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Exodus: Women Writers on Leaving New York

Richard Klin
June 9, 2014
by Richard Klin From the Spring 2014 issue of Jewish Currents Reviewed in this essay: Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York, edited by Sari Botton. Seal Press, 2013, 288 pages. NYC skyline $At some point during my long tenure in New York City, I spent a magical ten days in San Francisco. If I were ever to leave New York, I thought, the Bay Area would be an absolutely wonderful alternative. This was fun albeit utterly meaningless speculation: There was no way I was ever going to leave New York. The very idea seemed as outlandish as running off and joining a traveling carnival. Yet eventually the unthinkable happened. I didn’t join a carnival, but there actually came a day when I left the city to make my home elsewhere. To live in New York City is to provoke an intense, often contradictory myriad of emotions that are probably unique in the annals of urban America. The New York experience is rarely depicted as simply taking up residence in a big city. Instead, it’s cast as akin to a romantic relationship (unrequited or not), or in quasi-religious terms as an ascent or a descent — and sometimes both. Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York — its title an homage to Joan Didion’s famous piece from 1967 — is an evocative series of twenty-eight essays, all by women, compiled by Sari Botton and published by Seal Press, whose stock in trade is women-centered writing. Their experiences and impulses are disparate, but all these writers come to the identical conclusion, that life was better served outside (and sometimes far away from) the five boroughs. Passions run strong and deep in these pages. “For most people who moved there from a smaller place, the way I did,” Janet Steen writes in “Heedless, Resilient, Gullible, and Stupid,” “things were never the same afterward. It was like a great love in your life that you could never forget, whether it had gone sour or not.” For Hope Edelman (“You Are Here”), “The pulse of everyday life in Manhattan felt like the very heartbeat of Western civilization. I never took living there for granted, not for a single day.” My own account, by contrast, is embarrassingly muted. I wandered into New York for vague, ill-defined reasons. To my enduring sorrow, there was never the life-changing epiphany of walking into that iconic café or club or bookstore, no first job at that seminal literary magazine. In reality, the venues for that sort of epiphany — if they ever existed at all — had essentially expired by the time I arrived on the scene. Even my own exit from the city — the dramatic connecting thread of Botton’s essayists — was equally unspectacular, entirely unrelated to urban burnout, which at least makes for a good story. Instead, it was a slowly evolving sense that my destiny would henceforth lie in owning a home and raising a child whose life would include passing cows on the way to school and watching the blue heron swoop over our creek. Likewise, the city’s overarching Jewishness — the stuff of mythos — also seemed a subtle, less overt factor (to me and to all the writers in Botton’s book), akin to the archetypal high-end waiter: ubiquitous but subtly in the background, waiting to serve. If anything, the city spawned its own discrete ethno-cultural identity, not so much Jewish, but that of the New Yorker, a unique mélange where Yiddishisms join bodegas, Korean delis, and St. Patrick’s Day as part of everybody’s vernacular. Exiting New York City for the Hudson Valley — what New Yorkers used to call the Catskills, or “the country” — brought none of the expected culture shock. There’s an abundance of culture here, and New York City, in my memory, can be much less groovy than its denizens like to think. What I did experience, though, was a complete inversion of the usual scenario. The city had become an intimate place: my favorite Park Slope haunts, my network of alternative movie theaters, my favorite low-budget eateries and music venues. In the Hudson Valley, people drive everywhere: There is no D train, no walking down Sixth Avenue, and not even a mile’s worth of sidewalks. “The country” felt alienating, cold, impersonal; I had left the comforting, down-home familiarity of New York City for big, impersonal Ulster County. Melancholia like that is Goodbye to All That’s companion. The title itself has a resonance that would have been unimaginable when Didion penned her essay: Who, in 1967, could have envisioned the lethal day that terrorists would attack New York City? We had moved to the Hudson Valley less than a month before September 11th. After the attack, I had the overwhelming sense that I needed to be back in the city, fulfilling some nebulous, self-imposed sense of obligation. We had left our comforting surroundings for this new, unfamiliar place. Those comforting surroundings had vanished, replaced by a black hole of unease. There was no road back. New York City has always moved at a frenetic pace, busily shedding its skin for bigger, newer, (supposedly) better. For nearly two decades, however, the city has been subjected to warp-speed hyper-capitalism, a victim of the “extreme, rapid level of gentrification,” writes Botton, who left the city in 2005, in her own essay, “Real Estate.” “Each neighborhood was starting to appear and feel the same. Each one lost its individual character as one deli, pizza place, shoemaker, or thrift shop was replaced by a Chase or a Duane Reade or a Chipotle, or a pricey, twee mini-cupcake shop.” There was nothing inevitable, of course, in New York’s becoming, according to Dana Kinstler’s “Captive,” “a rich person’s game, a chessboard of real estate pieces...” Simple urban evolution doesn’t explain “empty storefronts” becoming “stores that sold huge, antique furniture to fill up the fancy lofts” (Karen E. Bender’s “The Lion, the Pig, the Wolf and Other Thoughts About New York”). To borrow Robert Fitch’s phraseology, this has not been a transition: it has been an assassination. “When you tell people you’re going to leave New York,” Chloe Caldwell writes, “they like to tell you, ‘New York will always be here.’ But it won’t always be there...” The truth is that a good number of the women in Goodbye to All That didn’t really want to leave the city, they had to — there just weren’t enough roommates around the make the rent, or boroughs to go and gentrify. Metaphorically, goodbye to all that is now the sentiment of New York, not us: There is simply no room for those who can’t keep up with the ever-more expensive, opulent city. Voluntarily opting out of the city — as Didion did — now seems like the long-ago, impossible past. “A really big factor in why I did this book now,” says Botton, “is that more and more people are finding they can’t afford to live in New York if they’re in a creative field.” Goodbye to All That of the 2013 vintage brings to the mind the sentiments of another female creative force, Chrissie Hynde, who sang: My city was gone. Richard Klin is author of Something to Say (Leapfrog Press, 2011), a series of profiles of artists discussing the intersection of art and politics. His writing has been featured on NPR’s All Things Considered and in numerous magazines.