Does anyone live in Manhattan anymore?

Does anyone live in Manhattan anymore? I’m beginning to wonder…

Earlier this summer, I was at dim sum in Chinatown with a group of friends who all work in publishing. They were all new to me, it was our first meeting, and there was one thing about all of them that stayed with me afterward: They all lived in Brooklyn. Young, successful people in publishing who moved to New York from elsewhere expressly because it is New York and this is the center of publishing, and they all live not in Manhattan but in Brooklyn. Not only that, but when one of them asked where I live and I replied “Chelsea,” her face was blank. Could not compute. You mean you live in Manhattan?

Visiting New York in 1988.
I remember when people moved to New York  and “New York” meant Manhattan. If they lived in Brooklyn or Queens or above 100th Street, it was because that was all they could afford. Lately, though, I’ve noticed a shift. People move to New York and “New York” means Manhattan and Brooklyn, and most of them are more excited about the latter than the former. Manhattan? Not so much.
 
And so now, when I talk to newcomers looking for an apartment about where they’re considering, they inevitably name neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Manhattan is not even on the list. And I get that same blank look when they ask me where I live and I tell them.
 
I never expected to feel like an outsider for living in Manhattan, but maybe that’s because I came here fully in love with the city at a time when others were just as ardent about it. I moved to New York in the spring of 1993 from Orlando. I had no money, not even all my possessions (which were in storage in Florida), and no job. I stayed with my godmother in Valley Stream, gritting my teeth through the long walk to the train station, then the train ride, then the ride from Penn to wherever I really wanted to be. For three months. And then I found  a sublet in Chelsea. 15th Street between 7th and 8th. I had a futon that I bought special for the place and a few sticks of furniture and a 12-inch TV borrowed from my godmother. It was a studio with a separate kitchen. It was a good thing the kitchen was separate, because that’s where the roaches were. In the fridge, on the floor, and even in the adjacent bathroom. I made Kraft Macaroni & Cheese in there and kept sodas in the dorm-size refrigerator, but other than that, the roaches owned the kitchen.
Outside my 15th Street sublet the day
I moved out, November 1993.

No matter, though. I worked in Times Square, and often I could walk home from work, straight down 7th Avenue. My friends all lived downtown, and it was an easy walk to see any of them. The train was close to my apartment, but I didn’t have to use it if I didn’t feel like it.

That sublet lasted three months, and then it was time to vacate. I had to go back to Valley Stream. Dreaded. It was November, though, and I really only needed to get through the holidays before I could find my own place. Which I did in January, after many days of looking. Back then, you’d go to the newsstand at Astor Place on a Tuesday to get the Village Voice, which officially came out on Wednesday but they had it at that newsstand early probably because the Voice’s headquarters were just up the street. You’d get the Voice from this one guy at his little stand and go straight to the Classifieds and check out the apartment listings. And you’d call from a pay phone if anything looked at all promising. It was December when I was looking and damn cold, but I’d be there. And if I remember right (and maybe I don’t), that’s how I found the listing for the place in Hell’s Kitchen. The place that would become my home for the next five years.

The view from my Hell's Kitchen apartment, circa 1995.

I went to look at it one morning in January. It was frigid out. The apartment was on 9th Avenue between 44th and 45th. Up four flights. A crummy building. Inside, there was just one sink—the kitchen one. The “bathroom” was just a wedge of space that barely contained a claw-foot tub and a toilet. If you were tall, your knees would touch the door when it was closed and you were on the bowl. There was a soft spot on the wood floor of the living room where a heavy person should never stand. And a hole in the ceiling about 6 inches in diameter. But there was a separate space for the bed with a deep, giant closet and a roomy living room, and the kitchen was its own thing. And there were good windows that looked out on the theater of 9th Avenue.

And it was $675 a month. A sublet, but at the time I didn’t even think about what if the woman would want it back eventually. I was 26 and it was the first habitable place I’d seen, plus it was exactly two avenues from where I worked (which was on Broadway between 44th and 45th). I took it.

I have lived in the city ever since. Okay, there were two brief periods when I didn’t: I moved to what they call the South Slope in 2008 for three months because it was cheap ($1,090 a month, no fee, for 400 immaculate square feet a short walk from the train) and I was thinking only of money and not of quality of life; and I spent two months in Red Hook last year, when I was out of work and floating for a bit and also in need of a cheap place ($1,100 a month for a big space and no roommates).

Both times I lived in Brooklyn, I spent a lot of time wondering if it was time for me to leave Manhattan. I felt I should at least explore the idea. Leaving Manhattan, after all, was what so many people I knew had done. They moved to Brooklyn and started a family. Or, as they got into their 30s, they seemed to feel that Manhattan was somehow frivolous or too much and so they moved to Brooklyn. Manhattan was a rite of passage, but one did not linger there—that’s the impression I got and still get. The city was something you experienced and then moved on from.

And yet I never felt that way.

My E. 8th Street studio, 1999.
I grew up in thrall to New York. I was born in the Bronx and remember visiting the city when we later lived on Long Island, until I finished 4th grade. New York to me was only one thing: Manhattan. And once I finally got myself here, that feeling never changed. Certainly not after I moved to Alphabet City in 1999, after quitting my job and going freelance. I was working from home, all my friends were downtown, and living near Times Square was not so great. So I found a studio—another walkup, also four flights—on 8th Street between B and C. Eventually, I found freelance work at a newspaper in Midtown and so I’d walk to 2nd Avenue and take the F to Rockefeller Center. I worked a night shift, and I remember exiting at 2nd Ave and Houston at 11:30 or 12 at night and passing through crowds of kids just beginning their night out. I loved it. I didn’t need to be part of it necessarily, but I loved the electric feeling of people going out in the city. The big city. It’s an outsized environment, totally not human scale, absurd in its dimensions, and that’s what I love about it.

I have lived in many Manhattan apartments since then. On the Lower East Side, in Soho, in what they now call the Far West Village, the East Village, Tudor City, the West Village, and now once again in Chelsea. Last summer, before I rented my current apartment, I spent many a weekend walking through lots of pretty neighborhoods in Brooklyn, looking at apartments and asking myself, Why not try living here? What’s the problem? Often the rent was lower than what I’d pay in downtown Manhattan and the space was larger. But I couldn’t do it. I feel at home in only one place: Manhattan. Are there many people anymore who feel the same way, who have that same connection to the city? Not in my experience.

But as they say, What are ya gonna do?