Why New York Still Needs New Yorkers: Reflecting on 10 Years in Brooklyn

In the midst of a global pandemic, rise in public outcry against racism, the recession, and being 7 months pregnant, I nearly forgot that June (or more specifically, a day or two before the end of May), marked my ten year anniversary of living in New York City, Brooklyn specifically. Before the start of 2020, I did plenty of reflection on the past ten years, and how 2010 was a transformative year for me: I graduated from college, moved to Brooklyn with no confirmed job prospects and a couple hundred bucks in my account, got my first full-time job, and made the biggest purchase of my life with my first grown up paycheck: a full-sized mattress I got on sale over Labor Day Weekend.

Looking at where 2020 has led me so far, I can say it's been another transformative year, for many reasons, but it's also felt a bit regressive compared to ten years ago. For one, I found out I was pregnant the first week of January (yay - but wait). A global pandemic has finally granted me the downtime I've craved for years to really think about my career and future work goals. I collected unemployment for the first time in my life. My ten year anniversary also makes me an "official New Yorker", but I've left my neighborhood maybe three times over the last few months. All the things I loved about living in New York City (museums, dinner parties, dancing until 4 am, lazing in Jacob Riis, finding a hole in the wall restaurant with the best food) are nonexistent in 2020. The irony is not lost on me that now it's official, I'm considering whether the city is right for me and my family.

While it's been reported that up to 470,000 New York City residents have left the city since the start of the pandemic, there has been a gradual exodus from NYC over the last ten years. There's data that between July 2017 and July 2018, the Empire State lost 180,306 people and gained only 131,746 new residents and countless essays waxing poetic about leaving New York City or debating whether Los Angeles is really better than NYC both financially and personally. I also have my own personal anecdotes of friends leaving the city over the years, to the point last year when I realized I was over 30 with all my best friends living in different cities. Even around this time last year, my husband and I were questioning a move to LA after he was abruptly laid off due to downsizing. Hell, even earlier this year before the full swing of the pandemic, I had multiple pings and gut feelings that Eric and I should not renew our apartment lease and find a cheaper place somewhere upstate. Then COVID-19 fully reared her ugly head and -- well, you know the rest of the story.

When I was a child, my only real goal was to move to NYC. I grew up in an okay-sized town in the very small state of Delaware where everyone knew each other's families, going anywhere required a car, and my best avenues for cultural education were the library, a local zine talking about the small music and arts scene, and a few record shops. All I knew from the bands I listened to and the biographies I read was that if you had any artistic talent, you had to move to New York City. Sadly, I arrived towards the tail end of the DIY/indie revival happening in the early 2000's but could still find an apartment for $500 and be content with drinking PBR. Many of my friends who moved with me or I've met over the years have left because it was too expensive to pursue a creative career. Then it got expensive for everyone else.

Gentrification is a pretty hot topic, especially for those who moved to Brooklyn from another state, but as I've debated as recently this year, the city is getting to a phase of gentrification beyond white, middle-class artistic types moving to affordable neighborhoods that are pre-dominantly not white. Journalist Peter Moskowitz's book How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood expand's professor of housing policy Phillip L. Clay's four phases of gentrification to include a fifth phase, where multi-million dollar condos are built and owned by shell companies and make neighborhoods completely unaffordable and unliveable, especially as businesses that provide basic needs like groceries, drug stores, etc. get pushed out. Anyone who has witnessed the changing skyline of both Manhattan and Brooklyn can attest there are many more luxury high rises being built that are beyond what even the middle class of NYC could afford. To add more insult to injury, over the last few months as I've walked around my neighborhood wondering if my own mother will ever see me pregnant in person, "essential construction" has been continuing on even more luxury buildings.

The "mass exodus" of NYC because of COVID-19 has more anecdotal evidence than hard numbers. I myself can only speak on the fact my in-laws finally being able to sell their house in Connecticut, I've seen all sorts of people in my parenting Facebook groups trade gossip about the best upstate towns, and have witnessed countless moving trucks in my neighborhood. My assumption is that at the start of the pandemic, many people left the city while NYC was a hot zone for coronavirus cases. Over time, as people were stuck at home with their families, they couldn't help but gain some introspection on their lives and contemplate whether living in the city was right for them, especially now that remote work might be a permanent aspect of their careers. The pandemic and the protests have even led some people to question whether the city was really "safe" (again, anecdotes from mostly my parenting Facebook group, to which I think that if a bunch of peaceful protests and crowds are making you think the city is unsafe, you clearly haven't lived in the more interesting parts of New York).

Last week I was watching one of sparks & honey's culture briefings on LinkedIn about the mass exodus from multiple cities in the United States. One of the first myths they discussed was that suburbs were safer than cities when it comes to the spread of disease by default. In actuality, we need to think about the differences between density in urban areas and actual overcrowding. Not all major cities in the world has as many coronavirus cases, and that was mostly because they've followed health protocols from day one. Density (with multiple people living within one small area) is not the same as overcrowding, where there is less available living space, leading to a lack of housing and more poverty. The challenge now for urban planners is to think about housing designs that can allow for density without overcrowding. One such example is having more high rises, albeit ones that come at a more affordable living rate. There are height limitations in parts of the New York, but developers have found loopholes to build them anyway and then leave their buildings unoccupied without paying taxes. I'm not an expert, and it's very complicated, but here is an article on why we keep seeing so much construction on high rise buildings, yet there is a lack of affordable housing.

While there may be a push to live in the suburbs now because of a perceived safety, or really just for affordability, cities will still have a future in the United States. I know that NYC will rebound because that's just what the city does, and has done countless times. What this pandemic may have taught us is that urban planners need to rethink how cities were designed. American cities are definitely not designed the way they are in other countries, and if you'd like a unique perspective on city planning, I highly recommend David Byrne's book Bicycle Diaries. One example is a severe lack of public green space. My area of North Brooklyn has had some improvements with industrial zones being turned into green spaces, but there is still a long way to go. Outdoor seating and available parking is another big point of contention in New York, but take my word for it that having restaurants and bars leverage the parking spaces in front of their storefronts during Phase 2 is straight up lovely. Seeing other people sitting outside while enjoying the weather like they are in some European cafe has lifted me a bit over the past few weeks. Some other potential shifts in the city that could help public health and safety are more handwashing stations, resources for the homeless, improved outdoor transit, and a bigger welcome to the adoption of cycling and walking as means of transportation.

It's ironic, but I've personally never felt more connected with my own neighborhood than during the pandemic. Between the 7 pm applause for essential workers, rise in support for public demonstrations against racism, and constant updates from Greenpointers' Instagram, part of me hopes this feeling of camaraderie will continue long after the pandemic. I'm excited to imagine myself as someone who can be a part of revitalizing New York to be more community-focused, to have neighbors know one another, and to have businesses, artists, and residents work together to make communities thrive instead of commoditized for real estate. The rise in protests and call for anti-racism has revitalized my belief in community activism and being of service to others, and I'm looking forward the spending the next ten years giving back to the city that gave me my husband, countless memorable experiences, the start of my professional career, and enough artistic inspiration for a lifetime. And yes, I do plan on doing it all with my baby strapped to my back.

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