doesn’t mean you could make it in New York. But let’s face it, there are a lot of successful New Yorkers, particularly those whose careers are built on that local virtue—chutzpah—whom it would be hard to imagine making it anywhere else. Picture Donald Trump in Europe. Or Boston. Or any town in Ohio.

NEW YORK IS NOT AMERICA. You hear this every election year, when New Yorkers, who have a hard time believing that the rest of the country can take the likes of George W. Bush and Sarah Palin seriously, fulminate at cocktail parties and reiterate their periodic threat to secede from the Union. You also hear it when New Yorkers caution foreigners who claim to love America but have never ventured beyond the confines of Manhattan. Because someone needs to warn them that the rest of the country is a right-wing paradise paved with strip malls and buzzed on Coke Zero. (Never mind that the New York State Theater, paid for by the state and built for the people, has been renamed for a billionaire underwriter of the Tea Party.) In fact, New York is a city full of go-getters on a make-or-break quest for the jackpot every American considers his constitutional birthright: celebrity, wealth, and happiness ever after. What other city, with the possible exception of Las Vegas, so perfectly captures what this country stands for?

LIFE IS A GAME; MONEY IS FOR KEEPING SCORE. Whether or not New Yorkers have more money than people do elsewhere, they have fewer qualms about spending it. Any suspicion that putting your net worth on public display might be in poor taste, insensitive to those who have less, is drowned out and dismissed on the grounds that it’s the just reward for hard work and ingenuity. Whatever you’ve got, you earned it. Money talks—and talks and talks.

NEW YORK OFFERS THE BEST THAT MONEY CAN BUY. Meaning the Yankees? But even beyond baseball, New Yorkers assume that top dollar guarantees the finest quality. Take medicine, to name only one example—you get what you pay for, so if you’re paying the most, you must be getting the best. Here’s a business idea: a travel agency for medical tourism, not for discount-surgery expeditions to third-world countries but for junkets to ­Baltimore, Cleveland, or Rochester, Minnesota, where New Yorkers accustomed to $500 office visits and round-the-clock private-­duty nurses to cover for the negligence of an overworked hospital staff would find first-rate care at a fraction of the cost they pay at home, in a setting where people are patient, thorough, and kind.

NEW YORK IS A SMALL TOWN. New Yorkers take this to be the case because they go to parties year in and year out and see the same people. But despite the familiarity, New York has something small towns don’t: anonymity. Which is great if you’re looking to put your past behind you, but not so great if you’re being played by a guy who claims to travel for work when he’s got a wife and kids uptown. In someplace truly small, the pool of potential victims would be finite, his lies would catch up with him, and he’d be run out of town. And where would he go? He’d go to New York.

CENTRAL PARK IS NATURE. Sure it is, the way zoo animals are wildlife.

OUTSIDE OF NEW YORK, EVERYONE IS FAT. Not everyone. But okay, lots of people. Here’s the thing, though. Once you’ve lived somewhere else, too many New York women look emaciated, like hypercompetitive, anxiety-plagued lab rats who live on rations and exercise relentlessly to burn off calories.

ONCE A NEW YORKER, ALWAYS A NEW YORKER. Though many, if not most, New Yorkers stay a lifetime, they also enter­tain fantasies of escape, as I have discovered. At parties in the city, I’ve become a lightning rod for would-be fugitives, who maneuver me to a quiet corner and ask if it’s true, that you can slash your overhead and still end up with more amenities someplace else, where money goes farther? They want to know if I’ve found anyone there I can talk to. They confess to looking at real estate when they’re on vaca­tion, tantalized by sunporches, attics, a hammock slung beneath an elm—all for the price of a studio in ­Harlem. They wonder where I got the nerve. “That took a lot of courage,” a colleague said when she heard I’d moved.

But not every New Yorker is so curious. “So,” the others ask, “when are you moving back?” If this were Chicago or Austin, I would be honest and tell them that I’m not. But telling New Yorkers I have no desire to move back seems rude, an affront to their tenacity. I get the sense that they have a lot invested in the outcome of my decision to decamp, as if my ­return would be their vindication—proof that everything they ­believe about New York is right. So I say that I haven’t really left, I’m just commuting, and that appears to satisfy them. “Oh,” they say, all sympathy, “commuting—that’s such a hassle.”

Photos: Sølve Sundsbø/Art + Commerce