February 15, 2018
When I first interned in NYC my junior summer I fell in love with the city and vowed to move there after college.
After graduation I went straight to NYC and loved it. There was nowhere else I wanted to be. I loved the energy of the city, the ability to go anywhere by foot/bike/subway (a rarity in America despite being common in the rest of the world), the cosmopolitan nature of it, and feeling like I’m at the center of the world.
Whenever I was short of inspiration, a quick walk through West Village or Midtown would do the trick - admiring the beautiful brownstones amidst the elegant tree-lined streets and cobblestone roads, probably housing celebrities - or peering up in awe at the enormous glass skyscrapers dominating the skyline, resided by what must be the most successful businessmen and brilliant minds.
There was something incredibly motivating being here, amidst the most successful and driven people in the world, and it made me want to be something. In NYC, the world was my oyster.
Fast forward 3 years, and I was tired of it all. My apartment was crap and the rent was too high. The subway was a dump and getting worse every year (“we are delayed because of train traffic ahead”). Winter was cold, dark, and miserable. My job was lame, and so was everybody else’s. Rather than being a hub for the most creative and talented people, I felt like I was in a white collar frat house, except without the crazy parties or sense of community. Walking the streets, all I saw were tourists, zombie-eyed corporate shmucks shuffling to and from their corporate cages like zoo animals in a rat race, and homeless mentally unstable people shouting homophobic slurs directed at nobody in particular. The glass luxury towers no longer inspired me, they pissed me off - why can’t we build affordable modest housing instead of every new building catering to Russian oligarchs and Chinese Communist Party officials?
It’s one thing to be dissatisfied, it’s another to no longer see the light at the end of the tunnel. After 5 years of watching rents and housing prices rise without any increase in housing quality, the subway getting increasingly delayed and unreliable, streets getting increasingly congested (look at Herald Square), and gentrification commodifying what were once culturally rich neighborhoods into white collar frat houses (see Williamsburg), ear-piercing police sirens every 5 minutes instead of every 10 minutes, I didn’t see a future for me in NYC.
NYC is a playground for the rich, a rat race for everyone else. New Yorkers are so caught up in the facade of being some high culture mecca and innovation capital that they haven’t realized that the spirit is already dead, gentrified beyond recognition.
Maybe it’s unfair of me to so harshly bash NYC. Maybe I was in the wrong job and didn’t take the effort to join and/or create my ideal community. Maybe I just wanted to try something new for a change instead of spending my entire 20s in one city. I did have wanderlust after all, always wanting to live abroad. Manhattan is geographically very small, and there’s only so many times you can walk the same streets without getting tired of it.
NYC definitely has a “work really long hours at your meaningless corporate job that you pretend like you’re super passionate about and would debate remaining in if you won the lottery” culture that I don’t identify with. Kind of like the TV show “Silion Valley” - cut the crap, you’re not changing the world. The exorbitant livings costs make most people completely financially dependent on their jobs, meaning their employers have them by the balls (as George Carlin would say). Hence the longer hours, decreased workplace flexibility and opportunity to work remotely, etc.
I don’t want to just be an unconstructive hater, so I’ll offer some suggestions to improve NYC.
The number one problem is cost of living, and quality of living. It’s not news that most people pay exhorbitant prices to live in tiny shoeboxes in squalor. Yet rather than build more modest housing, the only new buildings that get built are luxury apartments catering to billionaires.
Put down your neoliberal propaganda books for a second, admit that the market is failing, and start looking for real solutions, which may involve the government getting its hands dirty. Giving tax breaks in exchange for making luxury developers allocate a portion of their luxury units to poor people (to which there is an enormous waiting list for) is not even cracking a dent in the problem.
One of the problems is that there are regulations on minimum apartment size that prevent the development of very small apartments. This is ridiculous and needs to be removed.
Hostels are banned in NYC. This also needs to be fixed.
Zoning could also be loosensed, especially in the not-so-dense outer boroughs. Japan has a great zoning model that allows a greater deal of flexibility than the American model.
The second major failure is the subway, which has been getting noticeably worse every single year (verified by the MTA’s very own statistics, which by design understate the problem). I didn’t last a month in Astoria because catching the subway to work was such an enormous hassle. Similar situation for anyone relying on the L train. Time to fix and modernize the subway system (props to The New York Times for calling the MTA out on their incompetency).
Fixing the subway has the double-benefit of easing the affordable housing crisis by expanding housing access to farther geographic areas.
Subway access is fairly good within Manhattan, but is absolute garbage outside of it. Traveling to and from Queens and Brooklyn for example is a nightmare, and generally requires going into Manhattan. This makes it inconvenient to have offices outside of Manhattan. If interborough transportation were improved, then we could see more development in the less dense boroughs like Brooklyn and Queens instead of trying to squeeze more density out of a Manhattan already at capacity.
My hearing is probably worse due to this. This is ridiculous, and not something that other equally dense cities have to deal with.
I have zero confidence that NYC will take serious steps to solve these issues, and this is why NYC will continue to lag behind other cities in terms of modernization, innovation, and quality of life.
Written by Jeremy Bernier who left the NYC rat race to travel the world, work remotely, and find the meaning of life.