The Eternal Allure of New York

February 24, 2023

Art by Zayana Uddin

I had something of an epiphany this summer when I realized New York wasn’t the right place for me immediately after college — a realization of not-the-most earth-shattering nature, but an overdue emotional reckoning all the same. Like countless other writers and artists, I grew up with the name of one city, and one city only, engraved in my heart. It was the place of dreams, where anything and everything I ever wanted was happening, and where I knew (hoped) I’d someday lay down roots.

Earlier that spring, I’d flubbed an incredible opportunity to intern with a major brand consultancy in Manhattan. What had I done wrong? The answer oscillated every other moment from “nothing” to “everything.” I ended up spending June and July flying from coast to coast to visit friends and look for a little bit of trouble and innocent fun: I hosted parties, sipped on Grey Goose martinis, sat on shaded benches in Central Park or along glittering Pacific waterfronts — all while knowing I was living in the play-pretend La La Land of someone trying to buy herself time before real life came knocking.

Though I was accepted to a fellowship with another great offer attached, I couldn’t shake this sense of having gone astray, as if I’d not only missed a mere internship opportunity, but some essential signage pointing me down the path to happiness, which I figured would look something like getting a return offer from a fancy ad agency, moving to New York with my best friend right after college, wearing expensive long coats on the subway, being generally chic and worldly, etc.

I was happy to hang out with my friends all summer, but I also began to question a lot about myself, my career, and whether I’d accurately predicted what would make me happy. The more I moved around in advertising spaces, the less certain I felt about it being the right industry for me. The more cities I visited, the fewer reasons I saw to move to New York next fall. Most terrifying of all was the fact that I could feel myself changing: losing parts of me that once constituted the bedrock of my identity, crowding out dreams I’d been married to since I was 10 years old, and coming into adulthood with a newfound pragmatism that felt like the worst kind of self-betrayal.

Exiting the faith of New York represented not only a departure from all my Tumblr-addled teenage dreams — the backward decadence of a shitty apartment, an arsenal of suffering for writing projects, the most interesting people in the world for my closest friends — but also a silent acknowledgment that I was never, ever going to find what I was looking for there. Where, then? I thought to myself. If I can’t find what I’m looking for in New York, does it even exist?

Art by Zayana Uddin

I think when people say “I’m moving to New York to find myself,” what they really mean is, “I’m moving to New York to fix myself.” Unfortunately, New York is not in the business of fixing people, tending to specialize in manufacturing lack in your life instead. It sells you pain, then sells you remedy; There’s always a taller, thinner, shinier skyscraper you could be living in, always a sexier, more exclusive club you could be invited to. It’s not that New York is the gathering place of hungry dreamers — rather, it has a way of keeping your dreams just out of reach.

So powerful is the spiritual, emotional, and aesthetic symbology of New York that we speedrun everything pleasant about it into fodder for cultish idolatry and spin everything ugly into “teachable moments.” The good things about New York are amazing, and the bad things are, too! The mentally ill and impoverished people on the streets serve only to further your personal character development. The elderly Asian woman who collects trash in the subway station is a harrowing portrait of The Human Condition for twenty-somethings to photograph and post to their Instagram. The non-livable rent induces an enthusiastic apartment-hunting culture, wherein you “earn your right” to a windowless, AC-less studio in Manhattan by fighting 70 other applicants for it. The rats are lovable in an inside-joke way, the chronically overworked professionals are hustlers, and every grimy night out is shot through with the electric, voyeuristic pleasure of knowing you’re having a night out in New York.

“How much of our attraction to these so-called perfect places stems from the vague conviction that by reenacting the aesthetic lives of those who came before us, and by standing where they struck, we might escape our own insufficiencies?”

We project so much of who we want to be onto these “dream cities” we forget that the only force strong enough to transform our lives is ourselves. How much of our desire to move to X place is motivated by the invented social status that accompanies it, which we go on to giddily flaunt in our social media bio or geo-tag in our stories? How much of our attraction to these so-called perfect places stems from the vague conviction that by reenacting the aesthetic lives of those who came before us, and by standing where they struck, we might escape our own insufficiencies? As if standing outside the same SoHo bookshop Donna Tartt did before The Secret History was published will grant me her powers, vision, and purpose in this world. As if I don’t still need to hunt for those things on my own.

Make no mistake, New York is an incredible city — one that I would still love to someday live in — full of cool people, meaningful work, and beautiful moments. I just happen to believe you can find those things almost anywhere else, too. Since returning to Austin for my last semester of college, I’ve had a few months to collect myself and adjust to the big things coming my way in the next few months: graduation, a new job in a new industry, living abroad this summer for the first time in years, and yes, uprooting my life to fly across the country in the fall, where I’ll be moving in with my high school best-friend-slash-sweetheart in San Francisco.

“It was always a pipe dream to come back to you after college,” she said to me last week.

That’s what it’s all about, right? Finding yourself, finding other people, and building a new life that doesn’t eradicate your old one, but forgives and makes space for it instead. For a long time, like any other 20-something-year-old, I think I was on the run from myself, trying to assemble new lives out of new scenery. Now I know wherever I go, I’m bringing myself with me. ■

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