I just passed my 10-year mark living in New York City. Throughout an entire decade in this city, one thing was constant: Whenever I caught a glimpse of the Manhattan skyline — while jogging along the East River near my home in Astoria, Queens, or driving along the New Jersey Turnpike — I always got a giddy shiver down my spine.
For as long as I could remember, this was the place of my dreams. The place I fantasized about moving when I felt stuck as a kid in my small, Midwestern hometown. That is where writers live, I knew. Where people were direct, brash even, just like me. It took me a few years of adulthood to get up the nerve to move here — until I had the comfort of a boyfriend to join me. We moved here with no jobs and little money. My writing career took off. I joined friends at fabulous restaurants. It was easy to network — everyone who could help me in my career was here. This, finally, was home. I was 26 years old.
Today my life looks entirely different. That boyfriend became a husband, father of our two children and now an ex. I achieved my dream of being a writer in New York, but instead of a Dorothy Parker-esque existence, I spend my days in a sunny home office that doubles as my bedroom, overlooking a playground we frequent almost daily.
My children are ages 3 and 5, and maybe because it is universally true, or just because I am projecting my own childhood experience, I worry my children need a place to run. Green lawns and trees to climb. They don’t have that here. They are city kids.
And yet I don’t relocate to any of the lovely suburbs in New Jersey, Westchester County or Connecticut. I stay in Astoria, Queens, because it is my home. Our home.
When I feel my cheeks burn with fury at the litter blowing through the streets of this neighborhood or put in my ear plugs at night to block out the sirens, café chatter and horns outside, I am calmed by the comfort of the community I’ve amassed here.
My building alone — a 1926 six-storey co-op with about 90 units — is home to dozens of neighbors, ranging in age from chipper-if-struggling musicians in their twenties to the gorgeous Cuban sisters in their eighties who share a one bedroom on the second floor.
Some of these people have come to be close friends and confidants, there as neighbors are — through the joys of new babies and the horrors of family tragedy, sometimes bringing by bottles of wine or wrapped gifts for the kids. It is no small thing to go to sleep — blocking out the kooky upstairs neighbor’s stomping — knowing that should one of the kids awaken with a scary fever and need to be rushed to the hospital, there are countless doors on which I could knock.
This sense of community is what humans crave, but that pull is stronger in cities. I find there are so many people here who, like me, come from someplace else. Other states and towns. Other countries. Their ties to those places have been loosened by distance and time. So we make communities and connections with those who are in close proximity.
Dense neighborhoods lend plenty of proximity. Pretty much every service I need is accessible by foot: grocery stores, doctors and dentists, the post office, a hair salon, any variety of restaurant. And a Gap for crying out loud. I consider time my most valuable commodity, and city living wins for most efficient.
There are other practical reasons to live in a city. The monthly maintenance check I write to the co-op relieves me of any responsibilities for fixing broken boilers, leaky roofs, the garbage disposal or snow shoveling. Sure, if I lived in a single-family house, I could outsource those tasks, but in a city apartment I don’t even have to manage the third-party service. It’s all taken care of.
It’s also cheaper to live in New York City, versus the suburbs. Yes, the real estate prices are through the roof (no pun intended). But as this New York Times article found, families spend 18 percent less by living in the five boroughs, as they save on real estate taxes and transportation.
If you don’t believe me, think about your car expenses — loan note, insurance, gas and maintenance. In most parts of New York City you can replace those costs with a monthly subway pass of $112, or $2.75 per ride. I do own a 1999 Subaru Forester — a junker for weekend trips to the beach and mountains. If I moved to the suburbs and needed a reliable vehicle for daily errands and job commuting, I would be forced to invest in a new car.
Apartment living brings hidden joys. I am grateful for my home — a 1,300 square-foot two-bedroom, two-bathroom home with high ceilings and tons of natural light — a feat to afford after my divorce and considered spacious quarters in this expensive town. But these digs are small in comparison with what I would likely live in should I move to a more bucolic location. There are tradeoffs that come with small square footage: I am forced to live minimally. I must think critically about every purchase — and I believe that is a valuable exercise.
I also appreciate how close quarters bring people together. I like that my children share a bedroom, at least now that they are small. Soon I imagine we may invest in a partial wall, but for now, I adore listening to my daughter singing lullabies to her little brother after I’ve tucked them in. And I remark at how when one of them happens to wake in the middle of the night and silently slip into my bed, the other systematically does the same, sensing the absence of the other.
As my children grow, I’m sure I will feel very differently about our living arrangement. Indeed, these days when I jog along the East River in the mornings, I do not get that jolt upon seeing the city skyline. The thrill of making my New York City dreams come true has faded.
But like many youthful thrills, that one has been replaced by something else: When the kids and I walk out the door of our apartment, we cannot walk a half-block without bumping into a familiar face, someone who at least nods hello, but often stops to remark at how big the kids have grown or at the recent chilly weather. These are the stitches that connect us to our neighbors, the threads of community and the making of home.